5.7 Zakah (Charity)
Host: What is the meaning of the term Zakah which can be roughly translated as charity? There are many translations that are assigned as the meaning for Zakah such as tithe, religious tax, alms, charity and so on.
Quite frankly non of those terms fully explain the meaning of the Islamic term for Zakah and I don’t know of any language that has an exact equivalent to this term. The literal meaning of Zakah in Arabic is purity. For example we find in the Quran in (9:103) “Of their goods, take alms, that so thou mightest purify and sanctify them.” Other related Arabic meanings for Zakah are blessings, growth and development. In the legislative sense in terms of Islamic jurisprudence Zakah simply means the payment of a certain percentage of ones assets to rightful beneficiaries. This is also an act of the love of God and obedience to him. In this basic sense some of the terms that you referred to are erroneous and others are incomplete.
An erroneous term that I am familiar with and is mentioned quite frequently is tithe. Zakah is not equivalent to tithe. Tithe according to the dictionary is one tenth of the produce of the land which is paid (especially during medieval times) to support the church and clergy; in Islam Zakah is not paid to support clergy but to support the poor. In Islam also there is no institution of church as is understood in the Juneau Christian tradition.
The term tax is not appropriate either, because most people think of something that one has to pay or be punished by law. When one pays tax one pays it reluctantly while trying to seek every deduction possible or to avoid it completely. In the case of Zakah it is done by the Muslim as an act of worship and love of God. One does not do it reluctantly but enthusiastically. Furthermore Zakah is different from tax because it is a minimum payment and the person is encouraged to pay more.
In that sense the terms charity or alms is the closest meaning to Zakah. In the Webster Dictionary charity means an act of love of God or fellow human being. There is one reservation and that is that when one says charity most people think of something voluntary. Zakah in Islam is an obligatory duty on every Muslim that has a minimum but has no maximum.
Host: What is the significance and the place of Zakah among the Pillars of Islam?
Zakah always comes third in the Pillars of Islam. This is confirmed further in the Quran where we find that Zakah is mentioned side by side with prayer in more than eighty verses. An example of this is in (24:56) “So establish regular Prayer and give regular Charity; and obey the Messenger. that ye may receive mercy.” The Quran also indicates that failure to pay this duty of charity, towards needy fellow human beings, earns the person the wrath and punishment of God in this life and hereafter. In this life it could be the loss of blessings and suffering as well as punishment in the hereafter. An example in (9:34) in the Quran “And there are those who bury gold and silver and spend it not in the way of Allah. announce unto them a most grievous penalty.” Then it goes on that this metal that they used to cherish will be heated and they will be marked or branded on their faces, backs and flanks. This verse gives a very terrible description of the consequences of miserliness and lack of gratefulness.
On the other hand one finds that the Quran is replete with quotations which encourage people to do this act of Zakah. An example is found in (2:261) which gives a vivid description of how God rewards people by manifolds of what they spend by way of charity. “The parable of those who spend their substance in the way of Allah is that of a grain of corn: it groweth seven ears, and each ear Hath a hundred grains. Allah giveth manifold increase to whom He pleaseth: And Allah careth for all and He knoweth all things.” An example that describs the believers on the Day of Judgment is found in (51:15-19) where it gives a vivid description of the enjoyment and felicity of believers and then it relates it to the reasons they are rewarded and one of which is Zakah. “As to the Righteous, they will be in the midst of Gardens and Springs, taking joy in the things which their Lord gives them, because, before then, they lived a good life. They were in the habit of sleeping but little by night, and in the hour of early dawn, they (were found) praying for Forgiveness; and in their wealth and possessions (was remembered) the right of the (needy,) him who asked, and him who (for some reason) was prevented (from asking).” Payment of Zakah is an act of the love of God and an expression of the commitment to obey God or submit to His will.
Host: What did you mean when you said that Zakah literally means purity?
It means that when one pays Zakah it purifies in a number of ways. First, it purifies one’s property; because if it is one’s duty to pay dues on one’s asset is not pure till they are paid. Zakah purifies property and makes it blessed and legitimate from the spiritual sense.
Second of all, it purifies the heart of the one who gives Zakah from selfishness, greed, materialism and lack of concern of concern for fellow human beings. It also purifies the heart of the recipient of Zakah from jealousy and hatred against those who posses more.
From a social level Zakah is purification of society at large. It protects against class conflict and injustices that the system of economics or political systems that allow the rich to become richer and the poor to become poorer. This purifies society from any subversive ideology which finds fertile grounds when one has this kind of greed and lack of social justice.
Host: How does Islam view personal property in relation to the topic of Zakah?
To start with Islam makes it clear and we find abundant evidence of that in the Quran that all the universe and all of what it contains belongs ultimately and exclusively to God. God is the absolute sovereign owner and master of the universe. From this basic notion it follows that no human being owns anything in the absolute and ultimate sense. According to the Quran humans are the trustees of God on earth and that God has endowed us with these recourses to test us with this trust. In that sense we find that the Quran talks about property as the domain owned by God as we find in (57:7) “Believe in Allah and His apostle, and spend (in charity) out of the (substance) whereof He has made you heirs. For, those of you who believe and spend (in charity),- for them is a great Reward.”
