Assistant undersecretary for Yemen's Local Administration Ministry Mohammed Yahya al-Dharafi said Yemeni scholars acknowledge the state's authority to collect zakat.
Speaking to Al-Shorfa about the state's zakat policies, al-Dharafi also warned citizens that paying zakat to non-state entities would violate both sharia and state law.
Al-Shorfa: How are zakat donations collected and disbursed?
Mohammed Yahya al-Dharafi: The Ministry of Local Administration is responsible for supervising zakat collection, which is carried out by officials at the provincial level. Each directorate receives 50% of zakat funds it collects, and the other half is collected by the province, which distributes part of the revenue back to the directorates and uses the rest to fund its own operations.
Al-Shorfa: What was the total amount of zakat collected in 2011, and what are your projections for this year?
Al-Dharafi: Zakat collections in 2011 were lower in comparison with 2010 and 2012 because of the political crisis. Many commercial activities were halted, causing significant economic losses, not to mention the losses to small business capital investments, all of which adversely affected zakat collection.
Scholars agree that the State has the sole right to collect zakat money and there is heightened sense of awareness to this fact within the community. Any fatwa that contradicts this framework runs contrary to Sharia and the law.
Hence, the low zakat total in 2011 was not caused by the collectors' failure to pass the money to the state or because zakat collections went to non-state entities, but by the decline in economic activity, resulting in a decline in tax proceeds and other state revenue.
Indications are that the zakat total will break the 13 billion riyal ($60 million) barrier this year, an increase over the 2011 total of 11.5 billion riyals. In 2010, 12.5 billion riyals were collected.
Al-Shorfa: Tell us how zakat funds are spent.
Al-Dharafi: Article 124 of the zakat law specifies that resources be disbursed to fund a wide-range of local needs that include public services, the establishment of health facilities, and the construction of roads; but currently there is no focus on the social aspect. This issue will be addressed in new policies that handle disbursement of zakat funds towards social aspects in order to fully comply with the sharia provisions regarding fund disbursement.
Al-Shorfa: What about some merchants' charity donations, deducted from the zakat total that is to be passed on to the state?
Al-Dharafi: The state has the legal authority to collect and disburse zakat, and zakat law specifies that a donor is entitled to direct 25% of his zakat obligation to a recipient of his choosing, provided the recipient is approved by sharia.
This is where shortcomings exist in some provinces, in terms of monitoring the payment of that percentage and identifying the recipient and the areas that this portion is spent on. In practice, enforcing this will be limited to companies and establishments because it is difficult to enforce among individual zakat donors.
Al-Shorfa: What about zakat paid to entities that may be operating under a religious cover and could be used to finance terrorist activities?
Al-Dharafi: In terms of groups or associations working to collect zakat and disburse it towards undesirable ends or to finance terrorist activities, [such activities] do not exist and there are no such precedents. This sort of activity is almost non-existent in Yemen because we have not detected tangible evidence of it in past years as is the case in other countries, especially considering the economic conditions Yemen is experiencing. I do not think any sane person would pay zakat to finance terrorist activities.
The ministry will deal more carefully with this issue by issuing a general warning to associations through the Ministry of Social Affairs stating that violating the law exposes them to prosecution.
Al-Shorfa: Have there been any instances of associations collecting zakat for themselves, and if so, how do you handle those types of cases?
Al-Dharafi: Several associations were prosecuted for trying to collect zakat for themselves, [effectively] bypassing the state. Their guilt was established by posters they hung and fliers they distributed calling on citizens to donate zakat to them. Those associations were referred to the public prosecution's office, which was very co-operative, particularly the public funds' prosecution office.
Al-Shorfa: Is zakat evasion an issue in Yemen?
Al-Dharafi: Unfortunately, as with tax evasion, some zakat payers try to manipulate their financial statements. We referred the evaders and cheaters for public prosecution, and they were subsequently compelled by law to pay their dues in addition to fines. Some evaders included well-known commercial enterprises that either used questionable calculations to determine the amount payable pursuant to the 2.5% zakat specified for commercial enterprises or manipulated their financial statements.
Al-Shorfa: How have you raised awareness about the importance of paying zakat to the state?
Al-Dharafi: The ministry is conducting an awareness campaign in print, broadcast and online media to educate the public about the importance of paying zakat to the state. Provincial officials held meetings with scholars, religious leaders and civil society organisations [in order] to educate citizens on the importance of paying zakat to the state, considering the importance of zakat to overall revenue. Zakat funds in some provinces represent 70% of a province's total revenue.
We are working with the Ministry of Endowments and Guidance to raise awareness through mosque pulpits during Friday sermons. Scholars and jurists support the state's mandate to collect zakat, and their support encourages donors to pay zakat to the state.