One day, our poor people will ask
The Essential Teachings of the Third Pillar of Islam
Zakât : understanding, definition and translation
With zakât, the third pillar of Islam, we first have a problem of understanding and subsequently one of definition. Very often zakât is presented as “alms” which has a prescriptive connotation (understood as an obligation) within the normal practise of the Muslim woman and man. At the same time, “alms” is ordinarily a voluntary gift. To bring together these two rather contradictory dimensions, some have translated the concept of “zakât” into expressions that try to encapsulate the two ideas: “legal alms”, “obligatory alms”, etc., sometimes the translators prefer not to translate the word at all.
These definitions are unsatisfactory for they do not allow for understanding the different aspects of zakât : because it is obligatory in the conscience of every practising Muslim, zakât is a tax to be deducted (according to a precise calculation) from her/his wealth. The nature of this tax is “social” for it is primarily intended for the poor and the needy people of the society (or to private and public charitable organisations). Lastly, it has a major spiritual dimension insofar as it purifies the human beings’ wealth as prayers purify their hearts and fast purifies they bodies. Zakât encompasses these three dimensions which we can render by the phrase: purifying social tax. This translation is not insignificant for it tries to circumscribe one of the major dimensions of the Islamic teaching: the profoundly spiritual nature of the individuals’ social conscience.
Foremost, this is an essential teaching and our usual approximate definitions or translations often cause us to lose the meaning of this major pillar of Islam. Furthermore, two other fundamental teachings must be pondered as to the concrete implementation of zakât’s deduction and distribution in the contemporary Muslim majority countries or in the West.
Priority to Proximity
When the Prophet (PBUH) sent an envoy to a tribe that had converted to Islam, he asked the envoy to teach them the five pillars of Islam. Speaking about zakât, he told him to explain to them that it had to be deducted from the money of the rich among them and distributed to “their needy people” (‘alâ fuqarâ’ihim). The ulamâ’, in all the schools of law and through the ages have, thus, always insisted on the necessity of spending the zakât locally first, for the poor and the needy people of the place, the locality or the society within which it has been collected. It is only when the local needs have been satisfied, or in exceptional situations such as natural catastrophes or wars etc, that the spending of zakât abroad can be done.
Not only does the zakât shape the social conscience of the Muslim but it also directs him/her towards his/her immediate environment in order to build this conscience by facing up to the difficulties and dysfunctions of his/her society, its poor or/and marginalised people. Zakât, unlike the voluntary alms (sadaqa) is first intended for the Muslims and our faithfulness to its teaching demands of us to observe what is going on around us, within our nearest spiritual community. This "priority to proximity” is fundamental: it imposes a requirement to know one’s society, to care about the state of the Muslims in one’s area, town and country.
We are very far from living up to this teaching today. In the majority of the Western societies, in the United States, in Canada, in Britain, in France as in Australia, one finds women and men who give zakât to charitable organisations in the Third World or to their countries of origin. They care very little about the situation of those who live near them and they are convinced they are doing right since those from “over there” are poorer than those from “around here”. The mistake consists in forgetting that the poor from around here have rights (haqun ma’lûm) over the rich from around here. Nothing prevents the latter from sending voluntary alms (sadaqât) to the deprived people of the entire world or to their countries of origin but they have an established duty, from which they cannot escape, towards the needy people of their country of residence: once again it is, before God, the rights of “their poor people”. One can but be sad, and sometimes disgusted, when observing how the Muslims care so little about the local realities: obsessed by the international scene and the situation of the Muslims “from over there”, they no longer see the reality of the education’s deficit, unemployment, social marginalisation, drugs, violence and prisons in their own society. Though the awareness of their brothers’ misfortune elsewhere is positive, per se, it has had the very negative consequence of making them very passive, neglectful and unaware of the appalling situation of brothers at their own doorsteps. This is a tragedy, an error and, in fact, a betrayal of the fundamental teaching of zakât.
The Muslim organisations have a great deal of responsibility in this failure since they have difficulty proposing programmes and priorities for the zakât’s collection and distribution at the local level, in the towns and the regions. A correct understanding of this dimension of zakât would shape the individual’s spiritual and his/her citizen’s conscience with which one understands that one has to be involved in one’s environment. This means one has to study it and to find the best, fairest and most coherent means to spend the purifying social tax in one’s own society, in Britain, France, the United States, Canada, Australia or elsewhere.
