Muslich Ismail

Ashoka Fellow
Illustration of a person's face depicting a fellow
Fellow since 1992
This description of Muslich Ismail's work was prepared when Muslich Ismail was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 1992 .


Muslich Ismail, of Lombok, Indonesia, seeks to modernize all forms of zakat (Islamic charity) in order to increase its impact and to break the dependency charity can create. Beginning with the agricultural zakat, ten percent of the harvest that in theory goes to charity, he involves donors in deciding who is the most needy in a village and then organizes a capital investment program for them. He hopes this year's needy will be able to give, not receive, zakat the following year.

The New Idea

Muslich wants to make giving rewarding and useful for the donors, thereby expanding the resources available for development and for the citizen's organizations undertaking such work. In the process he hopes to help rural Indonesia move away from the patron-client relationship that has long limited the horizons of the poor. Islam requires its followers to give zakat to the needy, ideally ten percent of the harvest. However, charity does not help the poor to break out of poverty and therefore leaves incomes unequal and the village poor, despite the presence of some prosperous families.How to give life to zakat giving? Muslich's answer is, in effect, to make both donor and recipient responsible actors in the community's development. He engages the donors, to the degree they are willing, in selecting the poorest families, and in working out sound investment strategy for each of these families. He also helps them succeed with knowledge, contacts, and encouragement, as well as with the initial investment.Muslich pays as much attention to changing the role of the beneficiary families. They must take responsibility for managing the investment wisely. He also encourages them to work with the donors, not in the old patron-client frame but as partners in a development process that benefits both. To underline the change from relief to development, Muslich asks that the zakat be given in different forms, such as a live goat (an investment), rather than grain (to eat).Muslich actively seeks to mesh citizen groups into this new dynamic. They provide some of the initiative, technical help, and ongoing organization for this new development process. The process in return gives them a very strong base of financial and other support. They need no longer be so dependent on government and international donors. Their new independence in turn leads toward a less dependent community that increasingly initiates its own development.

The Problem

Islam has five principles that its followers must practice. One of these is zakat, which is supposed to redistribute wealth and improve the welfare of the community. There are three chief forms of zakat: helping the needy, contributing to the development and maintenance of mosques, and contributing ten percent of the agricultural product to the community. To accommodate these contributions, the government created a national body called BAZIS, with offices in each province. Its job is to distribute zakat to the villages. However, this zakat generally has not reached the villagers who need it most, partly because there has been corruption within BAZIS. The two most common forms of zakat are giving charity to the needy and contributing to the mosques. Neither leads to self-reliance or development. Nor do they encourage the donor or recipient to use the funds as development investment capital. The harvest tithe could be a major source of capital for development. Until now, this has not been the case, certainly not in Muslich's home province of West Nusa Tenggara.West Nusa Tenggara is the second poorest province in Indonesia. Ninety percent of the people are Moslems, and seventy percent are farmers. The development hopes of this province concentrates on agriculture and tourism. The farmers do not give the agricultural zakat. Muslich believes that if it were practiced, and if the zakat receivers knew how to make good use of the zakat, life would improve for the people of this province.Muslich uses his own village of Jelantik to illustrate what happens now. At harvest time, his subvillage produces two tons of unhulled rice. After the harvest, 100 kilograms of rice are distributed to ten poor families. These ten families enjoy the rice, but it does not last long, and does not improve the welfare of the village.

The Strategy

As soon as he started in Jelantik, Muslich worked closely with its religious leaders and kiyais (Islamic institute students) to convince them that the goal of zakat should be to improve the community's welfare. He further works to persuade both zakat donors and receivers that they should view zakat as a community development resource; that it can and should take the form of investment-chickens or livestock, not just money or rice, that the poor can sell to increase their incomes. For the past two years, the rich farmers in Jelantik have practiced agricultural zakat and, increasingly, zakat has come in the form of ducks, chickens, and cows. Muslich knows that he needs broad community support to turn his ideas into reality. Therefore, he is developing a network of kiyais and their pesantrens (the Islamic institutions that educate the kiyais). He received training in a pesantren, and as a result, knows how to discuss his ideas about zakat with the kiyais and pesantrens. He still works in Jelantik, but has also begun working in Kediri, a district in east Lombok where the kiyais are young, liberal, and his friends. It is also where he studied. His former teacher in Kediri started a pesantren, and asked him to develop the curriculum for eighty students. He has also created forums of kiyais in order to introduce his ideas to a wider audience. In addition, he is talking to government officials, who he hopes will change BAZIS's corrupt system of zakat.

The Person

Muslich was born to a farming family. He went to high school in a pesantren, and then attended an Islamic institute for three years. After leaving school, he started working in the community, first helping to manage a pesantren project organized by a major citizen group LP3ES.In 1990, he set up, with the help of Ashoka Fellow Iwan Mucipto and other citizen organization activists in Lombok, a forum for organizations, individuals, and university students who are concerned about the welfare of the community. He is now the forum's general secretary. He is also the chairperson of the local youth organization, Perhimpunan Pemuda Mentokok, and a member of the BAZIS advisory board in Pondok Pesantren Al-Ishlahul Ijtihad.