It is imperative for us to understand the pillars of Islam not simply as rituals, but as a strategic framework for success in this life and the next.
On average, one person dies every minute in the United Kingdom. Globally it’s one a second. The Angel of Death is clearly rather busy.
When we think about death and, based on what I have just shared with you, its frequency, we of course, as believers in Allah, God Almighty, and the hereafter, don’t so much regard its occurrence as the end, but as the beginning. The beginning of someone’s eternity. And so on average, in the United Kingdom, what is happening is that someone’s eternity is beginning every sixty seconds. By the end of this speech, this will be true for another eight to ten people in this country, and another five hundred to six hundred around the world.
For us, as people who are supposed to see the life of this world for the illusion and mirage that it is, we know that the only thing that will matter, for us as individuals, for our families, for our community and indeed for wider society, is the extent to which we felt, embodied and enacted true devotion – true islam – to the one true King of all that exists. Because in the end, it is only according to the extent of each individual’s islam, their real commitment to God, that one can expect and hope for God’s Mercy for an eternal outcome that is one of comfort, happiness and peace.
If all that matters in the end is the true nature of our islam, our manifested subservience to the Almighty, how do we make this most important of human potentials as prevalent and as deeply rooted as possible in our society, as is our mission on earth? Well, the Prophet, may the peace and blessings of Allah be upon him, told us in what is quite literally a foundational narration of our faith, that, “Islam is built upon five…” and then he went on to name what we call the five pillars of Islam.
The hadith of the Prophet regarding the pillars clearly analogises Islam as a building. So there is something that is to be built here, and it will take time, careful thought and planning for it to be real, lasting and magnificent. But as with any building, ignoring the foundations altogether means there will be no building at all. Weak or partial foundations would suggest an unstable building that may eventually fall. Only perfect foundations will do.
My contention is that the foundations of the Muslim community in the UK are currently weak. It should therefore be no surprise to us that we are facing so many internal and external problems. On almost every metric that would give us an idea of the wellbeing of a community, the Muslim community rates worse than the national average. This is true when we look at numbers relating to poverty, social mobility, health, education, crime and how the community is perceived from the outside. Our faith is misunderstood, often maligned, and there is very little that we are doing in the public sphere to rescue its reputation, which is exactly what we are supposed to be doing as representatives of God Himself on earth! There are also very strong indications that more Muslims are leaving Islam than joining it. If it wasn’t for our high birth rate, the one metric on which we do exceed the national average, we might well be a community in decline.
Despite all this, I am an eternal optimist and I believe firmly that we have the potential not just to change but to transform our situation, if only we would go back to the basics and put into place the very foundations recommended to us by the All-Knowing, All-Wise.
I have chosen to talk specifically about how Salat and Zakat can transform our situation because, after the first step of testifying to the oneness of God and the prophethood of Muhammad, these twin pillars come next. Allah Himself chose to speak about them over and over again in His final revelation to mankind. In fact, a survey of the almost thirty verses in which Salat and Zakat are explicitly mentioned in the Qur’an, and the many more where the specific word Zakat is replaced for Sadaqah (which often means Zakat in the Qur’an) or spending “from that which We have provided them,” clearly demonstrates that anything and everything that we want as human beings in this life and the next will fall naturally in place if we can simply put these foundations in place.
That sounds like a grand claim but revelation, our source of guidance and light, supports it. Consider the following verses, just a handful of what exists on the subject, that start to build this picture:
“The believing men and women are supporters of one another. They enjoin goodness, forbid wrongoing, establish Salat, give Zakat and obey God and His Messenger. God will show mercy to such people. God is Almighty, Wise.” (9:71)
“…He has named you Muslims previously and in this scripture so that the Messenger can be a witness amongst you and so that you can be witnesses amongst mankind. So establish Salat, give Zakat and hold fast to God. He is your protector, the best protector, the best helper.” (22:78)
“Those who believe will most certainly be successful. They are the ones who are humble in their Salat, who turn away from idle talk, who fulfil the Zakat…” (23:1-4)
“All they are ordered to do is to serve God, sincerely dedicating their religion to Him as people of true faith, to establish Salat and to give Zakat. That is the true religion.” (98:5)
Indeed, the function of all prophets is described as having involved “establishing Salat and instituting Zakat” (21:73), alerting us to the fact that this Divine formula is a timeless one that the Prophet Muhammad came to restore, not initiate.
In one powerful set of verses in the 24th Chapter, entitled Light (An-Nur), Allah issues a promise, a guarantee to those who believe and do virtuous deeds that they will have three things in this life. Number 1: influence or authority. Number 2: that their faith will be well-established in society. Number 3: that they will have peace of mind after having been in a state of fear. Three things that we do not have and would surely be desirable.
