Zakat is not just charity, but a divine duty
Zakat is one of the five pillars of Islam, and is considered especially beneficial during Ramadan.
At a Dar Al Ber Society kiosk in Dubai's Ibn Battuta Mall, Mohammed sits and waits.
On the desk in front of him a selection of charitable coupons are lined up, with Dh15 buying a person's iftar meal or Dh40 going towards Eid clothing for the needy.
Mohammed is one of many representatives of the Dar Al Ber Society, a charitable organisation that supports orphans and low-income families, stationed in public areas during Ramadan to receive charitable donations.
But as well as smaller donations to cover the basic needs of the underprivileged, Mohammed also receives zakat - an obligatory payment every adult Muslim must make to the poor. He spends his days writing receipts for those who choose to give zakat to the charity.
"We receive zakat donations of a few hundred dirhams to a Dh1 million or more. The bigger amounts are given in cheques and I call my manager and he will send someone to pick it up," he says.
One of the five pillars of Islam, zakat al mal is a purification of a Muslim's wealth, freeing those who give from becoming too attached to their possessions by encouraging humility and discipline. It is not considered a form of tax, but rather a divine duty and a right of the poor over the rich.
Muslims are deemed eligible to pay if they have wealth beyond the amount they need to cover basic living expenses after one lunar year. The amount due is 2.5 per cent of their total wealth.
At Mohammed's stall, givers are also readying for Eid by purchasing Dh15 zakat al fitr coupons, a fixed charitable donation separate to zakat made by every Muslim family member at the end of Ramadan - an amount set annually by the Islamic Affairs and Charitable Activities Department.
Who that money, and all other zakat donations, go to is also decided by Islam. The Quran specifies eight categories of people eligible to receive Islamic alms, including the poor, those with debts and Muslim converts who may be estranged from their families and in need of help.
Many in the UAE choose to give to established charitable organisations such as the Dar Al Ber Society and the Red Crescent Authority (RCA).
The RCA, for example, hopes to raise Dh100 million during Ramadan and distribute Dh1.7m of food vouchers to the underprivileged in the UAE.
"Since the fund receives more donations from benefactors during Ramadan, we direct those donations in a straight line to the beneficiaries," the RCA's Mariam Mubarak explains.
Others choose to give to the Zakat Fund, a federal body that facilitates the obligatory annual donation. It was set up in 2003 to help revive zakat and achieve social solidarity and compassion in the Muslim community.
The fund, which has already provided grants of Dh56.2 million this year, hopes to increase its aid to Yemen this Holy Month as well as continue its work with needy families, widows and struggling students. In the past its zakat alms have also released Muslims jailed for bad debts, something that, while considered controversial, falls within the eight categories of beneficiaries.
But as well as helping those in need, the Zakat Fund also serves a bigger purpose - educating the Muslim community about the importance of zakat and its benefits to society as a whole.
Zakat may be an obligatory payment, but it is up to the individual to take it upon themselves to pay.
"It's all about a belief," explains Sana Pervez, a Pakistani who has lived in Dubai for 18 months. "I was born a Muslim and when I grew up it was up to me to follow and practise the religion, so if I don't offer prayers, nobody's going to point at me and say why aren't you offering prayers? The same goes for zakat.
"But for us, we're waiting for the judgement day and waiting for eternal life and that's when we feel we'll be rewarded for giving zakat."
While Pervez calculates and distributes her zakat according to the rules set out in the Quran, the Zakat Fund's secretary general, Abdullah Al Muheiry has previously told The National he believes many wealthy Muslims are not paying enough.
This is because unlike other Islamic obligations, such as Ramadan fasting, which has obvious social benefits, there are no immediate benefits to paying.
As Al Muheiry pointed out: "If every member of society pays the zakat, you would not find one needy person in this country."
Because zakat goes much further than a religious obligation: by having a system where the poor and the vulnerable are helped, it effectively creates a welfare system where those who do not have the means to support themselves or their families are helped out by those who do.
While calculating it can be tricky - though the basic annual rate is 2.5 per cent on financial assets, there are varying rates for other assets such as gold, silver or livestock - the modern world has developed a series of online calculating tools to ease the process.
And the Zakat Fund also aids how people pay with online and SMS options and ATM collection points around the UAE.
But while an official organisation may be a natural choice for some, ultimately who you give zakat to is up to you.
Pervez, 30, has been paying zakat since she started earning as a marketing executive seven years ago. She says she prefers to look at the community around her to see who is in need.
"Back home there are lots of people we know who need money so I send the money to my mum to distribute.
"The prescribed method is to look at your neighbours, your relatives and the people you employ and ask: do they need any support?
"A person might need money for his or her daughter's wedding or for someone who is sick. It's all based on who's needy and who's close to you."
In the past Pervez has supported the medical care of an underprivileged boy with cancer and she also arranges the donation of zakat to the needy on the behalf of friends also based in the UAE with one friend financing the education of five children in Pakistan.
This year Pervez also plans to give to UAE organisations, Dubai Cares and the RCA, and to a family whose plight she read about in a newspaper.
To help the family of five who are currently surviving on an income of Dh4,000 and cannot afford school fees or the medical bills of a severely disabled daughter, she will meet them in person to ensure they are eligible to receive zakat.
"It's always recommended that you meet whoever you are giving to. Then you trust their word," she explains.
And that is what makes zakat so special; it all comes down to trust - something hard to find in a world that has lost faith in its financial systems. God trusts his people to give zakat and those who give, trust that they are giving to the truly needy. While there will always be some who take advantage of the generous, the majority will not.
"In our Holy Book, it's clearly written that you should not feel you are parting with your money because there is a greater reward for you. So you believe in one God and believe in the benefit system; it is up to your own goodwill that you give money," Pervez adds.
"When we moved here my husband was looking for a job and though I was earning, it was financially tight for us. We realised we still needed to give zakat, and the minute we started the interview process sped up for him and he got offers.
"The rewards are amazing, particularly if you give during Ramadan because we believe every good deed is rewarded 10 times more during the Holy Month.
"And if you give to someone and then in a few years they have the means to give zakat themselves, they will then help others. It's like a chain, a continuous process."
Alice Haine is a senior features writer for The National.
Updated: August 18, 2012 04:00 AM