What is Zakat?

Zakat is an annual act of obligatory worship, paid solely for Allah’s sake, as a percentage ofsurplus wealth which remains in our possession for a whole year, for those whom Allah has entitled to it.

We must therefore understand theimportance and beauty of zakat, so that we give it not only willingly, but alsowith greater feeling and purposefulness. We must also educate ourselves about it, so that we perform the ritual correctly i.e., assess the zakat on our different types of wealth accurately, ensure its payment at the due time, and its proper distribution to specified beneficiaries.

Literal Meaning

‘Zakat’ comes from the Arabic word ‘zaka’ which means‘to increase’ and ‘to purify.’Thus, its payment leads to purification of the giver’s soul from greed and selfishness,and of one’s wealth, which is also blessed with increase. This act of giving also balances the economy and encourages its growth.According to a Hadith, ‘Whoever pays the zakat on his wealth will have its evil removed from him.’ (Ibn Khuzaimah and Al-Tabarani)


The importance of zakat can be judged from its position as the third pillar of Islam,next only to the shahadah and salat. Consequently, it is not surprising that in its technical meaning of obligatory charity zakat is mentioned 32times in the Quran(almost always paired with salat), its synonym sadaqa (charity in general) has been mentioned 14 times, and if the variant forms of sadaqa are taken into consideration, the total tally is more than 50 .

The Need for Zakat

To be a Muslim mindfully making a zakat donation is to understand the inequity and inequality in the world and proactively respond to it. The current distribution of wealth is highly unequal, leading to its concentration in the hands of a few. As a result, while some have amassed huge amounts, others do not have access toeven  basic necessities like water, food, clothing, shelter, hygiene, sanitation etc. Zakat reduces the wealth gap now tearing apart not only our societies but our world. Its establishment as an institution can redress extreme inequalities of income and wealth.

The Purpose of Zakat

The institution of zakat is the first known system of collective community-wide welfare. It aims to create a comprehensivesocial and financial support network for the needy, which is unique innot requiring any financial contribution from its beneficiaries. Through zakat, the Muslim ummah cares for its poor, including widows, orphans, the disabled, the needy, and the destitute. It thus not only provides social security against hunger, disaster and homelessness, but also gives hope to the hopeless andrestores their human dignity.

The Attitude that Zakat Fosters

By paying Zakat we acknowledge that wealth, like everything else we own, belongs to Allah alone, and is held by us as a trust. Thus, it is for Him alone that we strive to end poverty and uplift the needy around us.We are further told that in our ‘wealth there is a recognised right for the needy and the poor.’ (Qur’an, Al-Ma’arij, 70:24-25) Thus zakat is not a favour by the rich on the poor,rather, it is the right that the latter have over the former. This eliminates any feeling of entitlement and arrogance in the giver and protects the dignity of the receiver. This attitude is further strengthened by the imagery of charity as ‘giving to God,’ which is frequently found in the Quran and Hadith. Zakat thus promotes gratitude, selflessness, detachment from wealth, and humility in giving. It is about practicing self-discipline and freeing oneself from greed and self-love.

Zakat: Our Connection to Allah and to Humanity

The virtues ofcharity and generosity are central to Muslim spirituality – according to the famous Hadith, ‘He who sleeps on a full stomach while his neighbour goes hungry is not one of us.’ Zakat has many spiritual and worldly benefits – it simultaneously leads to inward self-development and outward social responsibility based on a practical communal awareness and giving to others. It has therefore aptly been called a form of ‘financial worship’ and ‘piety-in-action.’It is unique among the religious obligations in that it welds the spiritual to the transactional, the moral to the material, the individual to the communal, and the economic to the societal.

Social Benefits of Zakat

Islam focuses on community sustainability, and zakat is the engine that facilitates it.It is an important means of social welfare, social justice, and povertyalleviation. It eliminates social conflicts and establishes social security by ensuringthat the most vulnerable are taken care of by the rest of society. It creates a bond between those receiving and those giving, and allows those in unfortunate situations not to feel alone. It prevents the poor from resorting to unlawful means to earn a living.

As a Muslim ummah, caring for one another is an essential part of our Islamic identity. Zakat fostersa sense of community,brotherhood and unity,and paves the way for a society devoted to Allah. It raises our social consciousness by promoting concern and empathy for the under-privileged.Compassionfor the disadvantaged is a central theme in Allah’s message to humanity. Zakat promotes care and love between each other by shielding the weak from injury.

