Muslim Philanthropy: Charity as a Pillar of the Faith (Zakat)
Written by Faryal M. Khatri
There are five core acts of worship incumbent upon all believing Muslims called the “five pillars of Islam.” These five are shahada (الشهادة) – the declaration of faith, salat (صلاة) – prayer, zakat (زكاة) – obligatory charity, sawm (صوم) – fasting during the month of Ramadan (رمضان) and Hajj (حج) – pilgrimage to holy sites in Mecca, Saudi Arabia.
Zakat is 2.5% of one's total wealth which includes agricultural goods, precious metals, minerals and livestock, and property and earned income. It is incumbent on those who reach a minimum level of wealth after deduction of debt. Although Zakat is prescribed as obligatory charity, there are no consequences or penalties explicitly mentioned in scripture for those who do not give Zakat. The emphasis is placed on one’s belief in and sense of responsibility towards God. The Arabic term for this is taqwa (تقوى). The giving of Zakat is a very private affair in which the amount is given to a trusted distributor who will then give it to the recipient anonymously.
Chapter 9, verse 60 of the Qu’ran lists eight categories of people who are eligible to receive zakat money collected by the community. They are:
The low-income or indigent.
Recent converts and friends of the Muslim community interested in learning.
Bondage slaves and captives.
In the cause of God.
Zakat became obligatory in the second hijri year or the second year after the great migration which marked the beginning of the Islamic calendar. However, there is evidence in the Qur’an that the concept of zakat was not new and had been an optional tax during the times of other prophets such as Isaac, Jacob, and Jesus. For example, in chapter 19, verse 30-31 of the Qur’an, it reads “[Jesus] said, "Indeed, I am the servant of Allah. He has given me the Scripture and made me a prophet. And He has made me blessed wherever I am and has enjoined upon me prayer and zakat as long as I remain alive.”
The word zakat comes from the root word zaka which means to purify. This is very descriptive of the concept as zakat is a way to cleanse one's wealth and socially benefit the community. Zakat is an embodiment and manifestation of fundamental themes of the religion – submission to God, purification of the heart, justice, compassion, altruistic love, goodwill, human family (brotherhood) and neighborliness.
Charity is also a means of protecting oneself from calamity and purifying oneself from negativity caused by greed and jealousy. It is believed that hiding one’s wealth and not helping someone in need will lead to calamity. Additionally, it is believed that wealth does not decrease when one gives charity. The prophet Muhammad said, “Charity does not decrease wealth, no one forgives another except that Allah increases his honor, and no one humbles himself for the sake of Allah except that Allah raises his status.”
Zakat is also seen as a way to strengthen the community as it addresses the collective well-being of the community by elevating the needy. It’s also a way of distributing wealth in a way that is dignified and helps those who are struggling. This addresses the social aspect of zakat.
Zakat is often coupled with salat (prayer), the second pillar of Islam. In one instance, the Qur’an reads in chapter 98 verse 5, “And they were not commanded except to worship Allah, [being] sincere to Him in religion, inclining to truth, and to establish prayer and to give zakat. And that is the correct religion.” The coupling of zakat and prayer is reflective of a Muslim’s obligation to both believe and to act. Prayer is an act of belief and zakat is the action that compliments it.
Ties to the Philanthropic Sector
In the United States, there is a long and rich history of Muslims that dates long before the formation of the country. Muslims have contributed in all sectors and in all fields throughout history. The American Muslim philanthropic sector includes Islamic centers and mosques, Islamic schools, humanitarian relief organizations, advocacy groups, interfaith organizations, civic engagement organizations and several other types of organizations. Although not traditionally found within Islamic organizations globally, American Muslim organizations have adopted tax deductions, corporate matching programs and other incentive programs for giving.
In Muslim majority countries, the philanthropic sector formed with the establishments of zakat organizations whose primary purpose is the collection and distribution of zakat. Through these zakat organizations, social welfare programs and initiatives are formed to help the underprivileged and needy.
