It is difficult to ascribe the word ‘charity’, taking into consideration the breadth of meaning behind it from tithe, tax, religious tax, alms and so on, to the Islamic term zakat.
Zakat is the third of the five pillars of Islam and is usually mentioned side by side with Prayers. In fact zakat and Prayer are linked together in more than eighty verses of the Qur’an altogether. In Chapter 24, verse 56 the Qur’an enjoins believers to establish regular prayer and pay zakat regularly and to obey Muhammad (pbuh), the messenger of Allah, so that we may partake of His mercy. The Qur’an also draws attention to the fact that failure to pay heed to this duty will result in the miserly amongst having lost God’s blessings in this life and thereby due for punishment in the Hereafter. In Chapter 9, verse 34 the Qur’an dramatically describes the punishment for those who have hoarded and withheld their wealth from the poor and needy. On the other hand the Qur’an encourages and gives a vivid description of the vast rewards due to those who give in charity. Chapter 2, verse 261, relates a kind of parable about the ongoing rewards of such acts likening it to a grain of corn with a multitude of ears and grains thus bringing with it multiple rewards. Chap 51, verse 15 onwards, relates a vivid description of the pleasures enjoyed by those who prayed earnestly and made sure that the less privileged had ample access to their wealth by giving generously in zakat.
When you pay zakat it literally purifies your earnings, property or assets meaning that it makes them legitimate or valid in the spiritual sense. From a human perspective it purifies the heart of the one who gives from selfishness and greed or lack of concern for fellow human beings. It also purifies the heart of the recipient of the zakat from jealousy and perhaps a feeling of bitterness towards those who possess more and care nothing for those in need. On a social level it is therefore a purification of society at large by sharing wealth and reducing social injustice as far as possible. Its establishment therefore purifies society from any subversive ideology which finds fertile ground where this kind of greed or lack of social justice or where economic injustice exists.
Zakat is due on every Muslim who owns something beyond his basic needs or what is necessary to live on for a year or more. You do not pay zakat on your basic needs such as clothing, food etc. Neither do you pay it on your home or place of residence or on the tools of your trade since these are necessary for you to make a living. It is not due for women on the normal jewellery for personal use but it is due on jewellery which is an investment or method of saving. Basically zakat is due, in terms of assets, on four categories. The produce of the land, livestock, articles of trade and gold and silver or in today’s terms money – that is savings and investments. The amount due varies from around 21/2% to 15 % depending on the type of assets and the difficulty with which you acquire those assets which ensures an inbuilt system of equity and justice for all. This intricate system is outlined in the many books of Islamic jurisprudence dealing exclusively with zakat.
The most common rule is that zakat should be paid yearly, the exception being in the case of finding treasure upon which zakat becomes due immediately. In the case of agriculture zakat is due on crops on the day of harvesting. In all other cases it is paid once a year. The recommended time is during the month of Ramadan because this is a time when you receive manifold rewards.
There are eight categories of recipients of zakat specified in the Qur’an in Chapter 9 verse 60. First - the poor, second - the miskeen – those who are in need but do not, out of humility, ask for assistance, third - are the employees assigned by the state to collect the zakat, forth - those who embraced Islam recently and to assist them in their transition and to address any harm that might befall them in the process, fifth - to free slaves or prisoners of war by way of ransom, sixth – for those in debt from disaster but not on account of squandering money or illegitimate means of expenditure, seventh - in the way of Allah which is open ended and includes a variety of efforts made sincerely on His behalf, and finally eighth - is the wayfarer who is stranded in a foreign land and who does not have what is sufficient for them. Of course one must look within ones own family, at home or abroad and are in need, the community, township and outwards in that order and also where there may be famine, destruction, war or other traumas effecting the daily lives of people across the world – all deserving of our zakat.
The word sadaqa, which is also ascribed to the concept of charity in a monetary sense but on a voluntary basis encompasses much more than this. When one smiles to another, establishes or supports good and repels evil, removes a harm from the path of another, directs someone who is lost to find their destination, assists one who is blind or disabled in any way, gives out of ones sustenance to another - these are all regarded as acts of charity and for which there is great reward. So with Ramadan just around the corner perhaps we can start preparing by practising our smiles and making the necessary arrangements regarding our payment of zakat and any other sadaqa we would like to give and spiritually benefit from in this most blessed of months, Insha Allah.
This article has been transcribed from the Islamic Teachings Series of interviews with Dr. Jamal Badawi, Canada
Tuesday 25th of April 2017