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Updated on July 23, 2014

Zakat, Charity & Almsgiving

Zakat, one of the pillars of Muslim faith, is an obligatory act of giving away a fixed portion of one’s wealth or assets, at the end of lunar calendar to the poor and needy people in compliance with God’s commandments in the Quran.

Its literal translation means cleanse and purify one’s wealth and establish a welfare society where needs of poor people are addressed by collective contribution of well to do people.

God has repeatedly asked Muslims to establish salah (worship) and pay poor’s due to purify accumulated wealth by helping poor and needy people. Its main purpose is to establish a society where welfare of poor is looked after by contribution from well to do people of the society. This Almsgiving is common among followers of monotheistic faiths. Christian regards this as a sign of love whereas Muslims consider it an act of worship.

Some Muslim scholars advocate that Zakat is a tax on Muslims but Quran and other scriptures are explicitly clear in emphasizing the voluntary giveaway from the accumulated and surplus wealth that had been in possession of a Muslim for one lunar calendar to help poor people of the society. This implies that Zakat is meant to be given to the poor segment of the society and for that reason it does not fall within the domain of mandatory tax, required to run, manage and govern a state or a country. It is just an act of charity towards poor and needy people.

If we analyse the current spectrum of Muslim countries in existence, it may be apparent to conclude that Zakat is not the sole source of taxation require to manage a country. Every country has a taxation system to run, day to day affairs of the country through mandatory taxation system. There is none Muslim countries that can be recognize as welfare in nature but Zakat is given and collected in a decentralized way for disbursement among poor and needy people. Therefore, considering Zakat a tax, could be a misconception.

In Muslim countries it is incumbent upon Muslims to pay Zakat or charity while in others it appears to be optional, left on individuals to evaluate his/her financial condition and give Zakat voluntarily whereas non-Muslims are required to give Jizyah, a form of tax, irrespective of their wealth to ensure their protection and safety.

In a true Islamic state where governance is based on Sharia, Zakat serves a noble purpose of establishing welfare society but unfortunately, we don’t have a single Islamic state anywhere on this planet. In absence of that, question arises, how to collect and distribute poor’s due, efficiently among poor people and do Muslims residing in western welfare stated where everyone is contributing toward the welfare of poor’s through taxation system; have to pay Zakat?

Since, the purpose of Zakat is fulfilled by the state through mandatory contribution via taxation; giving Zakat additionally appears to be redundant. However, well to do Muslims can still help poor through Sadaqat instead of Zakat.

Although, Zakat is prescribed multiple times in Quran but Quran is neither explicitly clear to guide regarding the type of wealth or assets on which Zakat is to be given nor does it specify percentage of wealth to be given. Consequently, Muslim scholars have worked to interpret the sacred texts and came up with the rate at which Zakat is to be given on accumulated assets. A Muslim can evaluate his saving and assets at the end of the year and give Zakat at the specified rate which may differ from money accumulated to agricultural products and livestock in hand.

The notion, charity begins at home implies that it is preferable for Muslims to give Zakat to the poor and needy relative first and then to the others. Presumably it is the responsibility of the Muslim State to establish a centralized system for the collection and disbursement of Zakat but as we don’t have a true Islamic State in existence, Zakat is collected and disbursed through decentralized system in most of the Muslim countries. Zakat so collected often get distributed among collectors, or those, who are in debt, travelling or studying abroad instead of deserving poor people. Those who advocate this trend are not complying with God’s commandments. Those who manage collection and distribution of Zakat could be hired workers and their salaries could be paid from Zakat fund but they don’t deserve zakat money. Giving, Zakat money to those who manage the funds, or those who are in debts, traveling or students abroad etc.; defeat the whole purpose of zakat, nullifying the objective of creating a welfare Muslim society in the world.

Our demographic has changed considerably compared to what it used to be 1400 years ago. Live stocks, agricultural products, Gold and Silver which were main commodities in that era, have change slightly due to industrialization. Accumulative asset still falls in the same domain with minor changes due to a breach or infraction of capitals, real estate etc. and generally people throughout the human spectrum largely work and are employed in various disciplines.