Key Related Ideas
- Sadaqah is voluntary or additional giving. It is not confined to monetary giving. It also includes an act of kindness such as picking up litter or speaking a kind word. In some cultures, it is believed that giving a small amount of money as sadaqah will ward off the evil eye or for protection. It has been narrated that Prophet Muhammad said: “Your smile to your brother is a sadaqah for you. Your commanding the right and forbidding the wrong is a sadaqah. Your guiding a man in the land of misguidance is a sadaqah for you. Your seeing (showing the way) for a man with bad eyesight is a sadaqah for you. Your removing a stone or thorn or bone from the road is a sadaqah for you. Your emptying your bucket of water into your brother’s (empty) bucket is a sadaqah for you”. Also, “A charity is due for every joint in each person on every day the sun comes up: to act 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; a good word is a charity; and removing a harmful thing from the road is a charity.”
- Sadaqah Jariyah is continuous or ongoing charity. This is an act of charity where the benefit continues even after one passes away. For example, establishing a school will be considered a sadaqah jariyah as long as that school is operating and providing education for the community. A person who gives a sadaqah jariyah will continue to receive its reward even if (s)he passes away. It has been narrated that Prophet Muhammad said: "When a man dies, his deeds come to an end except for three things: Sadaqah Jariyah (ceaseless charity); a knowledge which is beneficial, or a virtuous descendant who prays for him (for the deceased)." (Muslim)
- Zakat al Fitr literally means the zakat (obligatory charity) of the breaking of the fast and is an additional form of obligatory charity. It is given at the conclusion of the holy month of Ramadan, the month of fasting. Fitrah, the amount provided for zakat al fitr, is one bushel or 2.2 kilos of the local staple food (ie wheat, corn, etc.) or the approximate equivalent of its cost in cash and is given per each member of the family including a fetus still in its mother’s womb.
Important People Related to the Topic
- Abdul Sattar Edhi (1928 – 2016) was a philanthropist and humanitarian from Pakistan (originally from Bantva, Gujarat, British India prior to the partiation). Edhi began his philanthropic ventures in 1957 when he opened a free clinic serving the underprivileged. He is most known for his foundation, Edhi Foundation, which established a network of minivan ambulances.
- Azim Premji (1945 – present) is a business tycoon and philanthropist based in India. He is the second wealthiest person in India. In 2000, he founded the Azim Premji Foundation which focuses on education in India. In 2013, he committed to donating at least half of his wealth by signing the Giving Pledge.
- Sulaiman bin Abdul Aziz Al Rajhi (1929 – present) founded Al Rajhi bank, the world’s largest Islamic compliant bank, with his brothers. He shifted his focus in 2013 to philanthropy by founding the Sulaiman bin Abdul Aziz Al Rajhi Endowments Holding Company which focuses on issues such as education, religious literacy, healthcare and other social services.
Related Nonprofit Organizations
- Alwaleed Philanthropies Global was founded by Prince Alwaleed bin Talal from Saudi Arabia. It is a philanthropic organization that initiates and supports projects by collaborating with government, educational and other philanthropic organizations. Its focus areas are empowering women and youth, developing communities, creating cultural understanding and providing disaster relief (www.alwaleedphilanthropies.org/).
- World Congress of Muslim Philanthropies serves as a networking platform and catalyst for forming relationships between affluent individuals, foundations and corporations across all sectors. It seeks to mobilize financial and human resources to respond to social needs (thewcmp.org/).
- GuideStar Directory of Islamic Charities and Nonprofits provides a list of charities and nonprofits with a faith-based mission. The greater majority of these are eligible for zakat (www.guidestar.org/nonprofit-directory/religion/islamic/1.aspx).
- National Zakat Foundation provides several educational resources to better understand zakat and charitable giving in Islam as well as tools to help calculate zakat (www.nzf.org.uk/).
- Institute for Social Policy and Understanding conducts research on American Muslims and their contributions in the United States from charitable giving to civic engagement. It is the most reputable and trusted research organization on American Muslims (www.ispu.org/).
Reflection Question - How can zakat be used to resolve large societal issues such as poverty and homelessness?
Bibliography and Internet Sources
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This paper was developed by students taking a Philanthropic Studies course taught at the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy at Indiana University in 2017. It is offered by Learning To Give and the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University.