Islam makes Muslims accountable for each other’s well-being. This concept of reciprocal social obligation is called takâful or ‘mutual responsibility,’ and transformsMuslim society into an extended family.Zakat can be given to deserving people among relatives, neighbours, and the whole community. Thus it helps to strengthen community bonds and encourages cooperation and mutual support.It establishes connections locally, nationally and globally.

Economic Benefits of Zakat

Zakat may be defined as a system of welfare economics internally organised for the circulation of wealthand its equitable redistribution according to Islamic principles, in order to establish a just and stable economic order.Its basic purpose is to maintain economic balance in society, locality by locality, so that wealth flows from the rich to the poor.It is a revolutionary concept with the potential to ease the suffering of millions, many of whom experience poverty for no fault of their own, but due to their unfortunate circumstances.By preventing the concentration of wealth in a few hands, it helps bridge the gap between the rich and the poor, and can end extreme poverty – such is the power of zakat!

Zakat is part of a godly economic outlook on, and practice in, the world. Its amazing historical successdemonstrates the great efficacy of the divinely-ordained system at work within the context of Islam’s other economic injunctions. For instance, Islamhas detailed laws of inheritance,discourages hoarding andextravagance, urges the rich to employ the poor, and prohibitsearning interest,since we are requiredto work for our earningsrather than living off the incurable debt and financial misery of others.Thus, in order to make zakat effective it must be combined with these Islamic injunctions.

Zakat as a Means of Empowerment

Zakat is Islam’s tool for social and economic empowerment.By creating a collective social security scheme for mutual help and sympathy, it allows resources to be used for social development. Due to its developmentalist ethos, zakat wields the ‘big power of small change.’ It is transformative and powerful, and gives us an opportunity to create a huge impact in the lives of the marginalised and vulnerable.

The circulation of wealth results in its multiplication and thus involves more and more people in its benefits. Zakat can thus be a growth factor in the Islamic framework since it leads to income redistribution and increases the aggregate demand by putting more real purchasing power in the hands of the poor, which helps increase production and stimulates supply.By increasing consumption, investment, and public spending, zakat can spur economic growth.

Zakat is not intended to serve as a stopgap measure of one-time or short-term relief. Rather, it is meant to institutionalise a communal enterprise that systematically eliminates poverty and servitude.Zakat makes it obligatory for the Muslim community’s wealthy to elevate its poor out of poverty and into dignified economic self-sufficiency. It is meant to inculcate an ethic of self-reliance.

With a focus on alleviating poverty, Zakat has plenty of solutions, locally, nationally and globally. It is a powerful institution for contributing to sustainable development in communities worldwide.

(A study carried out in 2020 to examine the impact of zakat on economic growth from 2004 to 2017 for a sample of eight Muslim countries, found evidence that it spurs growth since its funds are directed to increase consumption, investment or government expenditure. https://doi.org/10.1108/IJDI-05-2020-0100 Accessed on 17.03.2023.)

What Needs to be Done

The fact that crores are given out in zakat each year, yet the situation on the ground does not seem to show any marked improvement seems to indicate that we might not be doing things right.Experts recommend the following guidelines to make zakat more effective as a tool for social and economic empowerment:

  • Act on all of Islam’s economic injunctions, as indicated above.
  • Revive and re-invent zakat so that it has an impact, rather than be given just anywhere.
  • Use technology to connect donors with deserving beneficiaries.
  • Raise Muslims’ zakatcontributions and channelise them more effectivelyto remedy the community’s backwardness.
    • Calculate zakat afresh each year,do it accurately, andif need be, consult a scholar for the purpose. The risk in under-paying is great not only for community, but also for the believer, who shall be answerable for it on the Day of Judgment. Thus, making this effort is a wise investment for both worlds, both for the individual and the community.
  • Make zakat a continuing effort for social empowerment and development rather than just an annual ritualistic giving exercise.
  • Throughzakat, create self-sufficient people who can be transformed from zakat-takers to zakat-givers.
  • Channelise zakat wisely for long term capacity-building rather than immediate charitableneeds i.e., focus on building tomorrow’s people, not only on feeding today’s hungry.
    • Aim at targeted financial development of Muslim families by empowering beneficiaries to become breadwinners, not foster dependency and begging.
      • Rather than dispensing cash, invest in building livelihoodsandpromoting education.
        • Set up scholarship fundsfor meritorious students.
  • For better long-term results and to improve lives, complement zakat with advice and mentoring by sharing knowledge and skillswith the underprivileged.
    • More than just your money,this needs time and commitment too.

These steps can be taken both at an individual level, and through NGOs. For some of these suggestions see:https://islamicvoice.com/eid/zakat-and-its-role-in-social-empowerment/(Accessed on 17.03.2023)