We do find however in the Quran the terms “your property” and “your wealth” when referring to human beings in order to give humans a sense of dignity and confidence in themselves and in order to encourage and to motivate humans to work and reap the reward. We find examples of this in (2:252) and in (2:188). What is really fascinating is that even though God owns everything when he asks us or commands us to spend part of that for the needy He says that is a loan from us to Him. This gives us the sweet feeling that we are not just dealing with human beings, governments or tax collectors but with God himself who is abundantly generous. In (2:245) it says “Who is he that will loan to Allah a beautiful loan, which Allah will double unto his credit and multiply many times? It is Allah that giveth (you) Want or plenty, and to Him shall be your return.” Also in the same chapter it talks about multiplying the rewards 700 times or more. This reflects the attitude of the Muslim in Islam does not condemn private ownership nor does it tolerate greedy economic systems that crush the poor and needy.
Host: What is the system of Zakah and its rules? Who has to pay Zakah?
Zakah is due on every Muslim who owns things beyond their basic needs for a year amounting to what is called nasab or more. Nasab is simply a minimum of extras beyond which one must pay Zakah. This nasab varies from time to time and is estimated at the present time to be roughly between $400 and $500. In other words if you are a Muslim and you have things beyond your basic needs amounting to $400 or more in value for a year or more then Zakah is on this amount.
One does not pay Zakah on basic needs such as clothes, food and one’s principal residence. The tools of profession are also exempt from Zakah because they are not wealth but rather tools used to help one earn money. Some jurists make analogy with machinery in the factory used to produce goods. Women’s jewelry that is used and is of a reasonable amount is not subject to Zakah. If the jewelry is used as savings then it is subject to Zakah. It is the luxuries that Zakah is paid for.
Some jurists say Zakah is due in terms of assets on four categories. One is the produce of the land; secondly it is due on cattle and there is a whole detailed system as to the age and so on that is subject to Zakah. It is also due on articles of trade like inventory that is bought and sold in a year. Also Zakah is paid on gold and silver, which is a classic term, used in the book of jurisprudence, today instead of using gold and silver we use money. Zakah applies to cash savings we have in the bank or stocks.
Host: What is the amount of Zakah required?
This varies as there is a large body of literature detailing all these issues. The amount ranges anywhere between 2.5% to a maximum of 20%. This varies depending on the type of assets and the difficulty with which one acquires them. In Islam there is a build in system of equity and justice. For example for savings, gold or silver the amount of Zakah is 2.5%. On land or the produce of land it is 10% if the land is irrigated by rain alone and it is 5% if one uses irrigation equipment. Some jurists say that if it is irrigated by both rain and equipment then the amount is 7.5% and if one uses lots of equipment and lots of effort then it is 2.5%. If one finds treasure or a mine without putting much effort the amount of Zakah is 20%. The amount of Zakah varies but the most common is 2.5%.
Host: Is there a particular time that Zakah has to be paid?
The most common rule is that it should be paid at the end of every year. There are exceptions to that for example if one finds a treasure then Zakah is due immediately. On land produce Zakah is due upon harvest because it all depends on how the harvest is each year. It is recommended to pay Zakah during the month of Ramadan because the rewarded manifold. If one wants to pay Zakah in installments throughout the year which is also subject to a final adjustment at the end of the year that is also acceptable.
There is wisdom behind it being paid once a year, because if it is paid every week or month it would become quite cumbersome. Also, if the time between payments becomes too long then it affects the people who need it. So there is a balance between the needs of individuals and society.
Host: Who is entitled to receive the Zakah?
There are eight categories that are specified in the Quran in (9:60). This includes first the poor, second the needy (who do not ask for help), third the employees appointed by the government to collect Zakah, fourth people who recently embraced Islam and have difficulty settling or to prevent harm from being done to Muslims, fifth to free slaves or prisoners of war by way of ransom, sixth those who are in debt by way of disaster but not because they squandered money, seventh in the way of God which is open category for defense or propagation of the faith and the eighth is the way fairer who is stranded in foreign lands and don’t have sufficient means. It is recommended to first give those who are in most need within one’s own town while gradually moving outward. Of course for people who are living in places where there is a large degree of affluence jurists say that people can send or transport the charity to places where it is most needed and places that have famine.
For those who may not be able to make monetary contribution there is a saying of Prophet Muhammad that says that when one smiles in their brother’s face it is charity; when one ordains the good and forbids the evil it is also charity; when one removes harmful objects from the way it is charity; when one helps someone who is lost it is charity; when one helps someone who is blind or has bad sight it is charity; when one takes water from their own bucket and puts it in their brothers bucket it is an act of charity. Zakah is much more than just money.