Yesterday morning I opened up the mosque here in Norwich for a young woman who had come to cook for the local community at our Ramadan Soup Kitchen. Usually our soup sharing is a simple and social affair, where every day a different family cooks soup for the whole community and we come together at Iftar to eat. This year, with lockdown it’s a logistical delivery mission to get a good meal to everyone shielding, distancing and isolating. As she prepared the meal for over 100 people, the young mother of four told me that her income has disappeared overnight, and that she will soon be struggling to put food on her own table.

As we emerge blinking into the ‘new normal’ from this lockdown we are entering a world where people’s ability to feed and house their families is under threat. The Bank of England predicts the worst economic recession since records began in 1706. Although Britain is a relatively wealthy country, 50% of our Muslim population is already living in poverty. As the most economically disadvantaged faith group in Britain, Muslims here will be facing a disproportionately high risk of suffering during this COVID-19 crisis, both medically and economically.

For centuries the financial strength of the Muslims was grounded in these two simple principles – the prohibition of usury and the local collection and distribution of zakat. So successful were these two principles that in the time of Orhan Gazi, considered the father of the Ottoman Empire (and son of Ertegrul of Turkish TV fame) there was barely anyone who was eligible for zakat.

With Ramadan being the month of Zakat for many people, and COVID-19 having ushered in enormous changes in everyones lives, I believe it is imperative that we now, consciously and collectively, activate those means that Allah ta’aala has put at our disposal to look after each other, starting with the re-establishment of localised, decentralised zakat.

Currently the vast majority of zakat is collected by charities; fill in a form online, a few clicks, with the optional GiftAid, and you’re done. But this bears little relation to the way that both the Prophet and the early communities did it. When the Messenger sent his Companion Muadh Ibn Jabal to govern Yemen, he left him with these words: Inform them that Allah has made the five prayers each day and night obligatory for them, and that Allah has made the zakat obligatory for them, which would be collected from their wealthy and distributed to their needy.”

This hadith highlights not only the obligation of paying zakat, but also the localised way in which that obligation was carried out. During the time of the Prophet , zakat was administered by people, not distant, large, complex organisations and charities. He appointed zakat collectors to almost every corner of the Arabian peninsula; people who were personally responsible for taking zakat from the wealthy, identifying those in need, and physically disbursing the proceeds to them within their locality. It’s time for us to do the same.

I have seen up close the difference localised collection and distribution of zakat makes. Recently I interviewed the leader of the Muslim community in Norwich, Abdal Hakim Akanmu, who collects and distributes the zakat locally. He shared many stories of how peoples hearts had been moved by him turning up out of the blue to put zakat in their hands,  I’ve had some people say, ‘Alhamdulillah, I was down to my last ten pounds…the timing was perfect!’”. 

I feel very privileged to also have had first-hand experience paying zakat to a local collector. Having the collector come to my house with the imam to take it, and make dua for me is a gift I am forever grateful for and which I would have been denied if I had just done a bank transfer to a charity. I prize that human connection over convenience.

What I have come to realise is that the human element is everything. There are subtle aspects of the pillar of zakat which are about more than just giving or receiving money, but about creating community and a sense of being cared for and remembered.

This personal experience of local zakat is what prompted me, and other likeminded, passionate Muslims here in the UK to come together and start the Local Zakat Initiative. We want to meet Muslims who are inspired to establish zakat in their local areas, and connect them with help and advice. And we want to share the inspirational stories of Muslims communities already organising zakat locally.

Together, by establishing local zakat we can strengthen the bonds of our communities; we can make them better, fairer places, and show our non-Muslim neighbours the transformative impact of Islam up close. 

The COVID-19 lockdown has shown us, more than anything, the importance of our neighbours and of human-to-human contact. Lets use this wake up call. In this time of social distancing, let’s make our zakat a means of social closeness.

The Local Zakat Initiative is a growing group of British Muslims who are passionate about decentralising and localising zakat. We want to see communities come together and appoint their own zakat collectors who will collect and distribute zakat locally, thereby improving the situation of the Muslims in their towns and cities. We are convinced that by this, we can utterly transform our situation as Muslims in Britain. We aim to share the stories of Muslims in Britain who are already doing this, and connect with, and assist, those who are inspired to do the same. 

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