Crises often have a way of revealing people’s true natures. Here in America, for instance, doctors, nurses, and other health care professionals have stepped above and beyond their call of duty in response to the COVID-19 pandemic; so too have charities, churches and other religious organizations, many of which have volunteered their premises for coronavirus testing or as medical centers, distributed food and medical supplies to the needy, etc.
Needless to say, none of them are discriminating based on race or religion; they are aiding anyone and everyone in need.
Then there’s the Muslim world; there, too, COVID-19 is revealing the true nature of Islam.
Enter zakat, which is often—but erroneously—translated as “charity.” As with virtually everything else Islamic, it too discriminates, sees only in dichotomies, namely “us” (Muslims) and “them” (infidels).
As usual, Pakistan—so named to mean the “land of the pure [i.e., Muslims]”—offers ample precedents. According to a March 30 report:
A Karachi NGO has denied food aid to poor Hindus and Christians, who like Muslims are suffering from coronavirus…. The Saylani Welfare International Trust has been operating in the Korangi area since 1999, handing out aid and meals to homeless people and seasonal workers. Two days ago, the welfare organisation refused to give ration cards to non-Muslims, saying that only Muslims are entitled to them. The reason for this is that Zakat, Islamic alms giving (one of Islam’s five pillars), is reserved for Muslims. The Christian man said he begged for food to no avail. Farooq Masih, a 54-year-old Christian in Korangi, said that last Saturday, Abid Qadri, a member of Saylani Welfare, with other NGO members, handed out food cards in his area. But, when they got to Christian homes, they just moved on.
But perhaps the Saylani Welfare International Trust is behaving aberrantly, “radically”? More recent reports suggest otherwise: “A few days back there was an announcement made through a mosque’s loud speaker in the Sher-Shah neighborhood of Lahore inviting citizens to collect the government’s announced foodstuffs,” a pastor explained. “When Christians reached the distribution point and presented their national identity cards, they were asked by staffers to get out of the line claiming the foodstuff was only for Muslim citizens.” This same pastor received numerous phone calls from his flock, all of whom experienced the same denial. “Christians often face religious hatred and discrimination,” another Christian woman, aged 50, said of her experience. “However, we never thought of this biased behavior by the majority people at this critical time of COVID-19.”
As disgraceful as such “biased behavior” is, it is also perfectly Islamic. Indeed, all of this reminiscent of when Barack Obama said that “in the United States, rules on charitable giving have made it harder for Muslims to fulfill their religious obligation. That is why I am committed to working with American Muslims to ensure that they can fulfill zakat.” At that time (2009), I wrote an article titled “The Dark Side of Zakat”; an especially applicable portion follows:
Etymologically related to the notion of “purity,” zakat — paying a portion of one’s wealth to specifically designated recipients — is a way of purifying oneself, on par with prayers (see Koran 9:103). The problem, however, has to do with who is eligible for this mandatory “charity.” Most schools of Muslim jurisprudence are agreed to eight possible categories of recipients — one of these being those fighting “in the path of Allah,” that is, jihadis, also known as “terrorists.”… More revealing of the peculiarly Islamic nature of zakat is the fact that Muslims are actually forbidden from bestowing this “charity” onto non-Muslims (e.g., the vast majority of American infidels). “Charitable” Muslim organizations operating on American soil are therefore no mere equivalents to, say, the Salvation Army, a Christian charity organization whose “ministry extends to all, regardless of ages, sex, color, or creed.” In Islam, creed is a major criterion for receiving “charity” — not to mention for receiving social equality.
Making these otherwise factual assertions got me into a debate on Al Jazeera and criticized by several “mainstream” media. The latter especially insisted on projecting their own cultural norms—to be charitable is to be nondiscriminatory—onto Islam. Cathy Lynn Grossman of USA Today went so far as to argue against my position in three separate articles.
It is somewhat satisfying to know that the same exact response I gave Ms. Grossman over a decade ago is—as the aforementioned recent incidents make clear—still perfectly applicable:
Well-meaning Americans would do well to cease interpreting age-old Muslim doctrines—from jihad to zakat—according to their Western epistemology and instead rely on the standard rulings of mainstream Islam, as articulated by its authoritative schools of jurisprudence. That is, after all, what Muslims do.
Indeed, it is “what Muslims do” even during a time of global pandemic.
To reiterate, COVID-19 is showing that we are only as good as what we believe—including about our fellow man, irrespective of race and religion.