Zakah: The Giving Spirit of Ramadan

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The idea that helping others is part of a meaningful life has been around for thousands of years. Charity is an important part of Islam as it is considered a form of worship and a cardinal act of piety, allowing the rich to share their wealth with the poor.

For Muslims, charity is a central aspect of their faith and practice. In Islam, a culture of giving is interwoven into the fabric of its forms of worship. Helping the poor is a religious mandate. The traditions of humanitarian stewardship and egalitarian values are at the foundation of Islamic beliefs. Governed by a worldview in which all things come from God and finally return to God, Muslims are taught to live as trustees of God’s blessings. Islam is a way of life, and one important facet is the duty to serve those who are less privileged than us. The equitable division of the wealth of society and the bounty of the earth between all people regardless of their social station through the instrument of charity is seen not just as an act of piety but as a cardinal obligation for Muslims. Ramadan is the focal point of philanthropy: during this month, Islam’s obligation to give to the poor intensifies.

Islam is a complete way of life; one crucial facet is the duty to serve those less privileged than us. Ramadan is the focal point of philanthropy: During this month, people’s obligation to give to the poor intensifies. Arab societies have elaborate and nuanced social codes that demand excessive generosity and hospitality towards visitors and strangers. This is embedded in the ancient Arab proverb: “A guest is greeted like a prince, held like a captive [to your generosity], and departed like a poet [to sing your praises].” The Qur’an provides both a spiritual framework for possessing wealth and practical guidelines for dispensing. Frugality with self and generosity with others underpins the Qur’anic message of charity.

Zakat means purification and comes from the Arabic verb zaka, which also signifies “to thrive”, “to be pure”, and “to be wholesome.” Muslims “purify” their wealth by giving a portion of it yearly to charity.

Muslims give in the form of either zakat, which is a mandatory form of charity ordained by God, or Sadaqa, which is voluntary and meant to go beyond mere religious obligations. Zakat is the third pillar of Islam and is more of a social contract between rich and poor societies wherein Muslims pledge a determinate portion of specified categories of their lawful financial assets for the benefit of the poor and other enumerated classes. In Qur’an, the significance of zakat appears to be equal to prayer as an expression of faith. The two are often mentioned simultaneously in the symmetrical rhythm of the holy book’s verses. Zakat means purification and comes from the Arabic verb zaka, which also signifies “to thrive”, “to be pure”, and “to be wholesome.” Muslims “purify” their wealth by giving a portion of it yearly to charity. This Islamic practice is one way of learning self-discipline, freeing oneself from the love of possessions and greed. In a way, the man, who spends his wealth, affirms that nothing is dearer to him in life than the love of God and that he is prepared to sacrifice everything for his sake.

The Islamic duty of zakat is binding on all Muslims who meet the necessary wealth criteria: It’s limited, in a way, by your ability. According to the rules of the Qur’an, all Muslims, on whom zakat is mandatory, must donate at least 2.5 percent of the total value of the financial assets based on the minimum wealth criteria (known as the niqab) each year for the benefit of the poor, needy and others, classified as mustahik. The 2.5 percent rate only applies to cash, gold, silver, and commercial items. There are other rates for farm and mining produce and animals. Zakat is levied on five categories of property food grains; fruit; camels, cattle, sheep, and goats; gold and silver; and movable goods and is payable each year after one year’s possession. Zakat is not simply a means to manage poverty but is inherently focused on building dignity, honour, and self-sufficiency in the broader community. This is reflected in the diversity of categories of genuine zakat recipients. Deeply embedded in the Islamic concept of zakat are notions of welfare, altruism, and justice, which can be seen as a way of harnessing the human potential to resolve insurmountable challenges to human society. Charity and altruism are rooted in the basic concern for the welfare of others, while Islam has added to it the notion of justice, which is seen as a way of building a just and equitable society. It is the human predilection for riches that the Qur’an cautions against, yet it acknowledges that spiritually immature souls may jeopardize their moral standing by indulging in reckless acts of charity that leave them destitute. Some verses speak of maintaining a balance between extravagance and parsimony. This is in recognition of human nature, which has the dual impulses of compassion and an inherent love for wealth. In this way, Islam’s legal teachings counsel temperance and prudence; whereas its spiritual teachings urge selflessness and generosity.