The Short Answer
Muslims pay Zakat as a divine obligation for devotional, spiritual, and social reasons.
Zakat in Islam is unique on five counts. No other religion
Requires its followers to pay a mandatory annual alms as a sacred rite
Establishes by Revelation what sums constitute mandatory charitable wealth for various kinds of property
Lays down in Revelation the percentages for each kind of mandatory charitable wealth to be paid in charity
Specifies in its Heavenly Book the exclusive lawful recipients of that mandatory charity
Compels the sovereign authority it legitimizes to institute a governmental collection and distribution mechanism to guarantee and accomplish that mandatory charity’s fulfillment.
Moreover, because Zakat is a religious ritual, individual Muslims are required as a matter of faith to learn it and perform it correctly. This means, one is to assess Zakat accurately upon his or her own wealth streams and see to its proper distribution at its due times to its specified beneficiaries, with or without a supervising authority.
No other sacred practice in Islam (or any other religion) combines with such equal spirit the descriptive qualities and consequence of (1) obligatory worship; (2) sacred purification; and (3) practical personal, communal, and societal benefits like Zakat does.
First and foremost, God obligated us as Muslims to pay Zakat as an act of worship and also as a social transactional due. As such, paying Zakat is a spiritual act of worldly benefit and a worldly act of spiritual benefit.
It is a means of purifying the believer’s soul from sin and training it out of its inclination to greed, but also a sanctified worldly financial transaction. It cleanses one’s wealth from its inherent material taint that, if left mingled with it, will cause it to spoil and physically diminish. In the end, God has made the temporal property He truly owns, but gives us control of, a spiritual commodity.
Zakat directly alleviates the poor of worldly hardship and provides material relief and reward to those in need and the deserving, improving their life conditions while upholding their human dignity.
God has established Zakat — not as a voluntary charity given to whomever at the discretion and goodwill of their wealthier fellows — but as the due right of His divinely designated recipients. God is the broker of the wealth He has invested with us. Zakat is the dividend of its surplus owed annually to His select beneficiaries at set due dates in specified amounts when His investments reach stipulated benchmarks.
Zakat is not intended to serve as a stopgap measure of short-term or one-time relief. It is meant to institutionalize and anchor a communal enterprise that systematically eliminates poverty and servitude.
Hence, Zakat functions as the primary socio-financial institution of the global Muslim community, aimed at annually recalibrating the just human balance in society, fostering harmony between relatives and neighbors, and strengthening the unity of the believers and social cohesion in general.
It guarantees these common benefits through the obligatory, equitable redistribution of wealth by empowering authorities and institutions within the Muslim polity to assess, collect, and disburse Zakat payments, in accordance with Zakat’s objectives prescribed in the Texts revealed by God in the Quran and detailed in the Sunnah — statements, acts, approvals — of the Prophet, peace be upon him.
This last statement is important. It means that Zakat’s clear socio-financial objectives create latitude for us to implement Zakat creatively as the times and circumstances call for, while its status as a Pillar of worship restricts us to its rules as the Texts of Revelation have specified them.
Because of Zakat’s synthetic religious-moral-social identity, Islam’s legal scholars have debated its proper categorization in Islamic law (fiqh) almost from the beginning. These points of emphasis of Zakat’s basic character — its worship aspect or financial facets — underlie some of its variant legal rulings.
Is Zakat a fundamental obligation of worship (an ‘ibadah)?
Yes. It is the Third of the defining Five Pillars of belief and ritual worship that the Prophet, on him be peace, taught us that God built this religion on. Thus, it is every bit the peer of its twin cornerstone upholding Islam, Salah — which is Islam’s paradigm worship obligation of five-times daily prayer, to which God conjoined Zakat in His Heavenly Revelation, the Quran. Indeed, the Prophet, on him be peace, in the famous Gabriel-come-to-teach-you-your religion hadith, or prophetic statement, actually defined Islam itself — “What is Islam?” — by Zakat, along with its four sister Pillars.
Is Zakat an act of redemptive personal piety?
Yes. Zakat is a deed of taqwa, that is, a performance of a commandment or restraint against a prohibition that yields an augmented fear of God within the heart of its doer. The Prophet, on him be peace, explicitly taught us that Zakat purifies one’s wealth and the soul of its giver. In addition, Zakat expresses its payer’s gratitude to God for the wealth He alone has given him or her and is fundamental to one’s repentance (tawbah).
Is Zakat a religiously obligated financial transaction?
Yes. Zakat entails the conduct of the mu‘ammalat, transactions in human affairs.
While Islam’s legal scholars have traditionally categorized Zakat as worship, it is undeniable that it is an obligatory financial transaction, as well; for its payment directly accrues to the welfare of individuals in essential need and who are morally, socially, or even politically deserving of its payment. Moreover, Zakat has as part of its express purpose the strengthening of these recipients, their families, communities, and society at large, as well as safeguarding the relative position of Muslims and Islam in all these societal environments.
Can a Muslim Refuse to Pay Zakat?
No. Zakat is definitively established as integral to Islam in two key ways:
Revelation explicity substantiates Zakat as an obligation on, and right of, every Muslim that meets its giving or receiving criteria.
