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Islamic Economics and Zakat

QUESTION: Islamic Economics – Zakat (Almsgiving)


The giving of alms (one of the pillars of Islam) speaks directly to the needs of the poor within the Muslim community. Every Muslim is required to give 2.5 percent (1/40th) of his or her annual net income (income after expenses, taxes, etc.)1 to the poor, either directly or through charities. Many mosques have boxes to receive the alms. Through the zakat, wealth is redistributed to the poor (including widows, orphans, the sick, and the otherwise unfortunate) for they have a fundamental right to the provisions necessary for life: food, clothing, and shelter. Some Muslims may give more than this: 2.5 percent is the minimum.2 In some Muslim countries, the zakat is enforced by law, while it remains voluntary and unaccounted in others.3 Nevertheless, it is a duty prescribed by God in the Qur’an and will be investigated at the final judgment.

The alms are to be given to Muslims only. Muslims are not mandated to help needy non-Muslims with their alms. Hammudah Abdalati lists eight groups worthy of receiving help from the zakat: poor Muslims, needy Muslims, new Muslim converts, Muslim prisoners of war, Muslims in debt, Muslim employees appointed by a Muslim governor for the collection of zakat to pay their wages, Muslims in service of the cause of God, and Muslim wayfarers.4

Islamic Economics – Giving as Worship and Taxation
The practice of zakat is spoken of as a lofty vision, one that Muslim scholars and apologists present in grand terms. Abdalati expresses the effects of zakat on both the giver and the receiver in such language: “Zakat does not only purify the property of the contributor but also purifies his heart from selfishness and greed for wealth. In return, it purifies the heart of the recipient from envy and jealousy, from hatred and uneasiness; and it fosters in his heart, instead, good will and warm wishes for the contributor. As a result, the society at large will purify and free itself from class warfare and suspicion, from ill feelings and distrust, from corruption and disintegration, and from all such evils.”5

While this vision is ideal—no hatred between the haves and the have-nots—it also is naïve in that it fails to appreciate our fundamental sinful nature as human beings who naturally and normally expresses envy for the possessions of others. While being fed, housed, and clothed by zakat, it is doubtful that recipients would relinquish all envy for the larger house, finer foods, and nicer clothing of others. Selfishness and greed, jealousy and envy, are part of our inherent sinful disposition that we must overcome; basic economic provisions cannot provide a complete solution.

The primary motive of zakat is religious and spiritual, while the social and economic aspects are subservient to it. Zakat is a form of worship, not a mere tax. In Islam, however, zakat or sadaqa is not a voluntary act of charity. Rather it is an obligatory act that every Muslim is enjoined to perform if he is sincere in his belief in God and the afterlife. The one who receives zakat feels no sense of burden or obligation, but the one who gives it is rewarded with a sense of thankfulness and gratitude to the recipient who enables him or her to discharge an obligation to God and to society.6


Rendered with permission from the book,Understanding the Times: The Collision of Today’s Competing Worldviews(Rev. 2nd ed), David Noebel, Summit Press, 2006. Compliments of John Stonestreet, David Noebel, and the Christian Worldview Ministry at Summit Ministries. All rights reserved in the original.

1 Abdalati, Islam in Focus, 97: “His personal expenses, his family allowances, his necessary expenditures, his due credits—all are paid first, and Zakat is for the net balance.”
2 Ibid., 96.
3 George W. Braswell, Jr., Islam: Its Prophet, Peoples, Politics and Power (Nashville, TN: Broadman and Holman, 1996), 65.
4 Abdalati, Islam in Focus, 97–8. Alms are only for the poor, the needy, the officials charged with the duty of collection, those whose hearts are inclined to truth [i.e., Muslims], the ransoming of captives, those in debt, in the way of Allah, and the wayfarer [i.e., a traveling Muslim, especially one on pilgrimage] (Qur’an, ix 60).
5 Abdalati, Islam in Focus, 95–6.
6 Hadith Sahih Muslim, Book 5, Zakat, Introduction.

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