The term zakat is mentioned more frequently in the Quran than any other of the five pillars e.g Al-Bayyina 98:5 & Al Baqarrah 2:83 & 177, Al-Mu’minun 23:1-4. In fact, eighty-five verses mention the requirement to give charity (zakat). The details of this pillar of religion, like all the others, however, rests upon the authority of tradition more than upon the precepts of the Quran, since every detail in its observance is borrowed from the example of Muhammad himself. It is from the Quran and the Traditions that the jurists based their legislation concerning zakat.
Allah, the Creator, Lord and owner of everything has as his right, the justification for establishing the religious tax. Everything owned by humans is on loan from Him and men are accountable to Him.
From a practical point of view Muhammad was an orphan and naturally felt for the destitute and needy. As the community he led engaged in warfare the number of orphans increased and he was responsible for the surviving relatives of those Muslims who had lost their lives. Muhammad therefore, established a system where those with various needs in the community had a right for provision which created an atmosphere of the “brotherhood of faith.” He believed the system was originally practised by the Jews (Al-Baqarrah 2:83, Al-Maidah 5:12 c/f Al Hajj 22:78).
General observations concerning the system of zakat
In its primitive sense the word zakat means purification and it was applied to legal alms since the gift of a portion of one’s gain would purify, or sanctify the remainder: “Of their goods, take alms, that so thou mightest purify and sanctify them” (Al Taubah 9:103)
Zakat is said not only to purify the property of the contributor but it also purifies the heart of the giver from selfishness and greed. It also claims to purify the heart of the recipient from envy, jealousy, hatred and uneasiness and it fosters instead good-will and warm wishes for the contributors.
Giving the zakat is considered an act of worship because it is a form of offering thanks to God for the means of material well-being one has acquired. It is the major economic means for establishing social justice and leading the Muslim society to prosperity and security.
Muhammad was a business man and needed lots of money to provide for his relatives, for the refugees from Mecca, orphans of war, the poor, guests, buying the freedom of Muslim slaves and Holy War. He did not put money into his own pocket; on the contrary, in Mecca he used the assets of his rich wife Khadija to encourage persecuted Muslims. The goal of his procurement of funds was the well-being of the Islamic Umma.
When is zakat given?
Zakat is due after one lunar year starting from either the first day you acquired the amount or the day you paid zakat the previous year. The month of Ramadhan is considered to be the best time to pay zakat. It is to be paid yearly for the benefit of certain recipients in the Muslim community.
Every believing Muslim has to fulfil his financial obligations (Al Baqarrah 2:267,Al-Imran 3:92). The proof of the sincerity of his conversion is found by the giving of a donation (Al Baqarrah 2:254). Those who have experienced special blessings in family or business should give a substantial donation (At-Tauba 9:75) .
Personal rewards for paying the zakat
Temporal rewards are associated with the giving of zakat (Al Baqarrah 2:274, 277 ;Ar-Rum 30:39, At-Taghabun 64:17); for it pleases Allah (Ar Rum 30:39); it smooths the way to the eternal path (Al Lail 92:5-10); and produces eternal rewards (Al-Hadid 57:11, An-Naml 27:1-3, Al-Muddaththir 73:20).
Who should receive donations?
The system was developed by the jurists and the following verse – Al Tauba 9:60 – is the basis on which those who receive zakat is founded: “Alms are for the poor and the needy, and those employed to administer the (funds); for those whose hearts have been (recently) reconciled (to truth); for those in bondage and in debt; in the cause of Allah; and for the wayfarer: (thus is it) ordained by Allah.”
With this skeleton verse the jurists developed the system we have today based, as it is, on 8 classes of needs in the community.
1.The poor – Fakir (Fuqara) i.e. those who have neither material possessions nor income. In Muhammad’s time those who came from Mecca to Medina had no possessions having left all for Allah.
2. The needy – Miskin (Masakin) i.e. those who may have a job, a house and a car, but their income is below the minimum requirement. In Muhammad’s time it may have included the disadvantaged, the less gifted, also the war-injured and blind who were seen on the streets of Medina. They looked to Muhammad as their only hope. There is a distinction made between the poor and needy but it is arbitrary.
3. The collector of zakat (amil). Originally zakat was received from the Bedouin tribes who had adopted Islam. They were reluctant to pay it. After Muhammad died many Bedouin tribes refused to pay the tax (Al-Tauba 9:98) believing death cancelled their obligation. Later, Abu Bakr established a state treasury which contributed greatly to the spread of Islam.
One observer has reported that in practice, the share to those who collect zakat frequently exceeds the share going to the ‘poor and needy’ as this category is sub-divided to include a) social services workers who go into the community to evaluate who are the Faqir and Miskin, b) those who collect the zakat money, c) the accountant of the zakat income, d) investors who increase the share of the zakat, e) the clerical workers who administer it, f) those who will deliver zakat and g) the outside auditor.
