The Two Most Important Institutions for British Muslims

by Faeem Raza

If there is one thing about Muslims in Britain that seems to escape the popular debates about Islam, it is their generosity.

Despite it being well researched and often reported that Muslims are the most generous of all faith groups in the UK, and have rallied to the assistance of hundreds of millions of people in desperate need throughout the world, it is generally an unrecognised fact that this culture of giving to the needy is intrinsically woven into the spiritual DNA and identity of every adherent of Islam.

In 2013 The Times wrote: "Muslims are among Britain’s most generous givers, topping a poll of religious groups that donate to charity, according to new research. Muslims who donated to charity last year gave an average of almost £371 each, with Jewish givers averaging just over £270 per person. Atheists, by contrast, donated an average of £116 when they gave to charity, with Roman Catholics giving slightly more than £178, other Christians slightly less than £178 and Protestants £202. According to the ICM poll of 4,000 people, nearly four in ten atheists and Hindus did not donate at all. This compared with more than three in ten Muslims”.

The Independent in 2016 wrote: "British Muslims have been praised by the Charity Commission for donating vast amounts of money to good causes. During the holy month of Ramadan, British Muslims as a whole have donated money at a rate of £38 per second during Ramadan, or £371 per individual over the year” And in 2017, The Guardian wrote: "Zakat requires Muslims to donate 2.5% of their wealth: could this end poverty?”.

As much as these statistics are a source of pride, they do give rise to a couple of very important questions. Firstly, why is it that these facts are not celebrated and admired when it comes to a discussion on Islam? Is it because of institutionalised islamophobia and media trialing, collective punishment following foreign-policy-blowback or are we still suffering the white man’s burden? Secondly, is all this good will and charity being sensibly spent, on people who deserve it, or are there intermediaries profiteering from this immense generosity and good will?

Islamophobia under its various guises, is a factual reality, and perhaps this is one reason why this inconvenient truth of generosity is hidden from plain sight. However, there are other realities that must be taken into account for any defense to hold sway and credibility. According to a report by the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) on the 2011 census, Muslims have the highest rate of unemployment, the poorest health, the fewest educational qualifications and the youngest age profile of all faith groups in the UK. Half of British Muslims live in the lowest 10% of local authority districts for deprivation. 13% of the prison population is Muslim, and 28% of Muslims are in social housing. In addition, “The report claims this high unemployment is partly because: ‘Muslims face a double penalty—racial and cultural discrimination—in entering the labour market, as is confirmed by numerous studies.’”

Although this report highlights the results of widespread social disadvantages and biases, the shocking reality of over-representation in the prison system also shows that the British Muslim community is desperately struggling to cope. It certainly makes it more difficult to complain about islamophobia when half of the prisoners in a high security prison are Muslim and have been found genuinely guilty of some terrible crimes.

Apart from criminality and social deprivation, there are reports too that many Muslims are leaving the faith in alarming numbers, the youth in particular, besieged by Islamophobic culture and denied the corresponding support they need.

This is a stark and shocking indictment of the failure of Islamic principles to disseminate from the pulpit to the wider congregation. Mosque leaders are failing to help stem criminality, much of the community is stuck in the quagmire of social immobility, poverty and destitution; the youth, the elderly, sisters and brothers are often left desperate for support; and the community is constantly under attack for it. In short, the Muslim community in Britain is in danger of severe erosion.

In order to answer the first question: ‘Why is it that these facts are not celebrated and admired when it comes to a discussion on Islam?’ It seems that although there is undoubtedly a demonstrable institutionalised culture of bias against Muslims in Britain, the community is also desperately in need of immediate, structural support.

An explanation for the irony that on the one hand Muslims are generous charity givers, and on the other hand are simultaneously in need of help is the amount of their charity that is spent in the UK. According to the chief executive of the National Zakat Foundation interviewed in The Times earlier this year, 98% of British Muslim charity goes to campaigns abroad. A reallocation of as little as 3% of that funding would be enough to pay for current UK Muslim community projects, several times over.

In the context of horrific tragedies abroad in Syria, Palestine and Myanmar, concerns at home are very understandably overshadowed. However, that shadow does not obviate the serious growing crisis in the British Muslim community. A compelling case for charity to begin at home can be made without even referencing the widely accepted jurisprudential view that when zakat is sent away, local eligible recipients of zakat can demand justification for why their rights have been denied to them.

