To learn more about the foundations of Islam,
click on a Pillar

...and spend out of what We have bestowed upon them..

Every human being carries the Divine amaanah or trust to transform the elements of nature into sources of nutrition and comfort, of wisdom and beauty, efficiency and enjoyment for himself and others. Built into this amaaanah or trust is the requirement on those who have been blessed with wealth and means, to spend out of their substance on those in deprivation and misery. Islam teaches people that the poor and the deprived have a "title" or a "right" in the wealth of the rich "And those in whose wealth is a recognised right for the (needy) who asks, and him who is prevented (for some reason from asking)" <Qur'an 70:24-25> and constantly exhorts the rich to meet that obligation. In this sense, the rich stand in need of the poor. If they do not fulfil this "right" of the poor, they will be called to account.

Islam distinguishes between two categories of charity: the optional form, generally termed sadaqa, and the mandatory one, the zakat. The latter constitutes the necessary revenue for the state which distributes it into those areas which might have been neglected by the "free market" system of Islamic welfare economics. While voluntary sadaqah is encouraged and its scope extended so that even the poor can offer sadaqah (in the form of a smile, for example), Islam has established the institute of zakat to make concern for the poor a permanent and compulsory duty.

The word Zakat means both 'purification' and 'growth'. Our possessions are purified by setting aside a proportion for those in need, and, like the pruning of plants, this cutting back balances and encourages new growth. Thus the Zakat is the amount of money that every adult, mentally stable, free, and financially able Muslim, male and female, has to pay to support specific categories of people. It is a proportionately fixed contribution collected from the surplus wealth and earnings of the Muslim. The Prophet (pbuh) was concerned that believers should show solidarity with the poor, and since his time, every Muslim has been expected to donate a minimum of one-fortieth of his wealth in charity every year. Traditionally an informal practice involving discreet handouts to indigent neighbours, the zakat is often administered through charities nowadays. The largest Muslim charities, such as Islamic Relief, have become important international aid agencies.

Although the zakat itself is a proportionately fixed contribution, the Muslims understanding of zakat is to give out as much as possible and as frequently as he is able to. Traditionally one such implication of "spend out of what We have bestowed.." is the provision of public works by private individuals. But in addition there in the institution of the waqf, the inalienable endowment, whereby some commercial project has its profits turned over wholly or partly to a particular school or hospital in perpetuity, either by charter or through making the endowment in a written legacy. Needless to say giving to others also exists on a more modest scale. Not everyone is able to build or donate a school or a bridge. Begging as a profession is hateful to Islam, as the Prophet (pbuh) said, "The upper hand is better than the lower," yet the genuinely poor are with us always, even in the most technically advanced industrial countries, and it is our duty to render help whenever we can. Islam teaches that charity should be given secretly, for as the Quran tells us, "If you give your charity openly then it is well, but you should hide it, then that is better for you, and will obliterate some of your wrong actions."

The implementation of Islamic welfare economics has historically proved highly successful. Far from being idealistic or divorced from reality, the Islamic vision of a society based on service has regularly been put into effect. In the golden centuries of Muslim civilisation, free private sector education resulted in a high literacy rate, which only began to decline during the period of colonial domination. When the armies of the Reconquest entered Cordoba, the erstwhile capital of Muslim Spain, they were astonished to find a city provided with street lighting at night and possessed of over four hundred public baths and a great library containing over half a million books.

So prosperous was Islamic civilisation under Muslim economic law that a voluminous body of records details events that seem quite incredible today. For example, an account records an exchange of correspondence between the devout eighth-century caliph 'Umar ibn 'Abd al-Aziz and his governor over the province of Iraq. In one letter, the governor complained, "Commander of the Faithful! I have given from the treasury to all in need, but some money still remains." The Caliph replied, "Seek out all those that have contracted reasonable debts, and pay off what they owe." The governor then wrote back, saying, "I have paid off every debt, but we still have a surplus." "Seek out every unmarried person," the Caliph told him, "who has insufficient money to marry, and pay their dowries and get them married." "I have already done so," came the reply, "but we still have a surplus." Finally the Caliph sent the following message: "Find out everyone who has to pay taxes and absolve him from paying them, for we have enough money for a year or two."

The Quran envisages and lays down certain areas in the economy from which these revenues are to be levied, and also specifies who and what is entitled to benefit from them.

The first and traditionally the most lucrative area in which the zakat is imposed, is the agricultural sector. According to the Quran, the landowner (not the farmer himself) is required to pay 10 % of his net profits every year to the state treasury, on condition that the crops grow readily or that the land is used solely for pasturing. However, if his land should be irrigated mechanically, through electric or diesel pumps (to give the modern equivalent), or with artesian wells, or if the land is benefiting from a hydroelectric scheme operating outside the farm itself, this rate is reduced to five percent. The differential is to encourage efficient farming.

Elsewhere in the economy, different rates of zakat are levied. The Islamic fiscal system is based on a gold standard, that is, the Islamic currency is readily convertible to gold or silver at a fixed rate which may only be raised or lowered by central bank directives approved by the head of state. Every transaction becomes liable to a one-fortieth zakat tax payable on its value in gold and silver. The tax is assessed at the end of the financial year, and replaces the Western system of "income tax". In addition, zakat is assessed at the same rate on capital gains, including bequests and gifts and return on shares in private corporations, and is also payable on all wealth held in money form including private bank accounts.

