10 Nov Alms and Charity: Virtues of Zakat: Part 1
WHAT DOES ZAKAT MEAN?
Zakat, literally, holds numerous meanings: to profit, to purify, to increase, to be worthy, nice, mercy, truth, blessing, to extol and to exonerate are just to mention a few. All of these abundant meanings can be sighted in the Qur’an and hadith (sayings of the Prophet Muhammad, Peace Be Upon Him).
For instance, in the following verses, “He has indeed prospered who purifies it (the self)” and “Prosperous indeed are those who purify themselves,” zakat means to purify and to exonerate, while it is also used to denote prosperity in another verse: “A compassion from Our presence, and prosperity.” Additionally, it can refer to purity itself “…and let him see what food is purest there.”
Moreover in many verses, zakat denotes purification, as corroborated by a hadith that uses the same word in describing the sanitization of soil. Consider these references: “…that is more virtuous for you, and purer”, “…for that is purer for you,” “…and let him see what food is purest there,” “He said ‘I am only a Messenger of your Lord to announce to you the gift of a pure son,’” “And Moses said: ‘Have you slain a pure soul though he had killed nobody?’”
WHAT IS TO BE GENERALLY UNDERSTOOD BY ZAKAT IN ISLAM?
In Islamic terminology, zakat is the process where a certain amount of property or money is collected from those who are sufficiently endowed and then given to a needy group of people, with donors, recipients, and the proportion of required donations being clearly specified in both the Qur’an and Sunna. Taking this definition into account, zakat (the prescribed purifying alms) is simply spending what has been bestowed by God, in the amount and places designated by Him, for the sole purpose of physical and spiritual purification.
WHAT ARE THE BENEFITS OF ZAKAT ON SOCIETY? (Part 1)
Zakat, with its innumerable facets, is a bond between members of society, one wherein collective harmony is dependent on individual harmony. Zakat explicitly creates a virtuous setting that eliminates various social problems by establishing a harmonious atmosphere for both the rich and the poor. In a nutshell, zakat forestalls, reduces, or eliminates social conflicts, strengthens the growth of the middle class, and obviates all of the greatest social diseases pertaining to financial issues, especially interest and money-hoarding.
ZAKAT REDUCES CLASS STRUGGLES
The establishment and maintenance of social solidarity are maximized when the gap between social classes is kept at a minimum and the voids likely to cause social conflicts are filled. In other terms, relations between the rich and the poor must not deteriorate if anarchy is to be avoided. Undoubtedly, the most important power that upholds these crucial relations between the rich and the poor is zakat and other principles of assistance. In societies where zakat ceases to exist, the precipice between the rich and the poor widens to the effect where abhorrence and hatred replace love and appreciation for the poor, and concomitantly, disdain and scorn replace compassion and charity for the rich.
Leaves of history attest to the gradual deterioration of civilizations that have opted to divide themselves into conflicting classes. Their initial happiness, a fruit of uncompromising discipline, has always been, more or less, short-lived, a prelude to their swift exit from the world stage, under the debris of their own civilization, as they have paid the ultimate price for their social injustices.
By pronouncing, “Zakat is the bridge of Islam”, the Noble Messenger amplified the importance of zakat in abolishing economic gaps between members of society. Zakat is a bridge used for passing over economic strife and when the whole community makes use of this bridge, class conflicts have the potential to become part of history. This bridge also constructs a stable middle class through which increasingly more recipients of zakat can become its donors and a possible clash between the rich and the poor is prevented.
