Thursday, August 21, 2014

Identification of the problem

The very essence of Islam is an all inclusive system of life with guidelines set by the creator.  The system includes all aspects life from business dealings to relationships with our neighbors.  Also included are the dealings of charity and rights of the destitute in society.    

Zakat, being part of the larger socio-economic system in Islam, is the safety net decreed by the creator for providing for the poor and needy.  Having interaction with the poor and needy, as well as individuals requesting and applying for zakat at local mosques, it was fairly obvious that the rights of the poor and needy in the community were not being met.

Spurred with a few others who work in the local zakat sector, or who have interest, we decided to assess the current state of zakat in our respective community.  We formulated a questionnaire to be addressed to zakat workers or mosque administrators within our geographic area.  The Inland Empire boasts over a dozen mosques and organizations within a fairly small area.  The sample size and close proximity would only help clearly identify any problems that did exist.   

Subsequently we met with eight mosques and inquired about their zakat dealings.  The questionnaire can be viewed here.

An amazing happened when talking to the respective zakat worker.  Literally every one indicated that they were well aware of deficiencies within the system.  However due to the reality of volunteer driven mosque management, the correct and implementation of issues were always low level priority items.

The results of deficiencies in the local zakat sector could be grouped into three main area; zakat collection, handling and distribution

Zakat collection
Every mosque surveyed did disburse zakat to individuals they deemed as qualified to receive.  However not every mosque collected zakat funds - or collections boxes were not specifically earmarked for zakat; sadaqa, Mosque donations, operations...

Zakat handling
Proper handling, as well as transparency, of funds has been shown to increase receipts, and quell mistrust, by building confidence.  A methods of mishandling observed was the commingling of zakat funds with other funds as well as a lack of transparency with the funds.  

Zakat distribution
This area comprised of the majority of deficiencies.  In an attempt to formulate a group, they’ll be broken into two subsets - managerial as well as legal issues.

Having previously served on a mosque board, as well on the boards of several other organizations, I understand that most of the individuals dealt with are volunteers; however all of them are overworked.  The addition of policies and procedures may not be warmly welcomed, as time is of limited quantity.  To further compound the issue, there existed a culture of frequent turn around is mosques with elected (or removed) managers/board members.  The turnaround typically replaces individuals (with more experience) with individuals who have no experience.  This would not only affect management effectiveness and synergy, but also impact the rules and requirements pertaining to zakat.  Hence an unsustainable model is created.

Only a handful of mosques had a procedure in place to assess applicants.  The end result was long turnaround times (also impacted by the overworked volunteers) and an inconsistencies with distribution policies.  In fact one applicant interviewed commented that his experience has shown that only a certain group/race would be given zakat from his local mosque.

Several mosques could not distribute, or severely limited distribution, due to limited zakat collections; primarily mosques in destitute areas.  This highlighted a more severe issue; a vicious cycle that was created where mosque that were unable  to collect could not meet demands for distribution.  Ironically the opposite scenario also existed.  

We were not made aware of any internal or external auditing of any funds or procedure, which could lead to mishandling or mistrust of the procedure as noted previously.  Several mosques did have financial figures posted, however were typically outdated.

The majority of mosques did not have a physical office, or one that is not commonly open, making the application process slightly more difficult.

There exists a large deficiency regarding the edifice of zakat law.  Workers, with good intention, are just simply never made aware.  The result is a system which contradicted several clear sharia principles, e.g., incorrect distribution of zakat al fitrah or lack of distribution because of an underlying sense of creating dependency (or transformation from a zakat recipient to payer would not materialize).  

There does exist a level of hesitation among zakat applicant because of an underlying sense of shame due to applying.  I believe that the real issue is lack of understanding of the specific rights of zakat; most, if not all, zakat khutbahs, seminars and talks revolve around the benefits of giving zakat as well as the jurisprudent requirements and amounts of zakat payments.  The constituents are never made aware of the right of zakat upon the recipient.  The Prophet(S), as well as subsequent leaders, would teach congregants about their respective rights quelling any shame associated with zakat receipt.  Zakat continues to be viewed a mere charity given to the poor at the discretion of an administrator.

Unfortunately there are fraudulent applicants; forged documents as well as applicants who may be recipients elsewhere without disclosure.  The reality creates a sense of hesitation to provide zakat to individuals who may be receiving zakat elsewhere.  There currently existed no method in place to verify or cross reference applicants at neighboring mosques.  There exists a coalition of mosques (Shura Council of Los Angeles), however zakat is not yet included in their activities.  Chicago boasts a council of Islamic Organization with an offshoot dealing specifically with zakat.

The current structure of mosques set in our country implies, to us, that the deficiencies noted in our geographic area, can be extrapolated to the larger area.  Hence the addressing of these particular issues will be of a greater benefit for more than our locale.

With the deficiencies being stated, it would be doing the local mosque community a huge disservice by not acknowledging the strengths.

Every mosque we spoke to has a very sincere group of volunteers that sincerely cared about the best interest of their community.  They worked tirelessly and had a commitment hardly rivaled.  The cumulative knowledge and experience is truly a benefit to our area.

The mosques with more stable management (less turn around), and the smaller mosques, knew their respective constituents very well.  They had intimate knowledge of the challenges, needs and threats of the community.

Lastly, we must emphasize the gratitude that must be conveyed to the local mosque leadership as well as the zakat workers who gave me the opportunity to discuss and reflect upon the pillar of zakat.

Consequently, the challenge now lay before us:
Given the strengths of the mosque community and administrators, could the identified zakat weaknesses be reduced or eliminated?


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