The distribution of zakat (tithe) has come under fresh scrutiny following the Selangor Islamic Religious Authority’s (JAIS) raid on Damansara Utama Methodist Church (DUMC) two weeks ago.Following the raid, mainstream Malay dailies such as Berita Harian and Harian Metro had carried reports alleging that Christian organisations were secretly trying to convert impoverished Muslims by offering welfare aid.
The zakat distribution system’s pitfalls have drawn criticism from prominent cleric Dr Mohd Asri Zainul Abidin for its immense red tape. Even Deputy Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin had “sounded” the institutions managing zakat distribution to be more proactive in identifying the needy to prevent them from seeking assistance from “others”.
FMT spoke to several experts who agree that there are many pitfalls to the system which does not readily and efficiently assist needy Muslims, thus allowing them to be susceptible to the persuasion of other religious groups.
Ustaz Ahmad Awang who was the president of the Malaysian Ulama Association (PUM) for 17 years (1982-1999), agreed that there were many pitfalls in the welfare distribution system.
The former civil servant, who was one of the the directors in Jabatan Kemajuan Islam Malaysia (Jakim or Islamic Development Department of Malaysia) since its creation in 1974 until 1991, said these pitfalls were not new as they have faced these issues for about 20 years.
Although not directly involved in the zakat distribution process, through his experience, many people have approached him and complained about the inconsistencies of the system.
“There is a lot of bureaucratic red tape. The states oversee the collection and distribution of zakat. Within the institutions, there are many divisions involved. If you are seeking aid, first you would have to find the right division, then fill up the application form, then be interviewed, and then wait for the officers to visit you and check if you qualify.
“In some cases, it takes the officers up to two months before they come to investigate. And even when someone makes it past the red tape, welfare is not provided consistently as it may be stopped after one or two months.”
When asked why, he said that the institutions were not sincere in helping the needy as they did their jobs “bagaikan melepaskan batuk di tangga” (doing something half-heartedly). Comparatively other religious NGOs were ever-ready and consistent in providing aid.
“When I was giving a speech in Masjid Jamek many years ago, a woman stood up and said that for eight years, a church has been assisting her in bringing up her child who was then seven years old,” he said.
He said that there was cause for concern over the possibility of proselytisation of the Muslim aid receivers.
“I once had a fresh graduate who wanted to start a business; the church had readily offered him the fund. So he sought my advice if he could accept the aid. I told him that he could but he had to think about the consequences.
“Because if you accept aid from a party, then after a few years you may feel obliged and finally you may convert…,” he said, adding that the student finally declined to take the offer.
He said that the organisations were also inefficient when it came to aid distribution.
“They are effective when it comes to collecting zakat… in some cases up to RM100 million, but when it comes to distribution, they are incompetent.”
“One-eighth of the allocation should be going to people who are in debt, but when you look at the reports, very few are given the aid,” he said. “This has to be changed by officers seeking out the needy groups in order to disperse aid.”
International Islamic University (UIA) professor Dr Abdul Rahim Abdul Rahman from the Faculty of Economics and Management Science, said that the amount allocated for the poor was not sufficient and the urban poor are more susceptible to conversion due to the “pressures of living in big towns”.
“Years of my research have shown that the rural poor are generally more pious and they are reluctant to ask for aid because they think there are others more deserving of help.
“On the other hand, the urban poor, because of the pressures of city living, are also generally less pious but are more vulnerable…,” he said, adding that it was difficult for to make ends meet with an aid of around RM200.
Abdul Rahim, who has been researching the zakat system for the past 20 years, said that officers need to be proactive in seeking out the needy instead of waiting for them to approach them.
Director of the Centre for Islamic Developement Management Studies, Professor Muhammad Syukri Salleh, said that the system may not be perfect but caution must be exercised in linking the pitfalls of the zakat system with proselytisation.
“You must remember: you need data and research to back up the claim that there has been proselytisation among Muslims as a result of the pitfalls in the zakat system. That kind of research I don’t think anyone has conducted,” he said. “Without proper research, one must be cautious when making statements about proselytisation.”
Free Malaysia Today