Zakat: Helping the Needy at Home & Abroad
Thoughts that first cross the mind when it is suggested that zakat should be given at home in the UK, as well as abroad, is: foolish; nonsensical; totally irresponsible; utter ignorance; unIslamic, even! After all, who in Britain is truly poor or needy compared to, say, the millions of people in Malawi, Liberia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq and other parts of the poverty-stricken or war-torn world?
So let me try to present the case for it, both from a textual, fiqhi perspective and from the perspective of our current reality in the UK. After that, I’ll leave it to the readers to decide whether the case has any merit or not, and whether or not the actual idea is absurd and irresponsible. Let me build the case, starting with the following:
In describing the essential traits of the God-conscious; the muttaqun, the Qur’an tells us that they are those who believe in the unseen, establish prayer, and spend out of what We have given them. [2:3] Expounding on this verse, Ibn Kathir wrote: ‘God frequently pairs together prayer and spending in charity. Prayer is a right of God and an act of devotion to Him. This [right] involves singling Him out for worship, praising Him, extolling His glory, earnestly invoking Him, petitioning Him and depending on Him. Spending, by contrast, is part of benevolence towards creation through extending to them a helping hand.’1
This pairing is so intrinsic to our faith that religious observance, in its entirety, can be said to revolve around huququ’Llah, “rights of God,” and huquq al-’ibad, “rights of the creation.” Ibn Rajab, however, makes a timely observation in this respect, which we would do well to pay heed to. He says: ‘Many in whom attentiveness in fulfilling the rights of God predominate, and who are devoted to God’s love, fear and obedience, either totally neglect the rights of creation, or fall short with respect to them.’2
The “spending (infaq) out of what God has given” in the above verse comprises two forms of giving. One is sadaqah – voluntary spending; the other, zakat – the spending of which is mandatory. The term sadaqah (usually translated as “alms” or as “charity”) covers, not just the giving of money to the deserving poor, but also the giving of one’s self, talents, learning, or simply one’s time. The act is seen as meritorious in and of itself, purely on altruistic grounds. Yet the spiritual significance of sadaqah can’t be overlooked too. Giving regular sadaqah attracts madad – the flow of divine assistance, as well as helps repel misfortune.
Zakat, a word which signifies growth, blessings and also purification,3 is that type of spending which the Qur’an deems mandatory on all Muslims who possess surplus financial means at their disposal. The payment of zakat is, therefore, a way by which a Muslim’s wealth may be made pure and sacred – so long as, of course, one seeks the divine pleasure through it: He who gives his wealth to purify himself, not in return for any favour done unto him, seeking only the Face of his Lord, Most High. He shall be well-pleased. [92:18-21]
It is not just one’s wealth that is purified through the act of paying the zakat, but also one’s self. For the nafs; the ego, is purified from the blemish of greed and selfishness when giving freely of one’s wealth: And whoever is saved from his own avarice will surely succeed. [59:9]
With its spiritual significance confirmed, one must not overlook zakat’s all important social function. Islam’s vision of society is rooted in the idea of compassion, service and responsibility; and no where is this better seen than in the giving and dispensing of zakat. For zakat is to be utilised, first and foremost, for the poor and the needy, so as to alleviate the problem of poverty. In other words, the “haves”of the society are to help lift the burden of the “have nots” in the spirit of service and brotherhood. In summing-up the spiritual and social virtues of zakat, Shah Wali Allah wrote: ‘Know that there are two purposes behind zakat: a purpose linked to disciplining the soul; this due to the presence of avarice in it … And a purpose associated with the city, for it will certainly include those who are poor and needy.’4
Zakat is, strictures the Qur’an, only for the poor and the needy, and those who collect it, and for those whose hearts are to be reconciled, and for the ransom of captives, and the debtors, and in the path of God, and the wayfarers. This is an obligation from God, and God is All-Knowing, All-Wise. [9:60]
Juristic details aside, the main forms of wealth on which zakat is levied includes gold and silver, livestock, agricultural produce, minerals, stocks and shares, currency and other liquid assets. A percentage of this wealth (two and a half percent in the case of gold, silver, stocks and share, and all wealth held in monetary form) is to be disbursed to the eight sectors, or categories, mentioned in the above verse.5
In a foundational hadith on the subject we read that the Prophet ﷺ, when sending Mu‘adh to Yemen, instructed him: ‘O Mu‘adh, you are going to a people who are of the People of the Book, so first invite them to bear witness that none deserves to be worshiped except God, and that Muhammad is the Messenger of God. If they accept this, then inform them that God enjoins on them five prayers in a day and a night. If they accept this, then inform them that God obligates charity [i.e. zakat] upon them; to be taken from their rich and given to their poor.’6
Based on the words: “to be taken from their rich and given to their poor,” jurists from the four Sunni schools of law, or madhhabs, say that zakat, as a rule of thumb, is to be distributed locally where possible.
The Hanbali school stipulates: ‘It is preferred to disburse all of the zakat to the poor of his locality. It is not permissible to transfer it to [a location] where prayer is to be shortened [if one traveled to it]; though if one does so it suffices – unless there are no poor persons in the land, in which case he is to distribute it in the land closest to him.’7
The Shafi’i madhhab lays down: ‘If the [eight] categories are found in the place where zakat is collected, it is prohibitted and invalid to transfer the zakat elsewhere – save if it is being distributed by the head of state, in which case he may transfer it to another place.’8
The Malikis hold that transfering zakat is impermissible, except if there is a pressing need to do so.9
The Hanafi school is more conciliatory on the subject, stipulating, ‘It is disapproved to transfer zakat of one land to another; unless he transfers it to his poor relatives, or to a people needier than his own.’10
In short: what this tells us is that the poor and needy of a city have greater claim over local zakat than the poor or needy elsewhere – accepting that scholars permit sending it abroad for pressing reasons.
