You know how it is in some families: children, even if they are grown-up adults, have little or no say in any matter, not even in those that intimately concern them, and their parents presume they know what’s best. That’s how it is—or, rather, was—in my family, until I took a drastic decision this Ramadan.
Four years ago, I started to earn. As a teacher in a neighbourhood school, I was the only woman in our large family working outside the home. Within a year, I was earning enough to be eligible to pay zakat. Zakat is regarded as one of the five pillars of Islam. It’s the alms-giving that is obligatory for all Muslims who are able to do so. Much of our zakat is given to the poor and the needy. One meaning of the word zakat is ‘that which purifies’. This denotes that giving zakat, sharing the wealth that one has accumulated with the poor, among others, purifies it. That’s a lovely way, isn’t it, of understanding charity as well as relating to the wealth that God has bestowed on us!
Being eligible to give zakat was a wonderful feeling. It was exhilarating to able to help others financially, and a reminder that I was now grown-up and, at last, financially independent.
As long as I can remember, Baba, my father, has taken all my decisions for me all my life—and I’m now almost thirty. And so, when it came to my giving zakat, he had to have his way here, too. Every Ramadan, for the last four years, he would meticulously examine my accounts, consult a maulvi friend of his about the exact amount of zakat that I needed to pay, and tell me to hand over to him the amount in cash. That was what every other earning member of the family had to do, too. We had no say whatsoever in the matter of how our zakat was used. This decision was left entirely to Baba.
Every year during Ramadan, Baba would unfailingly send a fat sum of money to a certain madrasa. That was where all our zakat went. We had no idea at all of what the madrasa folks did with the money, though. We had done our duty, and that was all that mattered. What the maulvis of the madrasa did with our zakat money was their business, not ours. They, not us, would be answerable for this before God on the Day of Judgment if they misused it—which, I suspected, might well be the case.
I didn’t at all agree with the version of Islam that this madrasa represented. It was narrow and rigid, even frightening in some respects, and it had little to do with what I understood the Quranic message to be. In many ways, it was the complete antithesis of how I perceived my faith. I’m not an expert in such matters, but I think the sort of (mis-)understanding of Islam that this madrasa espoused was and is a fundamental cause for the many problems that Muslims across the world today face: mouting inter-sectarian strife, for instance, anti-Muslim prejudice as well as unfair laws for Muslim women that don’t, I’m sure, have any sanction in Islam—at least as I understand it. I found it absolutely intolerable that my hard-earned money should be given to an institution that I felt subverted the religion that I loved while claiming to champion it. I had read about fake-madrasas that exist only on paper; others whose managers pocket much of the chanda, sadqa and zakat that they collect every year; and yet others that splurge much of the money they garner from the public on setting up fancy buildings with enormous domes and tall minarets and carpeted halls, and churning out heaps of sectarian and misogynist literature. I certainly didn’t want the money that I had worked so hard earning being squandered in that way. But of course I couldn’t say this to Baba. After all, you aren’t meant to squabble in the month of Ramadan. I didn’t want to see the skies fall at a time when I wanted peace and quiet the most.
Contrary to what I had feared all along, however, the skies didn’t fall when, this Ramadan, I decided that I had had enough of living in fear of my father and that I now needed to follow my heart. Gently, and after much rehearsal, one evening, after iftar, I somehow gathered the courage to tell Baba that I was grown up now, and that I thought I was capable of sensibly deciding how to disburse my zakat. Islam gave me that freedom, I said. That point really struck him. He couldn’t counter me on that score, of course, because, after all, I wasn’t wrong.
‘You’re right there, child, but don’t waste your money,’ Baba said.
I hadn’t at all expected it was going to be so easy.
And, do you know what else? Baba stretched out his hand and placed it on my head in blessing. He hadn’t done that in years!
‘You’re a big girl now. I should have realized it much earlier. Yes, child, use your zakat in the way you think proper.’
