Andrew C. McCarthy says zakat isn’t charity

I had fully intended to post something about how written Arabic evolved, but all of my ‘doing research’ time is taken up by my thesis at the moment, and in the meantime, Andrew C. McCarthy has managed to say something to incense me once again[1].

In his blog for The National Review, Mr McCarthy has said that zakat is not charity.  He makes this argument based on a speech that President Obama made in Cairo two years ago, in which the President promised to simplify the laws in the US regarding zakat[2].  I’m not sure why Mr McCarthy has chosen now to speak to this issue, but since he has, I think it’s reasonable to offer some clarifications.

Firstly, I think this is one of those times when it’s worth considering the qualifications of the person speaking.  Mr McCarthy is a lawyer and a former Assistant United States Attorney (and not the guy who was in St Elmo’s Fire).  I have no doubt that Mr McCarthy is a qualified and talented attorney, but I see no evidence to suggest that he’s qualified to speak with expertise about Islam, Islamic law, or Islamic history, which seem to be among the central topics of his column in The National Review.

Secondly, someone telling an entire religious tradition, especially one of which they’re not a member, that they should reject a basic tenant of their religion just because he said so is insulting and patronizing, and I can’t think of any reason why the Muslim community should listen to Mr McCarthy about this.

I also can’t even begin to imagine how Mr McCarthy intends to prove that “Muslims carry out the most anti-American terrorism.”

As someone who is at least a little bit of an expert of the subject of Islamic religious practice, there are several points I think it’s worth making.  Zakat (most often translated as the poor-due) is not, as Mr McCarthy claims, intended to be used to fund jihad.  I don’t say this in an attempt to sanitize Islamic history – just the opposite, in fact.  As an Islamicist and someone who studies early Islamic history, I know zakat isn’t meant to be used to fund jihad, because there’s a name for the money raised to fund jihad, and that’s khums, meaning literally one-fifth.  According to the Qur’an, at the end of battles, the soldiers were to divide the spoils into fifths, and one fifth should be sent to the Caliph to help continue the expansion.  The other four-fifths were distributed equally between the soldiers who participated in the battle.  Even this one-fifth was also supposed to be used for charitable purposes, but charitable purposes connected to the expansion (like funding hospitals or providing for war widows and orphans).

The closest parallel concept to zakat is tithing in the Christian tradition, which is generally tax-exempt and considered a charitable donation.  Yes, it’s a charitable donation that is used to help the continued mission of Christianity, but that fact doesn’t cancel out the good it does, and it’s for that reason that it’s tax-exempt.

Mr McCarthy is correct that, in some parts of the world, money collected as zakat is used to fund disreputable purposes.  The reason for this is because it’s money collected by the Muslim authority, and, in some places, that authority is corrupt.  It’s not the fault of the Muslims who contributed the money; it’s the fault of the authority who misused it.  If in the United States, this person should absolutely be prosecuted, in the same way churches are if they use tithe moneys for non-charitable purposes.

I’ve tried to find out something about Ahmad b. Naqib al-Misri, who Mr McCarthy calls a “renowned Muslim jurist”, but honestly, I haven’t been able to find much.  I’ve learned from the book jacket that he was a Shafi’i jurist, which would probably put him on the more-conservative end of the Islamic legal spectrum, but beyond that, I can’t find any information about him.  I’d be inclined to say that renowned he ain’t, but I’ll keep looking to be sure.  It’s also probably worth pointing out that all of the modern governments he points to are strongly conservative – Saudi Arabia famously subscribes to the absolute most conservative school of Islamic law, and even then often go out of their way to be even more conservative than the law requires.

It’s also unfair to point to the various levels of donation from countries around the world in aid of Haiti, unless Mr McCarthy can evidence that none of the money donated from people in America, Britain, Canada, India, or any other non-Muslim country came from Muslims living in those countries (which personally I know for a fact is not the case, because I know many Muslims who work for non-denominational charitable organizations in those countries!).

Finally, it’s ridiculous to claim that every time the Qur’an uses the phrase ‘in the cause of God’, it’s talking about jihad or warfare.  The term crops up constantly, and just means ‘Islam’ or even more generally, ‘faith’.  What’s done out of faith is done in the cause of God, again, a belief not dissimilar from Christianity or Judaism.

The fact is that Islam puts as much emphasis on charity as Christianity and Judaism, possibly even more so.  Charity, generosity and hospitality to wayfarers were considered the most important virtues in Arabia, and that belief is still true today.  One of my favourite stories of the early community illustrates this point rather nicely: one of the poorer members of the early community in Medina came to the Prophet (peace be upon him) and told him that a friend had given him a whole, roasted lamb’s head (sounds kind of gross, but actually a huge deal in a nomadic society, as it could easily feed a family), but he wanted to be charitable, so what should he do with it?  The Prophet (s’lm) told the man to give it to someone who needed it.  He did so, and that person gave it to someone who needed it, and that person did the same, and that person did the same, and that person did the same, until eventually it ended up with the same man who had tried to give it away in the first place, as the community all agreed that he was the one who needed it the most!

[1] To be fair, I have no evidence that Mr McCarthy is capable of saying things that don’t incense me.  It’s possible that’s just the effect he has on me, including but not limited to “excuse me, Miss, but could I ask you for directions?” and “would you like this million dollars and basket full of adorable kittens?”

[2] The mention of zakat is on page 6, for anyone who doesn’t feel like reading the whole thing.  Although it’s a cool speech, if you have a moment, and the President does a very good job of integrating Qur’anic citations and Muslim ideals.


About askanislamicist

I'm an academic who specializes in early Islamic history and the history of religious interactions, who, in her free time, enjoys shouting into the internet.
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2 Responses to Andrew C. McCarthy says zakat isn’t charity

  1. Pingback: Should Islam be involved in politics? | askanislamicist

  2. Pingback: Pat Robertson says Islam is not a religion. | askanislamicist

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