The Eight Kinds of People Who Receive Zakat
Congratulations! You are getting ready to pay your zakat!
But wait. Who can receive your zakat? And who makes that decision?
The answer is easy: Zakat can be paid to deserving individuals or groups who fall into one or more of eight zakatable categories designated by God in the Quran.
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. – Al-Tawbah, 9:60
The Quran specifies how zakat is to be distributed precisely, but grants Muslims flexibility in its payment. This guarantees the right of the needful while accommodating changes in how wealth is stored, how money is best distributed, and how different cultures change over time. The Quran also makes it possible for Muslims to pay their zakat to trusted institutions that distribute it to those who belong to one or more of the zakat-worthy categories.
It is noteworthy that God Himself identified for zakat payers and administrators the eight categories for zakat disbursement. This determination is not up to the government, scholars, or even the Prophet himself. It is reported that a man once came to the Prophet and asked him zakat.
The Prophet said: Allah permitted not even a prophet to adjudge zakat[-worthiness]. Rather, He Himself ruled on it and permitted it in eight cases. Therefore, if you belong to any of these, I shall most surely give you your right. – Abû Dâ’ûd
So, where can your zakat go?
1. The poor (al-fuqarâ’), meaning low-income or indigent: This can mean a homeless person on your block, kids whose families qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, or orphans. Anyone who does not have the funds to live a stable life, feed themselves and their family, go to the doctor when they need to and grow up to be a productive citizen falls under this category.
2. The needy (al-masâkîn), meaning someone who is in difficulty: Someone in need might not necessarily be poor, right? Some people are forced from their homes by war or natural disasters. Or imagine a mother who gets sick and cannot take care of her children. Even with money in the bank, they may still need help. Your zakat can be there for them.
3. Zakat administrators, meaning any trustworthy organization that helps you calculate your zakat and accepts the payment for it. In the United States, these tend to be categorized as nonprofit or 501(c)3 organizations with tax-exempt status. To learn more about any group that offers to distribute your zakat on your behalf, search for them using independent websites such as CharityNavigator.org or GreatNonProfits.org.
4. Those whose hearts are to be reconciled, meaning new Muslims and friends of the Muslim community: You read that right. Your zakat can be distributed to new Muslims, and to people in the larger community. This not only exemplifies the Muslim tradition of social justice for all, but shows reverts how important they are, and helps build bonds of cooperation and friendship between Muslims and non-Muslims.
5. Those in bondage (slaves and captives): Even though slavery is outlawed in most parts of the world, many people are still trafficked, meaning bought and sold, as slaves. Using zakat to help any of these people become free and independent again seems like a no-brainer.
6. The debt-ridden: Yes, zakat can help people pay their debts. Living with a great burden of debt can be debilitating to an individual or family, but your zakat can help.
7. In the cause of God: Have you ever wanted to help build a mosque? Or maybe you graduated from a Muslim school and want to support it through ongoing contributions. Donations to your mosque, Muslim school or Muslim youth group are zakat-worthy. And the benefits of that charity keep giving for years to come!
8. The wayfarer, meaning those who are stranded or traveling with few resources: Whether a refugee who is fleeing violence in a distant country or a motorist stranded on the side of the road, God has designated that anyone who is away from home, out of cash and in need of help is eligible to receive your zakat.
While zakat is not the only form of charity in Islam, it is so important that it was made the Third Pillar. Through zakat the prosperous can uplift the poor, help those who are troubled and comfort those who are in hardship. The law of zakat establishes the rights of the poor to support and help, and releases those who are held captive as slaves or as debtors. Zakat has the power to change the world. But it starts with you paying it.