Ramadan is traditionally a time of fasting, reflection and devotion, but also a time for charity. The need to help others is even more heightened this year, as the Covid-19 pandemic leaves many facing unemployment and income reductions.
There is perhaps no better time for Muslims to pay their zakat, a religious requirement for those above a certain financial threshold to give away 2.5 per cent of their wealth to the poor and needy every year.
Zakat can help those in the UAE who don't have enough income to pay for meals, cover their rent or provide education for their children, as well as those who are in debt or seriously ill.
Before the start of Ramadan on April 24, the UAE's Fatwa Council said it is better for Muslims to pay their zakat as quickly as possible, given the current circumstances. The council also said zakat would be better spent within the country to help the beneficiaries meet their needs before donating any surplus funds to licensed charitable organisations elsewhere.
A number of recent initiatives have provided opportunities to donate within the UAE, such as the 10 Million Meals campaign and the Authority of Social Contribution – Ma'an's 'Together We Are Good' programme. The Beit Al Khair Society, Dar Al Ber Society and Zakat Fund are all UAE charities focusing on those in need within the Emirates.
One zakat recipient is Adel, a 21-year-old Abu Dhabi University student who cannot afford to pay his annual Dh60,000 tuition fees. The Syrian, who was born and raised in the UAE, says his family's circumstances have worsened due to coronavirus lockdowns.
His father, who works at a car workshop in Sharjah, "relies on work and there's no work", says Adel, who did not want to reveal his full name. "The money situation has for sure become harder."
In his third year studying engineering, Adel has been able to continue his studies thanks to a collaboration between the federal Zakat Fund and the university. The initiative called 'Our Youth – Our Responsibility – Our Zakat – Our Immunity', now in its 10th year, encourages UAE residents to pay their zakat to support deserving students to pursue their university education.
Adel says if it wasn't for the Zakat Fund subsidising his education from the start, his family might have no alternative but to send him to a different university where fees are cheaper, such as in Syria, Sudan or Turkey.
"I don't know what I would have done, but I wouldn't have been able to get schooled here," he says.
The campaign has helped 2,610 students in the past nine years with more than Dh65 million in donations. This year ADU is targeting Dh10m to support 500 more students, says Sarah Al Hashimi, a senior manager in the university development office.
"We believe that Covid-19 has had an effect on students' parents who have lost their jobs and some of them with limited means today are struggling to pay for education for their children," Ms Al Hashimi says. "With this campaign and the people's zakat support, we can now give them hope."
Eligible students are evaluated by two committees to assess their financial needs based on Zakat Fund beneficiary criteria.
Although Adel does not know who his donors are, he says he cannot thank them enough. "Without a university degree, I would have no future."
The Zakat Fund, which was founded by Sheikh Zayed in 2003, allocates money to 17 projects. In addition to helping university students who qualify for aid, the fund supports orphans, widows, the unemployed, insolvent debtors and those with low income.
Another collaboration between the Zakat Fund and the Mohammed bin Rashid University of Medicine and Health Sciences in Dubai encourages zakat to be given to current medical students – "our frontliners, the doctors of tomorrow".
All Muslims who meet the 'nisab', a minimum amount of wealth held for a year, are required to pay zakat. The Qur'an, which prescribes zakat as one of the five pillars of Islam, states who may receive zakat payments, including the poor, the destitute, administrators of zakat, those who are unable to pay their debt and travellers who cannot afford to return home.
UAE charity Beit Al Khair provides a zakat calculator on its website based on saved money and gold. It promises to "deliver your donation to the neediest in the UAE".
The association provided 2 million meals to workers during Ramadan as part of the 10 Million Meals campaign, which was launched under the directive of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai.
Dar Al Ber is also distributing iftar meals to low-income workers at their accommodation throughout Ramadan. Last month it donated Dh12.6m to 10 Million Meals.
Hisham Al Zahrani, deputy director of the social sector at Dar Al Ber, says during Ramadan the organisation has provided 80,000 iftar meals a day, food baskets for more than 5,000 families and tablets for distance learning for more than 1,500 students.
The majority of zakat cases are related to rent, university and educational fees, and medical conditions, says Mr Al Zahrani. However, this year many donors have put their zakat towards providing meals for workers, he says, especially because mosques are closed and Ramadan Fridges are not operating due to coronavirus precautionary measures.
"The 10 Million Meals campaign reflects the UAE's solidarity, coexistence and cohesion towards helping people most affected by these challenging times," says Khalfan Al Mazrouei, chairman of Dar Al Ber. "The Covid-19 outbreak paused many aspects of life, affecting low-income individuals and families who are now finding difficulties in sustaining their basic needs."
Within two weeks of the 10 Million Meals campaign, donations secured 14 million meals at a cost of Dh10 each. Prominent entrepreneurs and business owners collectively secured 710,000 meals, companies pledged 4.6 million meals and charities provided 5.6 million meals.
The initiative was followed shortly thereafter with the 'World's Tallest Donation Box', a campaign to secure an additional 1.2 million meals – one meal for every light 'purchased' on the Burj Khalifa. Within one week, the campaign reached its target.
Abu Dhabi’s Authority of Social Contribution – Ma’an rolled out its 'Together We Are Good' programme on March 22. This month, it delivered more than 3 million meals to workers across Abu Dhabi with funds from community contributions.
One donor, a retired Emirati soldier who served in the UAE Armed Forces, pledged to contribute his monthly salary to the authority until the end of the current health and economic challenges.
"I feel happy to make my contribution to this programme, which has provided an opportunity for the people of society to give back to this beautiful, giving country," Ali Al Ahbabi says.
"I would like to invite all those who are able to contribute, to please hurry and make their valuable contributions, whether financial or in kind; together we can address all the difficulties and challenges imposed on us by the current reality."
While Muslims technically have all year to pay their zakat, this year there is no time to waste.