The Basic Answer
In principle, no, Zakat cannot be given for education.
Allah specified in the Quran the eight exclusive categories of “people” — not interests or institutions — eligible for Zakat payments, which Allah terms in this verse (ayah), as in much of the Quran, sadaqat (s. sadaqah), which means “charitable offerings,” in the plural. The context tells us that this form of sadaqah is not “voluntary charity” but obligatory alms, Zakat:
Indeed, prescribed charitable offerings are only to be given to the poor and the indigent, and to those who work on administering it, and to those whose hearts are to be reconciled, and to free those in bondage, and to the debt-ridden, and for the cause of God, and to the wayfarer. This is an obligation from God. And God is all-knowing, all-wise” (Surat Al-Tawbah, 9:60).
To this end, the Prophet Muhammad, on him be peace, who specified Zakat’s rules for us, said to a Muslim who came to him asking for some of the Zakat proceeds:
Allah does not leave the distribution of the sadaqah [meaning here Zakat] to a prophet, nor anyone else. He Himself prescribes the distribution to eight categories [of people]. If you are of one of the categories, I shall give you as you deserve” (Abu Dawud).
Because of these two Texts of Revelation, a strong majority of Muslim scholars exclude all other people and all other kinds of needs from Zakat eligibility. So schools, mosques, public works, and other good works of benefit to people do not qualify for Zakat. (See Can Zakat Be Paid for a Mosque?)
This question raises two issues:
Zakat designates the conditions that qualify a recipient for it and not necessarily or wholly its uses by them. Zakat monies are not restricted in their use by its recipients except by the condition of lawfulness.
A person seeking education who falls into one of these divinely designated Zakat categories — say, a poor orphan, a needful child, or a Zakat worker (or someone in any of the other five remaining Zakat categories) — may qualify within these conditions to receive Zakat and use them for educational purposes.
Zakat frees people of the fifth and sixth categories, the enslaved and debt-ridden, from their burdening situations, for example — which must be its primary purpose and use — but it does not limit them, or recipients of the other categories, to just this (bearing in mind that Zakat is designed not merely to temporarily assist people but to enrich them into Zakat payers).
A respectable minority of Muslim legal scholars, historically and today, argue that the seventh divinely designated Zakat category — “in the path of God” (fi sabili’Llah) can qualify certain institutions and activities. These can include mosques, in particular, which may have schools attached to them — building them, renovating them, or paying principal religious human resources serving in them (among other activities and the people performing them) — as legitimately Zakatable under certain conditions.
The minority argument of these scholars hinges on two primary understandings of the intent of the Quranic phrase “in the path of God” (fi sabili’Llah) as it is used in the Zakat verse of Surat Al-Tawbah, 9:60.
One understanding, which is a very limited minority opinion, says this Quranic phrase is literal and therefore open to all good works done for Allah. In other words, these few scholars say the divine wording includes all virtuous activities and good deeds done in the service of God.
They say that if the Quran or the Prophet, on him be peace, have not restricted this meaning, we must allow Zakat for all good works that qualify as “in the path of God” (fi sabili’Llah). These are works that legitimately maintain religion and the Muslim community’s religious integrity. So, in their view, building a Muslim school, or refurbishing it, or supporting its educational mission, if it is teaching our children Islam and protecting their religion and identity, would be Zakatable because it qualifies as “in the path of God” (fi sabili’Llah), since all such virtuous deeds do.
Other scholars, the great majority, reject this argument. They say the Zakat verse itemizes specific Zakat-eligible categories, and “in the path of God” (fi sabili’Llah)” must, therefore, also be a specific category. So, its general linguistic sense cannot be used to determine Zakat eligibility, since it would be redundant because it would then encompass the other seven categories.
In fact, “in the path of God” (fi sabili’Llah)” strongly connotes a particular activity. It has always been widely recognized as synonymous with "physical struggle" in the path of God since the time of the Prophet, on him be peace, and the first generation of Muslims, and by every Muslim generation thereafter.
It is important that this is the primary meaning of fi sabili’Llah that all scholars accept. It is, moreover, the single agreed-upon meaning of this phrase by Muslims. Other interpretations are subject to dispute.
So, the most prominent position remains that Zakat cannot be used for educational purposes.
