Invariably referred to as the “poor tax” or “poor-due” and “almsgiving”, the zakat literally means giving back to Allah a portion of His bounty as a means of avoiding the sufferings of next life, and as an “expiation” or “purification” of what the Muslim retains for himself of material possessions.
While the zakat may be regarded as an act of beneficence, a precept of right-doing and a charitable act in a moral sense, zakat is less of voluntary and more of a required religious observance; indeed, it is a fundamental of the faith.
Allah said (meaning): “And establish prayer and give zakat and obey the Messenger – that you may receive mercy” [Al-Quran, Surah An-Nur (24): 56]
At the beginning of Islam, the zakat was rendered as an act of piety and love; with the passing of time it took on more and more a legal connotation until it became obligatory, a ritual act, a legal duty. It was levied either in currency or in kind – cattle, grain, produce, or commodities.
Allah said (meaning): “Indeed, the men who practice charity and the women who practice charity and [they who] have loaned Allah a goodly loan – it will be multiplied for them, and they will have a noble reward.” [Al-Quran, Surah Al-Hadid (57): 18]
It was in the days of the Prophet that the habit of bringing alms to the leader of the community began. From this habit was engendered the process that transformed it into a permanent type of taxation. In due time the Muslim community appointed officials to gather the poor-due from the communicants of the faith.
The Qur’an specifies for who the zakat is due (meaning):
“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 [or slaves] and for those in debt and for the cause of Allah and for the [stranded] traveler – an obligation [imposed] by Allah . And Allah is Knowing and Wise.” [Al-Quran, Surah At-Taubah (9): 60]
The distribution of alms is prescribed in the Qur’an according to fixed categories of utilization:
1. First and foremost to the poor and needy (fuqara’); then for
2. Officials (‘amalah, sing. ‘amil) who gathered the zakat;
3. “Those whose hearts are to be reconciled” – In early Islam these were the recalcitrant Meccans whose hostility often had to be bought off;
4. Slaves to purchase their freedom;
5. Paying back debts incurred as a consequence of acts of benevolence;
6. Arming the mujahidun (sing. mujahid, fighter) engaged in a holy war (jihad) against infidels;
7. Supporting institutions dedicated to the service of God (fisabilillah, in the way of Allah), and for
8. Aiding poor travellers.
The exact amount varied between types of wealth. Products of the soil, chattel and precious metals, merchandise and money become liable to zakat when such items attain a certain minimum value called nisab. It is paid in kind; but when values exceed the nisab, then it is subject to fluctuation; when levied on harvests or fruits, the amount is between one-tenth (hence the ‘ushr) and one-twentieth. There are set rules as to when cattle, precious metals, and manufactured products become liable to zakat. The basic rule is that they must remain in the hands of the same owner for one year.
Both obligatory (zakat) and non-obligatory (sadaqah) taxes were assessed and collected by a functionary called ‘amil. In addition to determining and levying the precise amount, the ‘amil arranged also for its transport to the depots where he personally was responsible for its safekeeping.
The zakat or statutory alms was supplemented by the sadaqah, the voluntary or non-obligatory alms. These were not defined or delimited; the faithful volunteered them as his proclivity for doing good deeds or acquiring merits when Allah moved him.