The Islamic tradition of giving zakat to the have-nots is a bigger social contract about sharing resources with the lesser privileged’
The idea that helping others is part of a meaningful life has been around for several years. For Muslims, charity is a central aspect of faith and practice. The tradition of humanitarian stewardship and egalitarian values are at the foundation of Islamic beliefs. Governed by a worldview in which all things come from God and finally return to him, Muslims are taught to live as trustees of God’s blessings and spend their wealth in accordance. Islam is a complete way of life and one important facet is that there is a duty to serve those who are less privileged than us. Ramadan is the focal point of philanthropy: During this month, people’s obligation to give to the poor gets intensified. Arab societies have elaborate and nuanced social codes that demand excessive generosity and hospitality towards visitors and strangers. This is embedded in the ancient Arab proverb: “A guest is greeted like a prince, held like a captive [to your generosity] and departs like a poet [to sing your praises].” The Quran provides both a spiritual framework for the possession of wealth and practical guidelines for its dispensation. Frugality with self and generosity with others underpins the Quranic message of charity.
Muslims give in the form of either zakat, which is a mandatory form of charity ordained by God or Sadaqa, which is voluntary and meant to go beyond mere religious obligations. Zakat is the third pillar of Islam and is more of a social contract between rich and poor societies wherein Muslims pledge a determinate portion of specified categories of their lawful financial assets for the benefit of the poor and other enumerated classes. In Quran, the significance of zakat appears to be equal to prayer as an expression of faith. The two are often mentioned simultaneously in the symmetrical rhythm of the holy book’s verses. Zakat means purification and comes from the Arabic verb zaka, which also signifies “to thrive”, “to be pure” and “to be wholesome.” Muslims “purify” their wealth by giving a portion of it every year in charity. This Islamic practice is one way of learning self-discipline, freeing oneself from the love of possessions and greed. In a way, the man, who spends his wealth, affirms the truth that nothing is dearer to him in life than the love of God and that he is prepared to sacrifice everything for his sake.
The Islamic duty of zakat is binding on all Muslims, who meet the necessary criteria of wealth: It’s limited, in a way, by your ability. According to the rules of the Quran, all Muslims, on whom zakat is mandatory, must donate at least 2.5 per cent of the total value of the financial assets based on the minimum wealth criteria (known as the nisab) each year for the benefit of the poor, destitute and others, classified as mustahik. The 2.5 per cent rate only applies to cash, gold and silver and commercial items. There are other rates for farm and mining produce and for animals. Zakat is levied on five categories of property — food grains; fruit; camels, cattle, sheep and goats; gold and silver; and movable goods — and is payable each year after one year’s possession. In fact, zakat is not simply a means to manage poverty but rather is inherently focussed on building dignity, honour and self-sufficiency in the wider community. This is reflected in the diversity of categories of genuine zakat recipients. Deeply embedded in the Islamic concept of zakat are notions of welfare, altruism and justice, which can be seen as a way of harnessing human potential to resolve insurmountable challenges to human society. Charity and altruism are rooted in the basic concern for the welfare of others, while Islam has added to it the notion of justice, which is seen as a way of building a just and equitable society. It is the human predilection for riches that the Quran cautions against, yet it acknowledges that spiritually immature souls may jeopardise their own moral standing by indulging in reckless acts of charity that leave them destitute. Some verses speak of maintaining a balance between extravagance and parsimony. This is in recognition of human nature, which has the dual impulses of compassion and an inherent love for wealth. In this way, Islam’s legal teachings counsel temperance and prudence; whereas its spiritual teachings urge selflessness and generosity.
In the Islamic paradigm, voluntary charity is restricted not just to money or physical goods but covers all actions based on a simple understanding that what really ties an individual to a common humanity is compassion. A well-known saying of the Prophet captures the essence of this concept: “Charity is due upon every joint of the people for every day upon which the sun rises. Being just between two people is charity. Helping a man with his animal and lifting his luggage upon it is charity. A kind word is charity. Every step that you take towards the mosque is charity and removing harmful things from the road is charity.” The real spirit of giving lies in doing it without leaving a trace of oneself. Giving with motives attached not only nullifies one’s own happiness but also burdens the receiver. After planting your seeds, you should expect nothing in return.
(The writer is Member, NITI Aayog’s National Committee on Financial Literacy and Inclusion for Women)