Some scholars have argued that “in the path of God (fi sabili’Llah) in the Zakat verse is synonymous with "physical struggle" for a purpose, which is defining: to elevate the Word of Allah.
They then extract this purpose of Zakat’s seventh category as its governing rule. Accordingly, they argue that institutions, functions, and forums that facilitate striving to establish, defend, and support Islam as a religion and as a community qualify as “in the path of God (fi sabili’Llah). That is, the people that inhabit these concerns and activities can use Zakat to finance them.
This opens the Zakat application of “in the path of God (fi sabili’Llah) to many kinds of activities — cultural, educational, and informational. Indeed, some scholars in the modern era — wherein Muslims face spiritual and, in places, physical annihilation — say this is today a primary application of this Zakat category.
In this understanding, Islamic schools (and Islamic centers, including mosques and hospitals, and specified kinds of informational organizations or means), are Zakatable if they “provide correct and pure Islamic information to men and women throughout the world … even in Muslim countries, to provide Islamic education and training” to all people, and to “protect the faith of [Muslims] from deviation, agnosticism, and behavioral corruption,” as Shaykh Yusuf Al-Qardawi has written in Fiqh az-Zakat, The Law of Zakat.
Other jurists have issued more narrow opinions that depend on the local need of a threatened Muslim community, especially when it comes to mosques and the religious preservation of the worship and learning of a community.
We Muslims cannot forget that while Zakat to the people Allah has specified is an annual obligation on our wealth that qualifies for Zakat, Zakat alone is neither enough now for the extraordinary needs of the subjugated and dispossessed global Muslim community in our times. Nor is it sufficient to prove the truth of the Islam we bear witness with our mouths is in our hearts.
The paradox of sadaqah, in its meaning of voluntary charity, as it is presented in the Quran and by the Prophet, on him be peace, is that though it is a freewill offering, it is required to verify our sincere faith. Additionally, we are to give it as much as we possibly can and in whatever of its nearly unlimited forms we can offer it.
Sadaqah is a defining, regular, constant activity of the Muslim, and it is meant to be that way. Be cautioned, then, by these four admonitions about Zakat, sadaqah, and our Muslim communities:
The education of our community is a critical need and essential activity, and we do not need to be — and should not be — limiting it to a question of Zakat. Allah has urged us to another avenue of its sustenance. We must support our communities’ educational missions, within and without, robustly with our sadaqah.
We should note that in the argument of these scholars who uphold Zakat for educational purposes, they present it as satisfying an existential need of the Muslim community in religion, whose objective is, in the first order, to elevate the Word of Allah, and not to do this secondarily by financing the studies of one to become a physician, lawyer, financial manager, or the like.
There is also a critique to be offered of our Islamic schools, where “Islam” is reduced to a blow-off class or a marginal subject, while its teachers are shamefully underpaid. The Muslims should be leading the way in the integration of Islam into school curricula and the high-salaried payment of our teachers, and especially our religious teachers (including mosque imams) because that should be the esteem and value we hold them in for what they do and represent. This should come from sadaqah.
There is a proliferation of our Muslim institutions — religious, political, cultural, and social — declaring themselves Zakat-eligible based on the loose interpretation of the “exceptional,” “minority” arguments of “in-the-path-of-God-qualifications of the missions they purport to serve and the work they do. Most of these would not pass the test of a qualified Zakat-eligibility analysis by a trained scholar.
Zakat goes to “people” designated by Allah, not directly to institutions and activities. Schools and education may form essential communal or human needs, but Allah has not directly designated them as Zakatable. Only in extraordinary cases can a qualified Muslim scholar rule on their particular cases of seventh-category Zakat eligibility as “in the path of God” (fi sabili’Llah).
Sadaqah is the necessary and urgent mechanism that Allah has made for us to (a) support essential good among Muslims and our activities among humankind and in the world, and (b) to confirm by our sacrifice and actions the faith in Allah in our hearts.
Muslims cannot now uphold either the threatened existence of Islam and Muslims in the world, or our claim to belief in Islam and brotherhood among Muslims and humanity, without inculcating an ethic of sadaqah according to two Quranic exhortations: to give a median amount of our wealth in sadaqah as often as we can, and to, at times, rise to sacrifice our own needed wealth in sadaqah when the extreme needs of others require it.
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