views updated May 29 2018


ZAKĀT is a Qurʾanic term that signifies the specific obligation of giving a portion of an individual's wealth and possessions for primarily charitable purposes. The word is derived from a root meaning "to be pure" and also carries additional connotations of "increase" and "virtue," as well as "giving." It is also used in the Qurʾān together with other terms such as adaqāt that also carry the connotation of giving and of charity.

The Qurʾān links zakāt to other primary acts of belief: "Piety does not consist of merely turning your face to the east or to the west. Rather, the pious person is someone who believes in God, the last day, the angels, the book, and the prophets and who out of his love gives his property to his relatives, orphans, the needy, travelers, supplicants, and slaves; and who performs the required prayers and pays the zakāt " (Qurʾān 2:177).

The verb zakā suggests the idea of growth to emphasize that the giving of one's resources is simultaneously an act that entails the cleansing of oneself and one's property and, through sharing, an enhancement of the capacity of others. More specifically, this kind of giving is considered in the Qurʾān to be analogous to a fertile garden whose yield is increased by abundant rain (Qurʾān 2:265). It is this multiple connotation of zakāt that is reflected in subsequent interpretations in the institutionalization of the principle in Muslim thought and practice. The centrality of zakāt is underscored by the many times it is coupled with the command for prayer and also identified as a continuation of the practice of past prophets.

It is clear that the Qurʾān envisaged a broad framework both for those who might benefit from the more formalized practice that was evolving in the early Muslim community and for the fiscal support of the community's needy. Zakāt and other forms of giving served to benefit the early Muslims who had migrated from Mecca with the Prophet. It was also used to encourage others to join the Muslim community and to support the Muslims in the conflict against Mecca. The Qurʾān specifies the types of recipients who ought to benefit from it: those afflicted by poverty; those in need and incapable of assisting themselves; those who act, sometimes in a voluntary capacity, as stewards and custodians to ensure the collection and appropriate expenditure of funds; those who should be attracted to the faith; captives who need to be ransomed; debtors; travelers; and finally those engaged in serving God. All of these categories came to be strictly defined in later legal and exegetical literature. But other verses also suggest broader uses that might include those who during periods of hardship or transitions were not visibly in need and who nonetheless either required assistance to enhance their livelihood or needed to be directed towards new occupations and economic opportunities. While one aspect of zakāt was clearly projected towards charitable acts for the poor and the needy, the practice also encompassed the wider goal of applying the donations to improve the general condition and economic well-being of other recipients and constituencies and those working to foster the growth of the new community.

The fact that the Prophet eventually organized the collection and distribution of zakāt suggests that the process was being cast into specific institutional forms even in his day. It was, according to early Muslim sources, applied to crops, animals, merchandise, gold and silver, and so on. Such wealth and possessions qualified only when they were above a certain minimum number or amount. The collector was urged to be fair and to persuade rather than impose. According to the Qurʾān, some of the Bedouin groups that had converted to Islam remonstrated about the paying of zakāt. Al-Bukhārī (d. 870), the compiler of the most respected collection of Sunnī prophetic adīth, cites a report in which the Prophet sent a representative to Yemen to invite the local tribes to convert to Islam and pay zakāt. When Abū Bakr became caliph after the Prophet's death, a number of tribes refused to pay the zakāt because they felt that the death of the Prophet absolved them from the obligations contracted with him. In order to ensure adherence to the practice and to put down the rebellion Abū Bakr was compelled to send forces against the rebels, restoring order and proper remission of zakāt. It appears therefore that based on the example of the Prophet and the early Muslim community, while the practice of zakāt had become well-established, its particulars and regularization were still in the process of development.

The juristic literature produced by succeeding generations of scholars further formalized the collection and disbursement of zakāt as part of the larger systematization of legal obligations. While in some instances rulers and states collected zakāt, inefficiencies and corruption resulted throughout Muslim history in a variety of collection practices, so that individuals were still free to disburse zakāt as individuals or in community contexts through appropriate intermediaries.

The work of the Hanafī jurist Abū Yūsuf (d. 808), Kitāb al-Kharāj, which was written during the reign of the Abbasid caliph Hārūn al-Rashīd (r. 786809), is an instructive example of the collaboration between jurists and rulers to appropriate and extend such practices as zakāt as part of the fiscal working of the state. A jurist such as al-Shāfiʾī (d. 820) was able to systematize and rationalize prevailing practice in his work. Generally, such works built upon the references to zakāt and adaqāt in the Qurʾān, detailing the payments based on the ownership of property, possessions, precious stones and money, animals, and income generated from farming and trading. They prescribed when an amount was to be paid and to whom, as well as what minimum amounts were due in each category. It is interesting to note that the zakāt was also extended to include underground resources, such as minerals and treasure troves. These juristic works enumerate in great deal the character and terms of zakāt, developing into an elaborate formalized obligation, presented as a religious duty. Many of the sources however continue to emphasize the moral agency of the act, linking its obligatory character to religious merit and reward. Moreover, they often identified adaqāt and zakāt as a means of seeking God's pleasure and the reward of the afterlife.