From Fiqh Al Zakat, “Abu 'Ubaid says, "Scholars all agree that […] people of every region have priority on their zakah, as long as they still have anyone in need, or until all the zakah is distributed." He goes on, "If the officer transports collected zakah while there still is need in the region from which it was collected, the government must return it to its region, as did 'Umar bin 'Abd al 'Aziz, and as stated by Sa'id bin Jubair.””

This appears to be the general principle of Zakat distribution, with exceptions permitted in unusual circumstances.

So how is this critical need to preserve the British Muslim community addressed?

Take the example of a young man, trained at various seminaries and employed as an imam in a provincial city in the UK for a few years. He finds the opportunity at a British institution to learn new skills and contextualise his knowledge. He finds employment at another mosque as imam, and immediately sets about putting into practice what he has now learned. He has a new found confidence to reach out to local institutions: the police, the local judiciary, the local paper, local healthcare providers and local government. He changes the mosque services to make them more appealing to the British Muslim public, projecting a powerpoint presentation of his weekly sermon on a screen for latecomers to be able to pick up the key messages of spiritual inspiration in his sermons which he delivers in English so that the majority of his congregation can understand it.

As a result, his congregation doubles in size, with many of the new attendees being the young. The madrassa now has a long waiting list. 1,200 local school children have visited and many have written letters of thanks for their introduction to what a mosque looks like, and for answers to their questions. Solid relationships are forged with his local institutions. And there is hard evidence of his successful efforts in genuinely helping his community by way of a measurable doubling of weekly donations at the collection box.

This represents a proof of concept: a huge win for British Islam, for the desperate support that British Muslims need, and for breaking down politicised barriers of hate built on misery and mistrust between communities, which tabloids and politicians utilise to further their businesses and careers. And it is entirely funded and strategised by the Muslim community.

Take another example of a young girl, clad in a headscarf and educated in an isolated and ignored seminary in the north of England, considered to be a backward, invisible and irrelevant environment. She is selected by the same British institution, and is educated and up-skilled. At the age of 17 without A-levels, she has performed so outstandingly well that she is offered a place at Cambridge University, and chooses instead to study at SOAS before pursuing her Phd abroad.

A hundred other students from this same British institution have their own stories to add to this list. This institution is equipping, training and supporting the next generation of Muslim leaders, so that they can go on to help their communities directly. Not by way of anonymous, national campaigns from large, opaque charities free of accountability, but by equipping young, bright, exceptional, young people to come directly into their communities to help their children, wives, husbands, parents, and neighbours both Muslim and non-Muslim in whichever way is most needed for their locality. This might take the form of educational classes in languages that modern British Muslims understand, outreach to surrounding communities and institutions, organising services for the elderly, or counselling, supporting and rehabilitating the local youth beset by modern problems of identity, crime and drugs.

The organisation in this example is The Cambridge Muslim College (CMC), which has been in existence for ten years and sets itself the very highest standards. It trains the next generation of Muslim leaders by taking seminary students well versed in basic skills of Quran, Fiqh and Hadith, and then in an environment of professional academic excellence, it teaches them doctrine, heritage, architecture, comparative religion, counselling, dealing with the press, professional skills and even takes them to the Vatican to meet the Pope: all strictly within a context of uncompromising Islamic orthodoxy.

From amongst ignored communities, economically deprived areas, Dar-ul-looms and seminaries discarded as irrelevant and anachronistic, institutions like the CMC are taking jewels, and are genuinely making them shine.

In addition to this, they arrange lectures and retreats for the public to learn from their scholars, have arranged Islamic study trips abroad to unanimous acclaim, and have even attracted the world’s leading academics to their Science & Religion Conferences on “What is Consciousness and Why Observers Matter in Quantum Theory?”, and “Artificial Intelligence and Consciousness”, arranged by dedicated academic CMC scholars who are experts in these fields.

The College has recently received appraisals of their BA programme from external examiners at the Open University and Oxford University who were effusive in their praise, with comments that the programme stands on par with those at Oxbridge, and that the students might even be producing work of a higher quality.

The two examples above are real life examples of alumni of the CMC, and proof that the potential of younger generations cannot be underestimated. These will be the generations of Muslims that will speak for their community, and will protect them, to ensure that they remain one of the most significant communities in one of the most important countries in the democratic world.

This type of work serves to strengthen Muslim communities from within. But combined with this is a necessity to protect the community from without. The British Muslim community justifiably feels under siege, bombarded with incessant, exaggerated, negative stereotypes every day. There have been several institutions which have done excellent work directly to combat this problem, but the one that deserves particular praise is another of the most important institutions for British Muslims.

