One of the five pillars of Islam is the practice of purifying charity (zakat). It’s an annual levy of 2.5% on wealth due from Muslims who possess, for one full lunar year, a certain amount over and above their housing, debts, and immediate needs. Behind the requirement for giving the purifying alms (zakat) are two important principles.
First, members of society have a moral responsibility to provide for the less fortunate. The needy have a right to part of the wealth present in their society, even if God has allotted it to others. Second, society’s money has become tainted through greed, corruption, and theft, and, as a result, its spiritual blessing is decreased. The only means to purify the entire mass of wealth is to pay out the purifying alms (zakat) to its rightful recipients (Tarsin).
The Qur’an specifies eight uses for zakat, including relief to the poor and the needy, giving to those with burdensome debts, and freeing slaves or captives (Q. 9:60). Scholars suggest that any Muslim who does not have enough wealth to owe zakat is eligible to receive zakat -- so this category would apply to those held in detention for lack of resources to pay bail. Another argument for using zakat to pay bail is that pretrial incarceration is essentially a form of bondage or captivity for those who haven’t been convicted of any crime. In other cases, predatory policing and courts - as in St. Louis County, MO - create a kind of debtor’s prison: writing tickets, charging exorbitant fees and fines, and arresting and detaining those unable to pay.
A Spiritual Tradition
Muslims using their money to free other Muslims from bondage has a long history and carries spiritual rewards. During the time of the Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, the emancipation of the enslaved, freeing those in bondage, was always considered a noble act. An example of this was when place when the Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, actively participated in securing the freedom from bondage of his companion Salman Al-Farisi, Allah be pleased with him. Allah beautifully says in Surah Al-Baqarah, “If the debtor is in difficulty, then delay things until matters become easier for him; still, if you were to write it off as an act of charity, that would be better for you, if only you knew.” God is reminding us that we have an obligation to help others in need while at the same time striving to improve our own spiritual state in front of God. Through giving, we aim to remove the disease of the heart of stinginess and love of money.
As a point of reflection, the life-transaction itself, the “deen”, is related to the word for debt, “dayn”. All of humanity owes a debt to Allah, one that cannot be paid and one that everyone hopes for Allah to pardon. God shows mercy to those who show mercy, and God will pardon those who pardon, so pardoning debts is one way to hope to engender Allah's pardoning of everyone’s debt. Also, when someone is freed from worldly debt, they are freed from one of this worldly life’s tightest grips upon them. As a result, it allows that person to refocus on their transaction with Allah. If someone relieves stress and anxiety of the debtor, in turn, Allah has promised the same for the reliever.
Zakat + Bail
Helping others achieve their freedom is not only part of Muslim tradition elsewhere but also something enslaved Africans in the Western hemisphere did, sacrificing to free each other. Muslims being held on bails they cannot afford by a system that systematically discriminates based on race can be freed with zakat. They can address the charges against them while going about their lives, caring for their families, and being part of their communities.
The Qur’an calls on Muslims to call out oppression and act to remedy it. The current U.S. system of policing and prisons, including cash bail, is deeply unjust and massively harmful to people, families, and communities, especially Black people and families and communities. Building alternatives to incarceration is a long-term project. In the meantime, the Believers Bail Out is a tactic to free people, while educating ourselves and our communities about bail, policing, and mass incarceration.
The Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, reminds us through a hadith of the importance of challenging injustice when we see it: “Whosoever of you sees an evil, let him change it with his hand; and if he is not able to do so, then [let him change it] with his tongue; and if he is not able to do so, then with his heart — and that is the weakest of faith.” Help us change this evil with your hand by making a donation today; help us change it with your tongue by spreading our campaign to educate others; and help us change it with your heart by making du’a for the success of the Believers Bail Out.
Works Cited: Tarsin, Asad. Being Muslim: A Practical Guide. Sandala Inc., 2015, pp.74-76.