Zakat is the formal giving of charity in Islam. It is related to a similar concept, known as saudaqah. Saudaqah is the informal giving of charity that may be done at any time, in any amount, to any recipient. Zakat, however, is more regulated. While zakat may be given at any time of year, many Muslims try to pay their zakat during Ramadan, when spiritual rewards are greater than during the rest of the year. The amount of money (or other material goods being given as zakat) is more specific, and zakat tends to be given to institutions (mosques, foundations and other charities, and some government agencies) as opposed to individuals, which saudaqah is normally given to. Either way, the payment of charity is highly encouraged in Islam.
Indeed, the Qur'an stresses the need to practice regular charity; moreover, the payment of charity is linked to the practice of prayer. The following verse is one of over two dozen verses that encourage Muslims to both pray and give charity:
Those who believe, and do deeds of righteousness, and establish regular Prayers and regular charity, will have their reward with their Lord: on them shall be no fear, nor shall they grieve. (2:277)
In essence, the giving of charity on a regular basis is where the Muslim puts his or her faith in Allah (swt) into meaningful action. As mentioned in the previous essay, prayer (salat) is very important for a Muslim to engage in, but charity (zakat and saudaqah) is just as important. It is the Islamic example of the idiom, "putting your money where your mouth is."
However, not everyone is required to pay zakat. There are several key concepts that regulate what is "zakatable" and what is not. First, an asset that is zakatable must have been owned for at least one haul. A haul is one Islamic (lunar) year, or about 355 days. Secondly, the assets that are zakatable must have a value greater than the nisab. Nisab is equivalent to 85 grams of gold or 595 grams of silver. Because the values of these precious metals change on a daily basis, the value of the nisab will also change daily. (For example, today, as I write this, the nisab in Singapore dollars is $5,790; various Islamic websites will publish the daily nisab value so that Muslims can easily lookup this information instead of having to calculate it themselves.) As long as the value of the assets remains above the nisab for the entire haul, then zakat must be paid on the value of those assets.
The tricky part about zakat is in deciding which assets are zakatable; not every asset must be included. For the average city-dwelling Muslim, the number of zakatable asset classes is fairly limited. They normally include savings; certain monies received from or deposited into pension funds; stocks, mutual funds and other investments; gold, silver, and other jewelry; the surrender value on insurance policies (for that year, assuming the policy has been in force for over one haul); and any businesses owned by the Muslim in question. Generally speaking, the zakat owed for each of these asset classes is 2.5 percent; thus, if the Muslim had a total of $10,000 worth of zakatable assets, he or she would owe $250 for zakat.
If a Muslim makes his or her living by farming or mining, the methods for calculating zakat change. For example, if a farmer grows produce in a garden or orchard, the rate for zakat is ten percent if the garden or orchard receives its water through rainfall, nearby water channels (e.g., streams or rivers), or if the ground is naturally wet; however, if the land needs to be irrigated, then the rate is five percent. For farmers who raise livestock, the zakat owed depends upon the number and types of animals owned and their ages. For example, if a Muslim farmer owns forty sheep that are over one year in age, then one sheep would be owed as zakat. (The formulas for these types of calculations are somewhat complex, and will not be discussed in depth here.) For miners, the zakat rate is twenty percent of the value of all ores or precious metals that are excavated in the past lunar year.
On the other hand, there are a number of personal assets are never considered to be zakatable; these include personal items, clothing, furniture, computers, cars and homes. Now, for the latter three items listed above, as long as these items are for personal use, then they are not subject to zakat; however, if they are used for business purposes, then zakat must be paid on them. So, for example, if a family owns two homes, residing in one, but renting out the other, then the rental income derived from the property is zakatable.
Which leads to the next point: zakat is not an income tax, it is a tax on wealth. An equivalent secular tax would be a property tax. In this regard, zakat is a progressive tax in that the poorest members of society normally don't pay any zakat at all (although everyone, regardless of their income level, is still encouraged to pay saudaqah as the need arises). The wealthier the person is, the more zakat they are required to pay; there are no caps or limits as to what the wealthiest Muslims are obligated to pay.
