By Marco Bianchi
Zakat, or Zakaah, is the one of the Five Pillars of Islam called “alms giving.” “Alms giving” refers to the donating of a percentage of one’s wealth to other poor Muslims. Zakat is not given to the government, but to the individual communities, which then dispense the money and goods collected fairly. It is generally collected from Muslim individuals who have become adults, based on a template of wealth calculation which will be described below. The basis of zakat appears to have begun in the Muslim religious text, the Qur’an, which states that it is a religious obligation to give. This obligation to give is fulfilled when a percentage of income is donated. The punishment for Muslim people who do not pay zakat is considered harsh. The Encyclopaedia of Islam states that the prayers of those people that do not pay zakat will not be accepted (Houtsma et al, 1913-1938).
There are two categories of zakat in Islam, that which is obligatory and that which is voluntary and each comes with their own minimums and percentages. The obligatory forms of zakat include: gold, silver, jewellery and currency; cash or bonds, and shares of companies; rented buildings, such as factories and houses; commercial assets; livestock; agriculture; honey and animal products; mining and fishing; and almsgiving on self, also called Zakat al-fitr. Zakat al-Fitr is the charity given to the poor at the end of Ramadan. It is not on a schedule like the other forms of zakat and consists of one sa’, or eight handfuls of food for each member of the family. Voluntary forms of zakat include: donations to the construction of mosques and schools, and the helping of those that are non-Muslim.
There is no specific amount of zakat that must be paid, but traditionally, it is believed that Muslim people must pay 2.5% of their income. In summary, Muslim people pay 2.5% of the wealth they accumulated over a full lunar year, 2.5% of the goods used for trading, and up to 10% on certain types of harvests and irrigation. The only two personal items exempt from zakat is one’s household and mode of transportation.
Zakat may only be received by those who are a living and practicing Muslim, who are not considered wealthy by Muslim standards. This usually includes the needy, extremely poor, zakat collectors, wayfarer, people in debt, love interests, and those who are held captive. As another general rule, descendants of the family Muhammad are not eligible to receive zakat. Neither are: those looking to cover costs for their deceased’s funeral, and in places where Muslims are financially capable of constructing mosques, such as in developed countries.
M. Th. Houtsma et al., eds. (1913-1938). The Encyclopædia of Islam: A Dictionary of the Geography, Ethnography and Biography of the Muhammadan Peoples. London: Brill Publishers.
Zikr. (n.d.). Zakah: The Obligation of Purity. Retrieved January 28, 2010, from Zakaat Online Book: http://www.zikr.co.uk/books/Zakaat.html