The Purpose and Significance of Zakat
- from Imam Ghazali's 'Ihya ul Uloom'
One must understand the necessity and significance of paying the Alms (Zakat), how it represents a test of character, and why it has been made one of the fundamentals of Islam, even though it is a financial transaction and not a physical act of worship.
Three points deserve consideration here:
(a) TESTING THE DEGREE OF LOVE FOR GOD
To pronounce the two sentences of the Confession of Faith (Shahada) ('There is no god but God - Muhammad is God's Messenger') is obligatory as affirmation of the Divine Unity and testimony to the singleness of the One to Whom all worship is due. Complete fulfilment of this obligation requires
that he who affirms the Divine Unity should direct his love to none but the One, the Unique, for love tolerates no partnership. There is little value in mere verbal affirmation. The degree of love is tested only by separating the lover from other things he loves.
Now, worldly goods are an object of love in everybody's eyes, being the means by which they enjoy the benefits of this world; because of them they become attached to life and shy away from death, even though death leads to meeting the Beloved. The truth of our claim to love God is therefore put to the test, and we are asked to give up the wealth which is the darling apple of our eye.
That is why God, Exalted is He, said:
'God has bought from the believers their persons and
their goods, Paradise being theirs for the price.' .
[al-Tawbah, 9: 111]
This concerns Jihad, the struggle in the way of God, which entails a readiness to sacrifice even life itself in longing to meet God, Great and Glorious is He. The renunciation of wealth is trivial by comparison.
Once this concept of testing the degree of love is understood to underlie the spending of wealth and material sacrifice, people fall into three groups in this respect:
Three types of people regarding spending for the sake of Allah:
Firstly, those who affirm the Divine Unity, fulfil their covenant and renounce all their worldly goods, setting aside neither pounds nor pence. They are unwilling to incur the liability to pay the Alms; so much so that when one of them was asked the amount due on two hundred dirhams, he replied:
'For ordinary people the legal requirement is five dirhams, but we must give up everything.'
Thus Abu Bakr, may God be pleased with him, donated all his wealth, while 'Umar, may God be pleased with him, gave half of his. When the Prophet, upon him be peace, said to the latter: 'What have you kept for your family?' he replied: 'An equal amount.' And when he asked the same question of Abu Bakr, may God be pleased with him, he said: 'God and His Messenger.' The Prophet, upon him be peace, then said: 'The
difference between you is the difference between your two answers." For Abu Bakr, the veracious, had borne himself out completely, keeping nothing back for himself but the Beloved, i.e. God and His Messenger.
Secondly, at a lower level are those who hold on to their goods, waiting for occasions of need and seasons of charity. Their object in saving up is to supply their own needs, without extravagance, and to devote what is left over to charitable purposes as the occasion may arise. Such people do not confine their giving to the prescribed amount of the Alms.
One group of the Successors (the generation following the Companions, may God be pleased with them) maintained the view that wealth is subject to other dues apart from the Zakat.
When al-Sha'bi was asked if this was the case, he replied:
'Yes, have you not heard the words of God, Great and Glorious is He:
"[True piety means . . . ] and giving away one's wealth,
much as one loves it, to close relatives, orphans, the
wayfarer and beggars, and for the emancipation of slaves
. . ." [al-Baqarah, 2: 177]?'
They cited the words of God, Great and Glorious is He:
'And spend from what We have provided them with.'
[al-Baqarah, 2: 3]
as well as His words, Exalted is He:
'And spend from that which We have provided you.'
[al-Munifiqun, 63: 10]
(Wa-anfiqu mimma razaqnakum.)
They maintained that these duties, far from being abrogated by the 'Verse of zakat' [9:60], form part of the mutual obligations of all Muslims. In other words, whenever a well-to-do Muslim encounters one who is in need, it is incumbent upon him to relieve that need, over and above his payment of the Alms.
The correct legal opinion in this matter is that the relief of pressing need is a collective duty, resting on the Community as a whole, since a Muslim cannot be allowed to perish.
It may be argued that a well-to-do person is not obliged to pay for the relief of want except by way of a loan, and that no donation can be required of him once he has discharged his due by giving his Alms. It could also be argued that he is nevertheless required to make a donation and that lending is impermissible, i.e. it is not permissible to burden the poor with the acceptance of a loan. There is no unanimity on this question.
Thirdly, to resort to lending is to descend to the final level of ordinary people. Those who belong to this third group confine themselves to the bare fulfilment of duty, neither more nor less. This is the lowest degree, the limit to which all ordinary people confine themselves because of their miserliness, their attachment to money and the feebleness of their love of the Hereafter, As God, Exalted is He, said:
'If He were to ask your possessions of you, and press you to give most of them, you would be miserly.'
[Muhammad, 47: 37]
What a difference between a servant whose property and person God has bought, with Paradise as the price, and one He does not even ask to give all of it because he is so miserly!
(b) ELIMINATION OF MISERLINESS
The Divine decree by which God, Glorified is He, bids His servants to expend their wealth, is also significant in respect of purging the habit of miserliness, which is one of the deadly sins. As the Prophet, on him be peace, said: 'Three are deadly: avarice indulged, passion pursued and self-conceit.' (Al-Manawi)
And in the words of God, Exalted is He:
'Those who are shielded from their own greed, they are
the ones who will prosper.' [al-Hashr, 59: 9]
The habit of miserliness is only eliminated by making oneself accustomed to spending money, for to break an attachment one must force oneself away till a new habit is formed.
From this point of view, therefore, Zakat signifies purgation, in that he who pays the Alms is purged of the deadly evil of miserliness. The purity he acquires is in proportion to his outlay, to his delight in giving away and to his joy in spending for the sake of God, Exalted is He.
(c) EXPRESSION OF GRATITUDE
The third factor is gratitude for benefits received, for the servant is indebted to God, Great and Glorious is He, for, bounties both personal and material. Bodily acts of worship are an expression of gratitude for bodily blessings, while financial acts of worship express gratitude for material bounty.
How mean one must be to see a poor man in needy straits, and yet be unwilling to give up two-and-a-half or ten per cent of one's wealth in token of one's gratitude to God, Exalted is He, for sparing one the need to beg as others must.