Muslim governments, vying with each other to demonstrate their readiness to back the so-called war against terrorism, are tightening the noose on Islamic charities and schools, controlling their funding, enrollment and curricula to eradicate ‘Islamic extremism’. They are now thinking of ‘amending’ the Shari’ah in an attempt to make zakah payable by law only to the state, thus at once transferring the proceeds into their own coffers and denying them to Islamic charities. The translation of this proposition into reality will deal a severe blow to the provision of services and education in Muslim countries and in others, such as Thailand and the Philippines, that have large Muslim minorities.
In most of these countries there are surprisingly large numbers of madrasas that provide educational opportunities for Muslim children whose families are too poor for them to attend state schools, or whose parents want them to have specifically religious instruction. Contrary to government propaganda, instruction is not usually restricted to directly and explicitly Islamic subjects, and many madrasas teach courses such as mathematics, European languages and computer studies. Madrasas are also a meeting ground for students from different countries and cultural backgrounds. The number of students in madrasas outside their country of origin is almost as surprising as the number of schools.
In Pakistan, for instance, there are an estimated 6,000 to 8,000 madrasas that are said to provide “free board, accommodation and education for hundreds of thousands,” whose parents are too poor to send them to school. In Indonesia there are thousands, including boarding schools. According to Muhammad Irfan, director of Islamic religious schools at Indonesia’s ministry of religious affairs, the boarding schools alone number “tens of thousands”. In a recent interview he praised them and said that there was no need to intervene; “intervention will only breed distrust”, he added. Even in the Philippines, where Muslims are a minority, there are 1,500 madrasas.
Many of these madrasas have student populations drawn from a cross-section of Muslim countries. Madrasas in Pakistan and Egypt are said to be the most popular. Thousands of students from Southeast Asia, Central Asia and the Balkans are known to have attended Pakistani madrasas. Even Yemen, which is not renowned for the quality of its religious schools, has attracted students from Muslim countries as far away as Indonesia. But this auspicious state of affairs, expression of the basic unity of the Ummah, is unlikely to last much longer. Muslim rulers have begun to look upon madrasas as breeding grounds for terrorism, and upon ‘foreign students’ as Bin Ladin loyalists and secret members of al-Qaeda.
Yemen has rounded up foreign students in its religious schools, expelling more than a hundred, and closing down a number of madrasas. Its treatment of non-Yemeni students was so harsh that Indonesia has protested formally to Sana. Pakistan has ordered all madrasas to register with the authorities, and reduced the number of foreign students and teachers drastically. In Malaysia, a crackdown led to the closure on January 3 of a madrasa in Johor state, and to the arrest of students who had studied in Pakistani madrasas. Mahathir claimed that they had forged links with the Taliban and al-Qaeda, and had learned how to make bombs. In Egypt, the authorities have even prosecuted Muslim students from Central Asia and the Balkans on the grounds that they were committing or plotting to commit terrorist attacks in the Caucasus.
Islamic schools have also suffered an indirect but serious setback through the crackdown on Islamic charities and Islamic activists in Muslim countries at the instigation of Washington. Many Muslim countries have introduced legislation or decrees enabling them to control or even freeze the funds or business activities (or both) of chosen activists and organisations. This has considerably reduced the flow of funds to madrasas and charitable groups. The stealthy legislative programme which Cairo is preparing is, however, far more menacing, since charitable organisations will no longer be able to collect zakah, which is a considerable source of funds for their work.
A draft law inspired by Dr Madhal Hasanein, the finance minister, calls for the compulsory collection of zakah by the state. But Shaikh al-Azhar Dr Muhammad Sid Tantawi has objected strongly to this idea, arguing that zakah is subject to the will and niyyah of individuals; he has been supported by the rest of Egypt’s senior ulama. The government is therefore exerting pressure on Tantawi in private to agree to a modified version of the draft.
According to recent reports, Tantawi is about to agree to a draft law that provides — as a first step — for the compulsory collection by the state of zakah on properties and deposits. Interestingly, the Egyptian government embarked on this stealthy programme at a time when the country was in the grip of economic difficulties and donor countries were assembling in Sharm al-Shaikh to consider bailing it out. If Cairo succeeds in hijacking zakah by legislation and the ulamaback it (or do not oppose it strongly enough), other Muslim governments are bound to follow suit.
This will not only be an affront to Islam and the Shari’ah, but could also finish or severely curtail charitable work and Islamic activism in the Muslim world. Most people will find it very difficult to pay compulsory taxes and zakah to the state and also make donations to charities. This will affect the provision of goods and services to people, especially Muslims, in many countries.