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A reconsideration of the concept of zakat

  • Published at 12:00 am November 17th, 2019
A beautiful and integral part of Islam BIGSTOCK

Islam deals with the long-term need for institutions to promote human dignity

Surely we cannot go far beyond what is right, if we go back to the root and ask ourselves about the greater meaning Islam brings and how divine solutions are fundamental to it. Islam deals with issues of everyday life as well as spiritual ones. 

Is zakat anything other than a divine way of handling issues of poverty and a divine order for social solidarity to provide people with most of their social security needs? This is expressed in the Qur’anic statement: “[He] who fed them when they were hungry and gave them security from fear.” (Q 106:4)

These are the two needs that still top the scale of human priorities.

A pillar of Islam

In its objectives, Islam combines religion and daily life, and deals with the long-term need for institutions to promote human dignity and education. Zakat is clearly one of the pillars of Islam. Islam could not be maintained without it: The economics of neither state nor individuals could be maintained in such a humane way that the continuation of ihsan would be secured and solidarity becomes a way of life in society, rather than an individual concept, based on and confined to the generosity and initiatives of individuals. 

Through zakat, the economic cycle is completed and can continue to have humane content, not forgetting or mistreating any group of beneficiaries.

Zakat is a share given annually from the saved wealth or property of each Muslim, which have reached a zakatable level.

Paying zakat is intended to purify wealth by giving, and purify society from the social evils resulting from deprivation and poverty. This is evidenced by God’s condemnation of the idolaters, saying: “Woe to the idolaters who do not pay zakat and do not believe in the Hereafter.” (Q 39:6-7)

Withholding zakat incurs “woe” for them. Such woe may occur in this world for the community by way of class hostility that leads to social strife or social and economic challenges that arise in a deprived environment. For this reason, paying zakat is a pillar of true faith.

We should bear in mind that expenditure on the specified zakat targets is not confined to poor Muslims, but extends to all poor people, according to rules set by jurists. Accordingly, it is possible to make zakat a means for the abolition of poverty wherever people are. 

Zakat is a war against poverty and a means to spare the poor from the need to beg from the rich. It is not just a means to meet the temporary food needs of a single day, but a right of the poor vested in the wealth of the better off. 

Islamic legal scholarship explains the use of zakat, based on the Qur’anic verse: “Alms are meant only for the poor, the needy, those who administer them, those whose hearts need winning over, to free slaves and help those in debt for God’s cause, and for travellers in need. This is ordained by God; God has the knowledge to decide.” (Q 9:60)

It should be noted that this verse was revealed when certain well-off individuals had demanded the Prophet give them a share of the zakat. It shows that zakat was collected and administered by the state and distributed to well-defined groups so that it was not just a matter of individuals paying something to beggars in the street.

The ability to eradicate poverty

Since societies, like individuals, vary in their economic capacities, our call for an international institution for zakat and human solidarity comes as a sharing of benefits between rich and poor societies. 

Such an institution would be a better way to direct benefits to the public good and is a more fruitful way to realize zakat, so that it is given to those most in need, even if it goes beyond state boundaries.

Income from zakat is estimated at between $50-$100 billion according to the types of wealth that are zakatable, and whether state funds and the wealth of companies are subject to zakat or not. The 20% rate of zakat payable on mineral wealth from under the ground may even exceed this sum. 

This would guarantee the ending of poverty in our societies. Indeed, it would turn many recipients of zakat into payers of zakat, if we think of directing zakat funds to their needs and securing sustainable incomes for them. Accordingly, we must think of projects that complete our knowledge of the United Nations 2030 Sustainable Development Goals that agree with the objectives of zakat. 

The projects that zakat could fund would be of two kinds, one of which would be owned by the International Humanitarian Zakat Fund, which hopefully will be set up as a means to invest the money that the zakat payers have contributed. 

