By Muhammad Yunus, NewAgeIslam.com
(Joint Author, Essential Message of Islam, Amana Publications, USA, 2009)
The nominal 2 ½% Zakat makes the rich, richer; the poor, poorer; and pushes Muslim nations deeper and deeper into a morass of poverty, from which there seems to be no getting out.
That the ‘Zakat is a pillar of faith’ is an uncontestable proposition for all Muslims. However, the question that needs answering is does the traditional model of Zakat, in today’s context, fully meet the Qur’anic tenets on Zakat or its emphasis on spending for community. The Qur’an is the ultimate source and verifier of all Islamic laws, customs, practices and traditions, and therefore it is possible to scrutinize any proposition on the back of the Qur’an. Hence we probe the Noble Book for an answer.
Broadly speaking the Qur’an offers two shades of meaning for this term.
i) The traditional Zakat.
As the revelation advanced and the Muslim community in Medina flourished, the Qur’an made repeated calls to spend for the needy. This encouraged the affluent believers to give charity all the year round and more generously during the month of Ramadan for the special blessings of this month. Thus, on one occasion the Prophet asked the Muslim women attending the mosque for Eid congregation to give their ornaments in charity (sadaqah) , and they gave away their rings and ornaments . Towards the end of the revelation, the Qur’an mandates charity through its verse 9:60 – the verse also lists the category of recipients, conceivably to avoid any misappropriations:
“Charities (sadaqat) are for the poor (among the Muslims) and the poor (among non-Muslims) and the workers (who administer) them, and for those who have embraced faith, and for (freeing) the slaves, for (assisting) the debtors, (for spending) in God's way, and for the homeless – an ordinance (faridah) from God. (Remember,) God is All-Knowing and Wise” (9:60).
As an Islamic state took roots, Caliph Umar institutionalized the mandatory charity as the Zakat fund. Any Muslim man or woman possessing wealth or asset in excess of a threshold level - 12 English Guinea gold, or equivalent , was required to pay the mandatory charity as Zakat to the Islamic state for distribution among the poor.
Initially, the rate or amount of the Zakat was calculated at two and a half percent for cash, gold and liquid assets, but higher levels were fixed for other contemporaneous assets such as yield of land, perfume etc. With time, this traditional model has been rationalized at two and half percent for all assets beyond the specified threshold value. With the secularization of Islamic states, disbursement of Zakat has devolved upon individuals, who calculate it t using their own judgment, and quite obviously the tendency is to ignore or undervalue all kinds of assets except gold and cash as they are not amenable to any manipulation.
ii. The Qur’anic notion of Zakat (pl. form of Zakat). From the Qur’anic perspective, the expression Zakat is the plural form of zakah – a generic word that the Qur’an pairs with salah (prayer) (2:83, 2:110, 2:177, 2:277, 5:55, 22:41, 22:78, 24:37, 24:56, 27:3, 31:4, 98:5). Thus, like salah (prayer), it enjoins Zakat on all believers, regardless of income. Accordingly, the Meccan Muslims, the ancient prophets and the wives of the Prophet who were all mostly poor were asked to exercise Zakat (21:73, 23:4, 33:3). This lends Zakat a generic meaning of serving humanity that all believers regardless of income, sex, age can endeavor in order to fully realize their din that is centered around doing good deeds to humanity.
The Qur’an, however, also connotes Zakat with purity (of thoughts or soul) a person may attain by giving charity or sharing his wealth with the community (9:103, 92:18):
“(O Muhammad!). You can now take charity (sadaqah) of their goods, that you may purify (tutahhiru) and sanctify (tuzakki) them; and pray on their behalf. Surely, your prayers are a source of security for them; and God is One Who hears and knows” (9:103).
“One who spends his wealth to attain to a state of purity (zaka) (92:18), without having to repay anybody’s favor (92:19), but only to seek the Countenance of His Lord, Most High (92:20) - soon he will be pleased” (92:21).
Thus, from the Qur’anic perspective, all kinds of humanitarian deeds that sooth or purify the soul constitute zakah. Accordingly, all believers, rich and poor, can exercise Zakat by showing mercy and extending emotional and psychological support to distressed humanity, by caring and nursing the sick and wounded, and other similar gestures, while the rich must also give the mandatory charity (institutionalized Zakat) as part of their zakah obligation.
Traditionally, various civil works, such as removing garbage from roadside, planting trees, giving a helping hand in lifting luggage on a mount, helping out the needy, or even doing good deeds were regarded as sadaqah , which is integral to the broad Qur’anic concept of Zakat. Therefore, in the historical and present day context, all civil and social welfare activities and scientific achievements that mitigate the sufferings of people, or are otherwise beneficial to humans fall in the domain of Zakat. There are also traditions on the merit of looking after domestic pets as well as any animate .
Qur’anic emphasis on sharing wealth with the needy
The Qur’an declares that “man has intense desire for all good things” (100:8), and for “hoarding up treasures” (3:14), and accordingly takes account of his cunning and crafty machinations in its exhortations to sharing wealth with the poor and needy. It opens with a call to “keep up prayer and spend of what God has given” (2:3) in their lifetime (2:245, 2:254, 57:11, 57:18, 63:10). It warns people against hurting the sentiments of the recipients (2:262-2:264) and exhorts them to ignore any ill-feelings while helping others (24:22). It reminds people to give only good things (to others) – not such things as they will find disdainful for themselves (2:267) and to curb their inborn greed and lowly desires (64:16/17, 79:40). It commands the rich to explore all opportunities of helping the poor, openly or secretly (2:271/272, 2:274, 13:22), but reminds them to budget the charity within their means (2:195); and discourages beggary (2:273). It also declares that moral excellence (birr) can only be attained by spending (for others) what one cares for (2:177, 3:92).
Conclusion: For all practical purposes, the institutional Zakat is nothing but a form of property tax that is collected from those who have some property and given to the poor regardless of religion, or put to community use. It does not subsume the Qur’anic repeated exhortations on sharing wealth with the community, which implies, at the least, making fair payment, allowances and compensations for goods and services (raw materials and domestic and industrial labor in today’s context). In many Muslim lands, the business community pays the bare minimum for goods and labor, often by forming a cartel, makes excessive profits, spends lavishly, converts the surplus into non-Zakat chargeable assets like land, vehicles, jewelry and then disburses the prescribed 2½% Zakat on cash in hand and gold. Likewise, domestic servants engaged in many Muslim households at very low wages are given in Zakat what they should have received as part of their wages. By any standard, these practices grossly underplay the Qur’anic emphasis on zakah and wealth sharing. As a result the rich get richer and the poor, poorer and the Muslim countries are pushed deeper and deeper into a morass of poverty, from which there seems to be no getting out.
1. Sahih al-Bukhari, English translation by Mohsin Khan, New Delhi 1984, Vol.2, Acc. 545.
2. Ibid., Vol.2, Acc. 94, 95A, 95B.
3. Ibid., Vol.2. Acc. 526.
4. Sahih al-Bukhari, Vol.2, Acc. 524; Vol.3, Acc. 513; Vol.4, Acc. 232.
5. Ibid., Vol.1, Acc. 174; Vol.3, Acc. 551.
Muhammad Yunus, a Chemical Engineering graduate from Indian Institute of Technology, and a retired corporate executive has been engaged in an in-depth study of the Qur’an since early 90’s, focusing on its core message. He has co-authored the referred exegetic work, which received the approval of al-Azhar al-Sharif, Cairo in 2002, and following restructuring and refinement was endorsed and authenticated by Dr. Khaled Abou El Fadl of UCLA, and published by Amana Publications, Maryland, USA, 2009.