One of the Quran’s major themes is social justice for those whom society disadvantages and compassion for the vulnerable. God says in the Quran:
As for the believing men and the believing women—all [of them] are allies of one another. They enjoin what is right and forbid what is wrong. Moreover, they [duly] establish the Prayer, and give zakat charity, and they obey God and His Messenger. It is these upon whom God shall have mercy. Indeed, God is overpowering, all-wise. (Al-Tawbah, 9:71)
Mention of zakat here is significant. It points to the characteristics of a fully functional (and fully human) community, promoting care and love between each other by guaranteeing justice unto the least of them, while shielding the weak from injury. This two-part functionality is then directly pinned to raising one’s spiritual consciousness through prayer (Salât) and raising one’s social consciousness by paying zakat. These special items—among all the commands of Allah and His Messenger—Allah has highlighted for scrupulous maintenance.
This is no utopian vision. On the contrary, it is a minimum acceptable moral standard for a working human community. Zakat plays a key role in bringing about such a model society. It not only enshrines the right of help for the community’s needy, facilitating ongoing support from the rich to the poor, but, in so doing, it builds a relationship of consideration and appreciation between society’s members.
Charity is the substance that binds every Muslim to every other by way of their obligation to one another in God. Islam builds its community out of human obligation toward each other, making each Muslim accountable for the well-being of every other Muslim. This concept of reciprocal social obligation is called takâful, meaning “mutual responsibility,” and it is strongly bolstered by the fact that paying zakat is an act of mandatory worship. The tenet of mutual responsibility helps Muslims envision their society like an extended family.
Throughout our history, whenever Muslims sincerely systematized the zakat obligation, as Allah (swt) and His Messenger, peace be upon him, ordained it, Muslims worked what are now considered social miracles. Societies flourished. Communities flowered. Individuals thrived.
Zakat awakens the individual’s social spirit with the truest practical expression of brotherhood. When Muslims pay zakat, the society behaves exactly like a family, the able helping the incapable, one upholding all. The Prophet said:
The believers—in their kindness, compassion, and empathy for one another—are as a single body. When one limb is afflicted, the whole body responds to it with sleeplessness and fever. (Bukhârî and Muslim)
Zakat spreads tranquility and peace in society because it secures the weak and their dependents with the guarantee of certain provision, shelter, and access to essential communal facilities. The mystery of zakat is not only that it links one to others by a sense of personal responsibility, but that it binds everyone to the individual through an obligation of sufficiency. There is no greater bulwark against social disintegration.
Zakat is the first known system of community-wide welfare regulated as a social support network for those in need. It is a meaningful institution with a clearly defined religious-social-economic mandate. Its rules, regulations, structures, standards, and specific functions are well-established. It does not depend on voluntary charity, and its collection is enforceable by society.
The zakat system revealed by God and instituted by the Prophet was complete and functional among Muslims in the Seventh Century. Within a few years of the Prophet’s migration to Madinah, the zakat system had become so effective that very few people even needed it. For one of the virtues of zakat is that in providing for the poor and linking each to all and all to each, it enables people to separate themselves from those social practices that guarantee the poverty of some.
It took more than 13 centuries after the Prophet for Europe (and by that time America) to even address poverty systematically with measurable effectiveness. Not until 1941 did England and the United States initiate a worldwide agreement for governments to respect and warrant the social welfare of their nationals. Yet even then beliefs embedded in capitalist and communistic economic theory made certain that global income inequalities would increase to the extent that they would threaten civilization and the environment, as we see today.
Resources are not only gifts from God to all human beings but also a trust. Accordingly, Islam emphasizes an equitable distribution of income and wealth for the fulfillment of the needs of everyone. As a consequence of the application of one’s skills and efforts, one’s birth, location, and timing, and other factors extreme inequalities emerge between people. In the absence of adequate social restraints and mechanisms for re-distribution, wealth invariably concentrates in the hands of a few. To counter this, in part, God has enjoined the believing society with strict laws of inheritance and public disbursement of windfalls, establishing the institution of zakat to redress extreme or highly skewed inequalities of income and wealth. As God states it in the Quran:
So that [wealth] does not merely circulate between the wealthy among you. (Al-Hashr, 59:7)
In every society, there are those who may find it hard to earn a living through their own labor, whether owing to disability, lack of opportunity, or depressed production or wages. Islam addresses this by making helping the needy an individual and collective responsibility, first within Muslim families and society, and then through the global Muslim community at large. Moreover, it forbids, in the strongest and broadest terms, stigmatizing the destitute or blaming them for their condition (Qurayshî, Annual Zakât Computation Guide, 9-13).
If a Muslim society does not apply the comprehensive economic injunctions of the Quran and the Prophet, the zakat charity alone will not be enough to recreate poverty-free societies, as we have just described. We have plenty of examples of this insufficiency in the Muslim societies of our times.
Yet were Muslims to prudently apply the principles of zakat in a current Muslim country, it would not, in isolation of all other factors, cure poverty. Zakat is part of a godly economic outlook on, and practice in, the world. For example, Islam forbids extravagance, whether or not one is rich or poor. Thus owning utensils made of gold and silver, or residing in ostentatious homes, is considered excessive, even forbidden.
In addition, Islam also forbids earning interest. Rather, it inspires human beings to work for their money, not to live off the incurable debt and financial misery of others. Moreover, Islam calls upon the rich to employ the poor. The amazing historical successes of zakat demonstrate the great efficacy of the divinely-ordained system at work within the context of Islam’s other economic injunctions.
Among people who have internalized Islam’s concepts of selflessness, self-restraint, conservation, sufficiency, contentment, modesty, extended family and familial responsibility and love of the poor; and amid societies whose members are committed to upholding the divine covenant of all Muslims to secure the individual believer’s unfettered right of total worship, zakat charity has unambiguously demonstrated its transformative power.