Another exceptionally remarkable institution and major pillar of Islam is the Zakah. To the Qur’anic word Zakah and the meaning it conveys, there is no equivalent in any other language as far as we known.
It is not just a form of charity or alms-giving or tax or tithe. Nor is it simply an expression of kindness; it is all of these combined and much more. It is not merely a deduction of a certain percentage from one’s property, but an abundant enrichment and spiritual investment. It is not simply a voluntary contribution to someone or some cause, nor a government tax that a shrewd clever person can get away with. Rather, it is a duty enjoined by God and undertaken by Muslims in the interest of society as a whole. The Qur’anic word Zakah not only includes charity, alms, tithe, kindness, official tax, voluntary contributions, etc., but it is also combines with all these God-mindedness and spiritual as well as moral motives. That is why there can be no equivalent to the word Zakah because of the supreme originality of the Qur’an, the Divine Book of God.
The literal and simple meaning of Zakah is purity. The technical meaning of the word designates the annual amount in kind or coin which a Muslim with means must distribute among the rightful beneficiaries. But the religious and spiritual significance of Zakah is much deeper and more lively. So is its humanitarian and sociopolitical value. Here is an explanation of the far-reaching effects of Zakah:
1. Zakah purifies the property of the people with means and clears it from the shares which do not belong to it anymore, the shares which must be distributed among the due beneficiaries. When Zakah is payable, a certain percentage of the wealth should be distributed immediately in the right manner, because the owner no longer has moral or legal possession of that percentage. If he fails to do so, he is obviously retaining something which does not belong to him. This is corruption and plain usurpation from every point of view, moral and spiritual, legal and commercial. It means that the unlawfully retained percentage makes the whole lot impure and endangered. But, on the other hand, if the poor’s dividends are assorted and distributed among due beneficiaries, the remaining portions of the lot will be pure and decent. Pure capital and decent possessions are the first requisites of permanent prosperity and honest transactions.
2. Zakah does not only purify the property of the contributor but also purifies his heart from selfishness and greed for wealth. In return, it purifies the heart of the recipient from envy and jealousy, from hatred and uneasiness; and it fosters in his heart, instead, good will and warm wishes for the contributor. As a result, the society at large will purify and free itself from class warfare and suspicion, from ill feelings and distrust, from corruption and disintegration, and from all such evils.
3. Zakah mitigates to a minimum the sufferings of the needy and poor members of society. It is a most comforting consolation to the less fortunate people, yet it is a loud appeal to everybody to roll up his sleeves and improve his lot. To the needy it means that it is by nature an emergency measure and that he should not depend on it completely but must do something for himself as well as for others. To the contributor it is a warm invitation to earn more so that he can benefit more. To all parties concerned, it is, directly as well as indirectly, an open treasure for spiritual investment that compensates abundantly.
4. Zakah is a healthy form of internal security against selfish greed and social dissension, against the intrusion and penetration of subversive ideologies. It is an effective instrument in cultivating the spirit of social responsibility on the part of the contributor, and the feeling of security and belonging on the part of the recipient.
5. Zakah is a vivid manifestation of the spiritual and humanitarian spirit of responsive interactions between the individual and society. It is a sound illustration of the fact that though Islam does not hinder private enterprise or condemn private possessions, yet it does not tolerate selfish and greedy capitalism. It is an expression of the general philosophy of Islam which adopts a moderate and middle but positive and effective course between the Individual and Society, between the Citizen and the State, between Capitalism and Socialism, between Materialism and Spirituality.
The Rate of Zakah
Every Muslim, male or female, who, at the end of the year, is in possession of the nisab (minimum Zakah - able wealth) approximately the value of 85 grams of gold or more, in cash or articles of trade, must give Zakah at the minimum rate of two and one-half percent. In the case of having the amount in cash the matter is easy. But when a person has wealth in business stocks or trade articles, he must evaluate his wealth at the end of every year according to the current value and give Zakah at the same rate of two and one-half percent of the total value of the wealth. If his investment is in immovable property like revenue buildings and industries, the rate of Zakah should go by the total net of the income, and not of the total value of the whole property. But if he puts up buildings and houses for trade or selling, Zakah rate should go by the total value of the entire property. Also if someone is a creditor and the indebted person is reliable, one should pay Zakah for the amount he has lent because it is still a portion of his guaranteed wealth.
