Zakat and the month of Ramadan

Ramadan symbolizes end­urance and rea­ssertion of faith. It is also a time when one sho­uld indulge in politics or grand display of affluence. Ramadan connects us with the Almighty and reminds us that the most important thing in life is to be able to withstand pain and hunger and help others in their time of need.

The holiest month in the Muslim lunar year, it has become the symbol of humility punctuated by joyous family gatherings. The three sections of the month- Rahmah (Allah’s mercy), Magfirah (forgiveness) and Najah (salvation) guide us and remind us as to how we should approach the rest of the Muslim year. It is also a month of bonding whereby, despite differences in social stature or the color of our skin or our geographical origin, we bond together through the universal medium of fasting and prayer.

This month includes Laylat ul Qadr (the Night of Prayer) when the Quran-al Karim was revealed through our Prophet (sm). This month also underlines the need not only of self-denial but also the need of helping the community.  It is in this environment that nearly 2 billion Muslims enter Ramadan to re-connect with God through fasting, abstinence from sex and drinking from dawn to dusk, praying extra dedications at home and in mosques in the evenings, and seeking forgiveness for any trespasses. This heightened spiritual awareness brings communities and congregations together across the globe.

Unfortunately, over the last few years there has been the osmotic presence of violence that has crept into this paradigm of peace and prayer. Ramadan, usually associated with faith, family, food, fun and forgiveness for Muslims and others, has become a time of fear. Mosques, designed to be places of peace and piety, are increasingly becoming targets for white supremacist terrorists and haters of Muslims.

In this context, the month of Ramadan connotes that we need to desist from fanaticism and all of us need to come together through inter-faith dialogue so that we can remove the potential for hate crimes. We need to understand that through this month the Creator is reminding His Creation that all of us need to be together and move forward not through anger and hate but through understanding. In this context the Quran repeatedly calls on its readers to reflect on Creation and to renew their commitment for promoting peace and goodness amongst humanity.

This matrix that seeks justice and equality is significantly brought forward through the observance of Zakat- "that which purifies". Zakat al-Mal ("zakat on wealth") is a form of alms-giving within the religion of Islam that is also understood as a religious obligation or tax, which, according to this religion is considered next in importance to Salat (prayer).

Zakat, one of the Five Pillars of Islam is considered as a religious obligation for all Muslims who meet the necessary criteria of wealth. It is a mandatory charitable contribution that is sometimes considered by a few Muslim countries as a form of religious tax.

Zakat is based on income and the value of all of one's possessions. It is customarily 2.5% (or 1/40) of a Muslim's total savings and wealth above a minimum amount known as Nisab. Islamic scholars over the centuries have differed over the percentage and amount that needs to be considered as Nisab. However it is agreed that the collected amount of Zakat should be paid to the poor and the needy.

Today, in most Muslim-majority countries, Zakat contributions are voluntary- Bangladesh, Egypt, Indonesia, Iran, Bahrain, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon and United Arab Emirates-, but in some other Islamic countries- Malaysia, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Yemen  and Libya- Zakat is mandated and collected by the State. It may be noted here that Shias, unlike Sunnis, traditionally regard Zakat as a private and voluntary decision, and they give Zakat to Imam-sponsored rather than State-sponsored collectors.

Islamic scholars consider Zakat to be a way for purifying one's income and wealth from sometimes worldly, impure ways of acquisition. They have noted in this regard that the Quran discusses charity in many of its verses. The word Zakat, with the meaning used in Islam now, is found, for example, in Suras: 7 (156), 19 (31), 19 (55), 21 (73), 23 (4), 27 (3), 30 (39), 31 (4) and 41 (7). Zakat is found particularly in the early Medinan Suras and described as obligatory for Muslims. 

In these Ayats of the Quran Muslims are reminded that Zakat is given for the sake of salvation and that those who give Zakat can expect reward from God in the afterlife, while neglecting to give Zakat can result in damnation. Zakat is consequently considered part of the covenant between God and a Muslim. 

Picktall, in his translation of the Quran has drawn particular attention to Sura Al Baqarah-Verse -177  which sums up the Quranic view of charity and alms- “It is not righteousness that ye turn your faces to the East and the West; but righteous is he who believeth in Allah and the Last Day and the Angels and the Scripture and the Prophets; and giveth his wealth, for love of Him, to kinsfolk and to orphans and the needy and the wayfarer and to those who ask, and to set slaves free; and observeth proper worship and payeth the poor due….Such are they who are sincere. Such are the God fearing.” 

