Very simply, zakat
is one of the pillars of Islam,
an obligatory annual charity for those whose income is above a minimum level required to sustain basic needs. It is calculated at 2.5% of income and assets maintained over that one year period above that level. Different percentages are applied to farming and businesses. If someone is below the minimum level, they do not pay zakat
; rather, they receive it. But zakat
is more profound than this seemingly simple mathematical calculation. As one interviewee smiled when asked what zakat
is, “I should give you just one-hour lecture! [sic]”
The Qur’an teaches that zakat is a means of purifying one’s own wealth (Q 9:103). Wealth is a trust from God, given to whom He pleases (Q 4: 37, 34:39). Zakat is described in the Qur’an as the right of the poor (Q 70: 24-5) and a means of circulating wealth in a community (Q 59: 7). Those who do not pay zakat are also warned of their punishment in the hereafter for ignoring the true owner of their wealth (God) and disregarding the plight of the poor (Q 9: 34).
Scholars emphasise the normative multiple roles of zakat:
- Spiritual component, purification of wealth for giver
- Dignity for receiver
- Circulation of wealth
- Social solidarity/bonds of brotherhood/sisterhood
- Removal of negative emotions in society such as envy, miserliness, narcissism, group exploitation
- Economic productivity (since it is a tax on idle wealth and hoarding)
- Tools of trade and lifting receiver out of poverty
- Reducing extremes of wealth leading to a more just and more peaceful society
In precolonial Muslim societies, zakat
operated as part of an ecology of institutions addressing intergenerational wealth redistribution and poverty alleviation.
, there were other institutions that worked to address individuals’ basic needs, including the prohibition on usury, the laws of inheritance, and the waqf
, or in today’s terminology, an endowment.
s tended to be in the form of real estate that produced income. The property to be given as a waqf
had to be removed from the marketplace in perpetuity, the principal sequestered, and the profit given to a named beneficiary.
Abdurrashid observes that by the Mamluk period (648 AH/1250 CE), awqaf
(plural of waqf
) overtook ṣadaqah
as the premier institution for Muslim philanthropy.
financed a dazzlingly broad array of institutions from masājid
(plural of masjid
or mosque), libraries and colleges, scientific research, arts and literature, handicrafts such as glass making and textiles, travellers’ inns, agricultural materials, animals and farm tools, to housing for single women, and protections for animals.
Khan’s study of waqf
compiled calculations from various sources cited by Timur Kuran,
to show that by the early 1920s 75% of all arable land in Turkey, 12.5% of all cultivated soil in Egypt, and 14.29% of all cultivated soil in Iran, for example, was waqf
These were all eventually dismantled or confiscated by colonial rulers or native modernising elites. In addition, during colonial rule, zakat
was abandoned too, and left to voluntary practice.
And yet, zakat
remains important to Muslims who are committed to observing it as one of the five pillars. The call for Islam’s “social project” endures. Anyone who studies the Qur’an, the Sunnah of Prophet Muhammad ﷺ, and the vast juristic and philosophical tradition of commentary and treatises, cannot but notice the emphasis on social justice and looking after the poor, needy, and vulnerable.
Even non-Muslim scholars recognise this, as Adrii Krawchuk noted in his comparative study of Russian Orthodox and Islamic teachings on economic justice: “At a deeper level, the religious and spiritual dimension of Islamic economics is crucial. It firmly establishes the priority of social justice, dignity for the poor, and the responsibilities of the wealthy in a discourse that unites pragmatic economic concerns with theological and ethical values.”
When asked the simple question “What is your understanding of zakat?,” our interviewees segued almost instantly from what is zakat to what zakat is for, tapping into the various concepts enumerated above. As one interviewee said, “there’s the short and there’s a long version.” All of our interviewees had an understanding of zakat that went beyond knowing simply the basic rule of annually calculating one’s net cash and assets. The main idea they pointed to was zakat’s communal role. They emphasized the importance of zakat in uplifting the poor and supporting the financial, economic, and social well-being of one’s own community. As one manager said, “…when we think about zakat, we think about the first and primary… responsibility of zakat is to the local community, that’s who it belongs to.”
