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17. Understanding Islam

4.4. PILLAR 4: Zakat (almsgiving)

The fourth pillar of Islam is almsgiving. Muslims are required to give away 2.5% of the value of the wealth they accumulate in a given year above a certain minimum amount. There are also a few other situations where Muslims are required or encouraged to pay money to charity, such as in penance.

The Qur’an specifies the groups of people who may benefit from Zakat, but it is up to the individual to decide whether to pay the beneficiary directly or to give the money to their local mosque for disbursement. There are eight categories of acceptable expenditure of Zakat:

“The alms are meant only for the poor and the needy and those who are in charge thereof, those whose hearts are to be reconciled, and to free those in bondage, and to help those burdened with debt, and for expenditure in the Way of Allah and for the wayfarer. This is an obligation from Allah. Allah is All-Knowing, All-Wise.” (Qur’an 9:60)
  1. The poor. The Arabic word fuqara is a general word for all those who are unable to support themselves because of disability or old age, or who need temporary help such as orphans, widows, the unemployed and so on.
  2. The needy. The Arabic word masakin refers to those who are impoverished and unable to find the necessary means to meet their needs.
  3. Those who are in charge thereof. This basically means those who administer the collecting and distributing of alms, regardless of whether they themselves are in need of money or not – a type of administrative fee.
  4. Those whose hearts are to be reconciled. A portion of Zakat funds may also be given to win non-Muslims over to Islam, to non-Muslims who might be employed by the Muslim community in practical ways, or to newly converted Muslims who might be inclined to revert back if no monetary help was extended to them. It is permissible to award pensions to people in these groups, or give them lump sums of money to assure their support of Islam, or to become submissive to it, or at least to render them harmless enemies. This section today is mostly used in public relations campaigns or funding media campaigns for speaking positively about Islam. There is a difference of opinion as to whether this category of expenditure is still valid today.
  5. To free those in bondage. Zakat money may be spent for the ransoming of slaves in two ways. First, help may be given to a slave for the payment of the ransom money, where he enters into an agreement with his master that he will set him free if the slave pays him a certain amount of money. The second way is that the Islamic government may itself pay the price of his freedom directly to the slave’s owner. Scholars agree that the first way is permissible, but there is a difference of opinion as to whether money may be given to a government to purchase a slave’s freedom.
  6. Help those burdened with debt. Zakat can be given to debtors who would be reduced to a state of poverty if they paid off all their debts out of their own possessions, irrespective of whether they are earning any money or not.
  7. For Allah's cause. Although this term can generally mean any works done for Allah, the majority of Muslim scholars agree that the term denotes the struggle (Jihad) to eradicate social, legal or political systems based on non-Muslim standards and to establish the Islamic political and social system in their place. Therefore Zakat funds may be utilised to meet the expenses of procuring equipment, weapons and other articles needed for Jihad.
  8. The wayfarer. Zakat funds may be given to a Muslim on a journey even though he might be quite well off at home. Some scholars stipulate that the journey must not be for sinful purposes, but there is no such condition attached to this in the Qur’an

Some Islamic countries have a Ministry of Religious Endowments which is responsible for collecting and spending Zakat. As the Qur’an sets no geographical limit on spending Zakat, some countries spend it overseas, either on humanitarian causes like national disasters, or to fund a Muslim country’s war against a non-Muslim country (funding the Palestinian Islamic group Hamas, for example) or even funding an Islamic country in war against another Islamic country (such as funding Iraq in its war against Iran).

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