Obligatory Charity


This page outlines the Quranic definition of the Zakat (Obligatory Charity) and presents all the Quranic guidelines related to its payment.

1- When was the Zakat first decreed and to whom?

According to the Quran, the Zakat was decreed for mankind as far back as the time of Abraham:

We made them leaders, guiding by Our command, and We inspired them to do good deeds, the observance of the Salat and the giving of the Zakat. They were worshippers of Us. 21:73

2- What is the Quranic definition of the Zakat?

The Zakat is an obligatory payment on all believers who have an income. This payment is to be paid in accordance to God's instructions (see section 6).

They ask you what to give, say: 'al-affwoo'. God thus clarifies the revelations for you so that you may reflect. 2:219

A key word in this verse is the word "al-affwoo". To be able to determine what is exactly meant by this word we should look at other Quranic verses that employ the same word. The following are some Quranic verses of significance:

Then they set up the calf, even after the clear proofs had come to them, 'fa afawna aan zalika' (yet We pardoned that). 4:153

Those who give in prosperity and hardship, and the suppressors of rage, and 'al-aafeen aan al-naas' (those who pardon the people). God loves the good-doers. 3:134

O you who believe, do not ask about matters which, if disclosed to you, would hurt you, but if you ask about them when the Quran is being brought down, they will be disclosed to you. God has 'aafa aanha' (pardoned those matters). God is Forgiver, Forbearing. 5:101

'aafa Allah aamma salaf' (God has pardoned what happened in the past), but God will avenge anyone who re-offends. God is Dignified, Avenger. 5:95

According to the above verses, we can see that the word "al-affwoo" (and its derivatives) have been used to mean: that which is pardoned or overlooked.

If we apply this to the word "al-affwoo" which is used in 2:219, which is related to the payment of Zakat, we can see that God is telling us that we should pay Zakat from that part of our income which we can afford to give away without the need to ask for it back, or in other words, what we can afford to overlook and pardon without incurring any hardship.

It is significant that God did not set a fixed percentage of our incomes which we are able to give away. God knows that this percentage will be different for each individual and directly dependant on the person's income and circumstances. It is also dependant on each person's desire to do righteous work. Consequently, God left it to each individual to assess his/her own needs and obligations, and then decide what portion of one's excess income can be given away and overlooked without incurring any hardship.

3- When should the Zakat be paid?

Eat from their fruits when it yeilds, and give its decreed obligation on the day of its harvest. 6:141

According to 6:141, Zakat must be given away on the day of harvest. These words are only symbolic of the day we receive income. Thus, we should pay the Zakat whenever we receive income. The Muslims who follow un-Quranic laws have lost this most important commandment; they calculate and give Zakat only once a year on the total annual income, which may have been generated through wages, interest, dividends, etc.

The Quranic instruction to pay Zakat whenever income (harvest) is received contains a very beneficial economic wisdom. One of the factors that contribute to the economic prosperity of any community is the circulation of money. Frequent circulation of money is much more productive than annual circulation. If Zakat is paid whenever income is generated, the economy will benefit much more than if Zakat is paid only once a year on the year's total earnings.

4- Who should pay the Zakat?

Is the Zakat compulsory on all believers, even if they are poor and cannot afford to give away any of their income? The Zakat is payable only by those who have excess after fulfilling their basic needs (food, clothes, housing, medicine, etc). Therefore if paying a zakat would cause genuine hardship to a person or his/her family, then they are not obliged to pay it:

They ask you what to give, say: 'al-affwoo'. God thus clarifies the revelations for you so that you may reflect. 2:219

This means that for those who receive an income that is barely enough to feed and clothe their families, but with nothing to spare, are not required to pay zakat.
This is also confirmed in 22:78 where God tells us that He does not want us to experience hardship in practicing the religion:

Strive in the cause of God with the striving that is due to Him. He has chosen you and has placed no hardship on you in the religion 22:78

5- Who should the Zakat be paid to?

The recipients of the Zakat are outlined in the Quran as follows:

They ask you what should they give, say, "Anything good that you give should be to the parents, the close ones, the orphans, the needy and the homeless, and any good that you do, God is Knowledgeable thereof. 2:215

The words in 2:215 give us the categories of people to whom we should give our Zakat and also the correct order. What this means is that if we have a limited amount of Zakat to give away, then if our parents are poor, they would be more worthy of our Zakat then a poor relative and so on.

