Tuesday 25th of April 2017

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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.
Quite frankly it is not possible to find the English equivalent. The original or literal meaning of zakat is purity. An example of this is to be found in the Qur’an, chapter 9 verse 103, which address the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) saying that ‘something of their property should be taken from them in order to purify it and sanctify its owners so that they may grow in nearness to God.’ Another related meaning is blessing or growth and development which are all bound to purification through the act of payment of zakat. In the legislative sense - that is in Islamic jurisprudence - it means the payment of a certain percentage of ones assets ‘to the rightful beneficiaries’ as an act of love of God and an expression of obedience and grateful thanks to Him. In this basic sense some of the terms referred to are quite erroneous and incomplete. Take the word ‘tithe’ for example. This word is described in the dictionary as one tenth of the produce of the land in medieval times which was paid for the upkeep of the church and the support of the clergy and charity. Zakat on the other hand is paid only for the needs of the poor. The term tax is not an appropriate one either since it suggests that it is compulsory and withholding it may be punishable by law. Tax is something which is paid reluctantly while it is normal practice to try to reduce it as much as possible or to avoid having to pay it at all. Zakat is essentially an act of worship and is therefore and act of love of God and fellow creatures and is carried out enthusiastically rather than reluctantly. Zakat is also based on a minimum with the encouragement to try ones best to contribute more in grateful appreciation of Allah’s generosity to His servants. Charity, therefore, as described in the dictionary as an act of love of God or fellow human beings, is probably the closest equivalent to the Arabic word zakat. Having said that charity is voluntary and one may be moved to give or not whereas zakat is an obligation on every Muslim and while there is a minimum it is the duty of every Muslim to comply and to give more wherever possible.

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.
Islam makes it clear that the universe and all it contains belongs to and is sustained by God. From this basic notion it follows that no human being owns anything in the absolute and ultimate sense. According to the Qur’an the human being was created to be the trustee of God on earth and to fulfil His will. We have been endowed with these resources therefore to test us and to see it we are capable of using this wealth in a trustful and capable manner. In this sense we find the Qur’an speaks of this property and human beings in terms of heirs and trustees of it. Out of His grace He also refers to it as ‘your property’ and ‘your wealth’ in order to give us a sense of dignity and confidence in our selves so that we are motivated to work and accumulate some wealth and reward for our toil. It is also fascinating that when Allah asks us to give of our wealth and property to the needy He refers to it as a loan and for which we will get the reward when really we own nothing in this world at all. (Q 2:145)

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