One of the 5 pillars of Islam is called zakat. It means purification, and what it refers to is purifying one’s excess wealth by giving away a portion of it. How it works is that if someone has money (or another asset) that they haven’t used in a year, then that person gives away 2.5% of the unused money. It doesn’t apply to money that you spend and make back over the year, only to savings that are untouched.
The idea is that is you haven’t used it in a year, then you probably don’t need it, so why not pass a little of it on to someone who might be desperate for it. This purifying the remaining wealth, and it also helps to purify the heart from greed. Instead of hoarding money and earning interest on it, you let go. Zakat and interest are polar opposites. From the outside, it might look like zakat penalizes people for saving, while interest rewards. However, in the spiritual sense, it’s quite the opposite. Giving is the real treasure, the lasting joy, while wealth that is accrued through interest is seen as stagnant and lifeless, devoid of blessing since it is acquired off of someone else’s labor.
Zakat is similar to the Christian principle of tithing. Although in Islam, the money is not given to a central religious institution, but rather it is donated directly to those who need it the most. And since Morocco doesn’t have a government welfare system, this kind of private aid is the only assistance most poor people get. Zakat is not considered charity, but an obligation. Anything given above and beyond that is then considered charity.
Now, 2.5% doesn’t sound like a lot. But sometimes, it doesn’t take a lot to drastically change someone’s life.
For the past few years, I’ve been an occasional conduit for the distribution of zakat, from a group of Swiss muslims who I’m sure prefer to remain anonymous. So I’ve gotten to see how this money has a life-changing impact on some people.
These are some of the cases:
Malika, 40 years old, had been quietly suffering from uterine cysts for about a year and a half. She would bleed about 1 week out of 2. When she finally told me, we immediately scheduled a doctor’s visit. It turned out that one of the cysts was embedded in her uterus, and that she would need a partial hysterectomy. It was a major thing, her first surgery, very scary. But thanks to the zakat money, she was able to get have it at the best clinic in Marrakesh. It probably saved her life, I think that if she hadn’t of had that operation, she was literally going to slowly bleed to death. After she recovered from the operation, she looked so healthy, much younger and more radiant. It only took 11,000 dirhams to give her a new life.
Or the case of Nezha, who I wrote about before. This year, she moved into her new room. She needed to pay her rent for the year up front. It’s a kind of lease here in Morocco, where you pay a deposit, plus a year’s rent, and in exchange, the rent is much lower than usual. Her rent for that room was going to be 375 dirhams a month, which is 45 USD or about 35 Euros (or 4,500 dirhams = 550 USD = 400 Euros for the year). Now there is just no way that Nezha would ever be able to save that much money, since she lives on around 30-50 dirhams a day. Just impossible. So, what a relief that this money just materialized from somewhere! Nezha just cried and cried when I told her it would be taken care of. Rent was the hardest thing for her, the biggest challenge. And now, she has just a little more breathing space. She can manage the rest, I don’t know how, but in some miraculous way, she can provide for her 3 children.
Another case that is still in progress is Fatiha. She’s a 38 year old young woman, who works as a maid. When she was a toddler, she had an accident where she was kicked by a cow. The result: one of her eyes was permanently damaged. She can see very poorly out of it, and it’s not in the right place, you see mostly the white of her eye. Now I don’t know what it’s like to be a poor, disfigured, woman in Morocco, but I can imagine that it’s a huge burden to carry. Fatiha though, amazingly, always has a smile on her face. I know that her appearance deeply troubles her, that she has to deal with constant stares and pity and all kinds of reactions. With her disfigurement, she’s never been anyone’s marriage prospect. And now as her youth is fading, she may never know what it’s like to simply be normal, to be looked at as just another young woman. Finally I decided to help her pursue it. Sometimes it’s just a matter of everyone getting coordinated. For Fatiha, who is illiterate, going to the doctor and understanding medical talk are very intimidating. So we went together. We were told it could be fixed, two operations would be needed. Each of them would cost 7,000 dirhams (1,000 USD, 600 Euros). I think for Fatiha that even reaching this stage of dealing with it is extremely exciting. Finally, a few months ago, she had the first operation. Unfortunately, it wasn’t a huge success. Although the eye is definitely more centered, it’s still far from normal. The wonderfully relieving thing is that, the money is there to pursue this further, to fix it, by God’s will. It’s such a small amount of money to fix the problem that has defined her for her whole life.
There have been other cases too, but you get the idea. I say to anyone in the West or even in Morocco who has a little extra money, you CAN make a HUGE difference. You can save a life, you can change a life, and you can make someone so incredibly happy. People here in Morocco, and in so much of the world, are living day to day with unspeakable pain, in a horrifying state of need. In my daily life, I see so many of them, infirmity is everywhere, hunger is everywhere. Marrakesh, yes it’s beautiful playground for the rich, but if you can see through the smoke and mirrors, it’s an open wound. I turn my head because I just can’t bear it. It wearies me. I want to just keep dealing with my own life and lists of things to do. But then I look again, because every life is worth considering, and we are all the same.