Zakat or Charity is the third pillar of Islam. But what is it? And what does the word Zakat mean? Zakat is the compulsory giving of a pre-set proportion or percentage of one’s wealth to charity.Payment of zakat is only compulsory to those Muslims that are wealthy enough to afford to it. Zakat is considered by many to be more of a tax than a charity and all eligible individuals are required to pay an annual percentage of 2.5% of the wealth and property they own.
Zakat is an obligation for those Muslims who have been blessed with wealth from Allah to give a helping hand to their less fortunate Muslim brothers and sisters in society. Islamic teachings greatly discourage hoarding of wealth and it is on this basis that Islam encourages all able Muslims to support their fellow Muslims in need.
The Arabic word Zakat literally means “purification”. This is because Zakat is meant to purify a Muslim’s heart from all forms of greed and selfishness. Love for wealth is a natural thing, and so it takes firm belief in God for one to part with their hard earned wealth to help those in need.
Zakat is given on various forms of property and wealth that include livestock, buildings, money, gold, silver, business commodities and agricultural produce.
As earlier mentioned, Islam teaches that wealth is a gift from Allah, and that it can all be easily taken away by Him without prior warning. It is on this basis that Muslims are encouraged to please Allah with their wealth so that He adds them more and preserves that which He has already blessed them with.
Allah is free from any need of one’s wealth, but rather, He wants those He has blessed with wealth to show awareness of Him and love for their fellow human beings by giving them support through the wealth they have amassed.
There are a number of beneficiaries that have been earmarked by Islam to receive the proceeds from Zakat collection and some of these include: the needy, the poor, debt-ridden individuals, stranded travelers, new Muslim converts, zakat administrators etc. Many of these are mentioned in the following verse of the Quran:
“Indeed, [prescribed] charitable offerings are only [to be given] to the poor and the indigent, and to those who work on [administering] it, and to those whose hearts are to be reconciled, and to [free] those in bondage, and to the debt-ridden, and for the cause of God, and to the wayfarer. [This is] an obligation from God. And God is all-knowing, all-wise.” – Al-Tawbah, 9:60
During the years of the Caliphates, the collection and distribution of Zakat was a responsibility of the state and still is the case in some of the Muslim countries today. However, in countries where the state does not administer Zakat collection and distribution for the citizens, Muslims give Zakat through mosques, Islamic charities or give it directly to the needy by themselves.
Apart from the compulsory Zakat, Islamic teachings also stress the importance of Sadaqa which is voluntary giving of alms to the needy.