The third and last principal species of zakat is of particular interest. It falls due on gross profits from the exploitation of natural resources, including mines and oil wells. Covering revenue from all these sources, the zakat rate rises to 20 %, discouraging unnecessary waste of non-renewable minerals and energy sources. Renewable sources of energy, such as hydroelectric projects and solar energy, are encouraged by being taxed at the substantially lower rate of 5 %.

First among those who receive a share of the zakat are the poor, in particular those who are in danger of losing their lives as a result of simply not finding enough to eat. According to the World Health Organisation, eight million of our fellow men and women die of starvation each year throughout the globe. Aid to these people takes precedence over any other use which might be made of zakat funds.

The second area of disbursement is made up of those people within the boundaries of the Islamic state who are not in any immediate danger of starvation but who nevertheless live well below the poverty line. The government is entitled to distribute Zakat funds to such people, especially by providing them with the means to begin a career, for example, in the form of education grants or assistance with buying agriculture equipment.

Thirdly, mention should be made of the expenses incurred unavoidably in the collection and distribution of the zakat itself. It is traditional in the Islamic world that zakat workers are voluntary, but if such labour is not forthcoming, or if it proves necessary to buy documenting equipment, such as computers, then the zakat fund itself may be used to defray expenses. Government officials, including the head of state himself, are not entitled to government funds at all, but must ensure they have sufficient income from other sources before they opt to enter the world of politics, which is a world of service, not of personal gain.

Fourthly, there exists a special facility in the state treasury with regard to what is now in effect an extinct category: slaves. Islam prohibits slavery in the form which is familiar to students of European and American history. But in times of war there nevertheless exists a special mechanism for integrating prisoners of war. Rather than holding enemy troops in camps Islam allows that those who are of good behaviour may be sent for public service in the homes of private citizens. But in time of peace there is no such means of acquiring bonded servants, hence there is no permanent population of non-free people in an Islamic state. This system is called in the Islamic law the "law of indenture." In order to secure their release from their service, or from the prisoner-of-war camps themselves, these bonded servants are entitled to apply for assistance from the zakat fund to compensate the households which they are leaving.

Fifthly, the zakat treasury receives applications for assistance from people in chronic debt. After investigating the request, the treasury is entitled to pay off such debts if it is clear that the debtor is never likely to be in a position to do so himself.

Sixthly comes a general category of public services. From the zakat fund, and once the foregoing categories have received their due, the head of treasury may order disbursements upon projects of general benefit, including the provision of infrastructure not furnished by the private sector. The armed forces are likewise provided for from this category.

Seventhly, money may be sent overseas as foreign aid over and above the mandatory expenditures mentioned in the first of the eight categories.

Finally, there is a small category, historically of great importance, which provides for travellers who lack the means to return home. A voyager or tourist in a state where Islamic law is applied has a statutory right, should he lose his money (for example) to contact the local administration and request the fare needed to reach his country of origin.

For an online Zakat calculator click here.

As adapted from a saying of the Prophet (pbuh):

There was a man who said to himself "By Allah, I am going to give sadaqah," so he went out that night and gave sadaqah to a man whom he thought looked like a poor man. He was actually a thief going to steal, and he gave him sadaqah. When he woke up he heard people saying 'last night, sadaqah was given to a thief.' When he heard that, he said "Oh Allah, you have praise," the meaning of which according to commentators is that he made a mistake, but his intention was pure, and he said, "O Allah I gave it with a good intention, and You have praise in any state. I gave it to a person who was undeserving of it."

Then again, the next day, he said "I did not give charity," as he felt that he hadn't fulfilled his oath, so he said "I'm still going to do it," and he went out, and gave money to a prostitute. The next morning people were saying "A prostitute was given sadaqah last night." And he said, "O Allah, to You is praise;" he again had made a mistake.

So again he felt as if he hadn't given in charity and went out to fulfil his oath. This time he put his money into the hand of a rich man. The next morning again people were talking of the sadaqah saying, 'last night sadaqah was given to a rich man.' So again the man said, "O Allah, to You is praise." Then he saw in a dream, although some say an angel came to him, and he was told "As for your charity to that thief, maybe he will stop stealing because you gave him that." Then it was said, "And as for your charity to that prostitute, maybe she will stop fornicating because of that." And then he said "And as for the rich man, maybe this will cause him to reflect so that he will start to give out from his wealth." (for scholars say that most rich people don't really think about all that Allah has given them and that prevents them from charity.)

The Islamic Scholars say about this hadith that even if you gave charity to the wrong hands, say "O Allah, to You is praise" because if your intention was pure, Allah will make some good come out of it. It might not be from the hands of that person, but it may come later.

One of the great scholars, Badruddin Al-Hasani (who was a master of hadith), from the city of Damascus, who died in this age, at every 'Eid, he would go out, and he would give his students charity from his own pocket, and there were places, particularly in the colonialism era, where there were a lot of women that were impoverished and forced into prostitution to support themselves, and he would tell his student to give those prostitutes charity, and he would say to them, "Tell them that Badruddin Al-Hasani asked you to make du'ah (supplication) for him." And those women would weep when they heard that: "Who are we to make du'ah for Badruddin Al-Hasani?." There were people who repented because of that act. (Source: Depending on Allah, Zaytuna Institute Paper)

Thus even if you gave charity to the wrong hands, if your intention was pure, Allah the Most Merciful, will make good come out of it.

Pillars: 1 - 2 - 3 - 4 - 5

(Sources: Islam: Religion of Life- Abdul Wadod Shalabi; Zakaat Information Centre; Islam the Natural Way - AW Hamid; Depending on Allah, Zaytuna Institute Paper)

The Foundations