One of the Qur’an’s major themes is social justice for those whom society disadvantages and compassion for the vulnerable. Allah says in the Qur’an:
As for the believing men and the believing women—all [of them] are allies of one another. They enjoin what is right and forbid what is wrong. Moreover, they [duly] establish the Prayer, and give the Zakah, and they obey Allah and His Messenger. It is these upon whom Allah shall have mercy. Indeed, Allah is overpowering, all-wise. (At-Tawbah 9:71)
Mention of Zakah here is significant. It points to the characteristics of a fully functional (and fully human) community, promoting care and love between each other by (a) guaranteeing justice unto the least of them, while (b) shielding the weak from injury. This two-part functionality is then directly pinned to raising one’s spiritual consciousness through the Prayer and raising one’s social consciousness by paying the Zakah. These special items—among all the commands of Allah and His Messenger—Allah has highlighted for scrupulous maintenance.
This is no utopian call. On the contrary, it is a minimum acceptable moral standard for a working human community. Zakah plays a key role in bringing about such a model society. It not only enshrines the right of help for the community’s needy, facilitating ongoing support from the rich to the poor, but, in so doing, it builds a relationship of consideration and appreciation between society’s members.
Zakah is the substance that binds Muslims to each other by way of their obligation to one another in Allah. Islam builds its community out of human obligation toward each other, making each Muslim accountable for the wellbeing of every other Muslim. This concept of reciprocal social obligation is called takaful, meaning “mutual responsibility,” and it is strongly bolstered by the fact that the Zakah is an act of mandatory worship. The tenet of mutual responsibility helps Muslims envision their society like an extended family.
Throughout our history, whenever Muslims sincerely systematized the Zakah obligation, as Almighty Allah and His Messenger (peace and blessings be upon him), have ordained it, Muslims worked something on the order of social miracles. Societies flourished. Communities flowered. Individuals thrived.
Zakah awakens the individual’s social spirit with the truest practical expression of brotherhood. When Muslims pay Zakah, the society behaves exactly like a family, the able helping the incapable, one upholding all. Said the Prophet:
“The believers—in their kindness, compassion, and empathy for one another—are as a single body. When one limb is afflicted, the whole body responds to it with sleeplessness and fever.” (Al-Bukhari and Muslim)
Zakah spreads tranquility and peace in society because it secures the weak and their dependents with the guarantee of certain provision, shelter, and access to essential communal facilities. The magic of Zakah is not only that it links one to others by a sense of personal responsibility, but that it binds everyone to the individual through an obligation of sufficiency. There is no greater bulwark against social disintegration.
Zakah as a Kind of Welfare System
Zakah is the first known system of community-wide welfare regulated as a social support network for those in need. It is a meaningful institution with a clearly defined religious-social-economic mandate. Its rules, regulations, structures, standards, and specific functions are well-established. It does not depend on voluntary charity, and its collection is enforceable by society.
The Zakah system revealed by Allah and instituted by the Prophet was complete and functional among Muslims in the seventh century. Within a few years of the Prophet’s migration to Madinah, the Zakah system had become so effective that very few people even needed it. For one of the virtues of Zakah is that in providing for the poor and linking each to all and all to each, it enables people to separate themselves from those social practices that guarantee the impoverishment of some.
It took more than 13 centuries after the Prophet for Europe (and by that time America) to even address poverty systematically with some effectiveness. Not until 1941 did England and the United States initiate a worldwide agreement for governments to respect and warrant the social welfare of their nationals. Yet even then beliefs imbedded in capitalist and communistic economic theory made it a certainty that global poverty would increase to the civilization- and ecology-threatening proportions we live with today.
Equitable Distribution of Zakah
Resources are not only gifts from Allah to all human beings but also a trust. Accordingly, Islam emphasizes an equitable distribution of income and wealth for the fulfillment of the needs of everyone. As a consequence of the application of one’s skills and efforts, one’s birth, location, and timing, and other factors extreme inequalities emerge between people.
In the absence of adequate social restraints and mechanisms for re-distribution, wealth invariably concentrates in the hands of a few. To counter this, in part, Allah has enjoined the believing society with strict laws of inheritance and public disbursement of windfalls, establishing the institution of Zakah to redress extreme or highly skewed inequalities of income and wealth. As Allah states it in the Qur’an:
So that [wealth] does not merely circulate between the wealthy among you.” (Al-Hashr 59:7)
In every society, there are those who may find it hard to earn a living through their own labor, whether owing to disability, lack of opportunity, or depressed production or wages. Islam addresses this by making helping the needy an individual and collective responsibility, first within Muslim families and society, and then through the global Muslim community at large. Moreover, it forbids, in the strongest and broadest terms, stigmatizing the destitute or blaming them for their condition. (Quraishi, 9-13)
If a Muslim society does not apply the comprehensive economic injunctions of the Qur’an and the Prophet, the Zakah alone will not be enough to recreate poverty-free societies, as we have just described. We have plenty of examples of this insufficiency in the Muslim societies of our times—(societies that, for the most part, do not even structure the Zakah institution properly!) Yet were Muslims to prudently apply the principles of Zakah in a current Muslim country, it would not, in isolation of all other factors, cure poverty. Zakah is part of a Godly economic outlook on, and practice in, the world.
For example, Islam forbids extravagance, whether or not one is rich or poor. Thus owning utensils made of gold and silver, or residing in ostentatious homes, is considered excessive, even forbidden.
In addition, Islam also forbids earning interest. Rather, it inspires human beings to work for their money, not to live off the incurable debt and financial misery of others. Moreover, Islam calls upon the rich to employ the poor. So the narratives of Zakah’s amazing historical success that we have just recounted demonstrate the great efficacy of the Zakah system at work within the spiritual-moral context of Islam’s other economic injunctions; among people who have internalized its concepts of selflessness, self-restraint, conservation, sufficiency, contentment, modesty, extended family and familial responsibility, and love of the poor; and, above all, amid societies whose members are resolutely committed to upholding the divine covenant of all Muslims to implement and secure the individual believer’s unfettered right of total worship.
Marghoob Ahmed Quraishi, Annual Zakat Computation Guide (Al-Manar Press, 2007)