In all cases it should remembered that one pays only for his net balance. His personal expenses, his family allowances, his necessary expenditures, his due credits – all are paid first, and Zakah is for the net balance.
It should also be remembered that the rate of 2.5% is only a minimum. In times of emergency or arising needs there is no rate limit; the more one gives, the better it is for all concerned, the distribution of Zakah serves all purposes for which numerous fund-raising campaigns are launched. The Zakah fund substitutes for all the other funds. It is authentically reported that there were times in the history of the Islamic administration when there was no person eligible to receive Zakah; every subject – Muslim, Christian, and Jew - of the vast Islamic empire had enough to satisfy his needs, and the rulers had to deposit the Zakah collections in the Public Treasury. This shows that when the Zakah law is enacted properly it minimizes the needs of the citizens and enriches the Public Treasury to such an extent that there may be no needy or poor, and that enormous amounts of surplus are available.
The unfailing power of this effective measure of public interest stems from the fact that it is a Divine injunction, an ordinance from God Himself. It is not a personal matter or a voluntary contribution; rather, it is an obligation for the fulfillment of which one will be responsible to God directly. Because Zakah is the legislation of God Himself to be enforced in the common interest, no Muslim is allowed to neglect it. When it is not observed properly, the rightful authorities of the State must interfere on behalf of the public to establish the institution and see to it that it is enforced.
The Due Recipients of Zakah
1. The Holy Qur’am classifies the due recipients of Zakah as follows:
2. The poor Muslims, to relieve their distress;
3. The needy Muslims, to supply them with means whereby they can earn their livelihood;
4. The new Muslim converts, to enable them to settle down and meet their unusual needs;
5. The Muslim prisoners of war, to liberate them by payment of ransom money;
6. The Muslim in debt, to free them from their liabilities incurred under pressing necessities;
7. The Muslim employees appointed by a Muslim governor for the collection of Zakah to pay their wages;
8. The Muslims in service of the cause of God by means of research or study or propagation of Islam. This share is to cover their expenses and help them to continue their services;
9. The Muslim wayfarers who are stranded in a foreign land and in need of help.
The due recipient of Zakah is one who has nothing to meet his necessities or has little (less than the nissab) at the end of the year. If one has approximately the nissab or more he must be a contributor, not a recipient of Zakah. If a recipient receives his share and finds that it is sufficient for his immediate needs with a balance of about the nissab he should not accept any more, he should return whatever he may receive to other eligible recipients.
Zakah may be distributed directly to individuals of one or more of the said classes, or to welfare organizations which look after them. It may also be distributed in the form of scholarships to bright and promising Muslim students and researchers, or in the form of grants to welfare organizations and public service institutions which patronize such causes.
A disabled or invalid poor Muslim is preferable to one who is able and capable of making some earnings. The contributor should use his best judgement in finding the most deserving beneficiaries.
The taxes we pay to governments nowadays do not substitute for this religious duty; it must be earmarked as a special obligation and paid separately, aside from the government taxes. However, the Muslims of North America may take advantage of the tax laws that allow certain deductions for charity. They should pay their Zakah to the deserving beneficiaries and then claim the sums paid as proper legal deductions.
The contributor should not seek pride or fame by carrying out this duty. He should make it as covert as possible so that he may not be victimized by hypocrisy or passion for vanity which nullifies all good deeds. However, if the disclosure of his name or the announcement of his contribution is likely to encourage others and stimulate them, it is all right to do so.
Zakah is also obligatory on cattle and agricultural products. The shares payable in this regard vary from case to case, and need a detailed discussion. So the reader may be advised to consult the elaborate sources of law and religion.
By: Dr. Hammudah Abdalati
From his book: Islam in Focus