Some scholars claim that the Zakat should be given only to Muslim recipients, however this restriction has no Quranic reference. The recipients of the Zakat (outlined in 17:26) could be of any faith or creed.

6- Does the Quran authorise a fixed rate of Zakat?

The straightforward answer is no. Nowhere in the Quran is there any hint of a fixed rate. The 2.5% rate, which is followed by Muslims around the world, is not found in the Quran. The source of this ritual, as many other non Quranic rituals, can only be found in the hadith. We have seen that the Quran defines the Zakat payment from 'Al-AFW', which is what a person is able to give away without incurring any great hardship. Obviously this amount will differ from person to person depending on their income.

We are given in 17:26-29 clear confirmation that God did not set a fixed percentage for Zakat:

You shall give the relative his due, as well as the needy and the homeless, and do not squander wastefully.
The squanderers are brothers to the devils, and the devil is a rejecter of his Lord.
If you must turn away from them because you yourself are seeking mercy from your Lord and hoping for it, then say to them words that comfort them.
Do not keep your hand tied to your neck, nor shall you fully extend it, lest you end up blaming yourself and feeling remorseful. 17:26-29

In these words which speak about the Zakat, it is necessary to focus on the following words:

Do not keep your hand tied to your neck, nor shall you fully extend it, lest you end up blaming yourself and feeling remorseful. 17:29

After reflecting on the above words, the following question becomes significant:

If the traditional 2.5% rate for Zakat was truly from God, would God command us "Do not keep your hand tied to your neck" nor "fully extend it"? These words can only mean that the percentage is not fixed, but is flexible and that it has been left to each individual's means. In other words, if every person was paying a fixed 2.5%, there would be no chance of anyone keeping their hand too tied, nor fully extended!

7- The importance of Zakat

The Zakat is given great importance in the Quran. The Most Merciful has associated His Mercy to those who pay their zakat.

My mercy encompasses all things, and so I shall decree it for those who are reverent, give the Zakat, and those who believe in Our revelations. 7:156

How many Zakats are to be paid?

Once again, some scholars who do not subscribe to the Quran being the only source of law (6:114), have invented all kinds of Zakat, such as, Zakat Eid Al-Fitr (the Zakat at the Eid at the end of Ramadan). They have instituted different Zakat to be paid at all different feasts and celebrations. Needless to say, none of these additional Zakat have authorisation in the Quran. The only timing given in the Quran for the payment of the Zakat is when income is received. The Zakat authorised by God is not connected to any specific days in the calendar nor to any feasts or special occasions.

9- What is the difference between Zakat and Sadaqat?

As we have seen, the use of the word "Haqq" in 6:141 and 17:26 confirms that the act of Zakat is obligatory, but when we come to the Sadaqat (general charity) we find that it is not compulsory but only advised for extra righteousness, provided it is within our means.

The following are the main differences between Zakat and Sadaqat:

First: Zakat is payable whenever income is received while the Sadaqat, being a general act of charity, is not tied to any time.

Second: Since the Zakat is paid when income is received then it must be paid out of that income, usually in cash, while as the Sadaqat is not connected to the receipt of income, thus it can be paid in any form (money, food, clothes … etc).

Third: The distribution of Zakat is different in the Quran from the distribution of Sadaqat:

The recipients of the Zakat are outlined in 17:26. In this verse, we have the word 'haqahu' which means their decreed right, which indicates that God is speaking about the obligatory Zakat.

The words in 2:215 give a more detailed description of the recipients mentioned in 17:26.
In contrast, the distribution of the Sadaqat is outlined in 9:60, where the word 'Sadaqat' is used, and the recipients are in the following order: "the poor, the needy, those who work on their collection, those whose hearts have reconciled, to free the slaves, to those in debt, also in the cause of God and to the homeless."

We note from the above that the recipients of Zakat are not identical to the recipients of Sadaqat.

Fourth: God does not tax the believer twice on the same income. We are already obliged to pay Zakat whenever we receive income (6:141), so if we are obliged to also pay a Sadaqat that means we would be taxed twice on the same source. That is why the Sadaqat is voluntary and not compulsory.
We read in 6:141 how we must pay the Zakat upon receiving income. This indicates that it is a direct payment from us to the recipients. However, when we read 9:58, and how some people have criticised the distribution of the Sadaqat by the Prophet, we can deduce that the Sadaqat can be collected into a fund, or safe, and then it is to be distributed by whoever is in charge. This is also confirmed with the instruction in 9:60 that the ones who work on the collection of the Sadaqat should be given a share of it.
As a result, the Zakat is best paid directly to the recipients (when possible) while the Sadaqat may be collected then distributed. We see many Islamic institutions today (Masjids and Islamic Organisations) doing just that by setting up collection boxes for Sadaqat.