ZAKAT STRENGTHENS THE MIDDLE CLASS
By the prevention of the polarization of society, Islam envisages the construction of a strong middle class. In providing an opportunity for the unemployed to embark on new business ventures, zakat gains them back into society, stronger than ever, instead of deserting them to become burdens of the community. The strengthening of the middle class in Islam is not encouraged just through zakat and sadaqa; in actuality, there are more precepts pertaining to this issue. For instance, when dividing booty or the spoils of war among members of society, God declares:
That which God gives as spoil to His Messenger from the people of the townships, it is for God and His Messenger (for the State) and for the near of kin, orphans, the needy and the wayfarer so it will not become the property of the rich among you. (Hashr 59:7)
The circulation of capital solely in the hands of the rich inevitably leads to them becoming richer at the expense of the poor, who then become even more stricken. In actual fact, wealth has been created for the benefit of the whole of humanity, indiscriminately. In societies where individuals are deprived and usurped of the wealth bestowed by God, the existence of social classes is tolerated and the scorn of the rich towards the poor is sustained, riches never bring true happiness; on the contrary, financial resource easily becomes a profound source of conflict, even within families and close-knit groups. Additionally, in such societies, the poor remain in perennial anxiety in regards to attaining their sustenance whereas the rich foster similar anxiety pertaining to the security of their wealth. The resort to dangerous alternatives can thus evolve into an option for the poor, a plight we have been so used to witnessing around the world. In contrast, zakat eliminates all of the illegitimate options, graciously providing the poor with an ethical way out of their strife—exhaling into the community a fresh breath of life.
ZAKAT CURES SOCIAL DISEASES
The prime hindrance of the formation of a harmonious atmosphere within societies is the existence of social classes based on wealth. It is self-evident that it is an impossibility for the poor to nurture the love for the rich in a society where they are turned a blind eye on. As prevalent experience has shown, such a society is destined to become a hotbed for social conflict. The following verse corroborates this proposition:
Spend generously for the cause of God, and do not cast yourselves into destruction by your own hands. And know that God loves the doers of good. (Baqara 2:195)
The embracement of self-centeredness, at the expense of abandoning an altruistic life with social awareness, would be tantamount to trotting dangerously, as brilliantly illustrated by the Qur’an. Throwing one’s self into danger is due to deserting infaq or spending in the way of God and its grave outcomes that immediately c o me to mind, including anarchy, becoming the dominant force over a society that further leads to inextricable national and international complications. This dissipative demeanor of the aristocratic class, indubitably, remains the prime cause underlying anarchy. It is this shockingly irresponsible attitude of the rich, who squander astronomical amounts of money to attain luxuries in an attempt to satiate their interminable carnal desires, which causes the insurgence of crude souls, leading to anarchy and eventually turning the social welfare system upside down.
Wasteful displays as such will, no doubt, whet the appetite of the poor, inculcating in them an insurmountable feeling of hatred for the rich and perhaps, an excuse to usurp their property upon the first chance given. Obstinately abiding by the notion that enormous financial gaps between individuals do not cause an implicit or explicit upheaval is simply ignoring the realities of life.
The inveterate enmity the poor have for the rich, through zakat, providentially evolves into love and respect, patching up the wounds initially caused by greed and selfishness.
By responding to hate with love, the rich will attain immense respect, and consequently, the bond of fraternity throughout society will be reinforced. Those who do not spend in the way of God impede the rights of others by depriving them of what is theirs and simultaneously, wrong themselves by evading an obligation. God, indeed, dislikes wrongdoers and following such a line of action would ultimately attract the dislike of the Creator.
“Indeed God does not wrong humankind in any way; but humankind wrong themselves” (Yunus 10:44) underlines how human’s worst enemy is, ironically, himself. Those who indulge in “self-oppression” by avoiding zakat will suffer an assault of another form of oppression. “The oppressor is the sword of God; taken revenge with and then taken revenge of” is a vital principle of social life. Thus the wealthy that are in denial of their duty with regards to alms are prone to suffering onslaughts from the poor as immediate punishment for their ignorance. The poor, given they partake in such an upheaval, are also punished in turn, as the realization of the celestial cycle enunciated by the Prophet of God. God may delay a punishment, but when His verdict is decreed, there is no turning back.
Those who furtively stockpile wealth and withhold it in fear of zakat are bound to receive an uncalculated slap in the face as their insatiable greed generates unavoidable calamities from their wealth.
By fixing the problem before it spreads, zakat forestalls the potential complications of society, establishing a firm social structure. Looking from this perspective, many current issues could be avoided if zakat is effectively utilized.
