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Zakah and the forgotten Islamic obligation towards prisoners

July 11, 2014

The history of Islam is replete with stories of men and women facing imprisonment and abuse at the hands of oppressors.

The chapter of the Prophet Yusuf [as] in the Quran vividly illustrates how dealing with unjust imprisonment is not only inherent to the heritage of monotheistic tradition but without it, both the Old Testament [Torah] and the Quran would be incomplete. Yusuf’s own test illustrates how prison is a very real expectation when faced with stark choices:

He [Yusuf] said: “O my Lord! Prison is dearer to me than that to which they invite me. Unless You turn away their plot from me, I will feel inclined towards them and be one of the ignorant.” So his Lord answered his invocation and turned away from him their plot. Verily, He is the All-Hearer, the All-Knower. Then it occurred to them, after they had seen the proofs (of his innocence) to imprison him for a time. (12:33-5)

But it is our obligation towards such people that is the matter in question.

And they give food, in spite of their love for it, to the poor, the orphan, and the captive (saying): “We feed you seeking Allah’s Face only. We wish for no reward, nor thanks from you.” (76:8-9)

It may not be possible to provide food directly for the captives but, we can and should exert the utmost effort to ensure they receive justice and that they are neither forgotten nor abandoned.

The Prophet Muhammad [s] said: “No man forsakes a Muslim when his rights are being violated or his honour is being belittled except that Allah will forsake him at a place in which he would love to have His help. And no man helps a Muslim at a time when his honour is being belittled or his rights violated except that Allah will help him at a place in which he loves to have His help”.

The Prophet [s] said: “Feed the hungry, visit the sick, and free the prisoner.” And he said: “It is upon the Muslim faithful to free their prisoners and to pay their ransom.”

The classical scholars, some of whom were unjustly imprisoned themselves, have been clear about the financial obligations regarding freeing prisoners:

Imam Malik said: “It is obligatory on the people to redeem prisoners with their money. There is no contention on this point”.

Ibn Taymiyyah said: “Freeing the prisoners is one of the greatest compulsory deeds and spending ransom money and other means towards that, is one of the greatest ways to come close to Allah.”

Al-Qurtubi said: “Our scholars have said that ransoming the prisoners with money is waajib (obligatory), even if one dirham does not remain in the Islamic Treasury.”

Many Muslims choose to pay their Zakah during Ramadan – to earn extra reward. However, it is our obligation as Muslims that we often forget that working for justice and freedom for those unlawfully imprisoned is very much a part of this duty (fardh) by which we purify our wealth (zakah).
Most Muslims understand the concept of zakah as a fundamental pillar of Islam, but few recognise the categories of valid recipients which remain ignored or abandoned:

As-sadaqat (here meaning zakah) is only for the poor and for the needy and for those employed to collect [zakah] and for bringing hearts together [for Islam] and for freeing captives and for those in debt and for the cause of Allah [Mujaidhun] and for the [stranded] traveller – an obligation [imposed] by Allah . And Allah is Knowing and Wise. (9:60)

Fatawa [religious edicts] regarding zakah and freeing prisoners in modern times
1. Mufti Ebrahim Desai (South Africa) on the obligation towards the prisoners:
Question: As you are aware many of our Muslim brothers are currently imprisoned in Guantanamo Bay. What is the duty of the rest of the Muslims towards these imprisoned brothers?
Answer: When Muslims are imprisoned unjustly, as is the case in Guantanamo, it is the Waajib [obligatory] duty of all the Muslims of the world to do whatever is in their capacity to free these oppressed brothers. Together with our efforts, it is our duty to continuously make du’aa for them. And Allah knows best.

2. Shaykh Jafar Idris (Sudan/USA) was asked about giving Zakah to free prisoners:
Question: Traditionally it has been permitted to give zakah in order to help free a Muslim prisoner. The concept was essentially to pay a ransom for the prisoner in order to ensure their safe return. Today we have Muslim prisoners who have been detained for purely political reasons without having been charged or tried for any crime. There is no way to pay a ransom for these prisoners in order to secure their release, could zakah be given instead to fund activities such as paying for their legal costs, campaigning and lobbying. Could the work of a human rights NGO that works to have these prisoners receive the zakah in order to carry out its work?
Answer: The basic position related to the giving of the zakah for the release of the prisoners, is that the effort should be made in order to gain their release. With the current context of Muslim prisoners around the world, the zakah can be used with any aspect of work related to freeing the prisoners. Of course there is no guarantee that the prisoner will be released, however the zakah money can go towards working towards that goal inshallah. There is nothing wrong with using the zakah money for the purposes of running an NGO that has this specific role. Allahu Alam.

3. Shaykh Salman al-Oudah (Saudi Arabia) said (regarding the Guantanamo prisoners):
Answer_: “We must form commissions to keep track of their affairs from both a legal and a humanitarian perspective….We must be generous in our financial support. Whether we use our money to secure the release of some prisoners, or use it to defend their rights and publicize their plight, it is the same. We must also help their families on their behalf. All of this is spending in the way of Allah. It is in performing these acts of good that we as Muslims should strive to outdo each other.” _

Giving zakah is how Muslims purify their wealth and assist those in need in the process. It is the third pillar of Islam and its importance is second only to the obligatory prayer. As an action it is mentioned over 80 times in the Quran – often in conjunction with the prayer. And, if paying zakah is an undeniable Islamic obligation (the abandonment of which is a major sin) then, seeking justice and freedom for the prisoners is a means to fulfilling that obligation. And, those who spend in this cause, whether zakah or sadaqah (voluntarily charity), are promised a bounteous reward:

And the likeness of those who spend their wealth seeking Allâh’s Pleasure sure in themselves that Allâh will reward them, is the likeness of a garden on a height; heavy rain falls on it and it doubles its yield of harvest. And if it does not receive heavy rain, light rain suffices it. (2:264)

The only question for us is: Who is he that will loan to Allah a beautiful loan, which Allah will double unto his credit and multiply many times? (2:224)

Helping to release captives is an Islamic obligation that very few organisations are fulfilling. This Ramadan, give your support to the cause of the oppressed by paying your zakah and sadaqah to CAGE.

Any money we collect in Zakah will be prioritised to be spent on costs/activities that directly benefit clients’ cases though it is permitted to spend Zakah funds towards any administrative or overhead costs that are incurred by CAGE.

May Allah accept it from you all and place it high on the balance on your scales on the Day of Account.

(CC image courtesy of Abdullah on Flickr)

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Zakah and the forgotten Islamic obligation towards prisoners
Zakah and the forgotten Islamic obligation towards prisoners