Then what does He immediately follow up this promise with? A statement that such people are those who serve God alone, giving nothing else priority alongside Him, then one that describes those in denial of God as the rebellious ones, and then a command to, “Establish Salat, give Zakat and obey the Messenger so that you may receive mercy.” (24:56) If it is God’s promise to bless us collectively with influence, with feeling and being settled, and with peace of mind, and if we don’t seem to be enjoying these things as a community, then is it that He is breaking His promise or that we are failing on our side of the bargain?
So HOW does this all work? What is it about Salat and Zakat that enables, well, everything wholesome that we could possibly desire in this life and the next? The answers are as follows…
The purpose of Salat, as per the linguistic meaning of the word, is to help us build and deepen a meaningful connection with the Source of all things. When we stand in prayer, we are shutting off from our environment for a moment and entering into a private meeting with our Lord. It is supposed to be an energising, humbling, momentous and transformative experience. Whatever our troubles, our worries, our stresses and strains, Salat puts it all into perspective as we remember God, talk to Him, think about Him and remind ourselves that it is to Him we belong and to Him we will return very, very soon.
Allah tell us that Salat prevents immorality and wrongdoing, making a clear connection between the practice of prayer and the characteristics of a community. Clearly this can only happen when the prayer is meaningful and we can quite confidently argue that the existence of immorality and wrongdoing in our community, and in society at large, is a consequence of a weak, non-existent connection with God, that is best established in prayer itself.
The issue with our prayer, one that needs resolving as a matter of high priority, and aside from the fact that many Muslims fail to turn up for it on time at all, is that it is often a mechanical affair, deficient of the qualities mentioned earlier that allow it to have the transformational effect it is supposed to have. The greatest evidence for this is that so many Muslims, perhaps even most of us here, say things in our prayer whose literal meaning we do not understand, even though we have uttered the words hundreds, if not thousands of times before.
How can we express meaningfully that which we do not understand literally? Is there any other context in which we would try to engage with someone in this way? But we do it with our Lord! What does this tell us about the extent to which we have truly internalised the reality of our situation, about the extent to which we really believe there is a Supreme Being on the other side of the conversation?
Even when we do know the literal meaning of what we say in prayer, we can easily struggle to express the words meaningfully. We can be sufficient judges of ourselves simply by considering how we recite the Fatihah in prayer. If we truly mean each verse of this opening chapter then we should feel, as we say the words, gratitude, love, hope, awe, fear, commitment, need, desperation for guidance and confidence that we will receive it. It would be an emotional rollercoaster, but one after which we would feel tranquillity and peace. The prayer as a whole would be our most enjoyable experience, our highest delight, what we most look forward to.
But what, in reality, is the status quo? Is it not that the words often fall off our tongues whilst our minds are completely elsewhere? Is it not that we often feel burdened by the incessant performance of prayer? That we see it as something to fit into whatever else we’ve got going on rather than seeing everything else as an add-on to this most central of practices. After all, anyone can turn up for a meeting or an interview. But in the end it’s the quality of the performance that matters.
Our disconnection with the very practice that is supposed to renew connection is nothing short of a tragedy. If we don’t take Him seriously, then why should we expect His help, whilst knowing that there is no power or might save with Him? When we consider the words of the Prophet that remind us that prayer is the first thing we will be questioned about in the next life, that it is the key to Paradise, that if one’s prayer is sound, everything else will be sound, and vice versa, then we should be hugely troubled, on an individual and collective level, by the fact that the infrastructure and mutual support required in our community to help us all achieve increasingly meaningful prayer is almost non-existent. Ironically, it is one of the least addressed subjects by our religious leadership within, and outside, our mosques. And where prayer is addressed, there seems to be an inappropriately disproportionate attention on the minutiae of the outward positions over and above achieving a feeling of true awe before the Almighty and a powerful, inward experience.
A very similar situation exists with Zakat, in that the basic conditions required for Zakat to fulfil its function as far as Islam is concerned do not currently exist. Just like Salat, as a pillar of Islam, the purpose of Zakat is to uphold commitment to God in society. It is to help Islam flourish. What Salat achieves for us in terms of building our personal or internal capacity and character, is complemented by the material effect on our environment that Zakat is supposed to achieve.
The word Zakat means cultivation and its function is to gather and utilise a portion of our resources to cultivate an environment which is most conducive to faith flourishing. This is not an explanation of Zakat that you are likely to have heard anywhere else. And that is because we have misunderstood its purpose altogether.
Right now, the conventional understanding with Zakat is that it is a matter of private obligation whereby i) each individual makes their own decision ii) to alleviate poverty iii) anywhere around the world. Each one of these characteristics of our current understanding and practice of Zakat is a barrier to the pillar achieving what God intends by having instituted it in the first place.
The truth is that Zakat is a public, not a private, matter. It is not charity, but is far more like tax or, for our context, like membership fees that evidence and support our belonging to a club of believers. Rather than each individual making their own decision as to where their Zakat should go, Zakat is supposed to be centrally collected and organised in the collective interest of faith and the faith community. Rather than simply alleviating poverty, it is supposed to be distributed across the eight categories stipulated in the Qur’an (9:60), in a manner that reflects the needs of the time. And rather than it being scattered all over the world, it is supposed to be focused locally to affect the very environment in which the Zakat payers live.
