Allah Almighty says (what means): “… and as for those who hoard treasures of gold and silver, and do not spend them for the sake of Allah, announce unto them a painful torment. On the Day when that [hoarded wealth] shall be heated in the Fire of Hell and with it will be branded their foreheads, their flanks, and their backs, (and it will be said unto them): ‘This is the treasure which you hoarded for yourselves. Now taste what you used to hoard.’” [Qur’an 9: 34-35] Allah also says (what means): “And let not those who covetously withhold of that which Allah has bestowed on them of His bounty (wealth) think that it is good for them (and so they do not pay Zakat). No, it will be worse for them; the things which they covetously withheld will be tied to their necks like a collar on the Day of Resurrection…” [Qur’an 3:180]
There is no equivalent in any other language to the word “Zakat” and the meaning it conveys. 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 a duty enjoined by Allah and a source of purification for the individual and society as a whole.
Allah Almighty says (what means): “Take from their wealth ‘sadaqah’ (Zakat) in order to purify them and sanctify them with it.” [Qur’an 9: 103]
As economists look at economic disparity, they keep revisiting the concept of Zakat which is a powerful tool to allow for a more equitable distribution of wealth. Zakat allows more people to invest, increase consumption, and allow for investment in community projects.
Appalling, yet growing, wealth inequality across the world has become a shamefully defining reality of the truly frightening times in which we have been brought to life. The unstoppable spread of wretched poverty, coupled with the instant-by-instant funneling of an impossible aggregation of wealth into fewer and fewer hands, has led an increasing number of modern researchers to the examination of Islam’s obligation of Zakat in their hunt for a “new,” humane model of social wealth redistribution.
They have come to the right place, for it begins not with man but with God.
A Divine Mechanism to Offset Social Inequality
God created man from the clay of the Earth, and then Himself blew the breath of life into this clay form. So, each of us human beings is of two natures, earthen and heavenly.
More properly, human nature (fitrah) is composed of both a higher and lower self (nafs): one pulls our clay selves earthward with a feverish lust to possess the things of this world and to dominate all else and others in it. “For you love wealth with an ardent love.” (Surat Al-Fajr, 89:20).
The other draws us up toward the heavens, our real and intended home in a life everlasting (O peaceful soul! Return to your Lord, well-pleased and well-pleasing) — Surat Al-Fajr, 89:227-28 — and so to unladen our souls from the anchoring stuff of the earth that drags us down, all of which shall perish into dust.
Zakat is Allah’s mechanism to simultaneously (1) cleanse our higher souls from the taint of their base natures, (2) purify the worldly possessions that remain with us, (3) uplift the needful around us, and (4) elevate society by restoring its economic balance, locality by locality, with a fair and equitable redistribution of wealth that, in the end, like everything else, belongs to Allah alone.
Notably, Allah specifically identifies Zakat as fundamental to all real religions. He says of all the peoples to whom He ever revealed the Scripture: “They were not commanded but to worship One God — making the practice of their religion pure and sincere to Him alone, being ever upright of heart — and to duly establish the Prayer, and to give the Zakat. For that, indeed, is the upright religion,” (Surat Al-Bayyinah, 98:5)
How Zakat benefit society?
Zakat, when properly institutionalized in a community, underwrites both its social and spiritual integrity.
Shaykh Yusuf Qardawi in Fiqh Al-Zakat, Understanding the Legal Rulings of the Zakat-Charity, cites the scholar Al-Bahi Al-Khawli explaining three ways in which Zakat guarantees the ongoing indivisibility of Muslim societies, that is, helps preserve their spiritual integrity:
Nations are founded on spiritual and psychological elements in addition to material factors. Indeed, the spiritual factors count for much more in creating unity and vitality in any community. Islam pays great attention to these factors and makes the spending of the income of the community — to nourish and support these — one of its major obligations …
One can distinguish three major factors to which Islam gives special attention. The first is freedom or liberty. One objective of Zakat is to liberate individuals from the bondage of slavery. For the first time in the history of humanity, the liberation of slaves was made, by Islam, a social obligation for which a certain portion of the community’s wealth is to be spent.
Secondly, it encourages individuals to carry out projects of public interest and to spend with the objective of smoothing out differences between members of the community and to reconcile individuals and groups for the purpose of deterring social unrest … by assigning a share of Zakat to support those who have to bear financial responsibility for these purposes.
Third, spending in the way of Allah and spreading the sound religion that comes from Him is urged, which includes defending the ideals and doctrines for which Allah sent His Messengers and upholding the Oneness of Allah and righteousness on earth.
What does Zakat offer people economically?
Zakat specifically creates a comprehensive social financial and care support service that — unlike most social insurances and social security systems in our economy-based states — does not require any dues or financial contribution from a person to gain its coverage or qualify for its payment.
Yet every Muslim who has minimally, externally defined means of wealth sufficiency must pay a percentage of that surplus to the well-being and support of the ones whom Allah has entitled to it.
Allah Himself makes universally eligible for yearly payment from all Muslims eight categories of recipients, and particularly those who live in the locality of these Muslims who have annual surpluses above minimum thresholds established for their various wealth streams — and whether these recipients are Muslims or others.
These Zakat-eligible people have been defined in Surat Al-Tawbah (9:60):
1. The Poor
2. The Indigent
3. Zakat System Administrators
4. People with Hearts in Need of Reconciliation
5. People in Bondage
6. The Debt-Ridden
7. People upon the Way of God
8. The Wayfaring Displaced
Scholars agree that the first two closely related categories — the poor and indigent — represent the highest priority of the Zakat, while the others are not necessarily ranked according to precedent.
Yet together these divinely inalterable categories of the Zakat-eligible show clearly that Allah has institutionalized Zakat in Muslim society for the explicit purpose of directly giving sustaining economic benefit to the most vulnerable of the societies in which they live. And, in fact, the goal of Zakat, according to the most venerable Companions of the Prophet (PBUH) is to: (a) maintain the integrity of that society and its collective Zakat obligation, even as the communal Salat is sustained, and (b) enrich its recipients ideally, not merely meet their immediate needs.
The writer is a member of staff.