The verbatim, divine, recited Revelation of the Quran mentions Zakat in this technical meaning of “due alms” 30 times, including obliging Muslims to pay it and designating its eight categories of eligible recipients.
Numerous statements, acts, and approvals of the Prophet, on him be peace —the Sunnah — detail Zakat. (This is technically termed unrecited Revelation. The Quran is recited in prayer and as worship. The acts of Sunnah are not. They are Revelation by way of prophetic utterance and demonstration, as endorsed by God).
Zakat is authenticated as fundamental to the profession and practice of Islam by the Consensus (Ijma‘) of every Muslim generation from the first until now. Such agreement guarantees its legitimacy and obliges compliance with its divine decree.
So, if a Muslim, of any gender, age, or mental state, has the minimum threshold amount (nisab) of Zakat for his or her various kinds of wealth at the time it comes due on that specific type of wealth, God obligates him or her to pay Zakat from it or on it at the rates designated by the Prophet, on him be peace, to the categories of people specified by God in the Quran (Surat Al-Tawbah, 9:60). This is a crucial point, for the religion of Islam does not leave Zakat to generalized payment to an authority or agency but emphasizes its imperative of full distribution in accordance with the Quran’s articulation of Zakat’s divinely assigned designees.
What If Someone Denies Zakat?
Denying Zakat is denying Islam.
Muslims from the earliest days have agreed that anyone who categorically rejects Zakat as an obligation of Islam decreed by God — after having knowledge of it as a Pillar of Islam or receiving explanation about it making clear that it is such — has disbelieved in Islam and renounced it as his or her religion.
Are There Penalties for Muslims Who Don’t Pay Zakat?
One who does not deny Zakat as an obligation but neglects paying it even though his or her wealth has reached Zakat’s threshold amount has sinned against God. The Prophet, on him be peace, issued stern warnings to such people of punishment in this life and the Hereafter.
In a Muslim polity, the state may assess and confiscate a Muslim’s due Zakat, as well as half of his or her wealth as a penalty for witholding its payment, according to some scholars, including Ahmad ibn Hanbal and an early opinion of Imam Al-Shafi‘i. They base this on the acceptable hadith:
“Whether the camels of the Zakat payer are grown or baby camels, it makes no difference in his reward if one gave them willingly. If one withholds its payment, it shall be taken from him along with half his property, for it is a right of our Lord, Blessed and Exalted. Nor does the Household of Muhammad have any right to its yield. [‘Household’ here refers to the family members and descendants (for all time) of the Prophet, on him be peace, who are barred from Zakat no matter their circumstances.]” (Ahmad, Nasa’i, Abu Dawud)
The Prophet, on him be peace, also warned:
“No people do not pay their due Zakat but that God causes them to suffer disaster, famine, or drought.” (Al-Tabarani). Another report uses the wording, “God withholds rain from them.”
The first Caliph, Abu Bakr, God be pleased with him, famously fought groups of Muslims who refused Zakat payment for distribution among themselves by the central authority after the death of the Prophet, on him be peace.
Is There Punishment in the Afterlife for Muslims Who Withhold Zakat?
Yes. The Quran warns:
“Nor let those who are miserly with what God has given them of His bounty think that it is good for them. Rather, it is evil for them. What they stingily withhold shall be hung about their necks on the Day of Resurrection. …” (Surat Al ‘Imran, 3:180)
“… Yet as for those who hoard up gold and silver and do not spend it in the path of God — give them tidings of a most painful torment — on a Day Hereafter when [their gold and silver] shall be heated in the Fire of Hell. Then their foreheads and their sides and their backs will be branded with it [and it shall be said to them]: ‘This is what you have hoarded up for yourselves! So taste now what you used to hoard up!’” (Surat Al-Tawbah, 9:34-35)
The Prophet, on him be peace, specified the implications of these verses. He said:
“No owner of hoarded wealth who does not pay its Zakat will be spared. One’s hoard shall be heated in the Fires of Hell and fashioned into plates. Then one’s flanks and forehead will be branded with them on a Day lasting 50,000 years, until God pronounces judgment on His servants.” (Bukhari and Muslim)
“As for one whom God enriches but does not pay Zakat on his wealth, on the Day of Judgment it will be turned into a bald-headed, poisonous, male serpent with two black spots over its eyes. It will coil itself around his neck, bite his cheeks and say: 'I am your treasure. I am your wealth.’” Then he recited the verse “Nor let those …” [Surat Al ‘Imran, 3:180, just cited]. (Bukhari and Muslim)
Why Are the Penalties for Not Paying Zakat so Severe?
The penalties for not paying Zakat-Alms to the poor, vulnerable, and deserving underscore the paramount importance Islam attaches to institutionalizing Zakat and the supreme importance God places on the mandatory redistribution of wealth among the global Muslim community and throughout human societies.
This emphasizes the Zakat system’s express purpose of effectively obligating the Muslim community’s wealthy to elevate its poor out of poverty and into dignified economic self-sufficiency. It speaks to the utmost importance Islam places on freeing the individual and the community as a whole from subjugation by others. Islam, in turn, charges the Muslim community with eliminating privation and hardship in the world and with liberating human beings from servitude to others.