This is the MCB. A largely volunteer led endeavour, run by a youthful, professional group of Muslims who have been working tirelessly to address the issues discussed above, and in particular those mentioned in the MCB report.

The MCB has emerged as a unique organisation directly addressing the two most important life lines of the British Muslim community. One is an endeavour to improve local institutions and mosques, with training, guidance and best-in-class toolkits for addressing any number of community difficulties. The other is a superbly successful advocacy group.

It is an astonishing accomplishment that an organisation this small has had such far reaching success in fighting the onslaught of islamophobia both in the British press and at the government level. They have single handedly forced apologies, corrections and the rescinding of 50 stories in the mainstream press and media over the past three years, and have single handedly brought to light cases of institutionalised islamophobia at the highest levels.

This work is critical to breaking the rampant culture of hate in Britain built upon a widespread, deliberate misrepresentation of Islam and Muslims.

These institutions are examples of those directly tackling our most critical needs as a community, and do so with a best in class standard of excellence. There can be little doubt that they are amongst the two most important institutions for British Muslims.

The answer to the first question at the start of this article suggests that a critical rethinking of Muslim charitable habits is long overdue, and a greater responsibility for exactly where charity goes is essential for the community to survive. Given the evidence available, it is important to seriously consider whether some of that charity ought to be redirected homeward.

The answer to the second question is to examine the mechanisms available to accomplish this. There are two obvious consequences to the outstanding generosity of Muslims: an immense amount of potential resource to help those in need; and an immense amount of potential resource to embezzle.

Embezzle is probably too strong a word to use here, but the intended inference is that donating to a charity ought to be a well researched decision and may not be as straightforward as one might imagine. Muslim charity is an extraordinarily lucrative industry, unique in that immense amounts of wealth attract negligible calls for accountability and transparency from its donors. This then, unfortunately, also attracts poor practice, and so in an internet-information age that facilitates accountability and transparency, it is a mandatory, extra responsibility on the donor to demand it.

To illustrate just how attractive an industry this is, according to Charity Choice, a self appointed charity directory, it is estimated that there are 1,369 “Islam Charities” in the UK.

Each one of these charities no doubt has a compelling story to tell for the good it is trying to achieve. But each one also has its costs: staffing costs, support costs, governance costs, accounting costs and in general most significantly, its fund raising costs.

The more these charities overlap, the more there is a duplication of these costs and the less there is available to return to the ultimate, deserving target for that donation.

A discussion of how to go about choosing a charity to support, a “Guide to Giving” so to speak, is a larger subject worth exploring elsewhere, but it might be worth making a few a few simple observations here.

If one were to choose between several charities which pretty much do the same thing, international relief for instance, it is worth comparing their cost structures, and favouring the most efficient. They vary immensely.

It stands to reason that it is much easier to validate the work of charities working in the UK than it is to validate the work of charities working abroad. Talking to anyone working within the charity space might help in understanding examples of good versus poor practice.

Although campaigns for the terrible plight of people suffering abroad are compelling, the sad reality is that rumours of malpractice do surface. These can take the shape of ‘money dumping’ which is when a campaign attracts more money than a project budget, in which case the money is dumped on any associated project irrespective of control or cost; or water wells drilled in faraway countries where a photo is taken of the well and sponsor’s plaque, before the sponsors plaque is replaced with another for the next photo; or earthquake shelters built as promised until a photo is taken for proof after which it is immediately dismantled by locals to sell on. Rumours are just that, and should never be depended upon for a decision, but it is important to have some understanding of the parameters within which to assess a charity, given the immense spiritual responsibility that goes along with giving.

To answer the second question directly, not all charities are problematic, of course. Some international charities such as the largest muslim charity in the UK, Islamic Relief, have been awarded rare industry accolades for their exceptional transparency, and are reputed highly enough to be a part of the Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC). There are relatively few UK-only oriented charities, but the National Zakat Foundation is by far and away the largest of the mainstream institutions with excellent transparency and leadership.

To conclude, the British Muslim community should be proud that despite being from amongst the most impoverished communities in the UK, they are by far and away the most generous when it comes to charity. It is a critical responsibility for every charity giver to be acutely aware of the needs around them, and to ensure that their charitable obligations are met on the one hand, and that on the other, they hand over their donations to institutions which will honour that responsibility and treat it with the respect it deserves.

Faeem Raza is an independent scholar with a research interest in the charity sector. He has thirty five years of experience as a Strategy Consultant.