The third pillar of Islamic practice is the mandatory tax known as zakat, which means to purify, grow, or foster. The intention is that people and their possessions will be purified and perhaps even multiplied through the generosity of giving.
The Quran speaks of zakat in chapter 2, verse 177 and defines righteousness partly through the giving of wealth to “relatives, orphans, the needy, the traveler, those who ask for help, and for freeing slaves…” In 9:103, Muhammad was encouraged to take from the wealth of the Muslim community in order to “… purify them and cause them increase, and invoke Allah’s blessings upon them.”
Volume upon volume of Islamic law (sharia) has been written addressing the nuances of zakat. But in essence, every Muslim is required to inventory their wealth each year – property, cash, savings, gold, silver – and contribute 2.5% of this total to benefit those less fortunate.
In some countries, for example, a person’s wealth is measured in land or livestock, so there are formulas for zakat based on how much land or how many sheep, cattle, or camels one owns. People are exempt from zakat if their assets are less than the value of 85 grams of gold. Zakat is distinct from sadaq, which is voluntary charity – giving above and beyond what is required.
Zakat has both legal and spiritual implications in Islam. At its core, this obligation reminds Muslims that 1) everything they have comes from Allah, and 2) it is Allah’s will that everyone in a Muslim community should have their basic economic needs met.
Wealth, in Islam, is not to be accumulated by a select few at the expense of others. Not only should zakat benefit the poor, it can also be used to pay for Muslim missionaries and for the building of schools, hospitals, and mosques (though not to support the mosque leaders; that is the responsibility of the congregation).
Sometimes zakat is given directly to those in need. Other times it is used to fund programs that will help lift individuals out of poverty. Sadly, sometimes zakat is used to fund known extremist groups such as Al Qaeda and the Taliban.
In several countries, zakat is written into the national law, including Libya, Malaysia, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and Yemen. Other countries have charitable systems in place, but it is not mandated by law.
Interestingly, since a majority of refugees in the world today come from Muslim countries, and because the needs for taking care of them are so great, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) consulted specialists in Islamic law to determine if and how zakat contributions could be distributed through official UNHCR programs.
There were two conditions: first, the money could not be used to pay salaries or expenses. Second, the contributions must be used solely for poor and needy Muslims and/or those whose travels were impacted by a lack of money. It is significant to note that the UNHCR waives its standard 7% overhead fees on all zakat donations and promises that 100% of the donor’s money will directly aid fellow Muslims in need.