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Zakat - an Indonesian Story

The start of Ramadan a few days ago made me realise that it has almost been a year since I returned to the UK from Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim country. This was my second long term visit to this part of the world and this time my purpose had been to look into Islamic practices relating to zakat and sedekah with a view to write a book on them(1).

During 2011-2012, I came to spend a year in Java, primarily in the cities of Surabaya and Jakarta, working closely with three major zakat collection bodies. All three bodies are renowned in Indonesia for their professional approach to zakat management and their innovative approaches to collecting and disbursing zakat and sedekah. I also got involved with mustahiq and muzakki, recipients and donors, and with state actors. I was particularly interested in processes of giving and receiving, public conceptions of and attitudes towards wealth and its generation, and the financing of micro-enterprises and the deployment of credit for the benefit of the poor and the needy. I was also preoccupied with ideas of justice and notions of rights as understood and practiced within the context of what it means to be a Muslim in contemporary Indonesia. 

My interest in the zakat aspect of Islamic economics arose out of a diverse series of circumstances. First, when compared to riba, I think that zakat does not hold as a prominent place in discussions about Islamic economics as it could. In addition, there has been very little research to date by non-Muslim, non-Indonesian scholars on such practices anywhere in the contemporary world. 

Second, in anthropology, the discipline I practice, there has been a foundational division of humanity into two camps; the camp of the moderns and the camp of the not-yet-moderns, the societies of contract and the societies of kinship, the conduct of economic life in terms of commodity transactions and the conduct of economic life in terms of gifts and counter-gifts. I wanted to revisit such modernist accounts of human sociality from the vantage point of contemporary Islamic practices in order to discover new ways of critiquing them, thus advancing inter-religious understanding. 

Third, in our particular historical juncture of austerity economics, sovereign debts and fiscal cliffs, the dominant tendency has been towards the creation of a so-called ‘big society’ through a renewed emphasis on the liberal values of charity and volunteering. This move has been accompanied by the formation of new markets for the provision of social goods and services, the very things which up to recently were considered as the duty of the state to deliver to its citizens. In this light, I wanted my research to concentrate on ‘alternative economics’ and their critiques of capitalism, and I became interested in how the Qur'an and the Prophetic Traditions are currently being re-interpreted with a view to providing guidance for the formulation of a different way for ensuring human livelihoods and the conduct of the economy. 

It is rather early to talk about definite findings as it has been less than a year since I have come back from fieldwork and I am still working on the analysis of the data I have collected. But there are a series of themes and concerns which I feel compelled to address.

First is the question of equivalence: are Islamic practices of giving and taking as relating to zakat and sedekah equivalent to what the Euro-American world understands by charity and philanthropy? This is ultimately a question of translation. My opinion is that such equivalence we will be hard pressed to find primarily because zakat is about worship, meaning that it is a ritual duty performed in relation to God, but also a property right, specific categories of other people have in another’s (a rich man’s or woman’s) wealth. In this regard I find very instructive to think of zakat in the terms defined by Sayyid Qutb and Yusuf al-Qardawi. In particular, Sayyid Qutb notes that zakat effects the ‘purification of property itself, because it means paying what is due on the property, after which its possession is legal’ (2000:162). For his part, Yusuf al-Qardawi concurs writing that ‘sincere believers realised their wealth is not only for their use. They realised that part of it belongs in fact to the needy not as a charitable gift given with condescendence but as a clear-cut right without humbleness on the part of the receiver or pride on the part of the payer’ (2000:9) (2).

Second in Indonesia as well as other places in the world, attitudes to wealth are a complicated business. On the one hand, wealth is conceived as much a blessing from God as a test of faith, a personal achievement as much as a thing conferred; however, the line separating the two is often so very thin that people feel ambivalent about the value of money and fortune in general. This ambivalence is currently compounded by intense concern over the wealth other people have amassed, about its origins and processes of acquisition. There is a widespread assumption in Indonesia for example that the wealth the rich command has been mainly attained through corrupt, collusive and nepotistic practices, all of which are forbidden in Islam. The popular uprising of 1998 against the New Order was supposed to have put an end to such practices, but many Indonesians have more recently come to realise that there is still a lot that needs to be done. Such attitudes did strike a chord for I was in Indonesia in 1998 and witnessed first-hand the euphoria the end of the New Order generated. 

But they are also quite similar to sentiments expressed across the world, in Greece (my country of origin), Spain, Brazil, the UK and the USA where people demonstrate against the predatory behaviours of banks and the austerity measures governments have put in place in order to make up for the shortfall. 

Third the question of empowerment is particularly urgent for the zakat collection bodies I worked with in Indonesia and I have been exploring a series of innovations introduced so as to alleviate poverty in the country. Of particular importance is the ways in which zakat and sedekah (and waqf) have recently been transformed into financial instruments in the sense of being used for setting up micro-enterprises owned and managed by rural and urban poor. The hope in this regard is that with the aid of zakat-based financing, the poor will be able to acquire skills and have access to capital necessary for entrepreneurial success.

This is very much an area where new reasoning has come to be developed through bringing together classical Islamic jurisprudence with Islamic economics. It is also noteworthy in this respect to add that shariah-compliant modes of financing that were traditionally only to be found in the Islamic banking sector have been redeployed in the field of Islamic micro-finance. As such, contracts such as musharaka, murabaha, and mudaraba have started to make a strong appearance in poverty alleviation efforts in Indonesia. 

Finally, the big question my project on zakat aims to ask is this: given that zakat is the third pillar of Islam and an integral part of conducting worship, bringing thus man closer to God, what difference does the evocation and invocation of God make in the practice of human social relationships? Or to put it in a different way, how does the immanent presence of God affect the conduct of social relationships? Anthropology and the rest of the sciences emerged historically as a result of the rise of the enlightenment, the industrial revolution, and secularisation. As such they are ill-equipped to deal with social relationships as triadic affairs, mediated by God. I feel that maybe it is time for this to change, and for the sciences to become more open to the sacred and its affects. 


(1) The research has been conducted with the generous support of the Economic and Social Research Council (RES-062-23-2639).

(2) The citations refer to Qutb, Sayyid. 2000. Social Justice in Islam. Kuala Lumpur: Islamic Book Trust and to Al-Qardawi, Yusuf. 2000. Fiqh Al-Zakat: A Comparative Study of Zakat Regulations and Philosophy in the light of the Qu’ran and the Sunna. Vol. 1 & 2. Jeddah: Scientific Publishing Centre King Abdulaziz University. 

Dr Konstantinos Retsikas is a Senior Lecturer in the Anthropology of South East Asia at SOAS, University of London and can be contacted by emailing