Zakah – Its Concept and Purpose in Islam – Part 1 (Dr. Mansoor Alam, Ohio, USA)

The economics of zakah and its relevance to modern times is a hotly debated issue among both religious and liberal Muslims.  This series of articles will attempt to explain the concept of zakah in the light of only the Quran and the faithful implementation of this concept by our Prophet (pbuh).  We will see how a similarly implemented system can solve the current economic problems of not just Muslims, but of the whole world.

We will first examine the prevailing opinions of both religious and secular Muslims, as well as the prevailing institution of zakah in some so-called Muslim countries.

Religious Vs Secular Arguments 

Imams and religious leaders emphasize the importance of zakah explaining that the economic problems of Muslims would be solved if we start practicing, in earnest, this much-neglected pillar of Islam.  Most religious Muslims, on the other hand, conceive of zakah as charity.  They are content with implementing the religious Shari’ah and Fiqh that was developed by religious leaders and jurists (Imams and Fuqahaa) more than a thousand years ago.  Even with the reality of global economics, many religious Muslims not only do not understand the complexities and underlying dynamics of the Western economic system, but also do not deem it worthwhile or necessary to study and know it indepth. Although many religious Muslims express displeasure with the Western economic system, blaming it for sucking Muslims’ wealth, they themselves do not shy away from trying to profit from it.  Many Muslims are heavily involved with stocks, bonds, and other investment instruments offered by this purely capitalistic system, but they continue to expound the benefits of the Shari’ah.   They hold conferences on Islamic economics in such bastions of capitalism as Harvard University, but fail to see the contradiction.   They twist the Shari’ah to suit the interests of the rich and the powerful in the name of adaptation to “our times.”  They give fatwas about halal (allowed), and haram (forbidden), identifying halal stocks on Wall Street as opposed to haram interest in banks.  One wonders if they really fail to understand that the very interest, which they consider haram, is, in fact, the foundation of capitalism on which stands Wall Street.  How can the branch of a tree be halal if its root is haram?

Secular Muslims, on the other hand, dismiss the idea that zakah has the potential to solve the complex economic problems of today’s Muslims.  They say the world has changed since the Prophet’s time and that the economic system he implemented is no longer applicable to modern times.  They are impressed with the outer glitter of the West and dazzled by its economic achievement.  In their opinion, Muslims will be better off economically and politically if they follow the Western system.  They claim, in imitation of the West, that religion is a private affair between man and God; therefore, it should not meddle with politics or economics.  This classical argument is put forth by secular Muslims who forget that Islam, as a way of life, must include every aspect of a Muslim’s life: social, political, and economic.  Secular Muslims cut the root of the Islamic tree but hold onto a few branches by calling themselves Muslims.   They do not have the courage to leave Islam, but they want Islam to leave them – alone.  Again, one wonders how they think a tree can be alive if its roots are cut off.   Allah says in the Quran that we have to enter in Islam completely (2:85, 2:208).  Therefore, there is no such thing as a partial Muslim or partial Islam.  Secular Muslims also forget, or ignore, or fail to realize that it is, indeed, the Western system and its economic policies that have polarized the world into Haves and Have-nots; East and West; Developed and Under-developed; First and Third worlds.

In regard to the prevailing system in many so-called Muslim countries, strangely enough, zakah is based on the way it was set up by the Imams under the direction of the Abbasid kings.  Since the Quran does not recognize the existence of kings and priests, they had no authority to develop a Shari’ah for the Muslim masses.  Yet, today, we do have a Shari’ah in our hands, which we accept unquestioningly.  How was this done?   In the first place, the Shari’ah of the Abbasid kings and priests was sanctified by attributing it to the Prophet (pbuh).  Secondly, any critics of the time were silenced by the proverbial carrot and stick.  This method was just as effective then, as it is now.  Those who refused to bow to any form of pressure would be labeled as infidels and put to death; their writings would be destroyed.  In this way, the kings and the priests established their version of the Shari’ah as the truth, to the extent that today, many religious Muslims find the following statements very strange: only the Quran is sufficient for us; we can implement true Islam based solely on the Quran; the prophet (pbuh) left only the written Quran to the Ummah; the Prophet told Muslims to follow only the Quran; the Prophet gradually abolished slavery; the companions of the Prophet (pbuh) were true Mumins who did not deviate from the Quran and the true faith.  Well-meaning religious Muslims will quickly quote Shari’ah to refute the above statements, which are perfectly true and found in the Quran.  How ironic that the Quran has been made to appear strange and the man-made Shari’ah made to look like the truth.