ZAKAT LIBERATES SOCIETY FROM INTEREST
Interest has come to be an essential method of exploitation for the happy minority in their quest for greater wealth. While attempting to establish a society where benevolence reigns, it is inevitable that an effective antidote is applied to extirpate interest, to its very last residue, to prevent the upsurge of many social predicaments.
God, the Almighty, has explicitly forbidden all types and forms of interest, the chief catalyst in causing the rich to become richer and the poor to become poorer—repudiating the common notion that interest increases wealth. The Qur’an, which had aimed to put end to the widespread use of interest and liberate the believers from its fetters, again, makes use of the principle of gradualness, which was discussed earlier:
That which you give in usury in order that it may increase on people’s property has no increase with God; but that which you give in charity, seeking God’s countenance, has a manifold increase. (Rum 30:39)
Though on the surface, wealth may seem to increase with interest, in actual fact, it fails to deliver prosperity which is, instead, promptly taken away by the Creator and replaced with gradual deterioration. Riba, the Arabic term for an interest, holds various meanings, almost all of which are negative, like destruction and devastation; and it also refers to something that carries with itself misfortune. A sharp comparison is made above between, on the one hand, riba or interest that bestows the wealth perennial depreciation and, on the other, sadaqa, the prime inviter of prosperity. What’s important is the actual prosperity bestowed by God on the riches, not the ostensible increase. Seeing that God has given this assurance, it is unthinkable for Him not to realize this assurance, and He will perpetually shower prosperity on wealth out of which sadaqa is given, as confirmed by a copious amount of verifications. Abandoning all forms of interest and embracing sadaqa is a key step towards realizing social justice.
Interest contributes to an apparent increase in wealth but this increase is nothing but a veil put over its eventual depreciation. The above verse, through comparison, implicitly alludes to h o w sadaqa generates a prosperous economy for society, as opposed to the overall deterioration caused by interest, in the purest sense of the word.
The Qur’an, by introducing the prohibition on interest, slowly prepared the early Muslim society for the total acceptance of zakat, by articulating how the Jews, due to partaking in forbidden interest, were deprived of many things which were otherwise previously permissible:
Because of the wrong-doings of the Jews, We made unlawful for them certain good things which were otherwise lawful; and because they hindered many from God’s way, and of their taking usury when they were forbidden from it, and of their devouring people’s wealth by wrongful means. (Nisa 4:160-1)
O you who believe! Do not live on usury, multiplying your wealth many times over (as compound interest). Have fear of God, that perhaps you may be successful. (Al Imran 3:130)
This last revelation proved to be an unambiguous declaration, comprising serious threats for indulgers in interest:
Those who swallow usury shall rise up (from their graves) before God like the men whom Satan has bewitched and maddened by (his) touch, for they assert that usury is just like trading, although God has permitted trade and forbidden usury. He that receives an admonition from his Lord and mends his way may keep what he has already earned; his affair will be determined by God. But those that return (to usury) will be the rightful owners of the Fire. They will abide there forever. God blights usury and makes almsgiving fruitful; He does not love the impious and the guilty. Those that believe and do good works, and establish salat and pay zakat will be rewarded by their Lord; and no fear shall come upon them, neither shall they grieve. O you who believe! Have fear of God, and give up what is still due to you from usury, if you are true believers. And if you do not, then be warned of war (against you) by God and His Messenger. If you repent you may retain your principal (without interest). Wrong not, and you shall be not wronged. And if the debtor is in straitened circumstances, then grant him a postponement until a (time of) ease; but if you remit the debt as almsgiving it will be better for you if you did but know. (Baqara 2:275-80)
As stated above, God and His Messenger deem interest-oriented transactions as a reason to wage war, which in effect, means an exile from Divine Mercy for the rebellious perpetrators. By retorting, “Shall I bow to him (Adam) whom You have made of clay?” (Isra 17:61), Satan had become the first rebel through his denouncing the Divine Command. Such a seditious demeanor, therefore, incommensurable with that of Satan’s who ultimately was branded with the curse and expelled from the Eternal Compassion of God.
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