Zakat, or Zakat al-Maal, means obligatory “alms” or “alms upon wealth.” It stands as the third pillar of Islam, coming immediately after Salah, or the daily Ritual Prayer. Every Muslim possessing the designated minimal amount of wealth (called Nisaab) for the full cycle of a lunar year must, as a matter of worship, satisfy the duty of the Zakat-Charity. Unfortunately, the calculation of Zakat in our wealth-diverse times has become unclear to many Muslims. This has led to a kind of guessing at the Zakat payment one owes to the eligible which has, in turn, commonly resulted in either underpayment of Zakat or a hasty “fulfillment” made simply to rid oneself of the nagging feeling of an unresolved religious obligation. Zakat is paid to deserving individuals who come under one or more of eight zakatable categories designated by Almighty Allah in the Quran. Indeed, (prescribed) charitable offerings are only (to be given) to the poor and the indigent, and to those who work on [administering] it, and to those whose hearts are to be reconciled, and to (free) those in bondage, and to the debt-ridden, and for the cause of God, and to the wayfarer. (This is) an obligation from God. And God is all-knowing, all-wise. (Al-Tawbah, 9:60). The Quran specifies how Zakat is to be distributed precisely, but grants Muslims maximum flexibility in its collection. On one hand, this guarantees the right of the needful. On the other, it accommodates inevitable changes and variation in stores of wealth, effective distribution mechanisms, and diverse societies through time and in different places in the world. Trustworthy Muslim institutions collect and distribute Zakat to the deserving they identify as belonging to one or more of the zakatable categories prescribed in the Quran.
Zakat is also named as such for three spiritual reasons reflected in the Arabic word, Almighty Allah promises the blessing of “growth” in the wealth of any who pay from their money and property the charity. He has obliged, the Zakat – Charity “purifies” its giver of sin; and Zakat may suggest ‘sweetening,’ implying that wealth on which Zakat has not been duly paid remains bitter in this life and the Hereafter.
It is noteworthy that Almighty Allah, Himself, identified for Zakat payers and administrators the eight human categories of Zakat disbursement—leaving this neither to ruler, nor to scholar, nor to the Prophet (SAW) himself. It is reported that a man once came to the Prophet and asked him Zakat. The Prophet (SAW) said: Allah permitted not even a Prophet to adjudge Zakat-(worthiness). Rather, He Himself ruled on it and permitted it in eight cases. Therefore, if you belong to any of these, I shall most surely give you your right. (Abu Daud) The eight categories of eligible Zakat recipients are the poor (al-fuqarâ’), needy (al-masâkîn), Zakat-workers, those whose hearts are to be reconciled, those in bondage (slaves and captives), the debt-ridden, in the cause of God and the wayfarer (the stranded, or one traveling who lacks resources). Zakat is also named as such for three spiritual reasons reflected in the Arabic word; Almighty Allah promises the blessing of “growth” in the wealth of any who pay from their money and property the charity. He has obliged, the Zakat – Charity “purifies” its giver of sin; and Zakat may suggest ‘sweetening,’ implying that wealth on which Zakat has not been duly paid remains bitter in this life and the Hereafter.