By Aysha Imtiaz
1 April 2020
Outside grocery stores in Karachi, a remarkable scene has been unfolding over the past two weeks. Instead of rushing home after shopping to avoid being exposed to coronavirus, many Pakistanis are pausing outside to offer food, money or other charity to the many people on the street with no “place” to shelter-in-place. These generous offers are often accompanied with a request to the recipient: “Pray that [the coronavirus] ends soon.”
Like many nations, Pakistan has imposed strict containment measures in response to the global coronavirus pandemic, including closing schools, banning public gatherings and shuttering all businesses that don’t sell groceries or medicine. But unlike some other countries that have ordered similar measures, the effects of a prolonged lockdown here could have much more dire economic – and potentially fatal – consequences.
In a recent coronavirus-related address to the nation, Pakistan’s prime minister, Imran Khan, stated that “25% of Pakistanis cannot afford to eat two times a day.” As the country issues more stringent lockdown measures and forces people to stay home, many daily wage earners here – from street-food vendors to shoe-shiners – now haven’t earned a rupee in weeks, and they’re going hungry.
As Pakistan imposes stricter lockdown measures, many daily wage workers are unable to work, earn and eat (Credit: Aysha Imtiaz)
In the same televised address, Khan summed up Pakistan’s grave reality: “If we shut down the cities… we save them from corona[virus] at one end, but they will die from hunger on the other side … Pakistan does not have the conditions that are in the United States or Europe. Our country has grave poverty.”
But it also has hope.
Amid the pandemic, Pakistanis are bonding together to assist the less fortunate in a unique and inspiring way. Specifically, many are offering zakat, the traditional Muslim charity tax, for daily wage earners who have no paid leave, health insurance or financial safety net.
Amid the pandemic, many Pakistanis are offering a Muslim charity tax called “zakat” to help those eat who can no longer work (Credit: Asif Hassan/Getty Images)
In Arabic, “zakat” translates to “that which purifies”, and, according to the Five Pillars of Islam, it is one of the most important religious duties for Muslims. This mandatory alms-giving is calculated at 2.5% of a person’s annual excess wealth. Strict parameters exist outlining the nisab,or threshold, beyond which a Muslim’s assets become liable for zakat, as well as who is eligible to receive it. Stemming from the belief that this world is transient and all is bestowed from the benevolence of the Creator, zakat upholds the idea that those less fortunate have a share in everything the community temporarily owns.
I am answerable if any of my neighbours go to bed hungry. How can I have an overstocked pantry while one of my neighbours is in need?
While many around the world are focused on physical cleanliness during the coronavirus outbreak, Dr Imtiaz Ahmed Khan, a molecular biologist at Hamdard University in Karachi, likens zakat to a spiritual cleansing, quoting the popular Pakistani expression, “Paisa haath ki meil hai” (Money is like the dirt on one’s hands).
“Zakat removes impurities from wealth,” Dr Khan added. “I am answerable if any of my neighbours go to bed hungry. How can I have an overstocked pantry while one of my neighbours is in need?”
Pakistan is one of the world’s most generous nations, and a recent study found that 98% of Pakistanis donate time or money to charity (Credit: Banaras Khan/Getty Images)
The spirit of generosity is firmly hardwired into Pakistan’s DNA. In fact, throughout the world’s 47 Muslim-majority nations, zakat contributions are typically voluntary, but Pakistan is one of only six countries in which it is mandated and collected by the government. Furthermore, according to Rizwan Hussain, author of The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World, “Pakistan is the only country to have been established in the name of Islam,” and this devout spirituality is reflected in its laws.
As a nation, we might not have a lot, but we have big hearts