Alms and Charity: Virtues of Zakat: Part 21

Alms and Charity: Virtues of Zakat: Part 21



In normal circumstances, zakat should be given to a person in debt, irrespective of the person’s prior wealth. Although in one way, debtors can actually be classified among the poor and destitute, the main difference is that their unfortunate state is presumably only temporary. By declaring, “Charity is not permissible for the rich, except for the following five: A warrior in the way of God, a zakat collector, a debtor, a person who buys the charity collected as zakat, and a rich person who receives from a poor the gift that was given to him as zakat,” the Prophet has pronounced the eligibility for zakat of a debtor, even if he is rich. On the account of Abu Said al-Hudri, a Companion during the time of the Noble Messenger had bought fruit, which was destroyed before he could offer their payment. Upon hearing this, the Prophet advised the others to lend him financial support. After the amassed total fell short of the required amount, the Prophet said to the creditors, “Take from what there is, for there is no more,” insisting on some additional understanding and compromise on their behalf. Falling into debt must never be seen as a method of receiving zakat or as a pretext for escaping it,  practices strongly condemned by the Prophet and certainly subject to divine fury. The people declared by Islam as being eligible for zakat, in this case, are not those who are penalized for their avarice, but rather those who are going through rough patches while leading a planned and moderate life. The bottom line is that life is transient, man is expected to behave responsibly, and errors perpetrated in this fleeting life may lead to a devastating scenario on the Day of Judgment.


In line with the various connotations, the Arabic term may suggest, “fi sabilillah” is basically the commitment to put aside all personal duties and dedicate one’s entire time to spend in the way of God. Initially, this involves seeking and learning the knowledge that brings happiness in this life and in the hereafter, and in time, may also require the removal of impediments that stand in the way of spreading God’s name to all corners of the world. It is exactly for this reason that a group courageously taking such an immense task is entitled to zakat, thereby encompassing the broader meaning of the term jihad, as all kinds of struggle offered with the sole aim of pleasing God.

Analyzing the issue from the perspective of the Prophetic Era, the Ashab al-Suffa (Companions that had dedicated their entire time to the pursuit of knowledge), whose numbers reached up to 400, throw more light on the issue as exemplary models, in terms of the duty they had accomplished. Enduring a variety of difficulties, they nevertheless remained incessantly alongside the Prophet, eager to realize his very command and imbibe from his pearls of wisdom. Having devoted themselves solely in this direction, they frequently suffered hunger, even facing, on occasions, the threat of falling unconscious. Abu Hurayra, a heroic example of this devotion, responded to certain criticisms that came in his direction by simply stating, “My brothers complain that I narrate too many hadiths. However, while my Ansar brothers (Medinan Muslims) were busy cultivating their lands, and my Muhajir brothers (Meccan Muslims) were engaged in trade, me and others alike were incessantly by the side of the Prophet, memorizing his words, “At the risk of fainting from hunger.” This illustrates the extent of the dedication and consequent hardship which devout followers encountered for the sake of serving the Qur’an and the Sunna—and also exemplifies the different manner in which believers struggled to support Islam. Of course, the Qur’an is far from quiet on such sacrifices, eternalizing their earnest devotions as follows, in a verse which was also critical to some of the earlier discussions:

Alms are for the poor who are restrained in the cause of God, unable to travel in the land. The ignorant man counts them among the wealthy because of their restraint. But you will know them by their appearance. They never beg people with importunity. And whatever good things you spend, surely God knows them well. (Baqara 2:273)

Despite the difficulties they constantly faced, these Companions would not divulge their hardships, causing others to overlook them when they identified people in no need. Even though there still were a limited number of individuals who might have had a fairly good idea of their dire situation, it was impossible to know the full depth of suffering they concealed to establish the faith of Islam. To cut a long story short, the following account provides an excellent example by which to crystallize this description.

Said ibn Musayyab, one of the forerunners of the Tabiun generation (the praised generation who were acquainted with the Companions, though they did not see the Noble Prophet himself) who was the son-in-law of Abu Hurayra, tells the following story about his father-in-law, as the elder walking around gleefully in a linen robe:

Plunged in deep thought, he (Abu Hurayra) then turned to himself, muttering “Get over yourself, Abu Hurayra! You seem to have long forgotten the days when you would collapse from hunger and children would start treading on you, and others would hasten to you, conceiving it as an epileptic fit. Nobody would understand, bar the Prophet (upon whom be peace) and Jafar ibn Abi Talib, who would say ‘Come Abu Hurayra!’ whereupon you would tag along with them. How many times you entered the home of the Honorable Prophet, satisfying your hunger with milk, presented by him!”

Abu Hurayra, in fact, could not pursue anything else, conceiving this as the only path to revive one’s world and reach the eternal abode. Abu Hurayra’s desire and sensitivity in running to the need of the Prophet, and in memorizing every single word he uttered, was equally matched by his vigor in joining the armed forces, when required, where he confidently assumed the front ranks. Similarly, Abu Lubaba, and many others displayed the same attitude.

Thus it was for the likes of these exemplary figures, that divine glorification was revealed. As conveyed, there were more than 100 Companions who, while prostrating in salat (prayer), would hold fast to their insufficient clothes to prevent exposure of their private areas. As a matter of fact, all possessions and wealth had been abandoned in migrating from Mecca to Medina for the sake of God. The Prophet (upon whom be peace) nurtured a unique sensitivity for his Companions, and he would give them everything that came his way; and yet, especially in the early years of the faith, it still fell short of covering even their basic needs. He himself would endure days of starvation, to the point where he even tied a rock around his stomach to diminish his own feeling of hunger—and yet his soft heart could not bear the hunger of his Companions. So while he lived a life well below the standards of those around him,  he displayed an unmatched sensitivity to the requirements of others.

Through his efforts, Abu Hurayra achieved such proximity to the Messenger that more often than not, he would refer to the Prophet as his Khalil(Confidant), such that he would begin his explanations by saying, “My Confidant told me…” Or, “I went next to my Confidant.” Or, “I conversed with my Confidant…” and so on. By using this term, Abu Hurayra alluded to the ache and longing he experienced whenever he was away from the presence of the Prophet. In one of his many visits to the Prophet, he witnessed him offering salat while seated, showing signs of agony and distress. Immediately after the salat was finished, Abu Hurayra asked the Prophet why he offered his prayer sitting, only to receive this response: “Hunger; O Abu Hurayra!” Abu Hurayra, having witnessed such a heartbreaking scene, broke down in tears and the duty of consolation was, again, left to the Prophet, who uttered these words of gentle comfort: “Don’t cry, Abu Hurayra, because surely, the least torment on the Day of Judgment will befall the starved who have indeed already suffered its hardships.”

Such was the attitude displayed by this great “Confidant.” While the Prophet endured a variety of hardships, it would obviously have been utterly inconceivable for Abu Hurayra and the other 400 friends – the Ashab al-Suffa – to opt for lives of pompous luxury. Affirming their faith in God granted them such an immense maturity that they were constantly on the lookout for opportunities where they could lend their services. So even while they lacked the basic necessities of the day—a horse to ride, a saddle, a flask to carry water in, or a loaf of bread, for example—they would still come to the Prophet, asking for opportunities by which they could serve in God’s cause and thus vehemently insisting, “Provide us with means, O Messenger!” