Cover Story

IRS: Islamic Revenue Service

Concerned less with cheerful giving and more with precision, imams enforce the zakat with the zeal of tax collectors-but the largesse provides much-needed relief to suffering Iraqis

Issue: "Staying underground," May 3, 2003

There's no red kettle, no ringing bell, yet the scene at Doha's sprawling City Center mall would be familiar to any American shopper at Christmastime. Just outside Starbucks, a man stands next to a box and a signboard scrawled with Arabic. Shoppers stop to read the message, reach into invisible pockets in their long robes, and drop money into the box for war-ravaged Iraqis.

"Our brothers suffer in Iraq," says a black-veiled woman with two children in tow. "We have much, and they sit in the dark with no water. How can we say no to their cries?"

The cries of Muslims in need seem to rumble constantly through the Gulf region these days. Last year Qatar's charitable community raised 50 million riyals (about $14 million) to help rebuild Afghanistan. The year before that another 50 million or so went to feed and shelter Palestinian refugees at the height of the intifada. And this year, of course, with the crisis in Iraq on everyone's mind, relief agencies believe the giving will probably reach the 50 million riyal mark once again.

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That's not bad for a country with just 600,000 inhabitants, half of whom are foreign workers living on a fixed wage. To put it into perspective, any single American fundraising drive that achieved the same per capita donation ($23) would net a whopping $6.5 billion. By comparison, the relief fund established for family members of the World Trade Center disaster took in just $2 billion.

While this form of fundraising may illustrate deep ties that unite Muslim peoples across national boundaries, behind the "giving" lies some arm-twisting. Islamic Shariah law demands an annual tithe, or zakat, of 2.5 percent of total net worth from every Muslim. It's as if a 2.5 percent payroll tax were levied on every American, with the money going exclusively to the United Way instead of highway projects and defense spending.

In wealthy countries like Qatar, Kuwait, and Dubai, there is simply no way to use all that money at home. Mohammed Lomarbee, a spokesman for the Qatari Red Crescent Society, admits there are "not that many" poor people in countries awash with petrodollars. During Ramadan, for instance, the Red Crescent raises only about 2 million riyals for programs to feed and clothe the indigent inside Qatar. In a month-long religious festival focused on sacrifice and self-denial, they could probably raise much more, but there's simply no need: The country is that rich.

In places where charity is voluntary, the giving might well stop when domestic needs were met. But zakat doesn't depend on current conditions. It must be paid every year, no matter how few homeless widows or hungry children there might be within a country's borders. Governments in the Gulf set up special offices to collect the zakat, though it can also be paid to a mosque or to an NGO like the Red Crescent. Cheating is tough, because local imams, as well as the government, have a stake in enforcing collection. Imagine every pastor and priest in America deputized as an IRS agent; that might approach the seriousness with which Gulf nations enforce the zakat.

Indeed, any IRS agent would likely feel right at home dealing with zakat issues. The tithe is figured using a complex, 35-line schedule that looks suspiciously like a Form 1040. The comparison to a U.S. payroll tax, it turns out, is oversimplified, because Muslims pay zakat on their total worth, not just their current income. Once a year, they are expected to tally up not only their salaries, but also the money in their bank accounts and their cookie jars. The value of stocks and bonds must also be added in, along with any money loaned out to others.

And that's just the easy part. Families are expected to weigh the household silver, report the weight in grams, and multiply by the going price. Gold is even more complicated. The zakat calculation sheet requires six separate entries for 12, 14, 16, 18, 21, and 24 karats. Since gold is valued at the "pure," 24-karat standard, lesser quality requires some mathematical adjustment. For instance, 10 grams of 14 karat gold is worth 5.8 grams of pure gold, according to the official calculation (10 x 14 / 24).

Even forbidden items are counted. Corporate bonds, for example, are haram, or forbidden, because their interest is considered usury. Nonetheless, Muslims holding bonds are expected to tithe on their total value, and not just the interest income. Likewise, men's gold, though also forbidden, is still to be included in the zakat.


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