As mentioned before, Quranic verses relevant to Zakat were needed to be interpreted in proper context. Muslim Scholars have done Ijtihad, following sharia to establish and specify the categories of wealth on which Zakat is applicable as well as the rate or % to be given away.

Generally speaking Sharia is composed of

Sharia= ‘Quran (Sacred Test) + Prophetic Saying (Sunnah) + Ijtihad’.

Amount of Zakat to be given depends on the amount of wealth and the type of assets in possession for one lunar year. Muslim scholars have established, a rate of 2.5% zakat on capital assets (money etc.), while agricultural products, precious metals and live stock’s rate vary from 7, 15 or 20% applicable zakat, on continuously owned assets in excess of ‘Nisab’ (minimum monetary value). Personal assets like clothing, household furniture and one’s residence are exempted from Zakat.

In early era of Islam, Caliph ‘Abu Bakr’ is considered to have established statutory system that later on was revised and amended by other prominent Muslim Caliphs and leaders and it was considered to be a personal responsibility for acquiring salvation in the hereafter.

Based on above mentioned Sharia Equation, Muslim scholars have devised system of collecting zakat from every aspect of earnings and assets without establishing a genuine system of disbursement to the poor people in Muslim Countries They will advised masses how much to give, where to give and whom to give zakat money but are shy of disclosing zakat disbursement and often justify themselves as the recipient of Zakat. Poor people do not get help from zakat money collected as its distribution is kept secret. If zakat money is distributed properly, all Muslim countries should have become welfare states but there is none in the world. The perception that zakat money could be given to those who manage its collection, distribution as well as those who are in debt, of travelling or foreign students who come to study in North America, is totally wrong. Zakat money is meant for poor’s only.

Some of the Quranic Verses relevant to the subject are listed below for reference purposes. Readers may review these verses and make their own rational judgement regarding God’s commandments and its compliance by the followers under current extenuating circumstances and changing environment to evaluate its implication toward poor people in Muslim states due to lack of proper distribution system.

Quranic References.


2:43. Establish worship, pay the poor-due, and bow you heads with those who bow (in worship).

2:83- And (remember) when We made a covenant with the children of Israel, (saying): Worship none save Allah (only), and be good to parents and to kindred and to orphans and the needy and speak kindly to mankind; and establish worship and pay poor due. Then, after that, ye slid back, save a few of you being averse.

2:110-Establish worship, and pay the poor due; and whatever of good ye send before (you) for your souls, ye will find it with Allah. Lo! Allah is seer of what ye do.

2:277- Lo! Those who believe and do good works and establish worship and pay the poor due, their reward is with their Lord and there shall no fear come upon them neither shall they grieve.

Verse 19:31- And hath made me blessed wheresoever I may be, and hath enjoined upon me prayer and zakat giving so long as I remain alive.

Verse 19:55- He enjoined upon his people worship and almsgiving, and was acceptable in the sight of his Lord.

Verse 21:73- And We made them chiefs who guide by Our command and we inspired in them the doing of good deeds and the right establishment of worship and the giving of alms and they were worshippers of Us (alone).

Verse 22:41- Those who if we give them power in the land, establish worship and pay the poor due .and

Verse 22:78- And strive for Allah with the endeavor which is His right. He hath chosen you and hath not laid upon you in religion any hardship; the faith of your father Abraham (is yours). He hath named you Muslims of old time and in this (sacred tedt), that the messenger may be a witness against you, and that ye may be witnesses against mankind. So establish worship, pay the poor due and hold fast to Allah. He is your Protecting Friend. A blessed Patron and a blessed Helper!

Verse 33:33- And stay in your houses. Bedizen not yourselves with the bedizenment of the time of ignorance. Be regular in prayer, and pay the poor due, and obey Allah and his messenger. Allah’s wish is but to remove uncleanness far from you, O Folk of the household, and cleanse you with a thorough cleansing.

