The word zakat means ‘purification’ and this conveys the idea that the payment of the zakat is what legitimizes the remainder of one’s wealth and possessions. All things ultimately belong to God, and the zakat makes this ‘real’ and not only benefits the individual in terms of spiritual growth, but benefits the community by working to eliminate inequalities.
The practice does not come directly from the Koran but from the hadith, and is often summarized in five principles:
- One must declare his intention to pay the zakat.
- It must be paid on the day that it is due.
- After the payment, the payer must not exaggerate on what was paid.
- Payment may be in kind, thus wealth may be paid by money, or else compensated by good deeds.
- The zakat must be distributed in the same community from which it was taken.
It would be possible to call this pillar ‘charity’, and some use that term, but this is misleading to modern readers because ‘charity’ has lost its structural and compulsory character in the West. When we here ‘charity’ we tend to imagine either a vague sense of affection for our neighbor, or else a kind of giving of our money that has no specifics attached to it and that is given purely at the individual’s discretion: it is not compulsory. This way of envisioning ‘charity’ or almsgiving is a very late development and it is not only different from what Islam teaches, but is actually far different from what Christianity taught and implemented during the Middle Ages.
We must keep in mind again that Islam is somewhat unique in its practicality, that Muhammad was not a secluded mystic but a savvy businessman and politician. Thus, we should not be surprised to find that almsgiving in Islam is practical and specific, and is not purely to benefit the individual giver, who learns detachment and sacrifice, but to bring about a just society.
The amount is one-fortieth or 2.5 percent of one’s income and holdings. This is no small thing and would obviously have very little impact on the poor but massive implications for the wealthiest members of society.
We have implied that this ‘graduated tax’ was a means of stabilizing society, and it would not be incorrect to say that it is an excellent means of realizing one of the several phases of justice in economic orders, called distributive justice, which is a prerequisite to social justice, and both of these being added to justice in exchange, which tends to be the only phase or type of justice acknowledged in capitalist theories, and the only one that registers in the Western mind. This was, as we have said, not the case in the West of the medieval period, but even here we should not be too quick to make Islamic almsgiving the equivalent of the Christian tithe, which has typically been implemented as a way of supporting the Church itself, which then managed the hospitals, schools, poorhouses out of its own purse. As just and appropriate as that form of seeking social justice might be, it is not quite the same in Islam where there is no ‘church’, so to speak, and so the giving of alms is more directly social in its implementation.