Zakat is the third pillar of Islam. Zakat in Arabic translates to ‘the act of giving of alms to the poor and needy.’ Offering Zakat is a religious obligation for Muslims. In Islam, it is considered the duty of individuals with wealth to assist the poor and needy. The term Zakat in Arabic linguistically has several meanings, including ‘to purify, to increase, cleanliness, blessings, and goodness’.
Zakat means to purify; because, according to the Islamic faith, one’s wealth and property is not pure unless the owner shares a divinely appointed proportion of it with people in need. The principle of Zakat also purifies one’s heart of greed and selfishness. Whereas the humanistic love of wealth is natural, Zakat is intended to free Muslims from the excessive and all-consuming love of money and greedy desire; teaching self-discipline in the process.
"Take, [O, Muhammad], from their wealth a charity by which you purify them and cause them increase, and invoke [Allah 's blessings] upon them. Indeed, your invocations are reassurance for them. And Allah is Hearing and Knowing" (Quran 9:103)
Zakat also means growth and blessings; because if one were to give and help others in times of ease and difficulties, God will be pleased in return to increase and bless his wealth. In fact, Allah has promised that the one who spends his wealth in support of His most important cause (charity, helping others, etc.), will see his prosperity increased manifold.
"The example of those who spend their wealth in the way of Allah is like a seed [of grain] which grows seven spikes; in each spike is a hundred grains. And Allah multiplies [His reward] for whom He wills. And Allah is all-Encompassing and Knowing" (Quran 2:261)
Additionally, our Prophet has stated that the act of Charity does not decrease wealth, rather it blesses, purifies and ultimately increases one’s fortune.
There are three primary types of giving in Islam. Two of these giving methods are mandatory, while one is highly recommended but not obligatory. The first obligatory act of giving is called Zakat Al-Mal, which is the Zakat given from one’s saved wealth and liquid assets. The second obligatory Zakat is called Zakat Al-Fitr, which is a special type of Zakat due at the end of the Month of Ramadan—to be paid by the head of the household. The third type of giving in Islam is called Sadaqah, which is voluntary and can be given at any time on any amount.
Sadaqah comes from an Arabic word meaning sincerity, as giving Sadaqah or charity is a sign of sincere faith in God on the part of the person who bestows it. Sadaqah is described in the Holy Quran as a beautiful loan which includes any act of charitable giving made as a gesture of love and generosity; whether the act stands in the form of giving money or time, helping others, praying for someone, spreading knowledge, giving advice, forgiving someone, visiting the sick, or even smiling at someone.
Zakat plays a major role and holds a high commendable standard in Islam, to the extent that about three dozen verses in the Holy Quran link the mandatory prayer to charity. God describes the true believers as the ones that both pray their necessary prayers and give Zakat. This proves the concept that Zakat is the believer’s most important obligation, after the mandatory prayer.
"Indeed, those who believe and do righteous deeds and establish prayer and give zakah will have their reward with their Lord, and there will be no fear concerning them, nor will they grieve" (Quran 2:277)
All things belong to God, and God has given wealth to certain individuals so they can distribute resources to those not as fortunate. People are given wealth as a trust from God, to distribute to and benefit the ones in need. The true Owner of all things is not man, but God, and we human beings are merely His trustees. God, who provided wealth to the intended recipient, reserved a portion of the given resources for the poor, so the underprivileged have a right claim a portion of one’s wealth. The concept of Zakat, in essence, reminds Muslims that everything they possess belongs to the Almighty. Additionally, people are given their wealth as a test from God. Wealth should be acquired, distributed, and spent in a way which is pleasing to God.
"And it is He who has made you successors upon the earth and has raised some of you above others in degrees [of rank] that He may try you through what He has given you" (Quran 6:165)
The acquisition and hoarding of wealth for one’s own sake, or so that it may increase a man’s worth, is condemned. Mere acquisition of wealth counts for nothing in the sight of the Almighty, as it does not give man any merit--in this life or in the hereafter. Islam teaches that one should acquire wealth with the intention of spending it on his/her self, family, and people in need. The act of giving and helping others shows one’s love of God, more than the amount or quantity of one’s own wealth; as when they give to others, they donate funds they otherwise would have spent on themselves--doing so to please God the Almighty. Zakat is a sign of true belief and love in God.
