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The literal meaning of "Zakaat" is purity. Its Islamic technical meaning designates the annual amount of wealth, food, property etc. which a Muslim with the adequate means must distribute among the rightful beneficiaries.
Zakaat is a remarkable institution and a major pillar of Islam. Allaah, Almighty, Says (what means): "And establish the Prayer, and pay Zakaat (the poor due)..." [Quran, 2:43]
Moreover, Zakaat is an obligatory act because it is one of the pillars of Islam: The Prophet said: "Islam was built upon five (pillars): `The testimony that none has the right to be worshipped but Allaah and that Muhammad is the Messenger of Allaah; the establishment of the prayer; paying the obligatory charity (Zakaat); pilgrimage to the House (Hajj to the Ka'bah in Makkah) and fasting (the month of) Ramadan."' [Al-Bukhaari and Muslim]
Zakaat is a small portion of the Muslim's wealth that must be given to the poor or to other specified beneficiaries. Whoever claims that Zakaat is not obligatory and refuses to pay it, is not a Muslim, but a Muslim who refuses to pay Zaakat due to stinginess, while affirming its obligation, has committed a great sin for which one will be severely punished.
Allaah, Almighty, Says (what means): "...and as for those who hoard treasures of gold and silver, and do not spend them for the sake of Allaah, announce unto them a painful torment. On the Day when that [hoarded wealth] shall be heated in the Fire of Hell and with it will be branded their foreheads, their flanks, and their backs, (and it will be said unto them): `This is the treasure which you hoarded for yourselves. Now taste of what you used to hoard." [Quran 9: 34-35]
He, Almighty, also Says (what means): "And let not those who covetously withhold of that which Allaah has bestowed on them of His bounty (wealth) think that it is good for them (and so they do not pay Zakaat). No, it will be worse for them; the things which they covetously withheld will be tied to their necks like a collar on the Day of Resurrection..." [Quran 3:180]
There is no equivalent in any other language to the word "Zakaat" and the meaning it conveys. It is not just a form of charity, or alms-giving or tax or tithe. Nor, is it simply an expression of kindness; it is all of these combined and much more. It is a duty enjoined by Allaah and a source of purification for the individual and society as a whole.
He, Almighty, Says (what means): "Take from their wealth 'sadaqah' (Zakaat) in order to purify them and sanctify them with it." [Quran 9: 103]
Zakaat benefits the society in many ways. Here is an explanation of the far-reaching effects of it:
1. Zakaat purifies the individual and his wealth. The status of his wealth is increased with Allaah and in turn, he will be rewarded. When a person becomes liable for paying Zakaat, a certain percentage of his wealth should be distributed immediately in the correct manner, because at that point, the wealth which is to be distributed does not belong to him. If this wealth is retained, it spoils the status of all of his wealth.
2. Zakaat does not only purify the property of the one who gives it, it also purifies his heart from selfishness and greed. In return, it purifies the heart of the recipient from envy and jealousy, and it fosters in his heart good will and warm wishes toward the contributor. As a result, the rich and poor of society are bound together as a unit, working together and helping one another.
3. Zakaat decreases the sufferings of the needy and poor members of society, however, those in need should not depend on it completely.
4. Zakaat is an effective means of developing the spirit of social responsibility on the part of the well-to-do, and the feeling of security and belonging on the part of the underprivileged.
5. Zakaat is a clear manifestation of the spiritual and humanitarian interactions between the individual and society. It is a sound illustration of the fact that though Islam does not hinder private enterprise or condemn private possessions, it does not tolerate selfish and greedy control of wealth and property. It is an expression of the general philosophy of Islam which adopts a moderate and effective course between the Individual and Society.
In conclusion, we mention a calling by Allaah, Almighty (what means): "O You who believe! Shall I lead you to a bargain that will save you from grievous suffering [in this world and in the life to come)? You are to believe in Allaah and His Messenger and strive hard in Allaah's cause with your possessions and your lives: this is for your own good – if you had known it." [Qur'an, 61: 10-11]