The Real Zakah – The First Universal Welfare System 

Contrary to the beliefs of both religious and secular Muslims, the Prophet’s achievements were based not on ephemeral but on the permanent values of the Quran.  He brought about the greatest revolution – even an economic and political miracle – in human history (see Michael Hart, THE 100, pages 3-10).  In a very short time after the prophet migrated to Medina and implemented the system of salaah and zakah, the economic condition of the people changed. (For a detailed discussion about the system of salaah, see a two part article in MONITOR, pages 6-10, September/October 1998, and pages 7-12, December1998/January 1999)

The Prophet (pbuh) is reported to have said: If a single person were to sleep hungry in a town, then God’s protection is lifted from such a town. [Masnad Imam Ahmad] This hadith emphasizes that no one (Muslim or non-Muslim) under this system should go hungry.  Thus this zakah system created the first universal welfare system in human history. It also gradually transformed the existing slave-based economy to a universal welfare-based economy.  By the end of the Prophet’s period, the entire Arabian Peninsula enjoyed economic as well as political security. This system reached its pinnacle during Khalifa ‘Umar’s time (again, see Michael Hart, THE 100, pages 261-265), a time when, history tells us, hardly anyone was in need of charity.

What has occurred then in the intervening years that the Muslim masses are suffering economic deprivation even though they live in areas with plenty of natural resources?

 What Happened?

Muslims and non-Muslims alike ask the question: If the system implemented by our Prophet (pbuh) and Sahabaa (r) was so good, why did it not continue? The answer is simple: we changed or abandoned the system implemented by the Prophet. Instead of deciding matters with open consultation, as the Quran requires, the Ummayad and Abbasid dynastic rulers created a dictatorship under the guise of  “Shari‘iah” and “Ijma‘a”. This was a ploy to fool the people. The rulers first acquired illegal political authority, and then delegated religious authority to Imams appointed by themselves.  Thus they hijacked the train of Islam from the track of our Prophet (pbuh) and his Sahabba (r) and put it on a new track called “Shari‘ah.” Since then, a minority of the rich and powerful has been riding this train and entertaining their friends while exploiting the vast majority of Muslims along the way. Consequently, common Muslims have continued to live in poverty and to suffer intergenerational economic misery.  Islam’s system of zakah has had nothing to do with this sad state of affairs.

But The Sermons Go On …

While the power hungry Muslim rulers, politicians, and autocrats exploit and plunder the God-given resources, the sermons about zakah go on in mosques and convention centers around the world. And while the effective control of Muslim land and its vast resources have slowly passed into enemy hands, the sermons exhorting ordinary, working-class Muslims to give zakah in the name of Islam and the Sunnah of the Prophet (pbuh) continue. While thousands of children die from malnutrition and lack of medicine, religious Muslims spend millions of dollars on food and decorations to celebrate the departures and arrivals of Hajis (pilgrims) in hundreds of cities and towns around the world.  Many religious and rich Muslims firmly believe that performing multiple Haj and Umra is the highway to heaven. While many of the Imams and religious leaders join in and participate in the celebrations of the rich by praising their religiosity, all the while they exhort the poor to be patient and accept their predetermined fate.   One wonders why the borrowed Zorastrian concept of predetermination, which favors the rich and powerful and permanently disables the poor and the weak, was inserted and is now faithfully maintained in the books of Shari’ah.

