Learning from Islam

Bram Schaper | 17-03-2023

Rahim responded to an article I wrote about the Zuidas: ‘Where money meets guilt’. He asks if I am familiar with “the zakat”. No, I’m not. In fact, I don’t know Rahim either. My curiosity is piqued nonetheless and so I suggest we meet. We soon met at the El Feth Mosque, Bergen on Zoom.

I was raised Catholic only to abandon religion in my adolescence so I can’t say that I am brimming with religious fervor. I am practically clueless. Rahim tells me that he sees Islam not so much as a religion, but as a way of life. He explains the basics to me. I learn about Islam through its “five pillars”: 1) the testimony (there is no God but Allah and Muhammad is his messenger), 2) prayer (5 times a day at designated times), 3) zakat (almsgiving), 4) fasting in the month of Ramadan (9th month of the Islamic calendar), and 5) hajj (the pilgrimage to Mecca, if physically and financially possible).

I am particularly interested in zakat, the third pillar. Rahim explains: “This pillar is about equal sharing. The premise is that the money you have is not yours, but God’s. He expects that the poor are helped by the rich. The zakat obliges you to give away 2.5% of your wealth to the needy, every year.” It reminds me a bit of wealth tax with some substantial differences. The exemption (nisab) is a bit different: if you own more than the value of 85 grams of gold (now about €4,500) you are obliged to pay zakat. In addition, the government does not decide where your alms go, you determine that yourself. However, there are rules: you may not donate to your partner or to your mosque, but you may give priority to the poor within your family or community. The bottom line is crystal clear: share your wealth with those less fortunate, out of a deep sense of justice. Billions go to poor people every year thanks to this.

Rahim talks about a recently established organization: the National Zakat Fund. This foundation supports many needy people in the Netherlands with the zakat. It reminds me of the extremely effective charity GiveDirectly that provides unconditional cash donations to poor people in Africa. GiveDirectly has been the benchmark in philanthropic effectiveness for many years.

I would like to leave you with this thought experiment: imagine that your money is not yours, but that you nevertheless get to keep 97.5% of it each year. The 2.5% obviously goes to the poorest of the poor, who are not as fortunate as you are. Can you imagine what the world would be like then?

Rahim, thank you.

Orange cross