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Alms and Charity: Virtues of Zakat: Part 19

Alms and Charity: Virtues of Zakat: Part 19



he Qur’an has explicitly delineated the recipients of zakat with the verse, “Alms are only for the poor and the needy, and those who collect them and for those whose hearts are to be reconciled, and for the ransom of captives and debtors and for the way of God and for wayfarers”(Tawba 9:60). In conjunction with the subtlety of the words encompassed by the verse, scholars have put forward various interpretations regarding whether zakat should only be given to those counted among the enumerated eight categories per se; whether they should all receive zakat equally; or whether it would be enough to donate the zakat only to one group. The uncertainty concerning the eligibility for zakat of some institutions carrying identical features of one or more among these eight groups has also been examined. At this point, it is important

to put emphasis on each of these groups.


Right from the outset, scholars have found it difficult to place a clear-cut border between poverty and destitution. On occasion, the term “poor” denoted to those in need among the Muslim community, whereas “destitute” was the term given to the under-privileged among the non-Muslim minority. On still other occasions, regardless of the difference in faith, while the destitute signified the deprived who had divulged their needs to the public, the poor were needy who, out of self-respect, would not disclose their needs, as described by the Qur’an: “…but you will know them by their appearance. They never beg of people with importunity” (Baqara 2:273). Though they endure all kinds of financial difficulty without making themselves known, it is imperative that these, too, be identified and given zakat in order to become effectively liberated from their financial oppression—through such identification predicates some form of research.

As long as each of the eight categories possess these prerequisites, it is maintained, they will have the right to procure their share of zakat, just like shareholders do in a business enterprise. A person is continuously eligible to receive zakat provided that his degree of poverty remains unchanged, or at least remains below the poverty standard.

A few scholars, headed by the Shafii school, observe the situation from a rather unique perspective, insisting that the ultimate reason why the categories of poor and destitute have been mentioned separately, though they virtually hold the same meaning, is a result of the boundless compassion of God upon those in need, accentuating that when required, they are entitled to two-eights of an overall share of zakat. Thus the needy, by virtue of being named twice, in other words, can be eligible to twice as much zakat as others.

It is utterly impossible to obtain harmony in a society where one portion of people spend money like there is no tomorrow, and the other portion is left to sleep on the street. Expecting the impoverished, who are incessantly struggling with turmoil and hardship, to foster gratitude and sympathy for the rich, who are immersed in a life of luxury, amounts simply to being oblivious about natural human inclinations. However, it is important that one not exploit the issue of poverty by despoiling the wealth that instigates another, different imbalance—like some dubious systems have done in recent history. As it does in all other aspects, Islam strictly recommends a balanced approach in this issue also. In the very beginning of the chapter of Rahman, a declaration of Divine Compassion, the Qur’an accentuates the importance of moderation and balanced life, stressing that harmony between individuals can only be upheld through embracing the equilibrium between rich and all kinds of zakat recipients.


The destitute are the second group assigned by the Qu’ran to receive zakat. According to the majority of scholars, the term “miskin” or destitute denotes someone who, out of helplessness, takes care of his necessities openly through the publication of his need. Most of the time, such pitiful plights become manifest, simply from their deplorable living standards and their depleted states, inevitably making it amply evident to the public that they live in very disadvantaged circumstances. The Qur’an describes a destitute person as, “…a poor wretch in misery,” (Balad 90:16) illustrating the multi-dimensional aspect of their anguish.

Contrary to the prevalent meaning assigned to the term, according to the Noble Prophet, a miskin (destitute person) is not a person who walks around begging for money; more exactly, a destitute is one who while he is in need, his need is not taken note of and for this reason, he doesn’t receive any share of charity. By synoptically looking at the general structure of hadiths, we find that what the Prophet did was to correct a term wrongly used in society, an action corroborated by the Qur’an “…they never beg of people with importunity” (Baqara  2:273). During one instance, in fact, in returning proper meaning to the term, the Noble Messenger explained: “A destitute person is not a beggar who is banished with a couple of dates or one or two morsels. A destitute person is a model of dignity and purity.” And in the Qur’an, we find the purest form of corroboration: “They never obdurately beseech of people.”

