Almsgiving (zakat) is the pillar of Islam where practicing Muslims donate a fixed amount of money, known as nisab, to those in need. Some translate zakat to voluntary charity, however, the word charity alone does not cover the vastness that giving zakat provides to society and the giver, nor does it adequately define the word zakat, as zakat is an obligatory tax on the income of all practicing Muslims who are able to pay.
Voluntary charity in Arabic can better be translated as sadaqa. Sadaqa can range from giving your time in volunteer work, to donating money, to even smiling at a fellow human being as you cross paths on the street (Muslim). Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) stated that sadaqa could even be affectionately placing food in your spouse’s mouth.
Paying zakat is obligatory of all practicing Muslims. It is recognition that the wealth bestowed upon an individual came from God-Almighty and therefore that individual must use it responsibly. Each year, Muslims calculate the amount they must give in zakat and then pay a small percentage of their total wealth to legitimate organizations, institutions, or distributors of zakat. While the obligatory zakat occurs only once in a year, Islam encourages doing voluntary acts of charity (sadaqa) as often as possible.
The Arabic word zakat can best be translated as purification and growth and it provides many benefits to society. Essentially, it creates a social contract between those who have and those who do not. “You will never be able to attain godliness and virtue until you spend of what you love (in God’s cause, or to provide sustenance for the needy). Whatever you spend, God has full knowledge of it.” (3:92) (1)
Who Receives Zakat?
The Qur’an tells that zakat may be given to deserving individuals who fall into one or more of the following eight categories:
“The Prescribed Purifying Alms (the Zakat) are meant only for the poor, and the destitute, and those in charge of collecting (and administering) them, and those whose hearts are to be won over (for support of God’s cause, including those whose hostility is to be prevented), and to free those in bondage (slavery and captivity), and to help those over-burdened with debt, and in God’s cause (to exalt God’s word, to provide for the warriors and students, and to help the pilgrims), and for the wayfarer (in need of help). This is an ordinance from God. God is All-Knowing, All-Wise.” (9:60) (1)
This verse from the Qur’an tells us precisely where the money collected from almsgiving may go, but also grants Muslims with flexibility when it comes to its payment. As stated above it can be paid to legitimate organizations or institutions that ensure it will be distributed to the rightful recipients.
So, where can zakat go?
The poor (al-fuqura)
The needy (al-masakin)
Zakat administrators, meaning a trustworthy, legitimate organization that can assist in calculating and distributing your zakat
Those who hearts are to be won over, including those whose hostility is to be prevented.
Those in bondage (slavery and captivity)
In God-Almighty’s cause – to provide for the warrior and students, and help the pilgrims. An example of this would be to assist in the building of a school or youth center.
The wayfarer, meaning those who are stranded and/or in need of help
Zakat as Purification
Zakat acts as purification of not only the income brought into the home, but also as purification for the soul of the giver, just as prayer cleanses our sins. Zakat prevents one from hoarding their wealth and possessions only for themselves and causes one to grow in sincerity and gratitude for what God-Almighty has bestowed upon them. “Take alms (prescribed or voluntary) out of their wealth so that you (O Messenger) may thereby cleanse them and cause them to grow in purity and sincerity, and pray for them. Indeed your prayer is a source of comfort for them. God is All-Hearing, All-Knowing.” (9:103) (1)
When one gives in charity, it can only be expected that their good will be returned to them. In fact, Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) stated in a hadith that two angels descend each day, one of them praying for God-Almighty to grant prosperity on the wealth of those who are charitable.
Unal, Ali. “The Miraculous Quran.” The Miraculous Quran.