“I live in a foreign country; should I give zakat to non-Muslims?”
The question was posed by a Muslim man in a Q&A video session livestreamed on Dar al-Ifta's Facebook page May 12. The cleric hosting the session, which was later deleted, replied that the annual alms required under Islam should only be given to Muslims, while "sadaqah," a less formal type of Islamic charity, can be given to non-Muslims.
Zakat is one of the five pillars of worship in Islam. Muslims are required to pay alms each year (2.5% of their wealth or savings, including gold and jewelry) to those the Quran designates as being deserving of zakat. Sadaqah, meanwhile, refers to charity in general and unlike zakat is not compulsory, the only restriction being that it must come from lawful gains. In the early days of Islam, the words were synonymous.
The cleric’s response, published in a video on the pro-government Youm7 website and later removed, sparked controversy on Egyptian social media and an outcry from Coptic Christians.
“It is catastrophic that 'non-Muslims' are among those paying the salaries of the clerics who make such statements, with their taxes. We don't just have hate speech, we also fund it,” lamented one Twitter user.
Many Muslims were also alarmed by the “discriminatory” fatwa and expressed their opposition on social media.
“Before giving alms to a hungry child on the street, does one ask about his or her faith?” asked Facebook user Ahmed Roushdy.
To the surprise of many, the video containing the sheikh's response was removed from Dar al-Ifta's official Facebook page two days later (May 14) and was replaced by a new fatwa contradicting the previous edict.
“Zakat is permissible for non-Muslims who are in need of medical treatment or protection from the coronavirus and other diseases and to allow them to fulfill their basic needs,” declared the new fatwa, which according to Dar al-Ifta was “based on a verse on zakat from the Quran that does not differentiate between Muslims and non-Muslims.”
Dar al-Ifta did not specify which Quranic verse it was referring to, but Surah al-Tawbah defines those eligible to receive zakat as “the poor and the needy, those authorized to collect zakat funds, newcomers to Islam, those in slavery or in debt, those who fight for Allah's cause and travelers who are cut off or in need of assistance.” The verse does not specify the faith of the designated beneficiaries.
“It is also rooted in the example set by Omar Ibn el-Khattab, who gave zakat to needy non-Muslim citizens,” read the Dar al-Ifta statement in reference to the Prophet Muhammad's senior companion, revered by Sunni Muslims as a virtuous ruler.
Liberal activists hailed the new fatwa as a victory for secularists in the conservative society.
“It indicates that secular voices have become a powerful force and are able to pressure Dar al-Ifta to withdraw a discriminatory edict despite the fact that there is a consensus among all [Islamic schools of thought] on the fatwa,” wrote Facebook user Hany Emara.
The distinction has been made before. Former Mufti Ali Gomaa said in a 2017 televised Friday prayer sermon, "Zakat can only be given to Muslims, whereas sadaqah can be given to both Muslims and non-Muslims, whether rich or poor.”
Asked by Al-Monitor about the mixed messages on zakat, the Dar al-Ifta cleric who responded on the hotline denied that Gomaa had restricted zakat to Muslim recipients.
The controversy stirred by the fatwa came amid heated arguments between liberals and conservatives on social media on whether Muslims should pray for mercy for non-Muslims after news broke of the May 12 death of popular Egyptian comedian Ibrahim Nasr. Fans shared thoughts and prayers for him on social media only to face a backlash from conservatives, displeased with the outpouring of grief for the Christian actor.
One internet user expressed his disdain on Twitter, writing, “It is forbidden to ask for forgiveness and pray for God's mercy for someone who died as a non-Muslim.” He continued, "Nasr was Christian, so how could you seek forgiveness and mercy for him?”
Some of the online comments mirrored a disturbing groundswell of intolerance toward Coptic Christians, who make up 12% to 15% of the population. Egypt's Orthodox Christians often complain of marginalization and even persecution in the predominantly Muslim society. Growing religious intolerance has translated into a surge in sectarian violence against Copts in recent years. Hundreds of them have been killed in sectarian clashes or church attacks since the 2011 uprising against former President Hosni Mubarak. An unknown number of others have had to flee their villages after their homes or businesses were ransacked by extremists.
It is against this backdrop of discrimination that rights advocates like Youssef Sidhom, editor-in-chief of Egypt's only Christian newspaper Watani, are hoping for Egypt's transformation “from a society that closely identifies with religious institutions to a modern, civil state with diminished religious authority,” Sidhom told Al-Monitor.
Khaled Montasser, who writes for the independent Al-Watan portal and is an outspoken critic of political Islam, voiced his concerns and reiterated Sidhom's call for a non-religious state.
“Egyptians who took to the streets on June 30, 2013, to protest Muslim Brotherhood rule were also protesting against mixing religion and politics. While there were no banners calling for secularism, there was general consensus among the protesters on a modern, civil state,” Montasser told Al-Monitor.
Since the ouster of President Mohammed Morsi, there has been an ongoing tug-of-war between the ruling authorities and religious institutions. The conflict escalated in February 2017, when President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi called for banning verbal divorce, a call that was met with strident rejection from Al-Azhar's Committee of Senior Clerics. They insisted that religious affairs be left to the clerics knowledgable of Islamic law.
“The fact that the 2014 Egyptian Constitution grants Al-Azhar full independence and stipulates that the grand sheikh cannot be dismissed has given religious institutions leeway to exercise their control on society,” lamented Montasser.