Zakat is the third pillar of subservience to God and, as such, one would assume that anyone claiming to be subservient (i.e. muslim) would fully understand what is expected of him/her. However, that’s often not the case, and there’s a dire need to educate believers on what God expects. This post offers some basic clarifications of popular misunderstandings. They’re not intended to be scholarly with an array of justifications and evidence, nor will they deal with context-specific applications. Rather they will simply outline general propositions on some elementary but often misunderstood matters:

1. Zakat is compulsory charity

‘Charity’ is an English word that doesn’t correspond accurately with the shar’i concept of zakat. Charity is essentially a free-will offering. Zakat is not. In earlier times, zakat was popularly known as sadaqah in both Hebrew and Arabic (today’s popular usage of the word sadaqah doesn’t strictly correspond to those times although there’s nothing necessarily wrong with this). It has never been seen as charity but as a just tax regimen ordained by the Most High on the polity of believing Hebrews (Leviticus 27:30-34, 2 Chronicles 24:6), and later, the believing Arabs (Qur’an 9:103 and 9:60). Thus we find that the Companion Abu Bakr referred to it as ‘a duty on wealth’ (al Bukhari). The default position was that zakat was collected and distributed to the categories stipulated by God – effectively taxes and public expenditure. Of course, tax rates, regulations, and scope would change over the ages based on the context as God would see fit (which is true of any tax regimen).

2. Zakat is about feeding poor people

As a tax regimen, zakat isn’t simply about feeding poor people although welfare claimants from the vulnerable certainly find their share. God tells us that zakat expenditure comprises of eight meta-categories: ‘the poor, the needy, those who administer them (collectors), those whose hearts need winning over, to free slaves and help those in debt, for God’s cause, and for travellers in need. This is ordained by God; God is all knowing and wise.’ (9:60)

A basic analysis reveals the public nature of zakat expenditure, and even when thinking about the poor and needy, it’s not simply free-willed charitable altruism but welfare support to aid the vulnerable, circulate wealth, and strengthen the community/society by raising standards. Whilst this might make sense to many, for some this might seem novel. But it’s not really: Ibn Qudamah, al Nawawi, al Tabari and many other classical jurists have explicitly articulated this.

3. Zakat is meant to be sent to the poor abroad

Economies differ in their sizes and outputs, the costs of goods and services, as well as in socio-economic norms. Two poor people from different parts of the world can look very different but it doesn’t negate that they are poor in their context. On the point of collection and distribution, the Prophet famously said (in al Bukhari and Muslim), ’taken from their rich and given to their poor’ (before the other categories were revealed), and from this it has always been widely deduced by jurists that collected public finances are to be spent in the region they are collected from. This was also articulated by the four Imams, with Imam Abu Hanifah notably stating a few exceptions to what he also considered the general rule.

Moreover, this doesn’t negate that there might be obligatory sadaqah (for those able) to be contributed to the poor abroad, for zakat is not the only form of obligatory financial contribution (unbeknown to many!) – but this would be in addition to zakat which is the regional tax God wanted.

4. The best time to pay zakat is Ramadan

This is a grave mistake that many people make, and it usually stems from the idea that giving charity during Ramadan accrues multiplied rewards. Whilst the point is true, it is unrelated to zakat. Firstly, zakat is not charity but a duty. Secondly, that duty becomes due once specific types of wealth have been held continuously above a certain threshold (nisab) for a lunar year.

So say a person attained and maintained wealth over the nisab in Muharram, it would be due the following Muharram, and to wait until Ramadan wouldn’t accrue multiplied benefits but instead anger God, and s/he would be in a state of offence until they paid it. Ramadan is indeed a month of charity, and not zakat. As an analogy for those in the UK, it’s like paying your taxes on New Years because it seems auspicious, although it’s known that the financial tax year ends in April. In earlier times, the political authority would not only enforce the payment of the zakat when it was due, but would also prosecute offenders with additional fines or imprisonment for late payment!