What Is the True Meaning of Zakat?

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The Arabic word Zakat (pronounced zuhcat) has three distinct meanings:

  1. In language

  2. In the human understanding and application (fiqh) of divine law (Shari‘ah)

  3. In the spiritual realm

These meanings are related, and, according to the great North African lexicographer Ibn Manzur (630-711 H / 1233-1311 CE), all the senses of the word zakat occur in the Last of God’s revelations to humanity, the Quran. These nuances are also highlighted in the explanations of Zakat by this Book’s Messenger, Muhammad, on him be peace, the last of the 123,000 prophets Allah sent among people.

Let’s take a quick look at Zakat’s meanings.

What does zakat mean in the Arabic language?

The literal, or denotative, definition of the word zakat (sometimes spelled zakah) is “increase,” as in growth (nama). The word also connotes “betterment” (tahsun), “righteousness” (salah), “praise” (hamd), “blessings” (barakah), “purification” (taharah), or “commendation” (madh), in the sense of laudation, meaning to extol with praise.

The word zakah also holds the senses of “justness, integrity, and honesty,” along with “justification and vindication,” while zaka means to “sweeten” something.

The use of the word zakat — which comes from the three Arabic root letters za • ka • wa and also za • ka • ya — occurred in Arabic poetry before Islam.

What does ‘Zakat’ mean in the Quran?

Zakat in the Quran names a charity that Allah obligates Muslims to pay yearly on their surplus money and some forms of property to the poor and needful. The scholars have termed this Zakat Al-Mal, or the Obligatory Wealth Alms. (There is another kind of Zakat due on all minimally able Muslims at the end of the Ramadan fast, Zakat Al-Fitr, the Obligatory Alms of Fast Breaking.)

Zakat is not a tax. It is a payment in kind made on wealth that the Sole Owner and Grantor of all wealth has invested for a year with individual believers on behalf of the poor, vulnerable, and deserving. It is not a favor the rich grant to these eight categories of people designated by Allah Himself, splendid and resplendent, in the Quran as eligible to receive Zakat. It is the divinely established right of these eligible recipients as the true, divinely designated owners of this wealth. 

The Prophet Muhammad, on him be peace, specified (1) the kinds of wealth on which Zakat is due, (2) their thresholds of surplus (nisab), and (3) their rate of payment (mostly 2.5%). He also enshrined Zakat as the Third of the Five Pillars of worship Islam is built on.

The Quran uses the word ‘zakat’ 32 times, all but two of these referring to this sense of Zakat as obligatory almsgiving. (Its other two uses mean ‘purity.’)

In 26 of these Quranic usages (27 if we include the close connection between the short verses 2 and 4 in Surat Al-Mu’minun (23), Allah conjoins Zakat to its sister obligation of the Salah Prayer, that is, the standing, bowing, and prostration that distinguishes Muslim worship and that is the Second Pillar upholding Islam.

This use of Zakat to name Islam’s obligatory alms comes very early in the Quran’s Revelation. It occurs eight times in the Surahs (divinely revealed divisions of the Quran) sent down to the Prophet, on him be peace, during the first phase of his call in Makkah.

But take note that the word ‘sadaqah’ –  which has come to mean ‘voluntary charitable offerings’ in the usage of Muslims, mostly meant Zakat in Revelation (both the recited Revelation of the Quran and the unrecited Revelation of the Prophet Muhammad, on him be peace).

This, then, is the legal meaning of Zakat in Islam. It is the correct assessment of the kinds of wealth Zakat is due on, and its proper thresholds, rates, payment, and distribution that the Muslim scholars of Law (fiqh) strive to understand, make clear, and propagate in every place, time, and circumstance among Muslims.

What does Allah’s selection of the Arabic word ‘zakat’ in the Quran to name His commandment of mandatory almsgiving tell us about Zakat?

By naming His obligatory almsgiving ‘Zakat’ in the Quran, Allah infuses this worship’s spiritual reality with this word’s several linguistic meanings:

  1. He promises the divine blessing of ‘growth’ in the material wealth of any who pay the annual charity He has obliged from their money and property. By this, Allah gives ‘increase,’ as well, to the ones who receive or benefit from its payment. This growth also occurs spiritually and mentally in the persons who pay and receive Zakat.

  2. The Zakat-Charity “purifies” both the soul of its giver from sin and his or her material wealth, a “praised” and “blessed” act for which the payer receives divine “commendation” and with which Allah gives “blessing” to its recipient. In this Allah “betters” and “develops” both the wealth of giver and receiver, making them and their wealth “righteous.” In this manner, the wealth of the giver becomes justified. The recipient is vindicated. A “justness” prevails in society.

  3. The word ‘zakâ’, or ‘sweetening,’ suggests that wealth on which Zakat has not been duly paid turns bitter, spoils, and subjects it to rot in this life and the Hereafter.

Does ‘zakat’ have a spiritual-financial opposite in the Quran?

Yes. Allah specifically contrasts the divine losses that accrue to those who give riba (interest-bearing) loans to gain from people with the much-multiplied blessing He gives to those who pay the obligatory Zakat to the poor and needful for His sake alone.

Riba, as an interest transaction, by definition devours the wealth of the vulnerable, a practice Allah has forbidden in every form. 

This makes riba-interest the exact opposite of Zakat, which is an obligatory charitable transaction that pays the poor a due assigned to them by Allah from the wealth He alone has given to a Muslim. Its annual subtraction from the wealth of the believer ‘increases’ him or her both in spiritual and material purity and benefit. Nor does it diminish the Zakat-payers financial holdings because Allah replenishes and adds to it:

Yet beware, for whatever you give others in interest – to gain increase from the wealth of people – shall never increase with Allah! But blessed is whatever you give of the Zakat-Charity – desiring only the Face of God. For it is such as these who shall have a much-multiplied reward.” (Surat Al-Rum, 30:39)

The Prophet said also:

Charity reduces nothing from wealth…. (Muslim)

In a word, what is the true meaning of Zakat?

Zakat is a worldly transaction of transcendent worship that increases wealth and soul of giver and receiver in purity, fulfilling the just balances of this life and the Hereafter.