With the month of Ramadan approaching, officials and religious authorities in Egypt will begin enforcing controls on zakat and donations made during religious events to prevent them from being used to finance terrorist groups.
Al-Azhar began exercising tight control over collected donations and is taking charge of redistributing funds according to set rules.
Dr. Mahmoud Metwalli, a professor of Islamic economics at Al-Azhar University and a member of Egypt's Zakat Committee, told Al-Shorfa some groups have used zakat donations to fund terrorist operations.
"Many Islamist groups distorted [the image of] the Islamic religion with their actions and statements and have exploited the duty of zakat as a source of financing," he said.
"They persuade vulnerable people it is their religious obligation to donate money to [these groups] to carry out the jihad they are undertaking, especially since many ordinary citizens do not distinguish between jihad in its true sense and terrorism," he added.
Al-Azhar maintains oversight over imams and calls on them to exercise caution and diligence in collecting donations, especially those paid in mosques and on religious occasions, Metwalli said.
Zakat proceeds are worth an estimated 17 billion pounds ($2.8 billion) annually, he said, adding that these funds are disbursed by Al-Azhar according to set distribution tables.
About 6,000 individuals with chronic diseases receive 300 pounds ($50) per month, and 22,000 other patients receive 200 pounds ($33) per month, he said. Al-Azhar donates 100 pounds ($17) per month to an estimated 62,000 impoverished families. The institute provides aid to its university students, each of whom receives 300 pounds per month.
Al-Azhar also sends part of the funds to aid victims of disasters and poverty around the world, Metwalli said.
Scholars said that restricting the handling of zakat funds and charitable contributions to specific institutions like Al-Azhar or the Ministry of Social Solidarity ensures these funds are not diverted into suspicious hands.
"Lax oversight over donations and zakat enabled terrorist groups to use them to finance their activities and helped them expand significantly," said Dr. Nayef Abd Rabbu, a sharia and law professor at Al-Azhar and a ministry advisor. "Before September 2001, there was neither tight administrative control nor explicit legislation governing the collection of donations and remittances outside the country."
This is why the disbursement of funds must be restricted to institutions like Al-Azhar and the ministry, he said.
"There is a prevailing concern about the possibility that the collection process could become disorderly and funds could circumvent Al-Azhar and reach terrorists, especially in light of the [current] heavy proliferation of parties with ideological, Islamist backgrounds," Abd Rabbu said.
"However, the election of President Mohamed Morsi and calls to establish security before Ramadan will restrict the distribution of funds to institutions other than Al-Azhar and the ministry," he said.
Abd Rabbu said Al-Azhar and ministry guidelines prohibit any charitable organisation from collecting zakat without prior agreement with Al-Azhar. A charity that seeks to collect zakat must be licensed and registered with the government.
Sheikh Abdel Moneim Mohammed, imam of the al-Nour mosque in Maadi, said unlicensed organisations recently attempted to collect donations and zakat under pretexts like supporting Syrian, Yemeni and Libyan rebels.
"However, the response was almost non-existent thanks to the imams in mosques, who warned citizens in all regions about those organisations, noting the mystery that prevails over the fate of those funds," he said.
"The secret activities of organisations that use religion as a shield for their activities must be monitored," Mohammed said.
He added that one solution could be to create a union of Islamic organisations that follows established laws and regulations.
He said a number of clergymen have submitted a proposal, which was reviewed by Egypt's now-dissolved parliament, to establish an independent body for zakat that would address unemployment and provide assistance for the poor.