Islamic welfare

Overcoming ­reservations

Social engagement and working for the common good are core Islamic values. Islamic charitable organisations could be potential partners for international organisations. But in practice, there are a lot of reservations that need to be overcome.
School in Lebanon: Only about a third of refugee children attend Lebanese schools. Etchart/Lineair School in Lebanon: Only about a third of refugee children attend Lebanese schools.

The Insani High School in the southern Lebanese city of Saida is still under construction, but school is already in session – even though it’s June, when students should actually be on summer holiday. Head teacher Rami Halloum explains why they are there: “Our school only serves Syrian refugee children. Right now we are offering tutoring and advanced courses.” These classes are necessary because many students have gaps in their knowledge as a result of the war and the flight from their home country.

Rami Halloum is also from Syria. When the war broke out, he was the head teacher of a secondary school in the Homs Governorate, his native region. He had to flee his city in 2012. The fact that he is now able to practice his profession in Lebanon shouldn’t be taken as a matter of course. Only about a third of refugee children attend Lebanese schools. Many face serious difficulties. One reason is that Syrian children do not receive early instruction in English and French – unlike Lebanese children. The other two thirds of refugee children can’t attend Lebanese schools because of a lack of money or available seats.

The Syrian Insani High School, where students can earn the diploma they need to go to university, offers a rare alternative. Ordinarily, Syrians are not allowed to open schools in Lebanon. The fact that it was possible in this case is all thanks to the Higher Islamic Council, the highest Sunni authority in Lebanon. Rami Halloum explains: “We are allowed to operate our own school for a limited period of time under the umbrella of this organisation.”

School is financed by donations

The school follows the official Lebanese curriculum. It does not receive support from the state. Instead, it is financed almost entirely by donations. So far, the majority of the funding has come from Qatar and from private Syrian and Lebanese individuals living in their home countries or abroad, Rami Halloum reports. According to him, these donations cover the teachers’ salaries and most of the school’s expenses. Contributions from parents only play a small role. “The families that can afford it pay for the school and the school bus. But no child should be excluded from education simply because the parents don’t have enough money.”

Thanks to the Insani High School in Saida, around 400 Syrian refugee children currently have an opportunity to earn an internationally-recognised diploma. That number is set to rise. The school is a typical example of Islamic welfare. It is an initiative that could undoubtedly use more attention and more support. But for right now, funding for the school from non-Arab sources is nowhere in sight.

Cooperation between Islamic welfare institutions and international development organisations occurs more frequently now than it used to, but it is still rare. International non-governmental organisations (NGOs) acknowledge that Islamic actors can provide important social services and sometimes have easier access to certain target groups. But they allege implicitly or explicitly that many Islamic actors do not fulfil important criteria for a partnership. The following concerns are preventing international NGOs from better engaging with their Islamic counterparts:  

  • Islamic organisations’ lack of transparency when it comes to financing and project implementation,
  • a fear that these groups are pursuing hidden agendas like missionary activities or propaganda and
  • a perceived incompatibility between Islamic principles and international human rights.

Some of these concerns are justified. For instance, many Islamic organisations openly reject the notion of human rights and do not disclose the source and intended purpose of their donations. Many large Islamic NGOs like Saudi Arabia’s Muslim World League have carried out dubious missionary activities and spread radical Islamic propaganda for decades under the guise of development assistance. Nevertheless, cooperation with Islamic welfare institutions and the formation of international partnerships should not be ruled out.

Good deeds and charity are religious obligations under Islam. Mentions of these requirements can be found both in the Koran and in the Sunnah, the record of the teachings of the prophet Muhammad. It is true that Islam does not have a social doctrine resembling that of the Christian tradition from which congregations’ charitable mission can be derived. But Islam does have generally binding principles and legal institutions that are based on the notion of religiously-motivated welfare. They form part of everyday life and to some extent have also been integrated into modern state institutions.

One of the “five pillars” of majority Sunni Islam is zakat, an annual giving of alms that observant Muslims typically perform during Ramadan. The contributions are given either to mosques, to intermediary organisations or directly to the needy. Islamic religious scholars disagree about the exact amount of and the basis for calculating zakat. But in general, the alms tax is calculated so that Muslims can give the required portion of their income or wealth without suffering hardship.