1.1 Zakat and sadaqah
A few interviewees pointed out the problems with translating the Arabic word “zakat” into English as “charity.” One manager said that zakat is the “the wealth of the poor,” and noted that some “conventional translations” of this idea into the English word “charity” are “highly problematic.” He felt that a proper translation changed how “we interact with” zakat:
it’s not charity if it isn’t your money, right? And it’s not a tax… if it’s there to purify and if it’s there to support you, right? And it’s not state… but it’s from… God, right? And so those terms are, those conventional terms… tax and charity are difficult… but seeing it simply as the wealth of the poor… or the wealth of those eight categories, right, is actually a very liberating… way of defining it.
One of the drawbacks of the English word “charity” for Muslim philanthropic practice is that there are different kinds of “charity” in Islam, as many of our interviewees pointed out. There is zakat
, the obligatory almsgiving, with very specific rules about when to give, who gives and who receives; there is zakāt-al-fiṭr,
the almsgiving at the end of Ramadan to enable poor people to enjoy the Eid festivities; and there is ṣadaqah
, a voluntary charity that can be given at any time, of any amount, and to whomever. In addition, as many of the interviewees pointed out “charity” in Islam is more than simply donating money. Businesses can pay their zakat
with their trade goods and farmers with their animals or crops.
One interviewee noted that ṣadaqah
can even be as simple as kindness: “… ṣadaqah
is at so many levels… it’s not just giving money, it could be kindness, it could be feeding a person, it could be providing a person somewhere to sleep, so ṣadaqah
comes in many forms that you could give… me sharing my plate of food with you, it’s a form of ṣadaqah
This non-monetary understanding of ṣadaqah is exemplified in two hadith of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) who said:
- “Every joint of a person must perform a charity each day that the sun rises: to judge justly between two people is a charity. To help a man with his mount, lifting him onto it or hoisting up his belongings onto it, is a charity. And a good word is a charity. And every step that you take towards prayer is a charity and removing a harmful object from the road is a charity;”
- “Every Muslim must perform a charity. They asked, ‘Messenger of God, what if a person cannot find anything to give?’ He answered, ‘He should work with his hands to benefit himself and give in charity.’ ‘And what if he could not find that?’ they asked again. ‘He should assist an aggrieved person in need.’ ‘And what if he could not do that?’ ‘Then he should do good and refrain from evil—that would be his charity.’”
Both these hadiths typify the views of the interviewees regarding charity. Hence, charity has a wide range of actions that a person can engage in and is not constrained just to money. As one manager put it: “generosity is not only financial, generosity of spirit as well, generosity… in terms of kindness to others.” Interviewees made it clear that charity was a means of instilling justice and doing right for oneself and their community.
The Islamic concept of charity expands the conventional Western understanding, in which charity is usually defined as “donating resources to anonymous others.”
Kymlicka suggests that rich people favour the view that charity is a praiseworthy voluntary gift, while poor people tend to see charity as an obligatory duty, and that the former view is rooted in older religious conceptions of ethical virtue, while the latter is rooted in modern secular conceptions of justice. He concludes that charity is giving resources to someone who is not really entitled to it, which is why it is praiseworthy, but that in the modern world the religious ethical perspective is outdated, because what is really required to address poverty is justice.
This view overlooks not only the idea that charity can go beyond financial aspects and can have spiritual and social features to it, but also the relationship between charity and justice, as conceived by Islam (see section 1.3 below). One interviewee summarised charity neatly into three categories:
- Spiritual empowerment: to purify our souls and for improving our connection with Allah ﷻ
- Personal healing and psychological well-being: it ensures that when you give to someone, you feel good, right? Even those who are financially poor can give charity, since giving a smile or good words is charity
- Economic impact: money moves…[leading to] social equity, economic equity is ensured, so charity has all those aspects.
We explore this more in Section Two below, but this interviewee pointed out the combination of these three helps the whole society, bringing about bonds of brotherhood and sisterhood, and benefiting both the recipient and giver of charity.
1.2 Charity and being Muslim
All the interviewees felt that giving zakat/charity is essential to being a Muslim. Many interviewees explained how zakat is the foundation of one’s connection with Allah ﷻ. As one of the five pillars, it is a way of showing one’s obedience to and love for Allah and His commands. As one interviewee put it: “So this understanding that we have within Islam that in order to achieve that eternal felicity, we have to fulfill certain acts of worship one of which is to serve people and to give of ourselves and to give of our wealth as well… to give of what you love.” Many of the interviewees made it clear that since this life is a test of deeds, it is a Muslim’s obligation to be involved in zakat and other means of uplifting the poor.
