I have written in previous posts about the first three pillars of Islam: shahadah (the proclamation of faith), salah (prayer), and saum Ramadan (fasting the month of Ramadan). In this post, I will focus on giving zakat, or almsgiving. The word zakat comes from the Arabic root “to purify.” Muslims purify their wealth by giving around 2.5% of standing wealth, wealth that they have not needed to use during the year, to those in need. Zakat is different from voluntary charity called sadaqah because it is required of all able Muslims.
There are many verses in the Qur’an that prescribe giving zakat. This pillar is very often mentioned in conjunction with salah (prayer) because Muslims have a vertical relationship with God that is reflected in the five daily prayers, but they also have a horizontal responsibilty to other human beings embodied in giving zakat to those in need. One example is verse 73 in chapter 21:
And We made them leaders, guiding (men) by Our Command, and We sent them inspiration to do good deeds, to establish regular prayers, and to practice regular charity; and they constantly served Us (and Us only).
In addition to prescribing zakat as one of the pillars of Islam, in verse 60 in chapter 9, the Qur’an also gives instructions as to who should receive alms.
As-Sadaqât (here it means Zakât) are only for the Fuqarâ'(poor), and Al-Masâkin (the poor) and those employed to collect (the funds); and to attract the hearts of those who have been inclined (towards Islâm); and to free the captives; and for those in debt; and for Allâh’s Cause (i.e. for Mujâhidûn – those fighting in the holy battle), and for the wayfarer (a traveller who is cut off from everything); a duty imposed by Allâh. And Allâh is All-Knower, All-Wise.
Zakat is the responsibility of the individual believer, but there are many Muslim organizations that will help by collecting the money and distributing it to those in need. Zakat is meant to ensure that everyone in the community has the basics to survive. Moreover, it is a reminder to each Muslim that the wealth that they have is a gift from God and thus they should share it with others who are less fortunate.
Do other faith traditions have required alms? What do you think is the purpose of alms and charity? Please share your comments below.