“There are no poor Muslims in Britain,” is a common response to the suggestion that zakat could be disbursed here, within the country. But is this true? No poor Muslims? Even if it were, what of the other categories of zakat recipients? Are they absent from Britain too?
The reality is markedly different from the popular Muslim perception. For there are a growing number of poor and needy Muslim households in the UK who would qualify for zakat. It is true that their need is likely to not be as acute as those in certain other poverty-ravished places in the world. Nevertheless, their relative poverty, in terms of not having enough money for certain basic necessities – like food, heating, medicines, or paying rent – would entitle them to zakat. Of course, if government benefits meet such needs, well that is different. But if they did not, and sometimes they don’t, then scholars have ruled that they would indeed qualify for zakat. Those who could enter into the category of the poor (fuqara) and the needy (masakin) are: struggling single parent families, asylum seekers, refugees, and anyone else whose net assets (after one excludes assets for basic essentials like a house, car, furniture, etc; and after deducting basic living expenses and debts owed) are less than the nisab value.11 This could also include prisoners; and even more so, families of prisoners, who often have very little or no financial support.
Then there are the mu’allafat al-qulub – “those whose hearts need reconciling.” These recipients can include: recent converts to Islam who are alienated from their families, or whose faith needs strengthening; or recently released prisoners struggling to make ends meet and about whom it is feared will reoffend.
There is also the category of the gharimun: “those burdened with debts” contracted in good faith, which they subsequently cannot repay. Of course, we’re not talking about those who’ve racked up debts due to conspicuous consumption, spending and living beyond their means, or through gambling and other haram indulgences. Instead, we are talking about people who, for instance, and through no fault or irresponsibility of their own, have fallen into rents arrears and are on the verge of eviction. Or, where a family whose bread winner has been made redundant, and find themselves in arrears with domestic utility bills, to the extent where the gas or electricity supply is going to be cut-off.
As for the category of fi sabili’Llah – “for the path of God” – here in Britain this would include financial assistance to students fully occupied in formally studying the sacred shari‘ah sciences. Classically, of course, the fiqh manuals depict this category as being primarily voluntary fighters (mujahidun), not paid by the state treasury, who require financial support so as to partake in a bonafide state-sanctioned war against a hostile and belligerent enemy.
In the above, I’ve tried to spotlight people who could very well be entitled to receive zakat in Britain, but who often get ignored, or go unnoticed and unserved. As for the more higher profile categories: orphans; widows; the starving, hungry and homeless; Muslims incarcerated in prisons such as Guantanamo, with no sure evidence against them and no access to justice or the due process of the law; and the countless victims of natural disasters across the globe – we must indeed continue to reach out to them with our zakat (and our sadaqah and du‘as). Subhana’Llah! Their plight often beggars belief and the sheer scales of the tragedies are so grotesque; and living for the poor is the undeniable Sunnah, often forgotten by us Muslims today.
Having a social conscience with respect to Britain’s needy and vulnerable Muslims is in no way to ignore the poverty, starvation and persecution which afflicts millions of Muslims in other parts of the globe. British Muslims will have to learn to discharge their duties to both, in light of the priorities set by Islam’s Sacred Law. It’s even been argued that, if we were to get our own house in a little more order, it would help us to better help others in the long run. Whatever the case, we need to think the issue of how best to deploy our zakat; of how best to help restore dignity to the needy and the impoverished.
This, then, is the case for not neglecting to give zakat to the growing number of poor and needy Muslims in Britain today.
And Allah knows best.
1. Ibn Kathir, Tafsir Qur’an al-‘Adhim (Beirut: Dar al-Ma‘rifah, 1987), 1:45.
2. Jami‘ al-‘Ulum wa’l-Hikam (Beirut: Mu’assasah al-Risalah, 1998), 1:454.
3. As per al-Raghib al-Asbahani, Mufradat Alfaz al-Qur’an (Damascus: Dar al-Qalam, 2002), 380-81.
4. Hujjatu’Llah al-Balighah (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah, 2001), 2:69-70.
5. The fiqh details that make a person liable for paying zakat, and to whom and how such monies should be disbursed, are issues for which the lay people must consult a qualified scholar.
6. Al-Bukhari, Sahih, no.1496.
7. Al-Hajjawi, Zad al-Mustaqni‘ (Riyadh: Madar al-Watn li’l-Nashr, 2004), 78.
8. Ibn Naqib, ‘Umdat al-Salik (Qatar:Nafaqah al-Sh’un al-Diniyyah, 1982), 111.
9. Cited in al-Bassam, Tawdih al-Ahkam min Bulugh al-Maram (Makkah: Maktabah al-Nahdah al-Hadithah, 1994), 3:27.
10. Al-Zayla‘i, Nasab al-Rayah (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah, 2002), 2:423.
11. Nisab: This is the minimum amount of wealth upon which zakat becomes payable. If one only has gold assets, the nisab is 87.48 grams of gold. If the assets are a mixture of gold and silver, the nisab for silver is utilised, which is 612.36 grams. In monetary terms, one converts these nisab levels to the current market prices for gold or silver. Thus, at today’s price (8/2/2015), the market value for gold, per gram, was £26.02; and for silver, £0.35. So whoever has £2,276.23 or more of net gold assets, will have to pay zakat, or £214.32 of mixed net assets must pay zakat. Those possessing less than the nisab are not liable for zakat and are usually considered poor or needy. One, however, consults a qualified scholars if unsure about how to calculate zakat.