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Understanding Zakah of the heart
- Written by Shafiq Morton
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ZAKAH is often something of a misunderstood Islamic institution. So often it is seen as a ‘compulsory charity’ or an ‘alms tax’. The point is that Zakah is actually none of these. Zakah is a pillar of the Islamic faith, and hereby lies the rub.
Historically, Zakah is classified as a prophetic practice – in other words, it was announced to mankind thousands of years ago. The Qur’an, which was revealed systematically and gradually, introduces us to the notion of Zakah via the Prophet Isma’il, thus establishing a link with the Prophet Muhammad [saw], who was of the House of Isma’il:
Also mention in the Book [the story of] Isma’il: He was true to what he promised, and he was message-giver...He used to enjoin on his people prayer and Zakah, and he was most acceptable in the sight of his Lord. [Surah Maryam 19:54-55].
Zakah was also enjoined upon the Jews, the Bani Isra’il, and in ancient Hebrew the word is ‘zakut’:
And [remember] when We made a covenant with the Children of Israel, saying: ‘Worship none save Allah and be good to your parents and to your family and to orphans and to the needy, and speak kindly to mankind; [so] establish prayer and pay Zakah.’ [Surah Al-Baqarah 2:83].
Jesus, who preceded Muhammad [saw], also finds himself on this continuum:
‘Lo! I am the slave of Allah. He has given me the Scripture and has appointed me a prophet. And He has made me blessed wherever I may be, and has enjoined upon me prayer and Zakah…’ [Surah Maryam 19:30-31].
It was only in the second year of the Hijrah, some eighteen months after the emigration of the Prophet [saw] to Madinah in 626 CE that Zakah became an Islamic obligation. Qur’anic verses revealed in Madinah began to give clear directives. The Prophet [saw] used to send out workers to collect Zakah, which used to be distributed on the New Year.
The other day I heard an interesting lecture on the nature of Zakah by a local scholar, which prompted me to write this piece. “Zakah is not a charity,” he had said, adding that Zakah was what it was, a divine mercy – a pillar of faith, a divinely inspired mechanism of social transformation.
He went on to explain that the lexical import of the word gave us the clearest indications as to how we should understand the institution of Zakah. The word ‘Zakah’, he said, derived from the verbal noun ‘tazkiyya’, which meant ‘to purify’. ‘Tazkiyya’, in turn, derived from the root Arabic word, ‘zakawa’, which meant to ‘purify’, or ‘grow’.
“Please note,” said the scholar, “the basic word for purify, ‘tahara’, is not used in the context of Zakah. We do not clean ourselves of dirt like in a bath when we pay Zakah. It does not remove outer impurities. No. The word Zakah has a much more elevated meaning, a deep and profound inner meaning.”
The scholar went to explain that Zakah was an act of ‘ibadah, of worship. Like prayer, or salah, the act of giving Zakah could be compared to the personal mi’raj, or spiritual ascension, of the prayer. When we performed the act of Zakah, we had to perform it with our heads bent in humility, as if we were standing before Allah.
“Even if given through an agency (such as SANZAF) Zakah is a transaction that passes from heart to heart,” said the scholar. “We do it with dignity. Remember, Zakah is not the act of throwing coins at the poor. It is a basic human right. And Allah Almighty does not burden us with it...”
The scholar returned to the lexical meaning of Zakah, saying that if we combined the concept of purification and growth, we would get a close approximation of the divine intent of Zakah – heavenly blessings, personal and communal growth, inner cleanliness and socio-economic betterment.
“We have a merciful Creator who wants good things for His people. He wants the rich to be generous and the poor to feel happy. He wants to boast to His Angels how the Prophet’s congregation is sharing its wealth. He wants to rejoice in how the poor are singing His praises for their rights.”