The late professor Muhammad Hamidullah made a rather original commentary on the issue, which was alluded to in a general fashion above. Destitute persons, according to Hamidullah, are those in need from among the Jewish and Christian minorities, a view that if accepted, would explain the policy promulgated by Caliph Umar in providing regular payment for the non- Muslim minorities. At any rate, this view is interesting to consider.


As it is understood both from the expressions used in the verse and the practice of the Prophet in this area, the organization regarding collecting and administering zakat should be managed from a single center. Even though an individual can fulfill his duty by personally locating and disbursing his own zakat, it must be remembered that Islam, at the same time, is religion of orderliness with a highly developed regard for community; therefore, it has not left on its own a duty that is a potential conciliator between members of a society.

The first application that comes to mind at this point is when the Prophet sent Muadh ibn Jabal to Yemen as a zakat collector, in addition to assigning him several other duties. Second, he also dispatched Ibn Lutaybiyya to the tribe of Bani Sulaym as a zakat collector and concomitantly demanded a  report upon Ibn Lutaybiyya’s return. As a third reference, the Prophet delivered a sermon to the Companions on behalf of a collector who had arrived with, as he called it, “additional gifts.” All of these instances corroborate the general understanding that during the time of the Prophet, zakat was collected from a single center.

Warning the official collectors against oppression and justice, the Prophet also issued a reminder to the public, advising them to be kind towards the collectors. Instructing Muadh to “take their zakat but avoid seizing their best possessions,” the Messenger had also recommended the public that they, “Send away the collectors in high spirits.” On the whole, the Messenger of God, in addressing those obligated with zakat, stated, “When a zakat collector comes to you, makes sure he leaves contented.” The idea, of course, was to encourage donors to understand the positive spirit in which giving should take place, in consideration of its high benefit for both themselves and the community. Yet again, we are witness to the brilliant balance established by Islam in all areas.

So basically, a zakat collector is a person who officially, on behalf of the Government, devotes his time and effort towards the duty of collecting zakat. Therefore, and quite plausibly so, he needs a certain salary to make ends meet. In the precious words of the Prophet, “Till his return home, a zakat collector is like a ghazi (warrior), battling in the way of God.” Authorizing a warrior’s share of booty after a battle, Islam thus necessitates a certain share for the collector, to be extracted from the gathered zakat. In fact, the Messenger of God denied the request to refuse payment, such as was made by the likes of Umar, rejoining: “Take it. If you have no need for it, then give it to somebody else.” Based on this, Umar, during his days as caliph, methodically allocated a certain share to all zakat collectors, irrespective of their wealth, and regardless of their requests to refuse such payments.

Based on the above principle, some have maintained that a certain share of zakat should be allocated for all government employees. In the case of a government which is very successful in fairly collecting zakat by virtue of the better organization of its collectors, revenue will begin to infiltrate from all corners, and this will result in greater numbers of needy people receiving the benefits of such collections—from wheat to barley, to all sorts of agricultural harvests, and barring the view of Abu Hanifa, including vegetables and fruits, also. Moreover, the collector, full of goodwill, will visit all enterprises, from crude-oil wells to mine shafts; he will oversee all hordes of grazing sheep and cattle; and he will diligently inspect every single item of wealth and treasure to make certain that not a single hungry mouth is deprived of his or her rights. Such altruistic officials, sacrificing their time and efforts for the good of the community,  should obviously not be abandoned to beseech others for their own sustenance and, thus, must be allocated a payment from the collected zakat. Irrespective of the personal wealth of collectors, then, it is imperative that the Qur’an and Sunna are abided by and the all those who engage in this noble act are given zakat. This issue holds another dimension, too. Taking care of  the needs and salaries of those employed in duties involving such large stakes will effectively discourage corruption, in addition to enhancing “employee motivation.” The espousal of this attitude by our predecessors is highly admirable, especially that of the Ottoman State, which owed its prolonged existence to its meticulous and judicious management of zakat collection.

The allotment of zakat to collectors effectively prevented them from condescending to bribery or other possible enticements, thus sturdily barring probable loopholes. The alternative outcome would almost certainly be insurmountably and pervasive corruption. Such is Islam and the precepts it propounds. It considers, on the one hand, the needs of the collector and by taking care of each such individual, elevates the collector from personal abasement; on the other hand, it instills in each collector the importance of living a just and prudent life in preparation for the Day of Judgment, rendering in practical terms the most critical aspects of Islam.

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