Zakat Distribution and “Rice Christians”

In the early years of President Sukarno‘s Indonesia, there were many very poor villagers. Since Bung Karno depended on western money to consolidate Indonesia’s new freedom, churches were not restricted in their synonymous missionary efforts. The term “rice Christian” came about as a result of villagers on the verge of starvation, or even simple malnourishment, being offered rice in exchange for church membership.

It thus came about that, until today, there are many village families in certain deprived areas. For example, Nobel Prize Candidate Pramoedya Ananta Toer lived in Blora, which is surrounded by villages in which there was not enough rain for more than one harvest of rice per year. The Chinese who had a monopoly on food distribution would buy the poor families’ rice, and then sell it back to them at inflated prices when they began to go hungry.

Faced with such conditions, and no help yet from Jakarta, these families formally became “rice Christians” in order to survive. They were not sophisticated or learned Muslims, so the complex legal issues of apostasy did not arise.

Now in Malaysia, we are suddenly aware of a similar situation. How is it that, with our thoroughgoing Zakat collections, we still seem to have poor and distressed Muslim individuals and families that join churches in order to improve their nutrition?

We should be asking ourselves, “Who are these Muslims that are desperate enough to turn to the eager Evangelicals”? And, “Why do they do it?”

One answer is quite obvious to this writer. That is, there is vast room for improvement in our Zakat distribution. Prophet Muhammad (May Allah honour him and grant him peace) never approved absolute poverty and starvation. There are a number of traditions ascribed to him to this effect. A tradition reported by Nasal says: “O Lord! I seek refuge in Thee from poverty, scarcity and indignity and I seek refuge in Thee from being oppressed and from oppressing (others)”. It is a very significant tradition as it links the phenomena of poverty, scarcity, indignity, and oppression with one another; one aids and abets the other. The Prophet Muhammad (May Allah honour him and grant him peace), by seeking refuge from all these, makes it incumbent on Muslims to strive against these tendencies.

In another tradition, reported by Abu Daud, it is expressed in these words: “O Lord! I seek refuge in Thee from kufr (unbelief) and poverty”. In yet another tradition, reported by Baihaqi’i and Tabrani: “Poverty in all probability leads to kufr”. All these traditions ascribed to the Prophet Muhammad (may Allah honour him and grant him peace) make it clear that Muslims, and more importantly the Muslim states, must fight against poverty in all its ugly ramifications. Effective strategies should be made both at the individual and the collective levels to eradicate poverty, failing which the continuation of poverty would then be a major impediment in the way of realizing the broad goals of the Islamic shariah.

The phenomenon can be found in many Muslim countries whose governments are still too violent, arrogant, or greedy to eliminate the poverty all around them. Malaysia should go against this bad trend and set a leading example in poverty eradication initiatives amongst the Muslim-dominated countries.

The whole world has seen the hovels that surrounded Saddam’s palaces, and nowadays, Indonesian big city houses. Let us now mention the biggest refugee camp in the world now forming from Muslim Somali’s escaping dangers to their very lives inside their own cities and villages. So what is Malaysia’s excuse for the hunger that exposes poor Muslims to the Evangelical churches in order to find happiness for their families?

There are certain great periods in Muslim history in which the Zakat system was implemented by governments not corrupt at that time, in which the Zakat system completely eliminated poverty among the citizens. But since Muslims have been too busy fighting among themselves, or whatever, to write their own history or other textbooks, few of us really know these facts. And whereas Malaysia is blessed with forward-looking leadership and systematic Zakat collection, we must wonder where the money is all going, if poor Muslims continue to become “rice Christians”.

We can witness the division of our Muslim community in the unwillingness of the two major Muslim political parties to even sit down and talk to each other. And while our politicians seem to be playing circus games at times, accusing EACH OTHER of corruption and apostasy, there are still areas of considerable poverty among Muslims in this country.

We need to unite. United, it may be that inadequacies of Zakat distribution can be solved with the combined brain-trusts of all the Muslims together. As the English put it, “Two brains are better than one”. So let us consider, without being accused of “heresy” please, that Muslims really ought to be friendlier to each other and to our non-Muslim brethrens, work out their differences in a peaceful, civilized way, and eliminate poverty in this country.

Only as a united Muslim Ummah can we hope to meet the standard set forth in Article 10 of the Cairo Declaration on Human rights in Islam, which states that… “Islam is the religion of unspoiled nature. It is prohibited to exercise any form of compulsion on man or to exploit his poverty or ignorance in order to convert him to another religion or to atheism.”

While we understand this article, our very own Baitul Mal and religious departments need to improve on their deliverables to the needy. It is shameful that this protest needs to be made. May Allah forgive us all, and help us to take responsibility for our poor brethren. This is the only way to racial harmony, the only way to a dignified Muslim Ummah.

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