As the world faces unprecedented refugee crises, sustainable financial assistance has emerged as a vital aspect of Islamic philanthropy. Deeply rooted in principles of human dignity, empathy, and the responsibility to aid those in need, Islamic philanthropy encompasses various forms of charitable giving, including Zakat (almsgiving).
Zakat is a religious duty incumbent upon every Muslim, emphasising the redistribution of wealth to support the most vulnerable members of society. The general guideline for Zakat is to give 2.5% (or 1/40th) of one’s eligible wealth each year. Among the eight categories of people eligible for receiving Zakat, the Quran (9:60) mentions “ibn sabeel” or wayfarer, referring to a traveller who does not have sufficient funds to sustain their journey. In this context, all persons who are displaced and away from home, including refugees, are considered wayfarers, and are entitled to receive Zakat if they are in need of assistance.
The beauty of Islamic philanthropy lies in its capacity to offer both short-term and long-term assistance. In times of crisis and emergencies, Islamic philanthropic organisations have demonstrated their agility in swiftly responding to provide food, shelter, healthcare, and essential supplies to refugees. Zakat can serve as a pathway for individuals to attain long-term self-reliance and economic empowerment through a range of programs that encompass education, training, and psychosocial support. For example, by allocating Zakat funds to income-generating projects, vocational training programs, and microfinance initiatives, individuals and communities can develop sustainable means of income and make valuable contributions to local economies. Zakat can also play a crucial role in supporting cash transfer programs, which provide individuals with the freedom to prioritise their needs, whether related to food, healthcare, education, or starting their own ventures.
In terms of sustainability, there are significant parallels between Islamic philanthropy and the United Nations’ Global Compact on Refugees, which emphasises the importance of refugee self-reliance and dignity, along with actionable and sustainable measures for host communities. The recent Islamic Philanthropy Report, a collaborative effort between the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the Abdul Aziz Al Ghurair Refugee Education Fund, notes that since its establishment in 2017, the UN’s Refugee Zakat Fund has provided financial assistance to approximately six million forcibly displaced individuals. The report has also shed light on the significant contribution of Islamic philanthropy in establishing schools and educational programs for refugee communities over the years. By fostering economic self-sufficiency, these programmes enable refugees to become contributors to the Zakat system as they grow older, thereby establishing a sustainable and virtuous cycle of development.
To ensure fair distribution of Zakat funds in accordance with Islamic principles, an effective and accurate measurement of need and poverty is necessary. The Multidimensional Poverty Index (MPI), adopted as the official measure by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), provides an ideal means to achieve this. The index goes beyond traditional income-based measures and incorporates multiple dimensions of poverty, including education, health, housing, and social inclusion. The MPI recognises that poverty is complex and cannot be solved with a one-size-fits-all solution. Instead, it emphasises the importance of contextualisation and localisation. It recognises that poverty manifests differently in various regions and communities, and therefore, solutions must be adapted to local realities. In essence, the MPI model allows for a more comprehensive understanding of poverty and enables targeted interventions that address the specific deprivations experienced by refugees and other vulnerable populations. By utilising the MPI, we can better identify the specific areas and populations that require assistance, ensuring that Zakat funds are directed towards those who are most in need.
Likewise, for Zakat to realise its full potential, more efficient management is critical. Currently, most Zakat institutions operate at the national level, with some countries hosting multiple public and private Zakat programmes. This lack of streamlining hinders the effectiveness of Zakat initiatives worldwide. Therefore, three steps are crucial:
- The first step entails enhancing institutionalisation and collaboration among Zakat initiatives on a global scale to effectively tackle humanitarian challenges. Establishing a Global Humanitarian Zakat Fund would serve as a central platform for cooperation and coordination among Zakat institutions across the world. This body would function as a channel for mobilising resources and distributing aid to the most vulnerable, including refugees. It would also foster knowledge-sharing, promote best practices, and facilitate joint efforts among relevant institutions. Additionally, the global body would play a crucial role in ensuring accountability and transparency in the management of Zakat.
- The second step is to adopt a strategic lens to charitable giving that aims for a transformative impact on poverty alleviation. This approach focuses on enabling and empowering individuals and communities to achieve self-sufficiency and resilience in the long term. Education, healthcare, and capacity-building take priority.
- Lastly, achieving consensus on a universal measure of need and impact is essential. By developing a standardised framework to assess and evaluate poverty levels and the effectiveness of Zakat interventions, comparisons and prioritisation of beneficiaries can be made across different regions and organisations. This ensures that Zakat funds are directed towards those most in need and their positive impact is maximised. A Global Humanitarian Zakat Fund could play a pivotal role in facilitating this process.
Moving forward, it is imperative to develop a comprehensive approach to refugee empowerment that extends beyond emergency material assistance. Islamic philanthropy carries tremendous financial, religious, cultural, and social weight worldwide, and its utilisation in this regard is long overdue. Our utmost priority must lie in establishing a Global Humanitarian Zakat Fund, as the cornerstone for collaboration, strategic giving, and effective resource mobilisation to address pressing humanitarian issues worldwide. It is our collective responsibility to harness Zakat for the betterment of all individuals, irrespective of their faith, to transform refugee lives, promote justice and compassion, and build a more equitable world.
 UNHCR. (2023). Islamic Philanthropy Annual Report, p. 2.