Zakat - Charity

Zakat and Sadaqat - Introduction

Throughout this newsletter, the words sadaqah and zakah have been used interchangeably which might cause confusion in some of our readers' mind. The reason for such confusion is obvious: if sadaqah and zakah are the same, then why not stick to one term? On the other hand, if the two vary in meaning, then why not use their precise application according to the text's demands? As such, a little explanation is due.

Linguistically, sadaqah is derived from the root sadq or sidq, which means "to speak the truth, to be sincere." It can also mean, "candor and efficiency." The Qur'anic lexicon transfigures this verbal root into sadaqah - a term applicable to the concept of a gift offered to someone from one's rightfully owned holdings without regret or remorse or without any ulterior motives, in short, for the pleasure of God, the Exalted. It therefore parts of four essential elements: legitimacy of one's holdings, sincerity of intention, altruistic motives, and the condition that it is for God, The Almighty.

At first glance, sincerity of intention, altruism, and seeking God's pleasure may strike a case of redundancy. However, the three are interdependent. For example, a person could be sincere in helping others; he could also be motivated by altruism. Still, the two would not endow it with the character of a sadaqah because of one missing ingredient - that is, giving it for God, The Almighty alone. This is so because sadaqah is not an exclusive concept.

Rather, it is embedded in the eschatology of Islam which paradoxically includes the concerns of this life as well. Not surprisingly, the Qur'an refers to the giving of sadaqat as an essential component of its program for mankind. While giving the oath of allegiance (bai'ah) to Muhammad (S.A.W.), the companions used to promise that they would, among other things spend in the way of God - whether they were rich or poor.

Why sadaqat were tied in the bai'ah is a question worth pondering. Though voluntary by nature, the promise to give sadaqat was an essential part of the oath because, without such an undertaking, the new community could not have survived even its first test. Sadaqat symbolized in a meaningful way the solidarity and brotherhood among the members of the Muslim ummah. They provided a safety net for the newly initiated who were alienating themselves from their kafir (unbelieving) society and thus facing economic hardships. Limiting it to a specific amount would have been damaging to the very concept by vitiating its voluntary character. At the same time, it would have denied the community the vast resources that it garnished for its need through sadaqat. Last, it would have retarded the spiritual and moral growth of its members which the promise of Islam held for them. It is peculiar to the spirit of Islam that it took not to be despised or ignored, and where people felt bound to each other because they cared.

This kind of social realignment necessarily originated in the Islamic concept that God is compassionate and Who, in the eloquent words of the Qur'an, "kattaba rab-bukum 'ala naf si hir-rahmah," has taken upon Himself mercy for the believers. The divine virtue therefore had to be reflected in the believers' character.

Sadaqat provided not only a catharsis for the individual sense of guilt toward the deprived but they also imparted a sense of achievement to the giver that he was a partner in the collective effort to usher in a new dawn.

Thus, sadaqat had to go beyond the meaning of charity or beneficence. Even though giving away money was its most potent expression, it never stayed imprisoned in its material mold; it stretched itself to become a style of life - a new paradigm. That is why, according to the ahadith, a sadaqah could be anything. Size, amount, or form is immaterial. A flicker of smile that comes on a believer's face at the sight of another believer or his removal of any hazardous material from a road is as valuable as a big donation could be.

In a very remarkable hadith, Abu Musa al-Ash'ari reported that the Prophet, (S.A.W.), as saying that every Muslim must give sadaqah (charity). He (the Messenger) was asked how could this apply to one who had nothing, and he replied that he should work with his hands, gaining benefit for himself thereby and giving sadaqah. Asked what would happen if a person was unable to do this or did not do it, the Messenger replied that he should help one who is in need and sad. Asked what he should do if he did not do that, he replied that he should do if he did not do that, he replied that he should refrain from evil, for that would be sadaqah for him.
- Sahih al-Bukhari, Sahih Muslim, Mishkat-al-Masabih, vol. 1, p. 403.

What matters in such cases is the intention. If it is for God, The Almighty, then it falls within the ambit of worship. Paradoxically, it does not assume the character of an obligation, even though in some ways, its reward defies any time frame and continues benefiting the doer as long as his sadaqah has validity to life. For example, the construction of a school or the raising of a good Muslim family survives the dead and any good accrued on them benefits the dead. This is strikingly different from prayer (salah) and fasting (siyam) which because of its esoteric nature go with the deceased at the time of death.