Many interviewees noted the connection the Qur’an makes between prayer and charity (e.g., Q 2:43, 4:162, 5:55, 9:18, 21:73, 22:41, etc). Indeed, al-Qardawi points out that in the Qur’an zakat
is associated with prayer twenty-seven times in the same sequence.
One manager reasoned that prayer is a person’s “connection to Allah swt,” and zakat
is a person’s “connection with the people.” Another said our “connection… with Allah is… 50% of religion, and the balance 50% is taking care of the… people.” Some interviewees used beautiful analogies to explain why the Qur’an emphasises charity so much: “It’s interesting when we hear zakat
that it’s paired with salah
, and I think those two are grounding. Ṣalāh
is what aligns us with the celestial plane, and zakat
is what aligns us with the terrestrial plane, those are… you know, two balancing forces for the people of the middle path.”
Because zakat has multiple dimensions beyond simply a money transfer between a well-off person and a poorer person, when talking about what zakat is, the answers of the interviewees frequently included what zakat is for. We explore this in more detail in section two below. But in this section on charity and being Muslim, it is useful to highlight those responses in which interviewees connected charity to other virtues, such as its role in promoting neighbourliness, controlling greed, emphasising empathy, and promoting justice. One manager said when asked why the Qur’an emphasises charity so much:
Because in the end, I feel like that’s all that is left… I drag my kids with me every time we go to… the food bank… just to show them that you know… you may have everything that you have, al-ḥamdu lillāh, but… things can change for you at any minute, and you can be on the receiving end of… of… you know, this whole story… we see [people] on a daily basis, where their entire lives are turned upside down and if we… as their brothers and sisters didn’t, you know, provide this charity, then they would have nothing… We have so many success stories that we see every day, and it is all because Muslim people are required to give charity.
1.3 Charity and justice
In western philosophy, a distinction is often made between charity and justice, in which charity is seen as addressing an immediate need of poverty and justice is seen as addressing the root of what causes poverty. Some scholars are critical of religious charity, seeing it as simply alleviating poverty while ignoring its origins.
We asked our interviewees what they see as the relationship between charity and justice, but learned quickly that these distinctions are not routinely part of Muslim moral vocabulary about zakat
, as one interviewee said, “we don’t think of it in that way…” Because we asked them, they thought about the connection, and most interviewees felt that in the end, in the words of one interviewee, “justice… is charity.” They held the view that charity and justice go hand in hand. Multiple interviewees explained that charity is a means of justice to take care of your community:
- “I think in the process of community development, we are both doing… charity and justice, right? ‘Cos you can’t develop a… healthy community in an unjust way, and a healthy community, community development is essentially a charitable endeavour.”
- “Charity and justice. You know they are going to come back together because… what is justice? Being fair?… and not being superior or taking things away from people. Right?... ṣadaqah is again taking care of people… You’re being fair, you know…if you’re taking care of your neighbour… You don’t want to be living lavishly and they are living with nothing. You want to be fair and just to them.”
- “…the path to jannah is difficult and there’s a lot of obstacles on it, and if you walk it alone, it will be a difficult path, where if we gather together as an ummah, as a community and we walk that together, and if somebody is stumbling behind, or lagging behind, we can bring them along, right. And that’s what charity does, it brings the people who are sort of lagging behind with the rest of the group…[it’s like] an expedition, it’s like a hundred people and… we’re gonna go a hundred miles… Now if somebody starts lagging behind, that person could be considered zakat-eligible now, right, because maybe they ran out of provisions, or they didn’t manage their provisions well, or… they left some storage behind, or they messed up or didn’t pack efficiently, and things like that. Now we’re not going to leave that person behind, he’s part of the expedition, so what, what are they gonna do, are they gonna let him be hungry and be like… hey, you take care of yourself and we’re gonna go and leave you and the ninety-nine are off and you’re one separate… no! They are gonna say, okay who can share with this person so they can continue to come along with us? So they will sort of take from their portions and make him a new pack and that’s his ration, right, so they’ll bring him along.”
- “If I’m not doing—giving—you know, someone else’s right to him or her [referring to zakat as the right of the poor on the wealthy’s wealth]… then I’m, I’m compromising that you know, I’m not you know, standing firm… for the justice.”
Recalling the hadith quoted above, “…to judge justly between two people is a charity,” these quotations illustrate the Islamic perspective on the relationship between charity and justice that everyone is responsible for uplifting those in need of help and this help can include a wide variety of acts.
