The holy month of Ramadan, the month of fasting and the most special time of the year for most Muslims, is almost upon us. It is a time that Muslims everywhere look forward to with anticipation, and the passing of which for another year is widely mourned.
The holy month of Ramadan, the month of fasting and the most special time of the year for most Muslims, is almost upon us. It is a time that Muslims everywhere look forward to with anticipation, and the passing of which for another year is widely mourned, despite the celebration of Eid al-Fitr at its end. For many Muslims, this is also a month not only of fasting, but of withdrawal from the transient distractions of the world, self-reflection and spiritual renewal. And for many, it is the time of the year in which they calculate and pay their zakat, in fulfilment of one of the core pillars of the Islamic faith, ordained in both the verses of the Qur’an and the statements and practice of the Prophet (pbuh).
For many Muslims, the association between Ramadan and zakat is largely a practical one. Zakat is an annual due, and Ramadan is a convenient time of the year for them to think of it. This is especially true in the modern world, in which the payment of zakat has become an individual rite, rather than one administered by the Islamic state and performed on a collective, community basis. There is also, however, a good basis for this link in the Seerah of the Prophet (pbuh). An authentic hadith in which the Prophet (pbuh) states “This is the month of zakat” is generally accepted as referring to Ramadan, although a minority of sources link it alternatively to Muharram. It is agreed, however, that this does not necessarily tie zakat to Ramadan; zakat can be paid at any time of the year, and indeed at different times of the year for different kinds of wealth and income, provided it is understood that it is fundamentally an annual due.
This is not the time or place for a detailed exposition of the rules of zakat, as formulated by scholars over the years on the basis of the Islamic sources; and indeed, I am not the person to do it. However, I have recently had the opportunity to study a book on the fiqh of zakat by Shaikh Yusuf al-Qardawi (I am editing a new translation of it), and some points emerge that are worth reflecting on.
Most fundamental of these is that simply paying 2.5 percent on one’s wealth as zakat because it is understood to be ordained in Islam is not sufficient to gain full benefit of it, even though it may be regarded as fulfilment of the fardh and it is far better of course than not paying it. But in this, as in all Islamic obligations, niyah (intention) is fundamental, and while the niyah to please Allah (swt) may be sufficient, one’s intention can only be complete if one understands properly what zakat represents. This is especially important as the alternative to understanding is not usually not-understanding, but misunderstanding and misrepresenting; and this not only deprives one of the benefit of understanding, but can actually have negative consequences even if the intentions of an action were good and correct.
The most common misunderstandings of zakat, it seems to me, are firstly, to regard it as an Islamic form of charity or alms-giving, and secondly to regard it as an Islamic form of taxation. Both of these views have some tangential relation to reality, in that the relief of poverty is one purpose for which zakat is used, and like many taxes, it is a percentage charge paid from one’s income or wealth. But to characterise zakat in those terms is to seriously misrepresent it.
Rather, to fully understand zakat, one must view it in terms of the Islamic worldview and as a key part of Islamic social order that Muslim are expected to establish on earth. The Qur’an describes zakat as a right due on the wealth of Muslims. That is to say, it is not something we give of what is ours; it is something that we owe as a debt to Allah (swt) and to our fellow Muslims in return for the privilege of being granted custodianship of a part of the wealth that belongs to Allah (swt), and which has placed on earth for the benefit of all its people. Charity and alms-giving, therefore it is very definitely not. And nor, therefore, is any recipient of zakat humbled in any way or in debt to anyone but Allah (swt). He or she is receiving only what is his or her rightful portion of the wealth of the earth, albeit through a different route. Imposing on this zakat the terminology and mindsets of modern capitalistic societies amounts, frankly, to an attack on Islam itself.
Nor is zakat purely a personal obligation. Nowadays most zakat, certainly of Muslims in western countries, is self-calculated and given to charitable organizations which channel it to the poor and needy in Muslim countries. But at the time of the Prophet (pbuh), it was collected and administered by the state and used for a much wider range of things for the general benefit of society and people, such as jihad fi sabilillah, the propagation of Islam, the settlement of new Muslims, and the relief of those in debt even if they were not obviously poor. It is understandable now that people should be wary of what their zakat is spent on, considering the absence of legitimate and trusted Islamic authorities to administer it, but that should not make us lose sight of the broader objectives and higher ideals of what is a core institution of the Islamic social order as well as a personal Islamic obligation.
Almost every element of Islam has suffered misunderstanding, misrepresentation, distortion and diminishment as a result of the historic failure of Muslims to maintain the standards and ideals on Islam in the public and political sphere. Zakat is no exception. Recognising this, and taking the necessary steps to reverse the process, starting with our own understandings of even such core institutions as zakat, sawm and salah, is as much a fardh on us all as actually paying the dues that we owe. And there could be no better time to start the process than Ramadan, “the month of zakat.”
Iqbal Siddiqui publishes a personal blog, A Sceptical Islamist: htp://scepticalislamist.typepad.com.