Status Quo Vs Change

The big question now looms before us: when and how should we confront these defenders of the status quo?  When will we implement the economic system of zakah so effectively demonstrated by our Prophet (pbuh)? To answer these questions, it is essential that we differentiate between our current concept of zakah and the real meaning and significance of zakah.

Our Present Approach to Zakah

Today, we are taught that zakah is one of the pillars of Islam. zakah is generally translated as charity or poor-due and it is required to be distributed according to the details given in the Shari’ah. However, the descendents of the Prophet (pbuh), generally known as “Syeds” in the Indian subcontinent, are forbidden to take zakah according to this Shari‘ah. No matter how poor, they are considered superior by birth compared to other Muslims due to their supposed relationship with the Prophet (pbuh). Obviously, this is against our Prophet’s Sunnah since he proclaimed justice, fairness, and equality for all, regardless of family or blood relationship.

The dispensation of zakah is regulated by different rates (called shar‘h) for different items (called nisaab) whose details are given in books of hadith and Fiqh.  Zakah on money is 2.5% of the savings over a period of one year according to the Shari’ah.  There are many conditions attached to the giving and receiving of zakah.  There is no uniformity even among the Sunnis in the restrictions, rates, and even the items of zakah.

In addition, there are different books of Fiqh and Shari’ah for different Muslim sects or schools of thought! Although Islamic scholars know about these differences in zakah among the Muslim sects, they rarely bring them out into the open, since it is in the interest of these scholars to keep the people ignorant.

The differences in zakah among the four Sunni Imams are not as major as among the Sunni and Shi’ia Imams. For example, in Fiqh Jaffariah, there is no zakah on paper currency. So, for the followers of this Fiqh there is no Zakah on bank accounts. When General Zia-ul-Haq, the Pakistani military ruler instituted compulsory zakah in Pakistan, the Shi’ia ‘Ulema revolted against it and refused to abide by the government’s zakah ordinance. Ultimately, the government excluded Shi’ias from the yearly bank account deductions. This led many Sunnis to declare themselves Shi’iason their bank forms to avoid paying zakah on their bank accounts.

Religious Tricks to Avoid Zakah

Some Sunni jurists have been very creative in teaching people how to avoid paying zakah.  The Kitab-ul-‘Heil or Book of Tricks teaches Muslims how to avoid zakah while technically fulfilling the requirements of the Sharia’h.  In other words, how they can have their wine but not lose jannah:  Rind ke rind rahe haath se Jannat na gayee.

Many religious Muslims, who are very particular about prayers, are quick to take advantage of the tricks specified in these books.  Like the Jews fishing on the Sabbath, this is tantamount to playing games with the verses of Allah.   The Quran reminds us: “In the long run evil in the extreme will be the end of those who do evil; for that they rejected the Signs of Allah, and held them up to ridicule” (30:10). “And when he learns something of Our Signs, he takes them in jest: For such there will be a humiliating penalty” (45:9). [Yusuf ‘Ali]


Dear sisters and brothers!  We must re-turn to the true spirit of the Quran; we must have the courage to follow the Islam of our Prophet (pbuh), which requires real sacrifice and a drastic change in our lifestyles. We must go back to the Quran as the primary source, and not to the rulings of Islamic scholars from the time of the Ummayad and Abbasid rulers.

In Part 2 of this article we will look at the real meaning and significance of zakah – the Arabic word zakah with its root z-k-w, which means growth and development, not charity or poor-due. Keeping this meaning in full view, zakah is supposed to ultimately lead to growth and development of all human beings; it is supposed to remove the need for charity or poor-due in the long term. We will see how zakah not only leads to the economic progress of individuals and all human beings, but to their spiritual progress as well. We will also note the difference between Sadaqaa and Zakah.

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