One interviewee explained how he has found it difficult for largely immigrant Muslim communities to understand that there is local poverty amongst Muslims that Muslim organisations should address; there’s a tendency to focus on international relief. So although he approaches his work from a concept of “economic injustice,” when “I deal with the Muslim community I have to approach it from a charity angle because primarily we are asking people to give us funds right.”
1.4 Changed view of zakat
We saw above how all the interviewees connected their charitable service to the larger question of justice. Immersion in the charitable sector has given the interviewees a more profound understanding of zakat as an institution. Six of the eight interviewees discussed how their idea of zakat had changed after they started working at their organisation. They commented that prior to that they had given their annual zakat in a routine way, such as writing a cheque to give to someone to distribute:
my understanding of zakat was… very rudimentary… yeah, it’s a pillar, you know, 2½%, and you basically help poor and needy people… Now I feel that, you know, zakat is much than just poverty alleviation, right?... it builds… its sole purpose is actually to build a community and to get it to a place where it’s self-sustainable… and that it actually has that growth and expansion… I learned about the different categories of zakat and how, how they’ve been used in the past and how they were understood…”
What they had learnt from working in the zakat field falls into two broad categories: 1) a better understanding of the rules of collecting and distributing zakat; and 2) a deeper appreciation of the non-monetary benefits of zakat.
Obviously to carry out their duties properly the staff and volunteers have to understand the rules of zakat. Their interactions with scholars in the field, plus training sessions, have given them the more specialised knowledge they need to do their jobs. But one interviewee talked about the personal impact this had had on her: She had always assumed that zakat was only to be paid on cash wealth, and though she has always given ṣadaqah, she never had enough cash to qualify for paying zakat, but through her work she learnt about the rules of zakat on gold, and realised that she should be paying zakat on her gold. This discovery made her happy because “[she] had gold so [she] wanted to be one that pays zakat.”
Her story corroborates the lament of one the interviewees that while the Muslim community is generous with their ṣadaqah, they are not properly educated about zakat. He was the only interviewee who said his concept of zakat had not changed since he started working at his organisation, laughing “No. I’m there to change their understanding of zakat.” In his opinion, carefully put not to detract from the hard work people are doing, the “majority [of] people… do not understand… the virtue of… giving zakat,” and “no organisation is doing much work to make it simple.” He would like to see Canadian Muslim organisations do a better job of teaching and administering zakat.
His comments are given another dimension by an interviewee who interacts with a lot of non-Muslim agencies with large numbers of Muslim clients, which has changed his understanding of zakat. He wishes that Muslims and Muslim organisations would be more open to giving their zakat to these non-Muslim agencies, instead of largely to Muslim international relief organisations or the mosque:
What I have come to appreciate is that for charitable giving you can use zakat to affect change in certain sectors of our city for instance… [some of our projects are for] almost exclusively Muslim groups although… the projects may be sponsored by a non-Muslim non profit, these are primarily Muslim groups. And there is an avenue here where zakat if it’s directed to some of these projects can help uplift some of these communities of Muslims who are being helped whose project is being proposed by a non-Muslim group. I think this is one dimension we need to investigate and, sort of be appreciative of as well, that we can help Muslim communities and Muslims by funding projects that are not, you know, proposed or started by a Muslim group.
Seeing the concrete ways in which zakat helped their clients also led many interviewees to appreciate the non-monetary benefits of zakat, from something as simple as seeing how their assistance could “bring happiness and smile[s] on people’s faces.” This interviewee commented on how he had learnt the difference between giving with compassion and just giving:
I only knew [zakat] as a concept… [it was] an action… based on the requirement, you know… [Once I began working here] I could see the people… who were suffering, who needed the zakat, so that is the way the whole attitude changed. Now… it became a mission for me. As a matter of fact, I am working in [this organisation] only because of the passion for the job. It is not for the job… Otherwise it’s not for a financial reason that I’m working.
Several noted, in the words of one interviewee, how their work had given them a “huge appreciation for the depth of our tradition.” One commented how zakat
for me it wasn’t anymore about just giving the money, it was about where that money is going, how it’s being used… zakat on a completely different form than just kind of giving your month… yearly dues… You could see what it was doing to help people, you could see… people taking home extra food, or being fed or like everything else that is said… their rent can be paid, their… you know, bills can be paid, you can keep them from getting evicted, like there’s so many things that our zakat does.