After all, the membership fees that you pay for a club to which you belong is supposed to make your experience, and that of the members of your club, a better one. Over time, because of the reputation of a well-managed club, there would be more members and more clubs. If the purpose of Zakat is for Islam to flourish, then where else can we be expected to make spending decisions to achieve this aim except in the very society in which we live and where we have the social and cultural capital that even the Prophets required to convey effectively their message to their people?
This local emphasis does not in any way jar with the concern that we should maintain for human suffering around the world. But if we do wish to use our resources to alleviate poverty across the planet, then let it be from our private, voluntary charity that we do so. Indeed we already do so, with hundreds of millions of pounds per annum sent abroad by the Muslim community in the UK. The mistake that we make is to involve Zakat in this process. It has an entirely different function to the one which it is currently fulfilling and we would absolutely have a balanced outcome if we spent Zakat locally and voluntarily engaged in charitable activities around the world.
To summarise, the atomised, narrow and scattered way in which Zakat is currently being handled totally undermines its true function. The only way in which Zakat can achieve its strategic function is if it is centralised by a Zakat focused body, spent locally and spent holistically. On this last point, whilst we do not have the time for a full analysis of the eight categories stipulated in the Qur’an, let me share with you briefly the various areas of spending that emerge from even a cursory analysis of them: poverty alleviation; economic empowerment; effective Zakat administration; winning over hearts towards Islam and the Muslims; providing basic equality of opportunity; removing burdensome financial constraints that result from debt; supporting God’s cause, i.e. the furtherance of Islam, by helping those in the community who give up their time to represent it and to advocate for their community; also within God’s cause, supporting scholarship, so that scholars can develop, guide people in a relevant way and respond to the ideological and intellectual challenges of the day; and finally emergency situations, like Grenfell for example.
If you used to wonder about whether Zakat is required in the UK based on this understanding, then I hope that the case is finally closed. Because in every single area that I have just mentioned, we are hugely underinvesting to the detriment of faith and the faithful in our society. As Imam at-Tabari, the king of the exegetes of the Qur’an, said in his commentary on this verse, the eight categories ultimately return to two principal concerns – dealing with the individual needs of those who are committed to God (muslimin), and providing support and strength to commitment to God (islam) in society.
The Zakat potential of the Muslim community in this country is at least 500 million pounds per annum. Just imagine if we did put into action what is being proposed here, that in addition to a genuine testimony of faith, in which we internalise our role of representing God on earth, and truly meaningful prayer, we actually paid and utilised half a billion pounds year in, year out, to do exactly what the categories of Zakat distribution imply.
Is anyone here in any doubt about the fact that in a short space of time, this would utterly transform our situation? That rather than us being a community scoring below average on every socio-economic metric, we would finally be scoring above average, that instead of being people with little influence, with little peace of mind, with our faith being maligned, misunderstood and abandoned, we would be a shining and inspirational example for communities across the country and even around the world. And I don’t mean any of this in a purely material sense. All this is only significant in that it would do justice to what it means to believe in God, to call ourselves Muslims and to make the proposition of joining such a community an attractive and irresistible one. And, to bring it full circle, to give as many people in our society the best possible chance of receiving glad tidings when they pass from this life and their eternity begins.
As Chief Executive of National Zakat Foundation, the only organisation in our community that is attempting to revive the pillar of Zakat in accordance with Divine guidance, in line with its classical principles and strategic intent, I invite every Imam, every mosque committee, the Muslim Council of Britain and all its affiliates, all of you listening and every other concerned Muslim out there, for us all to work together to put this pillar back in place, in order to restore hope, dignity, prosperity and harmony in our communities, and society at large. Repairing this pillar, lifting it back up and maintaining it for generations to come is a mammoth task that is not for one person or a small group of people to fulfil. We ALL need to do this, and do it together, if we are truly concerned about transforming our situation.
So let us submit and surrender only to God. Let us resist people, social conditions and structures that ultimately deny human beings a fair chance to come out to the light. Let us constantly struggle to bring balance and peace to our own souls and to pursue balance and peace for our society. Let us liberate ourselves from and against falling captive to godlessness that results in hate, cruelty, inequality, arrogance, anxiety and fear. Let us instead embody godliness, not just as a conviction or belief but as a practice and state of being; a state of being which results in beauty, love, mercy, prosperity, harmony, justice and peace. Let us realise that the pillars of Islam are not intended as empty rituals but that they form a strategy to help believers serve God in the best and most sustainable way possible.
Let us be people of action and not just words.
Ameen, may it be so.
Thank you for listening.
[This speech was delivered by Iqbal Nasim, Chief Executive of National Zakat Foundation, on Saturday 20th January 2018 at a one day conference organised by the Muslim Council of Britain, entitled, ‘Our Mosques Our Future’].