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Zakah: Spending for the Sake of Allah

Datum: 23 juli 2013 | Waar: OnIslam.net ('ReadingIslam'-section)

Without any problem, most of us can easily name all five pillars of Islam. We know them by heart. A list of five acts that together form the fundamental basis of our religion, two pillars are performed daily: saying the Islamic testimony of faith and prayer. Two pillars are performed yearly: to give alms and to fast in the month of Ramadan. The last pillar (Pilgrimage) should be performed at least once in a lifetime: to make the pilgrimage to Makkah.

But as easy as we may find it to simply list these five acts, not everybody might be able to explain the reason behind each act nor the wisdom of it. We come up with an easy explanation when our non-Muslim friends, neighbors and co-workers ask us about it, but are we really sure that's the deeper answer we should give?

Let's focus on the pillar of Zakah (commonly translated as obligatory alms giving). When discussing this topic, most people would emphasize on the social aspect of giving alms; the believing man or woman who gives from his or her wealth to the poor and the needy.

There should be no need for an Islamic 'Robin Hood' as it is mandatory for the rich to give to the poor. This also means that there is no fundamental objection against becoming very rich, as the end result of this should be that one's positive impact on the surrounding society only increases.

Difference Between Zakah and Charity
When talking about the concept of 'zakah' we often also mention the concept of 'sadaqah', which is regularly translated as 'charity'. Both concepts are dealing with people giving their wealth to others who are in more desperate need of those means.

There are some major differences between the two concepts. Zakah is an obligation to those who have a minimum amount of possessions; to give zakah is considered to be a good deed with a reward in the hereafter, but to abstain from it is a sin with a punishment. Sadaqah has no minimum required amount of possessions and is completely voluntary; to give sadaqah is considered to be a good deed with a reward in the hereafter, but to abstain from it is not a sin. Zakah has specific deadlines within the Islamic calendar when it should be given, sadaqah can be given at every single opportunity.

Zakah has by definition a financial aspect to it, while sadaqah can be a wide variety of good deeds. A common quoted narration of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) is his remark that even the smile given to a brother in faith can be considered to be a form of charity. And these are just some of the many differences between zakah and sadaqah.

Both concepts of zakah and sadaqah are deeply rooted within the fundamental Islamic sources, mainly the in the Quran and the narrations of the Prophet in the Hadith. In those sources however, both concepts are not as separated as one might expect. For instance, the verse that describes the target audience for zakah, Quran (9:60), doesn't use the word "zakah" but "sadaqat". To a certain extent, both terms are used when referring to the other, which could make it difficult for the untrained eye to differ between both.

However, the biggest obstacle in fully understanding the concepts of zakah and sadaqah is the use of (English) translations instead of the original Arabic terminology. As we often see, the words are not translated to an equivalent in another language of the aim of the act but as a description of the physical act itself. When we translate 'zakah' to 'alms giving' we are now using a word which only explains the visible form of the act, we're explaining what the act looks like. For 'sadaqah' we find ourselves doing the exact same thing; 'giving charity' is a description of the act itself, not the aim.

One of the Quran verses I love most in this context is:
{O you who have believed, do not follow the footsteps of Satan. And whoever follows the footsteps of Satan - indeed, he enjoins immorality and wrongdoing. And if not for the favor of Allah upon you and His mercy, not one of you would have been pure, ever, but Allah purifies whom He wills, and Allah is Hearing and Knowing.} (An-Nur 24: 21)

Now, at first, you might question what this has to do with spending for the sake of Allah. However, when taking a closer look at the original Arabic transcript, you will find that the words 'pure' and 'purify' in fact are constructed from the word 'zakah'.

Although the common used translations describe the act itself, the original term refers to the aim of the act. To give zakat is to purify oneself. The same thing for sadaqah, which is used extensively in its various forms in the Quran, often meaning 'truthful' or 'confirming'.

Saying you wish the best for someone is easy lip service, but to reach down your pocket and give sadaqah means you confirm your statement and you are truthful. Or, as the Prophet (peace be upon him) has said: "Sadaqah is a proof." (Muslim)

Islamic financial analysts estimate that each year somewhere between US$200 billion and $1 trillion are spent as zakah or sadaqah across the Muslim world. To make a comparison, this is 15 times more than the global humanitarian aid contributions (in 2011). This enormous flow of charity money has the potential to rule out all hunger and extreme poverty in the world and to create outstanding public services.

However, a lot of the charity is given in small amount directly to the needy. This is not fundamentally wrong but it does prevent major investments in sustainable development. Also, a lot of money is mismanaged, wasted or used ineffective.

Looking at the history of the Islamic community, there have been times that zakah by itself eradicated extreme poverty completely. Today, as a global community of Muslims, we should strive to go back to those times when it comes to the way we use and invest our charity and alms, creating a society which could be a shining example to many others.