Another point to consider is, where does the money go? The Qur'an gives some guidelines as to who can receive zakat money. The relevant verse is:
Alms are for the poor and the needy, and those employed to administer the (funds); for those whose hearts have been (recently) reconciled (to Truth); for those in bondage and in debt; in the cause of Allah; and for the wayfarer: (thus is it) ordained by Allah, and Allah is full of knowledge and wisdom. (9:60)
Thus, the Qur'an gives eight categories of people who are eligible to receive zakat monies. The first two categories, the poor (fakir) and the needy (miskin), are very similar to each other, but have slightly different definitions. The poor are those who may not have enough money for their basic needs, but the needy are those who have neither material possessions nor the means to earn a living, the truly indigent who, out of necessity, are forced to beg for their survival. (In Singapore, this category accounted for over one-third of all zakat monies distributed.)
The third category, those employed to administer the funds, are those employees of the agency that administers the zakat. The Qur'an recognizes that people legitimately work to collect, account for, and distribute the zakat monies, and they are eligible to receive wages from the zakat monies as opposed to volunteering to get the job done.
The fourth category, those whose hearts have been recently reconciled to the truth (i.e., recent reverts to Islam), is perhaps one group of people who don't receive very much zakat money in comparison to the other groups. Very rarely, in my experience, do Muslim organizations (especially in the US) give out any money to recent reverts. In my own case, I only received any money while here in Singapore, when I needed to prove that I was a Muslim in order to marry my wife, that I received a grand total of S$40. Certainly not enough money to become rich on. (To be honest, I was surprised I received any money at all; I certainly hadn't expected it!) I don't know of anyone who's reverted to Islam for the chance to receive zakat money.
The fifth and sixth categories, for those in bondage and in debt, is interpreted somewhat differently now than it used to be in the past. Many Muslim organizations now refer to "bondage" in terms of a lack of education. As a result, zakat monies are sometimes given in the form of scholarships, grants and bursaries, especially to those families with children who are already receiving zakat because of their poor economic status (fakir/miskin). Those who are in debt doesn't mean that they will help to relieve, for example, credit card balances, but that they might help to pay off utility balances or other bills of necessity that the person or family is unable to pay.
The seventh category, in the cause of Allah (swt), also has a more modern interpretation. Today, those funds are often used to pay for religious programs, mosque leadership and administration, school development and assistance, youth development and engagement, Islamic education, and community development.
The eighth and final category, for the wayfarer, is where zakat monies may be given to those travellers who are stranded. The aid given might include financial assistance and a plane ticket home, if necessary.
So, what benefits do Muslims receive for their giving of charity, whether it is zakat or saudaqah? The word zakah actually comes from the root zāy kāf wāw (ز ك و), which literally means "to purify." (There are actually 21 verses in the Qur'an where zāy kāf wāw is used as the verb to purify.) By giving zakat, a Muslim benefits by purifying both his or her own soul and his or her wealth. On the one hand, zakat purifies the soul by helping a person to overcome his or her selfishness, obsession with wealth, and any neglect of the poor. Likewise, giving zakat helps a Muslim the opportunity to cleanse their wealth of the taint it would acquire if it had not gone through the purification process of zakat. Muslims try to earn their incomes in a halal manner; however, people don't always do so. For example, not always giving a full effort at work (e.g., playing games on the computer when one should be working, to use a simple example). Giving zakat helps to purify the manner in which that wealth is earned.
The rewards a Muslim may receive for giving charity may also bring about significant rewards in either this life or in the hereafter. The Qur'an gives a parable that helps to explain just how much reward might be given, insha'allah:
The parable of those who spend their wealth in the way of Allah, is that of a grain (of corn); it grows seven ears, and each ear has a hundred grains. Allah gives manifold increase to whom He wills. And Allah is All-Sufficient for His creatures' needs, All-Knower. (2:261)
By giving zakat, Allah (swt) may reward us up to seven hundred fold, insha'allah, for the acts of charity we have done. Unlike in the so-called "Prosperity Gospel," though, there is no promise of riches in this life for having been charitable. The rewards may come entirely in the hereafter, insha'allah. What we try to acknowledge, however, is that all sustenance comes from Allah (swt), and that the rich are being tried on their ability (or inability) to pass on the sustenance due from them to weaker members of the community. Insha'allah, the rich will pass the test by paying the zakat they owe; otherwise, the punishment for failing to do so may be extremely severe:
Asma bint Yazid reported: "My aunt and I, while wearing gold bracelets, went to the Prophet. He asked: 'Did you pay their zakat?' She related that they had not. The Prophet said: 'Do you not fear that Allah will make you wear a bracelet of fire? Pay its zakat." (Ahmad, 6.461)