The Issue of Anonymity in Digital Zakat

Identity brings in many benefits in the context of zakat distribution (as underlined in my earlier blog). Lack of identity or anonymity on the part of the beneficiaries is certainly not desirable. It should be obvious that a digital environment makes it possible for the zakat organization to collect many types of personal data. Zakat organizations may collect a range of data that are in the nature of personally identifiable information, e.g. names, phone numbers, and bank record details. Such data should be bare minimum for the organization to be able to target assistance and ensure that such assistance is received by the correct participant.

Privacy Concerns

Usually the scope of such beneficiary data is larger with digital zakat where such data need to be shared with third-party service providers, such as, mobile phone companies, financial service providers, so that they are able to execute transfer of cash. This raises some concerns about privacy of data. It is important to realize that there may be other actors who may be interested in such data, e.g. persons/ groups. Some of these may indeed be hostile to the intended beneficiaries and target them for extortion and violence. Therefore, not only adequate care needs to be exercised about possible data breaches, the personally identifiable information (PII) itself should be minimized.

Zakat organizations cannot close their eyes to privacy issues with personally identifiable information relating to beneficiaries. They should have some mechanism in place for what is called privacy impact assessment in line with the best practices in humanitarian and development finance organizations. These include details about how and with whom program data will be shared, which regulations apply to the data that is being collected and how to comply with the legally established privacy principles of the relevant jurisdictions (in addition to national regulations like KYC, regional or international agreements may also apply). In addition, the zakat organization may develop its own privacy principles and ethical guidelines.

Anonymous Giving

While there is no virtue in anonymity of beneficiaries, the same may not be true for the donors or the givers in case of zakat, infaq, sadaqa and waqf. Indeed, the arguments for and against anonymous giving seem to apply to all acts of charitable giving – faith based or otherwise. Let us turn to faith-based giving first.

The Prophet of Islam (peace be upon him) mentioned about seven groups of individuals who would granted shade on the Day of Judgment that includes a man who gives in charity and hides it, such that his left hand does not know what his right hand gives in charity[1] The Prophet also said: Allah loves the God-fearing rich man [who gives much in charity but still] remains obscure and uncelebrated. (Muslim) According to Islamic scholars, anonymous giving ensures the purity of intentions to earn the pleasure of God – on the part of the giver while preserving the dignity of those who receive the charity and hence, is deemed an extremely pious and noble act.

If you disclose your Sadaqaat (almsgiving), it is well; but if you conceal them and give them to the poor, that is better for you. [Quran 2:271]

Those who spend their money in the night and in the day, secretly and openly, they will have their reward with their Lord, there is no fear over them nor will they grieve. [Quran 2:274]

However, from the above two verses of the Quran, it follows that anonymous giving may be more desirable than disclosed giving, but is not a condition for its acceptability. Both forms of giving – anonymous and disclosed – are acceptable ways of giving. By giving charity publicly as long as the giver knows his intentions are pure, s/he sets a good example to the community. It encourages others to follow in the giver’s footsteps and give charity too.

It is interesting to note that the notion of anonymity contained in “left hand not knowing what right hand gives” also appears in Christian traditions. As Matthew (6:2-4) wrote, “In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus warned his disciples not to do good works in order to win the acclaim of others. Otherwise, he told his disciples, you shall not have a reward of your Father who is in heaven. Therefore, when thou dost an alms-deed, sound not a trumpet before thee.But when thou dost alms, let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doth. That thy alms may be in secret, and thy Father who seeth in secret will repay thee. In another earlier instance, however, the idea of giving publicly is emphasized. As Matthew (5:16) wrote, Jesus instructed his disciples to let your light shine before men so that they might see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.

Maimonides, one of the most well-known Jewish scholar and philosopher of all times also exhorted givers to maintain the dignity of the poor by remaining anonymous. Maimonides lists eight ways of giving sedakah which are progressively more virtuous: to give (1) but sadly; (2) less than is fitting, but in good humor; (3) only after having been asked to; (4) before being asked; (5) in such a manner that the donor does not know who the recipient is; (6) in such a manner that the recipient does not know who the donor is; and (7) in such a way that neither the donor nor the recipient knows the identity of the other. The highest form of charity is not to give alms but to help the poor to rehabilitate themselves by lending them money, taking them into partnership, employing them, or giving them work, for in this way the end is achieved without any loss of self-respect at all. (Yad, loc. cit. 10:7 12)[2]

From the above one is tempted to conclude that anonymity in giving is clearly superior to revealed or public giving. The left hand shouldn’t know what the right is doing. There is wisdom in this advice. However, in reality, what motivates the giver may be very different from what faith commands. Regulatory concerns capture real motivators and the factors that trigger action in the giving space. Therefore, one needs to review empirical evidence on what underlies anonymous giving and then proceed to configure the ideal regulatory and policy framework in relation to anonymity for zakat givers. The findings of the first empirical study on charity-givers were quite alarming indeed. Cicerchi and Wesema  (1991)[3] interviewed 563 development  professionals in the US and Canada and found that the most frequently cited motivation  for anonymity  is the  donor’s  desire simply ‘to minimize  solicitations  from other organizations’.  Nearly 51 per cent of respondents are said to identify this as their most important motivation. A meagre 5.3 per cent are  said  to  be  motivated  by  a  ‘deeply felt religious conviction’ and 4.6 per cent by a ‘sense of privacy, humility and modesty’. In my next blog I look forward to bring more empirical evidence to throw more light of the hidden motivations of faith-based givers in general and zakat-givers in particular.

(To be continued)


[1] Saheeh al-Bukhari, English trans. vol.1, p.356, no.629 & Saheeh Muslim, English trans. vol.2, p.493, no.2248


[3] Cicerchi, E.T. and Weskema, A (1991) Survey on Anonymous  Giving, Center on Philanthropy, Indiana University – Purdue University at Indianapolis.

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