Some interviewees pointed to the dignity and psychological benefits of zakat as compared to Canadian welfare systems which are patronising and dehumanising. One interviewee talked about even an obvious example of feeding someone who is hungry took on new dimensions after he began working:
So the same way a person whose belly is empty and their fridge is empty, he’s not gonna have a lot of khushūʿ [focus] in ṣalāh [prayer]… because he’s going to be thinking about, where am I gonna get my next meal, or how am I gonna pay my bills next month, right? That’s what he’s most likely going to be thinking about… But if he’s well fed and… the worries of his present day are… taken away then he’s gonna have the khushūʿ in ṣalāh inshallah, he’s going to be able to do ʿibādah [worship]… in a very good manner. So that’s what basically…what zakat does, is the ultimate goal is to, not just to, you know, which is the face value, not just to remove poverty, but to build people and build them to a place where they can worship Allah subḥānahu wa-taʿālá.
This spiritual dimension can give dignity and psychological peace to recipients in ways that being stigmatised as a welfare recipient is unlikely to.
1.5 The personal touch
It is well known in academic literature that ethnic-minorities “gravitate to their own for volunteering,”
partly for the comfort of being with people who share the same language and culture, and partly as an alternative space from mainstream groups that either exclude them or feel unfamiliar. Azmi’s 1997 study of Muslim social service providers, while dated, made a pertinent observation that Canadian multiculturalism was founded around the concept of ethnicity, whereas many Muslims wished to prioritise their connections across ethnic groups as members of one religion. So rather than Arab Christians and Muslims being served by an Arab agency, and South Asian Muslim and Hindus by a South Asian agency, the Arab and South Asian Muslims joined under one confessional Muslim agency.
The trust factor is crucial, he pointed out, as many Muslims felt they were being aggressively “acculturate[ed] to Canadian ways,”
and preferred to receive services from fellow Muslims.
Unfortunately, Muslims setting up their own organisations is often looked upon with suspicion by the wider society, as proof that Muslims do not want to integrate.
Scholars who investigate Muslim volunteerism challenge this premise.
May’s study of Muslim charities in the UK argues that Muslims establish charities, especially those related to zakat
, due to the important religious obligation that these duties be carried out properly according to Islamic tenets. “Ultimately, the perceived need of specifically-Muslim charities does not stem from issues of self-segregation or suspicious intent but on religious injunction and “trust” in those given authorization to distribute funds according to the obligations and rights of both receiver and donor.”
Several interviewees commented on the gaps in provincial social service delivery that they see their organisations filling. One manager talked about two illuminating research studies into poverty in his province that had highlighted the gaps in serving Muslim clients. One study found that
70% of our food bank clients weren’t connected to other social services… [which] tells us about isolation awareness of our clients, but it also tells us about barriers, right? And so, we know that Muslims often face barriers accessing… social services. Those barriers might be… because of language, might be because of racism, might be because of awareness, might be because those services don’t address their cultural and spiritual needs. Knowing that, it behooves us to step in and fill that gap, right?
And a second study found that the “top three languages” of the largest affordable housing provider in the province are Arabic, Urdu, and Somali:
[What] this indicates to us as a community is that Muslims are over-represented in poverty. Right? And this is something we’ll be accountable for, right, like why, you know, ’cos like people in Malaysia aren’t accountable for the people in our backyard, we are. Right? They’re our neighbours. They’re our brothers and sisters and so our responsibility is to them, and to the… larger, Canadian community… this is our responsibility as to them… as citizens.
Our interviewees share a passion for helping their clients. They commit an admirable number of hours, overtime, and commitment to service. In addition to Muslim clientele, all the organisations also serve non-Muslim clients, albeit a small percentage. One case worker related how out of curiosity she had asked non-Muslim clients why they came to their Islamic organisation, and “they’re like, well, you smile at us, so, you know, you listen to us and I’m like, but it’s such a small thing, but it’s important for them. You say salām
to us and… that’s why they’re here.” The personal touch thus is a crucial aspect of understanding Muslim zakat
work in Canada, not only on a human-to-human level, but also for the trust and camaraderie that exists between Muslim organisations, donors and receivers—all with an understanding of the religious obligations around zakat
. If we add to this sense of comfort and connection, the racism and exclusion experienced and the dehumanising, patronising, and impersonal character of mainstream social service systems,
we can more fully appreciate the importance of Muslim organisations dealing with zakat