ZAKAH – often described as one of the forgotten pillars of Islam – is by its very nature, a dynamic and adaptable system. With eight major categories outlined in terms of those who can benefit from Zakah, there are many sub-categories attached to the eight.
Of course, this means that Zakah bodies do carry a heavy weight in terms of responsibility and accountability. Zakah is more than just dealing with money intended for charitable purposes. Zakah is part of a Muslim’s ‘ibadah – a person’s worship – and is understood more as a cleansing of wealth than an obligatory kind of alms, or tax.
Metaphorically, Zakah is like a glass, the nutq at the base its stem and the bowl-shaped letter a container extended to the heavens, filling itself with blessing and light.
For Muslims who give charity and Zakah, a fretful scenario in recent weeks has been the Rohingya crisis, where the Myanmar authorities, spurred on by an extremist Buddhist monk, Ashin Wirathu, have been raping, killing and burning Rohingya villages in the western Rakhine State bordering Bangladesh.
In recent weeks, nearly 400,000 Rohingya have fled and thousands have died in the violence, prompting the UN to accuse the government of Noble Prize winner, Aung San Kyi, of ethnic cleansing. Before the most recent surge of atrocities, there had been just over one million Rohingya residing in the Rakhine area.
Wirathu’s nationalistic 969 movement fears Myanmar will be overtaken by Muslims, which is bizarre, seeing that Myanmar’s population is 52 million and that Myanmar’s Muslim population is only 4 per cent.
Wirathu has been condemned by Buddhist luminaries, but so far has been legally unchecked by the Myanmar government. The Rohingya have been in Myanmar since the 15th century as subjects of the former sultanate of Arakan, yet are regarded purely as “Bangladeshi” by the political heads in Rangoon.
Historically – and tragically – it is believed that resentment against the Rohingya derives from the divide-and-rule policies of the British before and during World War II, when the indigenous Muslim population was preferred over the Buddhist one, which aligned itself with the Japanese in the conflict.
After the post-colonial 1962 coup, minorities such as the Rohingya did not fare well, their citizenship being stripped from them in 1982. Crackdowns in the 1990s saw the first waves of Rohingya fleeing the country for neighbouring Bangladesh. Protests in 2012 and the rise of the small, previously unknown Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), which attacked the military in 2016, saw further aggressive curbs by the state.
On 25 August this year, ARSA launched an attack on an army base, which has resulted in the current asymmetric response of ethnic cleansing.
Having spoken to various NGOs, including representatives of the Turkish government, who have visited refugee camps just across the border in Bangladesh, the needs of the Rohingya are dire. I also spoke to Azhar Vadi from Salaam Media in Cox’s Bazaar, just over the river from Myanmar where he said he had witnessed food stampedes.
Having escaped with nothing more than the clothes on their backs, the Rohingya need everything from food, fresh water and medical care to cooking utensils, counselling and shelter. According to Islamic Relief and the Turkish agency, AFAD, the Rohingya need millions of dollars of aid.
The beauty of Zakah in an ugly situation is that one of its eight categories is specified as relief for those who are suffering. And for those of us who have been paralysed by the horrors of the Rohingya crisis, we are in a position to make a real difference by supporting those on the ground doing their best to look after nearly half a million frightened and terrorised people.