There are many other location in the Quran where Salah and Poor- due has been mentioned. Please see the following verses on this subject.

Verses: 4:162, 5:55, 8:18, 9:71, 24:37, 27:3, 31:4, 5:12, 7:156, 23:14, 30:39, 18:81, 19:13, 58:13, 73:20, 98:5 and others. For to whom zakat can be given, please see verse 9:60 (Al-Tobah).

Verse 9:60 does mention people to who Zakat could be given. That include poor people, and those who collect (Zakat), freeing captives, those in debt, stranded travellers etc. but people currently in these categories are not the same as those in early era of Islam and hence do not deserve to collect zakat money as zakat collectors. No hardship is involved, nowadays, in collecting zakat and hence no entitlement. Same is applicable for those who are in debt as people make their choice in managing financial aspects and have means to pay off the debt. They are not facing “Riba” sort of compulsion. Those who come to acquire education; come lavishly through modern means of transportation and can support their expenses and hence don’t deserve zakat money.

Personal Views

Based on above stated Quranic verses, no one will dispute the purpose of Zakat and its importance in Islamic society where it goes to the revenue dept. and dispersed but it is not handled the same way. Muslim Societies collect Zakat every year but its distribution has not produced the outcome that God desires-that is a welfare society where poor don’t have to beg.

In lack of Sharia based governance, collection and distortion of Zakat in Muslim countries are questionable as we don’t see the fruitful outcome (welfare Muslim Society) of zakat contribution. Hence there is a dire need to revisit the subject for better understanding and compliance.

God’s commandments are for Muslim Communities in general and all are supposed to give Zakat but in some Muslim communities, like Pakistan, Shias are exempted from giving zakat or Shia community has the right to collect zakat and distribute the same among Shia mustahageen. This looks quite confusing as Zakat should be uniform across the spectrum of Muslims. Presumably, our clergy may have done that division with respect to Zakat.

In light of above I may say the followings.

  1. In non-sharia based Islamic government, compulsion to pay Zakat without centralized distribution system, defeat its purpose as it seems to be ineffective in producing a welfare Muslim society that should be the resultant of Zakat giveaway.

  2. Welfare of poor and needy is not based entirely on Zakat collection and disbursement through government treasury as it used to in early Islamic era and not targeted through a centralized distribution system to help poor.

  3. No Muslim country could be classified as welfare state where poor are supplemented with zakat money compared to western countries which are welfare states that absorbs the burden of welfare expenses fulfilling the requirement of Zakat

  4. In western welfare state, government looks after poor and needy people by monthly extraction of money from the pay-cheque of every citizen. This mandatory contribution of money by everyone serves the purpose of helping poor and is analogous to zakat.

  5. Muslims living in western welfare states, are part of the system & helping poor and needy through centralized government system.

Hence in Western Welfare countries, obligatory zakat as perceived by Muslims is redundant due to the welfare nature of the state and individual contribution of citizen toward welfare of poor is done through factoring that in the taxation system.

Our contribution in tax system, serves the purpose of helping poor and needy. Therefore, every Muslim citizen of a western welfare state is giving sufficient amount towards the well-being of poorer as asked by the God. In western welfare countries, welfare of poor people is based on collective contribution of money through tax system, people are fulfilling the objectives of zakat and hence the concept of Zakat seems to be redundant.

In west, it could be optional for Muslim to decide if he/she can afford to give from his wealth or saving to help next of kin or close poor family members in order to comply with the Quranic rulings. However, in these societies, if one feels that he has surplus wealth and still wants comply with God's commandments, he is at liberty to donate as much he wants to poor and needy people, be it next of kin, close relative or others needy people Sadaqat, rather than obligatory Zakat advised by God to help poor and needy people. Zakat collection and disbursement in Muslim countries are not serving the purpose God wants whereas in western welfare states Muslims are giving money towards poor and needy through taxation system, making additional giveaway as Zakat is appreciable but it is not deemed necessary and obligatory in the welfare states.

Mohammad Ashraf

Winnipeg. MB Canada


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