Only a few predominantly Islamic countries (like Saudi Arabia) have incorporated zakat into the state tax system. In some countries (like Jordan), the annual alms tax is overseen by committees that report to the respective Ministry of Religion. Muslims who live in countries with non-Muslim majorities often determine the amount of their zakat payments themselves, nowadays with the help of online calculators.

Another important instrument of Islamic welfare are the religious trusts (Arabic: waqf / plural awqaf, also called habous in North Africa). Traditionally, these trusts deal primarily with immovable property like land or real estate that devout Muslims bequeath to mosque communities or charitable organisations either during their lifetimes or in their wills. The beneficiaries are required to put the profits towards certain social causes, like the operation of orphanages, hospitals or schools.  

In recent years, Islamic welfare and its institutions have increasingly attracted the interest of inter­national governmental and non-governmental development organisations. There are several reasons for this attention:

  • the relative wealth of Arab development agencies and the desire to better coordinate their efforts with those of the larger donor community,
  • reduced funding for international state development assistance and the resulting search for alternative donors,
  • the growing political and economic importance of Islamic actors worldwide,
  • the assumption that Islamic actors sometimes have better access to certain target groups and that they work more efficiently,
  • the desire for more insight into the financial flows of Islamic actors as part of counterterrorism measures.

In 2004, Germany’s Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) concluded a memorandum of understanding with the Aga Khan Development Network, a Shiite-Ismaili organisation that operates in Islamic countries around the globe. The memorandum has formed the foundation for a variety of cooperative efforts. Starting in 2009, the BMZ worked on a joint project with the Sunni Arab Gulf Fund for Development (AGFUND), a multi-lateral donor coordination based in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

Since the early 2000s, GIZ has made Islam and development cooperation part of its focus. Since November 2014, GIZ is implementing the sector programme “Values, religion and development” for the BMZ. Non-state actors have also increasingly taken up the issue in recent years: Brot für die Welt and Misereor have both initiated dialogues with Islamic aid organisations like Islamic Relief. The journalist and human rights activist Rupert Neudeck founded the volunteer organisation Grünhelme together with Christians and Muslims.

More partnership

Despite a certain opening up and a few joint projects, international agencies are still reluctant to cooperate with Islamic organisations. There are a variety of reasons for this hesitancy: First, there are fundamental concerns that cooperation could facilitate an Islamisation of discourses and practices. Second, the range of possible measures is restricted due to the political climate and the religious and political dominance of the state in the countries in question. Many GIZ proj­ects that actively seek out cooperation with Islamic actors remain concentrated in areas like education and awareness-raising. Topics include environmental education with imams in Algeria and Jordan and strengthening women’s rights.

The reluctance of secular and Islamic actors to work together can currently be seen in the provision of international aid to Syrian refugees. Most of the roughly 4 million Syrian refugees have fled to the immediately neighbouring countries of Jordan and Lebanon or have been internally displaced within Syria. There they receive support both from UN organisations and international NGOs as well as from local and regional religious organisations. Muslim organisations and donor agencies play a significant role.

Islamic emergency aid organisations often fill important gaps: Unlike large international organisations, they have close cultural ties to the people they help. They understand their values and traditions. Moreover, they work flexibly, meaning that they go into remote or unsafe areas.

A brief study from the Friedrich Ebert Foundation from 2014 uses the example of Jordan and several other countries to show how the UN, governmental and non-governmental Islamic actors can work side-by-side. Author Sarah Hasselbarth writes that in Jordan, there is informal contact between the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and the Salafist aid organisation al-Kitab wal-Sunna. According to Hasselbarth, UNICEF also selectively coordinates activities with the Islamic NGO al-Markaz al-Islami, which has close ties to the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood.

But even though all actors are serving the same target groups, Hasselbarth writes that there has been little cooperation so far. Deep-seated mutual mistrust is the culprit, she claims. Hasselbarth concedes that it is very difficult to reconcile the UN institutions’ human rights-based approach with the Islamic organisations’ basis in Sharia. Nevertheless, she feels that it is important not to exclude Islamic NGOs, but rather to include them. That can be done through further education and other confidence-building measures for instance.

Martina Sabra is a freelance journalist and development consultant.

Hasselbarth, S.,: Islamic charities in the Syrian context in Jordan and Lebanon.
Islamistische und jihadistische Akteure in den Partnerländern der deutschen Entwicklungszusammenarbeit (in German only):
Scharia und Entwicklungszusammenarbeit (in German only):
Factsheet sector programme “Values, religion and development”:

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