4. Those recently reconciled to the truth. This is variously interpreted as being given to the poor and needy who have been recently converted. The gesture solidifies their commitment to Islam. Sympathizers may also be considered as beneficiaries of zakat, for by receiving such charity they may warm to Islam and feel an increased loyalty to the religion.
5. One who wants to free himself or others from slavery (riqab). In Muhammad’s time Muslim slaves would be useful for the cause of Islam but they had to be bought for a high ransom fee. To buy their freedom then was a justifying work (Al Baqarrah 2:177). As this category is largely not relevant these days, the zakat due to freeing slaves or freeing captives is spent on those who need help to pursue education (c/f Singapore).
6. Zakat money may be given to one who is in debt (gharmin) when money has been borrowed to meet basic, halal expenditure. This category may also include those who are in financial difficulties due to bankruptcy and the loss of employment.
7. The statement “For the cause of Allah” (fisabillillah) can broadly be interpreted to mean that zakat can be given for any form of struggle or work for the love of Allah. In the Medinan days, in order to spread their faith and finance warfare zakat money was used. They hoped initially that the booty would cover this cost for it was expensive to buy horses, camels, breastplates and swords, so Muhammad called on Muslims to sacrifice their lives and their money. Zakat was given to those volunteers who were not regular troops.
In practice, Islamic organisations use this category of zakat to fund non-violent ways such as education. However, it can be made a source of funds for Islamic terrorism. Principally, it is used for: a) the employment of religious teachers, who by preaching (da’wa) invite both Muslims and non-Muslims (those straying from the path), to understand the worship of God as expressed in the Quran and the sunnah of the prophet; b) da’wa projects involving television, radio, newspapers or book publishing; c) financial support for needy students; d) the building of Islamic schools, clinics and hospitals; e) providing money to young men who want to marry but cannot afford the mahr; f) assistance for needy travellers; g) establishing water springs on streets for travellers and h) defending Muslims who are under attack.
8. The way-farer – hospitality (Ibn as Sabeel). It has little consequence today. It may have originally been applied to those on Hajj or ’Umra to ensure they could finance their return journey. Zakat can be used to help a traveller facing difficulties in continuing his journey due to reasons such as loss of money, break down of vehicle, the repair of which he cannot afford in order to get back home (An Nisa 4:36).
The cheerful and wonderful hospitality of so many Muslim people finds here, in part, its religious ground and explanation. It is a religious duty to be hospitable. Muhammad excelled in this Semitic virtue himself, and left a noble example to his followers.
How much should a Muslim pay and donate?
The compulsory alms were, in the early days of Islam, collected by religious tax-collectors, as they still are in some Muslim countries. Setting the zakat rate created problems. The different sects disagreed as to what was the practice of the Prophet. Moreover, it was difficult to find a precedent in the customs of pastoral Arabia for the present methods of acquiring and holding property in more advanced civilisations. The greatest details for settling the zakat rate was bound up with camels and sheep! However, one-fortieth (i.e. 2.5%) is the usual rate which was the zakat rate for silver according to hadith of Bukhari Volume 2, Book 24, Number 534. The legal alms required by Islam are less than the Jewish tithe which was also supplemented by free-will offerings.
Each Muslim calculates his own zakat individually. Zakat calculators are available on line to work it out.
Warnings to those who are negligent in paying the zakat?
Allah strongly warns those who are negligent in the fulfilment of these duties:
“And let not those who covetously withhold of the gifts which Allah Hath given them of His grace, think that it is good for them: Nay, it will be the worse for them: soon shall the things which they covetously withheld be tied to their necks like a twisted collar, on the Day of Judgement.” (Al-Imran 3:180)
“Narrated Abu Huraira: Allah’s Apostle said, ‘Whoever is made wealthy by Allah and does not pay the Zakat of his wealth, then on the Day of Resurrection his wealth will be made like a bald-headed poisonous male snake with two black spots over the eyes. The snake will encircle his neck and bite his cheeks and say, ‘I am your wealth, I am your treasure.'” (Bukhari Volume 2, Book 24, Number 486)
“Narrated Asma’ bint Abu Bakr: …… that she had gone to the Prophet and he said, ‘Do not shut your money bag; otherwise Allah too will with-hold His blessings from you. Spend (in Allah’s cause) as much as you can afford.'” (Bukhari Volume 2, Book 24, Number 515)
General Concluding Comments
a) Zakat has not made a major dent in Muslim poverty and inequality.
b) While it has obviously been used to redistribute some income and wealth, it has not conferred substantial benefits on the poor as a group.
c) Zakat is, in practice, used much more for the benefit of Islam than for the benefit of the poor.
d) Because of the Muslim’s view of God the Muslim recipient never thanks the giver, but only Allah for alms. “There is much thanksgiving to God, but no gratitude to men in Muslim lands” (Zwemer).
Abd al-Masih: “A Donation for Allah purges the Conscience.”