10- Why are the recipients of the Zakat and Sadaqat not exactly the same?

As we have seen, the distribution of the Zakat, which is detailed in 17:26, is obligatory since the Zakat itself is obligatory. However the words that describe the distribution of the Sadaqat (9:60) are given as a guide only and they are not obligatory. An act which is voluntary cannot have an obligatory method of distribution.

So in principle we must give the zakat to the recipients in
17:26, but our Sadaqat can go to anyone we like. We may wish to give a Sadaqat to someone who is not outlined in 9:60, and that is well within our rights. If we do not have any particular recipient in mind and we wish to give to charity in general, then we are advised to follow the guide lines in 9:60.

We note that the recipients of the Sadaqat in 9:60 do not include the parents or relatives. God, the Most Wise, knows that the parents and relatives will be already looked after through our zakat, but since there are many more needy people in the world than all our relatives put together, then any additional Sadaqat we are able to give can go to any needy people, the homeless and so on.

Some analysts have understood that Zakat and Sadaqat are one and the same. This is a mistaken understanding. The claims they put forward can be replied to in the light of the Quran as follows:
1- They refer to 2:276 and 30:39. In 2:276 the word Sadaqat is used as opposed to the illegal 'Riba' (usury), while as in 30:39 the word Zakat is used as opposed to Riba. As a result they state that since both are mentioned as opposed to Riba, then they must be identical in meaning. But this is not necessarily so, the mention of Sadaqat and Zakat (on one side) as opposed to Riba (on the other side) does not necessarily mean they are the same thing, it can simply mean that both the Zakat and the Sadaqat are lawful and righteous, as opposed to Riba which is unlawful and unrighteous.
2- The second reason they put forward to justify their claim is that the word 'farida', which means compulsory duty, is used in 9:60 in connection with the distribution of the Sadaqat and not Zakat. They follow that by saying that since the details of the distribution are spoken of as compulsory then the task itself (Sadaqat) must also be compulsory.
On first impression this seems to be a logical conclusion, but when we examine this verse closely we see it in a different light. To be able to do so we must start reading from verse 9:58 where God is speaking to the Prophet and God is telling the Prophet how some people have criticised his distribution of the Sadaqat, this is also made clear in 9:59:
Some of them criticise you regarding the Sadaqat. 9:58
This is followed in 9:60 with a specific way in which the Sadaqat must be distributed and then God follows that by saying that this manner of distribution is the lawful one decreed by God and thus it becomes a 'farida'.
From verses 9:58 to 9:60 we derive the following:
a- God is telling the Prophet how some will grumble at the way he distributed the Sadaqat.
b- God prescribed a specific method for distributing the Sadaqat upon the lawful recipients and God adds to that, that this is a 'farida'. In other words: no one should grumble since this is the lawful way prescribed by God which makes it a 'farida'.
c- We also note that the word 'farida' in 9:60 comes after the recipients are mentioned and not after the word Sadaqat. If the compulsory aspect was related to the payment of the Sadaqat itself we would expect the words to say "the Sadaqat are a farida and they are to be distributed on so and so ……".
d- The distribution of the Sadaqat detailed in 9:60 becomes a law for all people and all believers and not just the Prophet. This is particularly important considering that there are many Islamic institutions and mosques all over the world today who collect Sadaqat. They too must follow the law set by God (farida) in the way they distribute these Sadaqat.

f- Finally, the distribution of the Sadaqaat detailed in 9:60 becomes law in the case of the Sadaqat being collected, but as we have seen, it is not compulsory for the Sadaqat to be collected, rather, any believer can give a Sadaqat (charity) to any recipient, at any time and without it being collected by a Masjid or Organistaion first.
To conclude, the payment of the Zakat is a 'fard' (obligation) on all believers who receive an income, and who are able to give away part of it without incurring hardship. It must be distributed according to 17:26 and must be paid as soon as the income is received.
On the other hand, the Sadaqat is not obligatory but is encouraged by God, it can be paid at any time, and in any form (money, clothes, food) and it is the law of God that if it is collected, it must be distributed in accordance with the instructions in 9:60.