For the uninitiated, Zakat is third in the Five Pillars of Islam, the framework of the Muslim life. It follows Syahadah (utterance of the testimony of faith) and Solat (prayer five times daily). After it comes Fasting in the month of Ramadan and the Haj (pilgrimage to Mekkah).
Zakat is a tuntutan (demand) of the religion. Mark that word 'demand'; it's a strong word. It demands the Muslim haves to help the have-nots by way of zakat (if you are filthy rich or just plain wealthy, propertied, or with excess funds) and fitrah (personal tithe or alms, a sum so small it's negligible, perhaps in the region of RM5-RM6, although nobody will ever stop you from giving more in the spirit of sadaqah [charity]).
Baitulmal's coffers are brimming with funds. Last year alone, more than half a billion ringgit in zakat poured in, courtesy of Muslim individuals and businesses. The number of people paying and the amount collected are steadily growing ("Poor Muslims slipping through the zakat net": NST, Opinion Page, 18/09/08).
The amount should be more than enough to help the poor, if not eradicate Muslim hardcore poverty altogether. According to the Economic Planning Unit of the Prime Minister's Department, 3.6 per cent of Malaysian households are considered hardcore poor. This means Muslim households living in abject poverty should be less than 3.6 per cent.
Now, if Baitulmal is awashed with more than half a billion ringgit, why are we still reading about fellow Muslims living hand-to-mouth existence, eating one miserable meal of nasi (rice) and kicap (soya sauce) a day? Here we are, fasting in the holy month of Ramadan and gorging ourselves silly come dusk, and our stricken brethren 'fast' every day out of necessity.
Off with the rose-tinted glasses. Let the glaring light of truth blind you senseless. And the unpalatable truth is, many of the hardcore poor are not even listed as zakat beneficiaries.
Go ask Baitulmal why, and I can rewind the list of answers that I heard 20 years ago as a reporter. The oft-quoted excuse, bandied about then as now, is "we are in the midst of compiling a database of the hardcore poor." It's as though Baitulmal is living in a time warp. And all the while, the poor continues to suffer.
Muslims have been paying zakat and fitrah ever since Islam came into being. By the same token, the institution of Baitulmal has been in place since the time of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh).
The biggest setback, as far as I can see, is that the Baitulmal institution is under the ambit of individual state religious councils. Therein lies the bureaucratic mess.
The councils themselves are so knotted in red tape that, tuntutan notwithstanding, the task of alleviating the sufferings of the hardcore poor becomes secondary.
There have been calls for Baitulmal to be made completely independent by taking it out of the governance of the state religious councils, centralise it and place it under the Council of Rulers, who are heads of Islam for their respective states. I hope this will become a reality soon enough.
And then there's this issue of Baitulmal investing in stock markets and acquiring property. This is zakat funds we are talking about. Scholars are in agreement that zakat should be disbursed and not carried forward into the following year as a surplus.
They cautioned that putting zakat funds into business or risking it on market trends could be haram if the funds are used to generate income while there are still hardcore poor people in the community.
A former Baitulmal director, now retired, once told me his hands were tied when he was heading the institution. "Dia orang sibuk cari peluang nak melabur aja. Kalau biarkan kat aku, aku dah buat rumah murah banyak-banyak bagi kat semua orang miskin yang takder rumah. Habis cerita."
("All they were doing was looking for opportunities to invest [the zakat money]. Left to me, I would have authorised the construction of lots of low-cost houses and give them to the homeless poor. End of story.")
And I know that the soft-spoken Pak Haji would have done it, precisely as he had said it, given half the chance.