In fact Surah At- Taubah, Ayat-5 made Zakat one of three prerequisites for pagans to become Muslims: "but if they repent, establish prayers, and practice zakat they are your brethren in faith".

Each of the most trusted Hadith collections in Islam have a book dedicated to Zakat. Sahih Bukhari's Book 24, Sahih Muslim's Book 5, and Abu-Dawud's Book 9 discuss various aspects of Zakat, including who must pay, how much, when and what. The 2.5% rate is also mentioned in the Hadiths. It is also indicated that refusal to pay or mockery of those who pay Zakat needs to be considered as a sign of hypocrisy, and God will not only not accept the prayers of such people but also that on the Day of Judgment, those who did not give the Zakat will be held accountable and punished. The Hadith collections also contain advice on the state-authorized collection of Zakat. The collectors are required not to take more than what is due, and those who are paying the zakat are asked not to evade payment.

It needs to be mentioned that according to Islamic scholars the amount of Zakat to be paid by an individual depends on the amount of money and the type of assets the individual possesses. The Quran does not provide specific guidelines on which types of wealth are taxable under the Zakat, nor does it specify percentages to be given. 

However the customary practice, in countries where Zakat is mandatory is that the amount of Zakat paid on capital assets (e.g. money) is 2.5%.  Zakat is additionally payable on agricultural goods, precious metals, minerals and livestock at a rate varying between 2.5% and 20%, depending on the type of goods. Zakat in these countries is usually payable on assets continuously owned over one lunar year that are in excess of the nisab, a minimum monetary value. There is however lack of agreement on this matter.

Today, in most Muslim countries, Zakat is at the discretion of Muslims over how and whether to pay, typically enforced by peer pressure, fear of God, and an individual's personal feelings. Among the Sunni Muslims, the Zakat committees are usually established, linked to a religious cause or local mosque, which collect Zakat. Among the Shia Muslims, deputies on behalf of Imams collect the Zakat.

The consequence of failure to pay Zakat in Muslim countries in the Middle East and North Africa has been a subject of extensive legal debate in traditional Islamic jurisprudence, particularly when a Muslim is willing to pay Zakat but refuses to pay it to a certain group or the state. 

According to classical jurists, if the collector is unjust in the collection of Zakat but just in its distribution, the concealment of property from him is allowed. If, on the other hand, the collector is just in the collection but unjust in the distribution, the concealment of property from him is an obligation (wajib).

 Furthermore, it has also been held that if the Zakat is concealed from a just collector because the property owner wanted to pay his zakat to the poor himself, then the property owner should not be punished for it. It may be mentioned here that Abu Hanifa, the founder of the Hanafi School supported the idea of property owners undertaking to distribute the Zakat to the poor themselves. Today, in States where Zakat payment is compulsory, failure to pay is regulated by state law similar to tax evasion.

Islamic scholars have traditionally identified the following categories of Muslim causes to be the proper recipients of Zakat:  (a) those living without any means of livelihood; (b) those who cannot meet their basic needs; (c) those sympathetic to or expected to convert to Islam - recent converts to Islam, and potential allies in the cause of Islam, (d) wayfarers and stranded travelers who are traveling with a worthy goal but cannot reach their destination without financial assistance.

There is however consensus that Zakat should not be given to one's own parents, grandparents, children, grandchildren, spouses or the descendants of the Prophet (sm).

It would also be worthwhile to note here that Muslim scholars disagree whether Zakat recipients can include non-Muslims. Islamic scholarship, historically, has taught that only Muslims can be recipients of Zakat. 

However in the past few decades some scholars have argued that Zakat may be paid also to non-Muslims after the needs of Muslims have been met, finding nothing in the Quran or Sunna to indicate  that Zakat should be paid to Muslims only.

The above discussion has highlighted some of the philosophical reasons associated with Zakat. There is however the more practical aspect of using Zakat as a means to remove widespread poverty from among the Muslim countries. Collecting Zakat and using this as a humanitarian aid factor can definitely help the ultra-poor or those affected by climate variability or floods or cyclones. It could also help to create better educational and health opportunities.

If carried out carefully and with religious commitment and political will, then its effect can be effective in macroeconomic terms. It is true that Zakat has so far failed to relieve large scale absolute poverty among Muslims in most Muslim countries but Malaysia, Gambia, Nigeria and Indonesia are giving special attention to this. We need to wait and see what happens.

Muhammad Zamir is a former Ambassador and an analyst  specialized in foreign affairs.