The third teaching of zakât is no less important. The principle is not to keep the zakât’s beneficiary in a state of dependency that would make her/him a perpetually assisted-person of the spiritual community in particular and of the society in general. The whole procedure is in fact about assisting the needy people to get more autonomy: As early as the VIII Century ulamâ’ like Sufyân ath-Thawrî were noting the fact that the whole process was to help the zakât’s beneficiaries to reach a financial situation where it would be possible for them to pay the zakât (i.e. to get the nissab - the required minimum - as far as earnings is concern). To distribute zakât must be done with the intent to allow women and men to achieve financial autonomy; it cannot be “to help” them while maintaining them in an eternal state of assistance.
It is indeed what we witness everywhere within the Muslim communities. One distributes, one gives with no understanding and no vision for implementing a process towards financial autonomy of the beneficiaries. Distribution is punctuated, sporadic and chaotic and does not meet the minimal conditions of any long term social policy. Here again a lack of understanding, of creativity (as to new ways to use zakât), and sometimes laziness get the better of a real study on the ground: the very teaching of zakât is betrayed.
A consistent, reasonable and fair distribution of zakât would require us to know the specific situation of the people, the country’s legislations in social matters, the country’s systems of allocation and benefit and what are the rights (as to qualifying for benefits) of the poor and/or marginalised people, the abandoned women on their own, the unemployed, etc. The zakât’s distribution must be part of a comprehensive action plan that takes into account all the means provided by a specific society to move people from a state of dependence on assistance towards a state of autonomy. Thus, it is necessary to gather the ulamâ’ and specialists (of the national legislations and institutions), social workers and people working at the grassroots, in order to get a more holistic and explicit vision of the strategies to adopt according to the diverse social contexts. It is in fact by taking into account all that a specific society offers as to social policies, taxes and benefits that the zakât’s distribution meets its requirements: thus zakât can be presented and understood as a process towards financial autonomy. For some individuals, zakât can be a kind of a unique support within a transitory situation, for others it can represent part, or the whole, of a necessary capital intended to launch a small/local economic project; for others it would be a conditioned gift toward a specific agreed upon achievements, etc. The options are multiple but require a good knowledge of Islam (as far as the use of zakât is concerned) and of the national legislations as well as of the social realities and conditions at the local and national levels. All the options require in fact specialisation and creativity. One sees no such thing today and zakât in the mind of the great majority of Muslims has become a simple alms for assisting people and no longer what it was meant to be: a demanding tool serving an articulated philosophy of a comprehensive social policy. Not only the distortion is grave but it often appears that the current uses are deeply counter-productive.
A reflection on the third pillar of Islam shows us how far we are from meeting even bare minimum demands of a profound and intelligent practice of Islam. We respect the forms...less and less the content. It remains that one day, in a Life beyond this life, our neighbours, our poor people, the marginalised, the unemployed, the abandoned women with no income, our drug addicts, our delinquents will ask the Unique the unique question that matters: in the name of what faith have we been full of passive emotions for the oppressed around the world and so empty of respectful and active intelligence and attention for those who lived closest to us, in our neighbourhood, and who we did not see? It is indeed the only question that matters while one remembers that our Prophet (PBUH) never ceased to ask the Most Close to offer him “the richness of the heart” and “love for the poor people”. One must start from here: to learn again how to love, to learn again how to love the deprived people. Then one shall realize that to love them and to treat them as they deserve is very demanding and not so easy...when they are at our doorsteps. Are not this love and this respect the true and permanent jihad of the contemporary Muslim heart, mind and soul?
Charity Begins at Home
As Ramadan approaches we look forward to this special time when Muslims from all over the world reunite and come together in their local communities and Mosques drawing strength from their togetherness and fasting for the sake and according to the command of Allah. (Qur’an 2:185)
Towards its end we are all encouraged to pay our Zakat ul-Fitr to those less privileged than ourselves. While there appears to be growing numbers of aid agencies collecting for funds to go abroad the fact is that there are relatively poor Muslims amongst us who often go unnoticed at this time. If you would like your Zakat Ul-Fitr to go towards needy converts to Islam and their families this Eid then please take advantage of this opportunity.
Send your contribution of £2.50 / £3 for each family member by Chq. or P.O. payable to ‘The Islamic Foundation’, marking it ‘NMP Zakat Fund’ on the back. This should reach us on or before the last 10 days of Ramadan if possible, so that we can arrange for its distribution to families in need in time for the Eid celebrations, Insha Allah.
Every Eid, through your generosity in sending your Zakat Ul-Fitr and other Sadaqa to the Project, we are able to distribute a considerable amount to needy converts and their families – thus making Eid more pleasurable than it otherwise might have been.
Please Note: If you are, or you are aware of a convert brother, sister or family who is in need, please contact us with full details so that we may be in a position to make Eid a happier one for all concerned, Insha Allah.
Please be assured of the confidentiality of this service