The Institution of Zakat in Islam and its Contemporary Applications

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The institution of Zakat has paramount importance in maintaining social justice and economic equilibrium. Zakat or spending wealth on the poor is more than just a virtuous religious deed.

By Ghulam Rasool Dehlvi

It is important to understand the reason why Zakat has been made one of the fundamentals of Islam (Arkaan-e-Islam). Why is this financial transaction, and not a physical act of worship, incumbent on every affluent Muslim? An in-depth analysis of this fundamental Islamic tenet gives us multiple reasons.
First and foremost, the institution of Zakat in Islam is aimed to bring comfort to the poor who need financial assistance. The idea behind the obligation of Zakat is that the enormous wealth that one possesses is not one’s own. The creator of the world is the real Owner of all the wealth we think we possess. The rich are only His trustees. Therefore, they must earn and spend the wealth as per His will. “O believers! Spend of the good things which you have earned, and of that which We have produced from the earth for you, and do not aim at that which is bad to spend from it” (Quran: 2:267)

Balance of Ownership in Wealth
Viewed this way, the poor have a right to the wealth of the rich, a proper and legal right determined by the real owner of the wealth, the Almighty Allah. Therefore, He enjoined it on all His trustees in the form of Zakat. He also made it clear that a deserving recipient of the Zakat should not feel humiliated, as he or she is entitled to receive his/her right.
Secondly, Zakat has been enjoined to keep the balance of ownership in wealth. It neither deprives the owner from all his wealth and property, nor does it leave it all to him. Instead, it allows for a balance through the sharing of wealth between the poor and the rich based on certain rates.
Clearly, the institution of Zakat has paramount importance in maintaining social justice and economic equilibrium. Looked at from this perspective, an act of Zakat or spending wealth on the poor is more than just a virtuous religious deed, as it plays a central role in balancing social inequalities. Thus, the institution of Zakat helps us create a just and stable society and provides us with a framework for justice towards the poor and the downtrodden sections of society.
According to the jurisprudential injunction of Zakat, 2.5% of one year’s total cumulative wealth must be distributed to the needy people. Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) said, “whoever fulfills the Zakat of his wealth, will have its evil removed from him”. Contributing this amount of wealth to the welfare of the less fortunate, is one of the keys to attain righteousness and closer relationship with God, the Most Gracious. The Qur’an says, “You shall not attain righteousness unless you spend on others of that which you love, and whatever you spend, verily God has knowledge of it.” (3:92)
Spiritual Dimension of Zakat
The concept of Zakat gives us an enlightening idea that the acquisition of wealth is not an end in itself, nor it is to be squandered for lower motives. God has endowed it to certain people to serve higher spiritual purposes. It was not meant for them to gain power over the less fortunate through monopolisation of the means of livelihood. Rather, the Will of the Endower, Allah, Almighty, is to ensure kindness and charity from the rich to the poor: “Those who spend in charity, whether in prosperity or adversity, who restrain anger and pardon people; God loves those who do good to others.” (3: 134). This is the spiritual dimension of Zakat.
Etymologically, the word ‘Zakat’ is a derivate of ‘Tazkiyah,’ which means ‘purification’ or ‘cleansing’. Sometimes, Zakat is termed as “Sadaqah”, particularly if it is a voluntary and non-obligatory contribution of wealth. Sadaqah is derived from the root word “Sadq” or “sidq”, which means “truthfulness” or “sincerity”.
Though it encompasses the purification of all sorts of one’s possession, it refers, most specifically, to one’s enormous wealth. However, it purifies not only the wealth of the giver, but also his heart and mind from miserliness, greed and all selfish tendencies. A renowned Sufi, Imam Ghazali states in his spiritual discourses (Ihya Ulum al-Din): “The divine decree by which Allah bids His servants to spend their wealth, is also significant in purging the habit of miserliness, which is a deadly evil. It can only be eliminated by making oneself accustomed to spending money. The purity he acquires is in proportion to his expenditure, to his delight in giving away and to his joy in spending for the sake of God.”
More importantly, Zakat purifies the hearts of the poor recipients from hostility and uneasiness, envy, and distrust that they may harbour towards the wealthier class of the society. It fosters goodwill and warm wishes for the contributors.
Those who are eligible to receive Zakat, according to the Qur’an are Fuqara (the poor), Masakeen (beggars), Yatamaa (orphans), Musafirin (helpless travellers), Maqrooz (debtors) etc. This is clearly stated in the Qur’an: “The alms are only for the poor, the needy, those who collect them, those whose hearts are to be reconciled, to free the captives and the debtors, for the cause of God, and for the travellers; a duty imposed by God. God is All-Knowing, AII-Wise.” (9:6).
The above-mentioned Qur’anic categories of persons who are eligible to receive zakat were laid down more than 14 hundred years ago. They are equally applicable to our time, but with veritable differences. For instance, Zakat was also given as a ransom to free the slaves. The Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) liberated the slaves in great numbers by paying ransom money in the form of Zakat. But it is not applicable in the same way in this day and age, when the pre-Islamic Jahiliyah custom of slavery is no more. Today, this category could be best replaced by the prisoners who were wrongly accused and imprisoned. A sum of Zakat amount could be paid for their bail, if they cannot afford to free themselves.
(Ghulam Rasool Dehlvi is a classical Islamic scholar. He has graduated from a leading Islamic seminary of India, Jamia Amjadia Rizvia (Mau, U.P)