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Muslims have already embraced the digital era

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By Shafiq Morton


SANZAF CEO, Yasmina Francke, attended the 2019 World Zakat Forum Conference in Bandung, Indonesia, last month. Held on annual basis, the conference attracts Zakah institutions from around the globe, and is a critical platform in reviewing contemporary Zakah practices.

This year’s event was themed “Optimizing Global Zakat Role through Digital Technology”, and addressed pertinent issues relating to the advent of the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) and Zakah’s relationship to it. Francke delivered a paper entitled “Digital Zakah Management, a South African Perspective through the SANZAF case study”.

Observing that Muslims constitute about 25% of the world’s population, but contributed to 50% of its poverty, she asked rhetorically whether the Zakah system had failed us, or whether we had failed the system.

She said a central issue was that there has to be recognition of the digital age; there has to be an assessment of how exactly Zakah managers were managing things through technology, and an understanding of the importance of embracing it.

She posed the historical question whether Zakah in the 21st century had been “modified” to meet the needs of a dominantly secularist and western-influenced society, and thus had moved away from Prophetic principles, or whether digital Zakah management was a case of merely adapting the delivery mechanisms only.

Her instinctive feeling, echoed by other participants, was that the Prophetic principles had remained intact; it was more a question of understanding the potential for digital platforms to be employed as a tool to benefit others and how effectively they could be used.

Francke said that the digital era had not made an official announcement of its arrival. From scant technology in the 1960s, digitalisation had slowly permeated our lives to the level of full integration, and almost instant communication, in the 2000s.

At the conference, most attendees would have used Facebook, Instagram or WhatsApp, surfed the internet, received a banking message or executed an online transaction on the same day. That proved to us, profoundly, that technology was already here, already being used and already part of our human experience.

For Muslims, its benefits had seen the rise of many convenience apps, such as a Qiblah finder, a Salah table, a map of Halal eateries, a Qur’anic recital, the live adhan from Makkah and the GPS location of mosques. It was clear that the Muslim ummah had not resisted digitalisation, which had also proved to be a useful advocacy mechanism and a resource base for knowledge.

Global figures were indicative of how deep digital penetration has been not only in the Muslim world, but in human society. Statista of Germany claims that there are nearly 4 billion internet users in the world, with human beings spending an average of 39 minutes a day on the net via desktop apps, but an ever increasing 122 minutes daily on mobile phones.

Google, for instance, experienced 40, 000 searches a second globally and 1.2 trillion searches per annum. There were 5 billion smart phones currently in use on the planet, with online sales accounting for just over 10% of all global retail sales. And finally, with the 4IR on our doorstep, LinkedIn’s most in demand skills were technical.

Francke asked how South Africa, a developing country, stacked up to this.

Interestingly, South Africa was the highest user in the world of WhatsApp, and second to the Philippines in terms of internet addiction. And in a population of nearly 60 million, there were 98 million mobile subscribers, the equivalent of 170% penetration. We have 31 million internet users, 23 million active on social media, with the vast majority of this via mobile apps.

In fact, the mobile device had become a “magic wand” which could even activate our home alarm, solve a maths problem and indicate our whereabouts anywhere on the planet.

Francke said that whether we were an Islamic bank, or a Zakah institution, our understanding of the consumer’s behaviour was critical in serving them well and efficiently. The critical issue was that technical advancement and Islamic principles had to be balanced.

This balance between Islam and technology was moderated by the maqasid, or purposes, of the Shari’ah. The protection and preservation of life, the sanctity of faith, the freedom of the mind and the intellect, the safety of our lineage and offspring and the inviolability of our property and wealth were keys to this.

If the purpose of technology was guided by ethical norms and embraced the central principle of the maqasid, a humane and just society, there should be no question about accepting such technology.

There was also the point, that despite our very poor Gini Co-efficiency, South Africa was not a technically backward country – for instance, our AIDS research being of the highest calibre and the SALT telescope being the biggest in the southern hemisphere.

Zooming in on the youth sector, which predominantly indulges in e-commerce, it was seen that 69% had an account with a financial institution, with 68% using mobile banking, 36% making mobile payments and 38% purchasing items online with a mobile phone. As previously discussed, we spend a higher than global average-time online – something well known to retailers.

And if one factored in the extraordinary growth of social media – 5 million new users since January 2018 – the picture became clear that something was happening. Indeed, despite our poor rich divides, there is evidence that our local fintech companies have by building digital solutions, created greater economic inclusion with the use of platforms such as CashSend, Slide and the East African mechanism, M-Pesa and Yoco, a point of sale device.

So what did all of this mean for Zakah management? Francke quoted the 2017 Islamic social finance report that stated the potential of Islamic social finance remained unrealised due to weak systems of Zakah and Zakah collection. It was imperative that the available technologies be leveraged to aid Zakah collection and distribution.

There is no reason not to service beneficiaries digitally, because they are already active on these platforms. There is no resistance to digitalisation amongst South Africans. The instruments of benefit are there, they just had to be utilised effectively, she said.

There were gaps in the system that had to be rectified. Technology had to be explored. The Muzakki (the Zakah payer) and the Mustahik (beneficiary) used the same technology. These had to be married to advance the digital benefits in Zakah.

Francke made several proposals, saying that using donor data, payment options could be more tailored to personal preference, and that implementation and progress could be tracked to manage donor expectation and to enhance trust. Using GPS in the field and streamlining application processes for beneficiaries could go a long way to optimising the process. Technology could also be used to institute security mechanisms that would protect precious data, and the Fintech platforms could expedite payments without delays.

Finally, Francke said that there had to be a balanced approach. “When the pendulum is in balance, there is no extremism,” she said.

“Zakah as a tool for achieving socio-economic justice can be so much more effective if we utilise that which will make us more efficient, but, we are reminded to do so in a way that will ensure continued adherence to the basic (Prophetic) principles of Zakah, where the Zakah can be enjoyed and the entire Muslim world can prosper,” she concluded.


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