Founded in 2001, the Zakat Foundation of America (ZFA) presents itself as an Islamic “international charity organization” that “help[s] American Muslims nationwide carry out their zakat duties easily and correctly.” Zakat, the foundation explains, is an Arabic word which refers to the giving of “obligatory alms” – a duty that “every Muslim possessing the designated minimal amount of wealth” must fulfill in order to be in compliance with the “Third Pillar of Islam,” the requirement for charitable giving.
As Islam expert Andrew McCarthy points out, zakat, as defined through the centuries by leading Islamic scholars, is intended not for the benefit of “infidels” but exclusively for the benefit of other Muslims – even if those beneficiaries are the families of “Palestinian suicide bombers and imprisoned al-Qaeda terrorists.” Central to zakat‘s “essential purpose,” McCarthy elaborates, is its effort to “fortif[y] and exten[d] the ummah [Muslim community] until all the world is Islam’s domain,” and to “underwrite jihad.” Yusuf al-Qardawi, the spiritual leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, is cited by ZFA as a scholar whose pronouncements regarding zakat are particularly authoritative.
ZFA’s charitable programs for needy Muslims fall under four major categories:
* Emergency Relief: This program “acts to alleviate the immediate needs of those who have been overwhelmed by catastrophe with the distribution of food packages, medicine, hygiene packages, [and] temporary shelter.”
* Seasonal Programs: These initiatives “give Muslims the opportunity to give to those in need during the most blessed times of the year as according to the Sunnah (Traditions) of the Prophet,” most notably the holy month of Ramadan and the three-day period each month during which Udhiya/Qurbani (the ritual sacrifice of animals) is permitted.
* Perpetual Charity: ZFA’s Sadaqa Jariyah (perpetual charity) program focuses on “efforts that empower communities to lift themselves out of poverty” and to develop long-term “self-reliance” that “decreases community dependence on outside aid.” Key initiatives within this program include the construction of “hundreds of wells” in order to ensure dependable access to clean water; education and skills training that will help people acquire the expertise “needed to ensure permanent access to the basic rights of food, water, shelter, health, work and dignity while addressing the roots of chronic poverty and hunger”; “equal access to basic healthcare services so that men and women will be healthy enough to support their families and so that children can thrive and attend school regularly”; the construction and renovation of mosques, schools, homes, health clinics, and orphanages; and the extension of microcredit – “small, interest-free loans to those in poverty” – so as to “facilitate entrepreneurial efforts” and promote “socioeconomic development.”
* Orphan & Orphanage Sponsorship: Through this program, ZFA seeks to provide food, clothing, educational opportunities, and comprehensive healthcare for children who have lost their parents.
Also of particular concern to ZFA is the Palestinian population of the Middle East, which, according to the foundation, is “impoverished” as a result of egregiously “severe” Israeli policies that permit “only a trickle” of aid to enter the region. To help remedy this allegedly grave situation, ZFA supports the Free Gaza Movement (FGM), citing in particular the “heroic efforts” of the Mavi Marmara, the flagship of a Gaza-bound humanitarian-aid flotilla that provoked a violent and deadly confrontation with Israeli commandos in May 2010. ZFA once served as the fiscal sponsor for a Caipirinha Foundation grant to the Foundation for Human Rights and Freedom and Humanitarian Relief, which maintains close ties to Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood and was instrumental in organizing the aforementioned FGM flotilla.
In 2010, the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) endorsed the Zakat Foundation as an organization with “a strong history of immediate and effective responses to national and international disasters.” Several ZFA promotional videos make the group’s ties with ISNA more explicit. In July 2010, ZFA attended ISNA’s 47th annual convention.
ZFA also supports the Muslim Students Association of the U.S. and Canada (MSA), for which the foundation has prepared guides on such topics as “How to Start a Successful Halaqa [religious instruction] Group in Your Masjid,” “How to Help Neighbors in Need,” and “Starting a Food Pantry.”