The second type would be set up to increase the shares of individuals through projects that secure for them what they need, so that they no longer have to ask for zakat, can decide their own future, and may indeed become payers of zakat themselves, all the time remembering the concept of spiritual and faith needs, not just material benefits, so that both kinds of benefit will go towards the eight targets of zakat.

We must pay attention to reducing the duplication between zakat and tax, so that money paid for zakat will be exempt from taxation. The method of registering payments of zakat for this purpose would be to pay it into a local or national institution that has its own framework and means of ensuring transparency in its income and expenditure.

What we would aim for through the proposed international institution is self-sufficiency and organization of expenditure of zakat funds on the international level. It could stop the current duplication and overlap between zakat and taxation and remedy the lack of direction in spending zakat funds. It might be possible for the recipients of zakat to obtain double their present share if they could communicate with the organizations that paid it, or if the organizations could communicate with the beneficiaries. 

We must establish standards for the proper functioning of zakat funds and institutions so that they become as efficient as successful international institutions -- for instance, those that use the description “Islamic” for their banking activities, bonds, and hire purchase (ijara).

This is a major human priority. The world should uphold the right to respect from others, by adhering to the rules of zakat and human solidarity instead of the folly of despising and marginalizing two-thirds of the human population. We must also pay attention to ways of developing zakat funds, in order to achieve the aims of zakat as intended by Islam, so that the needs of individual human social security are met.

We must also make better use of modern technology and its ability to organize beneficial spending, so as to increase the benefit, and directing it to the largest possible sector of beneficiaries. The number of those in dire need in the world is approaching 1 billion individuals with nearly half of them in five states. 

More than 85% of the world’s poor live in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, but human hopes of overcoming these terrifying statistics have dissipated as a result of armed conflicts, which have swept through most areas of the world.

We must remember that the information we have about ending poverty. The days of the Caliph Umar ibn Abd al-Aziz shows that this was the natural result of proper collecting, giving, and spending. This lesson is capable of being achieved once again in our societies for all times.

In the spirit of nobility and hope

Surely, the needs and dire economic and security circumstances in many areas and countries of the world should spur us on, to urge a spirit of nobility, and concentrate our efforts on producing for the world an efficient experiment in solidarity between people of religion and humanity. 

We must always have hope, because if we lose hope, we are losing good chances for the poor to live in dignity, and for us to feel that we are respecting humanity as God intends us to do. We are aware of the phenomenal increase in poverty, which spreads its black wings over new sectors that had been spared before. 

The Qur’an makes zakat an obligation, but it uses beautiful terminology that makes it desirable. The word zakat actually means two things: Purity and growth. Those who pay purify themselves, their wealth, and their society by paying zakat and making it grow. The Prophet said: “Wealth does not decrease by paying in charity.”  

Another term the Qur’an uses in connection with zakat is Sadaqa. Sadaqa comes from Sidq (truth). By paying Sadaqa, people show that they are true to God and to their faith and show true friendship (Sadaqa) to others.

The Qur’an reminds payers that God has given them all that they have, so they should spend in gratitude: “Give out of what We have provided for you” (Q 63:10)

God has the power to make their gifts grow: “Those who spend their wealth in God’s cause are like grains of corn that produce seven ears, each bearing a hundred grains. God gives multiple increase to whoever He wishes: He is limitless and all knowing.” (Q 2:261)

“Whatever charity you give benefits your own souls, provided you do it for the sake of God: Whatever you give will be repaid to you in full, and you will not be wronged.” (Q 2:272)

Such promises by God encourage more people to pay, which increases the zakat funds available.

This beautiful vision of zakat has, over the centuries, become dimmed by a general view in society that zakat is a just matter of paying an individual a small amount. More importantly, this mode of thinking about zakat was set in sharia manuals written centuries ago to deal with societies in their various times and circumstances. 

This was all great for their times, but we must build on that and expand on it to meet the needs of our 21st century.

Hence our vision in this article is introduced in this spirit. May God direct our intentions.

El Hassan bin Talal is President of the Arab Thought Forum.

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