I took Baba’s wrinkled hand in mine. I looked into his tear-filled eyes and gulped. You won’t know how sad and guilty, and, at the same time, joyful, I felt. I hadn’t been fair to him all these years, had I? I had hated him for controlling me, for not letting me lead my own life, for deciding everything for me. It is true that I found this unbearably suffocating most of the time, and I’m sure this is not the right way to rear a child. But Baba, I knew as I looked into his eyes, had done all this with no malicious intention. He had what he thought to be my best interests in mind, although his way of promoting them may not have been appropriate. He could hardly be blamed for this, though, for he had been brought up in a particular way.
‘Baba, I’ve misunderstood you all this while. You really must forgive me,’ I said, unable to stop my sobs.
‘You must forgive me, too, child. I must have been a really tyrannical dictator,’ he replied.
‘Yes, I won’t say you weren’t, but only most of the time, not always,’ I said, and we broke out laughing as tears continued to roll down our cheeks.
Here, I am immensely pleased to report, is what I did with my zakat this year:
1. A fourth of it was given to the women who’ve worked in our homes for the last decade or so—the maid and the cook, one a Christian and the other a Hindu. I’m aware that many maulvis, including those in the madrasa where Baba used to send our zakat, insist that zakat can be given only to Muslims, but I know other, wiser Islamic scholars who think otherwise, and I choose to follow the latter opinion. Tina and Sheila, these two wonderfully cheerful, hardworking, and honest women, have been with us for years, and I couldn’t think of anyone I knew more deserving of my zakat than them.
2. With a third of my zakat, I bought a couple of bags of rice and lentils, a carton of biscuits and a crate of fruit. I took these along to a home for leprosy patients, with whom I spent the afternoon of the day following Eid. They were Hindus, Christians, Muslims and perhaps others, among them, all living together in this Church-run home. Shunned by their co-religionists and treated as untouchables, they bonded together like one big family. Sharing the afternoon with them was an occasion I shall always cherish.
3. I gave the rest of my zakat to a girl from a very poor family who is suffering from an apparently incurable illness.
When Mummy learned what I had done with my zakat, she was a little worried, although I knew she didn’t disapprove entirely. ‘Haww! What will Baba say?’ was what first came to her lips. ‘You could have at least sent two hundred-three hundred rupees to the madrasa he’s been helping all these years. Just to keep him happy. Itna to karti!’ she said.
‘To keep him happy you want me to be a hypocrite? A munafiq? Haww!’ I retorted. ‘You want me to be a liar?’
Mummy fell silent. She knew it was pointless arguing.
I entered Baba’s room with mixed feelings surging inside me. It was exhilarating, this feeling of being able to be free at last, to take decisions for myself, no longer allowing others to live my life for me. It was dizzyingly empowering to be able to speak openly and honestly at last, no longer having to live in fear of what other people might do or say. But I didn’t quite know how Baba would react. I suspected he would be upset that I had shared my zakat with Christians and Hindus, in addition to a few Muslims, although they were desperately poor folks. The maulvis whom he followed, whom he regarded as ‘experts’ on Islamic law, would have been aghast.
But, do you know what? When I told Baba all about what I had done with my zakat, he had tears streaking down his face—tears of joy, that is. When he learned how Tina had bought medicine for her ailing mother-in-law with the money I gave her, and how Sheila had used her share for buying a dress for her newborn grandchild, he was really taken aback. ‘God be praised! May God forgive me!’, he exclaimed. ‘All these years, I thought of them just as objects. I never saw them as humans, and as deserving of our charity. I’m so grateful that you did, beta.’
When I told Baba how I had spent that afternoon with the men and women in the home for the leprosy-afflicted and showed him a photograph of me with one arm around Sita, and the other around Reshma, two middle-aged women at the home whose faces and limbs have been gnawed away by the deadly disease, he burst out sobbing like a child. It took him a long time to stop. I let him carry on—we both needed the catharsis.
When the tears had ceased and he had recovered his composure somewhat, Baba took my hands in his and said, ‘Zubeidah beta, from next Ramadan onwards, you be the one to decide how to use my zakat.’
I could hardly believe my ears! Now, you tell me, could I have asked for a bigger Eid present than that?