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What is zakat?

Zakat means growth. In Islamic law, it refers to a specific tax that the Maliki school of thought, which predominates in North and West Africa, sees as a way to purify one’s wealth. Zakat is not included among the Five Pillars or any other obligation in Islam. Still, it is recommended for all Muslims who meet the necessary criteria for possessing what can be purified with zakat money.

Its Maliki formulation comprises 2.5 percent of an individual’s total savings and wealth above a certain minimum amount known as nisab (“criterion”). Any money or item of value owned by an individual from which he cannot derive benefit (e.g. he doesn’t live in the same house, eat from the same plate or wear the same clothes for more than a year). Such as property and precious metals (gold, silver and other items made for permanent use) is subject to zakat. The money must then be given away to oneself or others free of charge unless one is trying to utilize it for productive purposes by which its value will rise and thus not become subject to zakat.

Anyone can receive zakat regardless of their social status or religion, providing they meet these conditions:

  1. They should need it.
  2. The receiver must be Muslim.
  3. They should be free of any debt.
  4. They must be able to own something of value that they could give away.

Who benefits from zakat?

The people who benefit most from zakat are those in dire situations or unfit for work. Who have debts to pay off and no income whatsoever. It is also given to help orphans, strangers (people with whom one has had no blood relations), the indigent and travellers. Zakat is even given to animals that meet its criteria if their owners neglect them. When a person dies, his estate should undergo a process known as “zakat al-mal”.  Which means giving away a proportion of wealth above a certain minimum amount before transferring it to inheritors.

To avoid being misled by improper applications of zakat, it is essential to bear in mind its intended purpose. The following are some suggestions that might help understand the conditions under which zakat can be legitimately given:

1-The giver must own wealth above the nisab level (minimum amount upon which Zakat becomes obligatory) and be free of outstanding liabilities. Thus, one cannot give away cars or houses if they still owe money to them. One must also not pay off debts using donated funds because this qualifies as giving away someone else’s property, not one’s own. Nor should money collected for a specific project such as building a mosque be used instead to pay off personal debts. Because this defeats zakat’s purpose and legitimate intentions.

Second Main Benefit

2-The recipient should need the money available to receive it, even if they belong to another religion. All Muslim rulers are exempt from it. However, they accept it for the benefit of their subjects who meet its criteria. Those who defend giving zakat to governments say that since taxes can’t always fulfill this purifying function. Because they may go toward undesirable purposes. So giving them some zakat infuses value into what would otherwise be a meaningless transaction; i.e., paying taxes is seen as an act of submission (to Allah). While receiving zakat is seen as an act of gratitude (from Allah). Other scholars like Imam Malik maintain that governors can accept zakat in a way that does not give them control over it. Thus preventing misuse of public funds.

3-The recipient should be free from any debt owed to another person or institution because again. This would disqualify the money from being called “zakat”. Here is an exception for farmers who may pay part of their harvest as “user” or land tax to the ruler. This is allowed if they need income to avoid going into debt even though ushr itself is not considered zakat. Neither can it be given to a poor person in his village. Who needs it even though they have obligations elsewhere. They must leave the town and request it from other sources to count as zakat.

4-The recipient should be free from any existing debt owed to the giver. This prevents the giver from giving away someone else’s money or protecting it for their heirs. When a person dies, s/he is no longer entitled to their wealth because only Allah can decide who inherits it.

Read more: What are the rewards of giving Zakat?

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