SO much is written, and said, about Zakat as a noble institution of giving to the poor. A means of cleansing one’s wealth, it is without doubt, a hugely transformational aspect of Islam with the potential of alleviating – if not eradicating – poverty.
It is for this reason that the Prophet [SAW] was exhorted by divine inspiration to make it a pillar of faith. For surely, if we do not wish for our fellow beings what we wish for ourselves (as in Hadith) there can be no humanity in us, let alone a sense of social justice.
In this sense I would venture that perhaps one of the most neglected, least understood aspects of Zakat is those who qualify to receive it. We all know that Sacred Law has defined eight special categories of people who are able to receive Zakat.
Unfortunately, the pressures of alleviating immediate social needs in a sharply rich-poor divided world, has led to a neglect of the depth of Zakat. Zakat is far more complex than just the handing of money or goods to the poor, who form the first category, or layer, of recipients.
Imam Naqib al-Masri, the famous Shafi’i scholar, outlines the eight categories we use today but adds a lot of subtle detail in his famous Umdat as-Salik. What is profoundly evident is that Imam Shafi’i saw Zakat more as a means of social empowerment and upliftment than just poverty relief.
In fact, all the great imams went to great pains to elucidate on the question of Zakat, and it comprises a substantial body of work in Fiqh.
In modern terms, the first level of Zakat qualification extends to the low income or indigent – in other words, the poverty stricken. This is where, as I’ve already said, most of our institutional energy is focused. Of course, it is understandable that this is the case.
The second is those in difficulty – for example, communities displaced or dispossessed by an earthquake, a tsunami, a fire or a war. Here one still sees lots of institutional energy, but perhaps if it was wider understood as a vehicle of Zakat, even more could be done for people in places such as Imizamo Yethu in Hout Bay or war-torn Syria or famine-struck East Africa.
Of course, we have to remind ourselves that the distribution of Zakat is determined by human needs, and not by the politics of the day.
The third category, which involves our Zakat institutions, entitles those who work in the Zakat environment to be entitled to a living wage. It is interesting to note – in a community where so many Muslim employers don’t pay fair wages – that this principle was mooted over 1,400 years ago.
The fourth category, Zakat for those who need to be reconciled – which includes new Muslims, those who are wavering in their Deen and even non-Muslims in need – is a much under-estimated vehicle for creating social harmony. I knew of a famous Shaykh who used to overwhelm reverts and non-Muslims with gifts, saying that the Prophet [SAW] had done exactly the same thing.
The fifth category – those in bondage – may seem like an anachronism, but as some Shuyukh have pointed out, it is still applicable in the case of human trafficking where people urgently need to be given their dignity.
The sixth category, the remittance of debt, is a principle embodied in Surat ul-Baqarah, verse 280:
“If the debtor is in a difficulty
Grant him time until it is easy for him to repay.
But if you remit it by way of charity
That is best for you, only if you knew.”
The burden of unreasonable debt can destroy families and ruin lives. Debt relief is a critical aspect of social relief. In this case, one can keep a roof over people’s heads and prevent a descent into even worse poverty and dependency.
Zakat , the seventh category, can be utilised on the path of Allah. The old Shafi’i text books talk about Zakat funding Muslim army volunteers. The more contemporary Shafi’ite interpretation extends to the funding of mosques, education and other socially uplifting programmes.
The eighth, and final category, is that of the wayfarer. Whether a traveller, a refugee or someone in need on the road, they all qualify for Zakat. This say the scholars, is a great gift from God. Nobody in Islam, anywhere, should ever suffer discomfort as should every other human being.
In conclusion, by looking at those who can receive Zakat, an exciting universe of humanitarian possibilities and social empowerment opens up, which goes way beyond putting a band-aid on an elephant.