"The ones who establish prayer, and from what We have provided them, they spend. Those are the believers, truly. For them are degrees [of high position] with their Lord and forgiveness and noble provision" (Quran 8:3-4)
Zakat offers both humanitarian and socio-political benefits. It is designed by our Creator to reallocate and redistribute wealth in a society. Zakat establishes social justice and—if practiced collectively by a population--can lead a society to prosperity and security. Zakat helps to circulate wealth in a balanced way, stabilizing and equalizing the flow of money in a society; eliminating as it does the eternal cycle of poverty. Zakat is an interest-free financial strategy that could help prevent a society from undergoing an economic recession.
Every Muslim who has wealth exceeding a specific minimum--a level known as nisab--and who maintains that wealth for more than one lunar year, is obligated to give Zakat. Zakat is given on an annual basis based on the Islamic lunar calendar and is not based on the western calendar--which is 11 days longer than its counterpart.
The nisab is the specific minimum amount of wealth that a Muslim must possess before being required to pay Zakat. One is obligated to pay Zakat if what they possess is equal to or more than the equivalent to 3 ounces of gold, or its value in cash or trade goods. Zakat must be paid for gold and silver currency, cash, agricultural produce such as date farms, livestock, rent income, and business commodities such as inventory stock in a shop warehouse.
Islam requires Muslims to pay an annual contribution of 2.5 percent of the wealth and liquid assets that they have accrued and held for over the course of one lunar year. Zakat is calculated on the person’s earned net balance; that amount which remains after paying all other necessary expenses. Zakat is not an income tax, rather the amount due is based on what a Muslim has saved and held for an entire year, and not on their income level. Zakat is not paid from the pool of funds used for debt repayment, or for necessary living expenses such as food, water, shelter, clothing, and transportation.
The recipients of Zakat are the poor, the needy individuals who live in turmoil, those who have accumulated much debt, captives, the Zakat administrators, and more recipients. Scholars state that the poor and the impoverished are the most important categories of people eligible to receive Zakat.
"Zakah expenditures are only for the poor and for the needy and for those employed to collect [Zakah] and for bringing hearts together [for Islam] and for freeing captives and for those in debt and for the cause of Allah and for the traveler - an obligation [imposed] by Allah. And Allah is Knowing and Wise" (Quran 9:60)
The purpose of Zakat is to help those who cannot help themselves. Zakat can be given to an individual’s extended family; however, one may not give this specified amount to parents or children, as one is already obligated to support them. When one gives Zakat in this world, he or she is really helping themselves; as they are transferring needed goodwill from their worldly life to their afterlife, which is the best investment one can make.
When one gives to someone in need, he shouldn’t think of the gesture as a favor; rather, he is giving to God. The one giving is more in need of the beggar, than the beggar is in need of him. Whereas the beggar is in need only of money, the giver is in need of the Almighty’s forgiveness.
"Do they not know that it is Allah who accepts repentance from His servants and receives charities and that it is Allah who is the Accepting of repentance, the Merciful?" (Quran 9:104)
The benefits of giving in charity are many and varied. Amongst the benefits is the pleasure that God expresses to the one who gives. Zakat is known to extinguish the wrath that Allah may hold for one who gives. Giving Zakat also protects one from the punishment of hellfire.
The act of giving to the needy awakens the soul and initiates genuine concern and sympathy for the well-being of the underprivileged and others.
It is recommended to give charity in secrecy to ensure that one is giving for the right, pure reason of pleasing God, and not to receive praise or to boast before others—both acts which would nullify the good deed. However, under certain circumstances--for instance, in the event that one has the intention to encourage others to donate in a similar manner--one may give Zakat in public. It's important to note that Zakat money needs to be given from an untainted pool of 100% pure and halal funds—not taken from thefts or bribes, nor profits from interest-based loans or from sales of alcohol, pork, drugs, or anything that is prohibited in Islam. God the Almighty is Good and Pure, and only accepts that which is good and pure.