Developments in legal theory also reflect the way different groups in Islam interpreted zakāt. Shīʿī sources, citing ʿAlī ibn Abī Tālib and the other early imāms, emphasize the need to pay the zakāt to the rightful authorities. Among the Shīʿah, this was to be entrusted to the imām or those designated by him and disbursed in accordance with the spirit of Qurʾanic values. Among the Ithna Ashari Shīʿah, who believe that the imām is in a state of physical absence from the world (ghayba ), zakāt was to be entrusted to those considered his trusted worldly representatives. Their role was to ensure that zakāt reached the appropriate recipients. Among the Ismāʿīlī Shīʿah, zakāt 's formal aspect is complemented by a spiritual significance, and it was the role of the imām to interpret and sustain the values of zakāt in changing contexts. The Zaydi tradition insisted that it must be paid to official collectors representing the Zaydi state under a legitimate imām.

The Sūfīs emphasize the mystical value of zakāt. In certain circles, individuals were known to distribute their entire possessions as zakāt. Some groups sanctioned the acceptance of zakāt as a gift emanating directly from God. Over the period of Muslim history, the practices relating to zakāt evolved into various forms, but it remained an important practice, mirroring beyond all the formal details the principle and moral commitment to share one's wealth.

As Muslims seek to address questions of identity and development in the modern world, zakāt has afforded them the opportunity to rethink the relevance of past practices within their changed contexts, which include living in nation-states or as minorities in many parts of the world. A majority of Muslims live in areas of the world that are considered to be less developed than the more industrialized regions. Hence, issues of social justice and the equitable distribution of resources figure prominently in discussions of the present-day significance for building civil society according to the values of past tradition. Some Muslim theorists have advocated the reintroduction of the obligatory zakāt tax as one element of a general tax policy to add the moral aspect of social benevolence to a modern economic policy.

Additionally, some countries have developed nonstate financial agencies to allow for individuals to voluntarily contribute zakāt. In Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and Yemen, legislation was created to encompass zakāt as part of the state fiscal practice. The majority of Muslims, however, continue the practice of zakāt as a voluntary act of giving and as an expression of personal faith, intending it to serve the needs of those less privileged in their communities and elsewhere in the world.


For primary sources in translation see, Abū Yūsuf Yaʾqūb ibn Ibrahīm, Kitāb al-Kharāj, translated by E. Fagnan (Paris, 1921); Bukhārī, Sahīh, translated by A. Houdas and W. Marçais as Les traditions islamiques, 4 vols. (Paris, 19031914); al-Ghazālī, Abū Hāmid Muhammad, Ihyāʾ ʿulūm al-dīn, translated by Nabih A. Faris as The Mysteries of Almsgiving (Beirut, 1966); al-Nuʾmān, Abū Hanīfa (Qadī), Daʾāʾim al-Islām, translated by Asaf A. A. Fyzee and I. K. Poonawala (Delhi, 2002); al-Shāfi-ī, al-Risāla, edited by A. M. Shākir (Cairo, 1940), translated by Majid Khadduri as al-Shāfiʾī's Risāla: Treatise on the Foundations of Islamic Jurisprudence (Baltimore, 1961; 2d ed., Cambridge, U.K., 1987; reprint, 1997); Tabarī, Taʾrīkh, translated by W. M. Watt and M. V. McDonald as The History of al-Tabarī, vols. 6 and 7 (Albany, N.Y., 19881990).

Secondary sources include Mahmoud Ayoub, The Qurʾān and its Interpreters, 2 vols. (Albany, N.Y., 19841992); Norman Calder, "Zakāt in Imāmī Shīʿī Jurisprudence from the Tenth to the Sixteenth Centuries A.D.," BSOAS 44 (1981): 468480; Hartley Dean and Zafar Khan, "Muslim Perspectives on Welfare," Journal of Social Policy 26 (1997): 193209; Clifford Geertz, Local Knowledge: Further Essays in Interpretive Anthropology (New York, 1983; 3d ed., 2000); Marshall Hodgson, The Venture of Islam, 3 vols. (Chicago, 1974); Azim Nanji, "Ethics and Taxation: The Perspective of the Islamic Tradition," Journal of Religious Ethics 13 (1985): 161178; Javed A. Khan, Islamic Economics and Finance: A Bibliography (London, 1995); Abdul Aziz bin Muhammad, Zakāt and Rural Development in Malaysia (Kuala Lumpur, 1993); Abdulaziz Sachedina, The Just Ruler in Shīʿite Islam (New York, 1988); Nasim Shah Shirazi, Systems of Zakāt in Pakistan: An Appraisal (Islamabad, 1996); and Norman A. Stillman, "Charity and Social Service in Medieval Islam," Societas 2 (1975): 105115.

Azim Nanji (2005)


views updated May 18 2018

Zakāt. The third Pillar of Islam, the official alms tax levied on certain types of property and payable by every adult Muslim of sufficient means. The word is borrowed from the Heb. zakūt, and the Arab. root zakā is itself connected with the meaning of purity. This is elaborated by some commentators: the believer gives a portion of his wealth to Allāh, and so can ‘purify’ the rest and use it with a good conscience. In the Qurʾān, almsgiving is often cited along with prayer as a duty of the Muslim: ‘Perform the prayer, and give the alms’ (2. 43, 110, 277).

The percentage to be paid on property varies for different classes of goods, and interpretations differ between the schools of law.