The definition of Zakat is that portion of a person's wealth which is designated for the poor. The term is derived from the Arabic verbal root meaning "to increase", "to purify", and "to bless." It finds its origin in God's command to:

"Take sadaqah (charity) from their property in order to purify and sanctify them." (Qur'an at-Taubah:103)

That is why this kind of sadaqah is called zakah, for by paying it; one is aspiring to attain blessing, purification, and the cultivation of good deeds.

Taking into account its very nature, it is no wonder that zakah constitutes one of the pillars of Islam. It is associated with prayer (salah) in eighty-two Quranic verses. God, the Exalted One, prescribed it in The Quran, His Messenger (pbuh) corroborated it by his sunnah, and the community (ummah) upheld it. Ibn 'Abbas reported that when the Holy Prophet (pbuh) sent Mu'adh ibn Jabal to Yemen (as its governor), he said to him: "You are going to a people who are People of the Scripture. Invite them to accept the shahadah: that there is no God but Allah and I am His Messenger. If they accept and affirm this, tell them that God has enjoined five prayers upon them during the day and night. If they accept that, tell them also that He has enjoined sadaqah upon their assets which will be taken from the rich of the Muslim community and distributed to the poor. If they accept that, refrain from laying hands upon the best of their goods and fear the cry of the oppressed, for there is no barrier between God and it."

At-Tabarani relates in al-'Aswat and as-Saghir, on the authority of Ali, that the Prophet (pbuh) said:

"God has enjoined upon rich Muslims a due to be taken from their properties corresponding to the needs of the poor among them. The poor will never suffer from starvation or lack of clothing unless the rich neglect their due. If they do so, God will surely hold them accountable and punish them severely." - According to at-Tabarani: "It was only by Thabit ibn Muhammad as-Zahid." Of Thabit's credibility, al- Hafiz in turn says: "Thabit was an honest and trustworthy person. Al-Bukhari and others related from him, and the rest of the narrators in the chain are considered as accepted authorities."

In the early days of Islam, no limit or restriction was placed on the amount to be donated, for that decision was left to the individual Muslim's conscience and generosity. In the second year of hijrah, both the type and the quantity of zakah revenues were determined, and detailed illustrations were provided.

Zakah in Islamic Jurisprudence

"It is not righteousness that ye turn, your faces toward East or West, but righteousness it is to believes in God and the Last Day, and the angels, and the Book and the Messengers; to spend of your substance out of love for Him, for your kin, for orphans, for the needy, the wayfarer, for those who ask, and for the ransom of slaves; to be steadfast in prayer and give zakat. To fulfill the contracts which ye have made; and to be firm and patient, in pain (or suffering) and adversity, and throughout all periods of panic. Such are the people of truth, the God-fearing." (Qur'an 2:177 )

To the Qur'anic word Zakah and the meaning it conveys, there is no equivalent in any other language as far as we know. It is not just a form of charity or alms-giving or tax or tithe. Nor 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 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, tax, voluntary contributions, etc., but it 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 in which a Muslim with means must distribute among the rightful beneficiaries. But the religious and spiritual significance of Zakah is much deeper and livelier.

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 property 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 a contributor it is an 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 the responsive interactions between the individual and the 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 Citizen and 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 approximately fifteen dollars 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 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 homes for the 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 be remembered that one pays 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 funding 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 all people of the vast Islamic empire had enough to satisfy their needs, and the rulers had to deposit the Zakah collection 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 the 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

The Holy Qur'an classifies the due recipients of Zakah as follows:

  1. The poor Muslims, to relieve their distress.
  2. The needy Muslims, to supply them with means whereby they earn their livelihood.
  3. The new Muslim converts, to enable them to settle down and meet their unusual needs.
  4. The Muslim prisoners of war, to liberate them by payment of ransom money.
  5. The Muslim in debt, to free them from their liabilities incurment under pressing necessities.
  6. The Muslim employees appointed by a Muslim governor for the collection of Zakah to pay their wages.
  7. The Muslim 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 service.
  8. 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 $15.00) at the end of the year. If one has approximately $15.00 or more he must be a contributor, not a recipient of Zakah. If a recipient receives his share and finds that is sufficient for his immediate needs with a balance of about $15.00, 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 scholarship 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 contributors should use his best judgment 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 his 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 the cattle and agricultural product. The shares payable in this regard vary form case to case, and need detailed discussion. So the reader may be advised to consul the elaborate sources of Law and religion.


The Islamic Bulletin
P.O. Box 410186, San Francisco, CA 94141-0186

January 1992
Jumada 1412
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