US Islamic expert hopes to meet Selangor ruler, advisers on zakat for non-Muslims

University of Notre Dame’s Islamic studies professor Ebrahim Moosa says he understands reservations about the proposal to open up zakat funds to help non-Muslims. (Ebrahim Moosa pic)

KUALA LUMPUR: A leading Muslim thinker and writer says he is not surprised by a state mufti’s opposition to a proposal that zakat funds be extended to non-Muslim recipients, after Selangor’s Sultan Sharafuddin Idris Shah called for an end to all public debates on the matter.

Ebrahim Moosa, a professor of Islamic studies at the University of Notre Dame in the US, who supported the proposal recently forwarded by PKR’s Anwar Ibrahim, said he had expected resistance from scholars on the issue.

But he welcomed the sultan’s call to stop debating the matter in public, and offered to meet the ruler and state religious advisers to further discuss the topic of zakat.

“I would also love to have the opportunity to converse with His Royal Highness the Sultan of Selangor and his council of learned scholars on both the wisdom of the legal (fiqh) tradition and the spirit of the Quran in the context of a changing and dynamic society like Malaysia,” Moosa told FMT.

“It would be an amazing development in Malaysia if the sultan could be instrumental in advancing such a momentous initiative.”

Yesterday, the Selangor sultan cited the state mufti Mohd Tamyes Abd Wahid’s advice to him in rejecting a proposal that the Islamic wealth tax be used to help needy non-Muslims.

Tamyes said among others that zakat money could only be given to non-Muslims if such help would result in their conversion to Islam.

Zakat is a religious obligation for Muslims who meet several criteria of wealth. A Muslim owning wealth above a minimum amount is obliged to pay an annual rate of 2.5%.

Anwar first made the suggestion to open up zakat to the poor from other religions during a conference on zakat organised by the Federal Territories Islamic Religious Council (MAIWP) and UiTM on Oct 30. He also said the proposal would require fatwa and policy changes.

Moosa, a South African scholar who has published works on Islamic thought and ethics, philosophy and literature, backed the proposal but said it would require greater literacy on Islam among the present Muslim scholars.

He said the giving of zakat to non-Muslims was a practice dating back to classical times, also endorsed by renowned Muslim jurist Yusuf al-Qaradawi.

“It is a move to encourage Malaysian Muslims and society at large to think in terms of their responsibilities to others and members of all faiths and convictions. That is what the Quran describes as the ‘steep path’ (aqabah) which involves promoting human freedom and caring for the poor,” said Moosa.

But in a statement through his private secretary yesterday, the sultan warned that the issue of opening up zakat funds should not be used for political purposes or to “be in the good books of certain people”.

Moosa said he understood the ruler’s concerns, adding that it was the sultan’s right to “propose what he best thinks is the way forward in deliberating the future of zakat to non-Muslims”.

“The proposal by Anwar requires deliberation, scholarly debate and public education. The preference of His Highness might be in keeping with some traditions in Malaysia but there are also other more visible traditions of public discussion about important issues that are enabled by the digital age,” he said.

Moosa said zakat’s objective was for the greater human good, based on the principle of public interest.

“A debate about the value of zakat to society at large should involve an understanding of the higher principles of Islam involving human good and what constitutes human dignity,” he added.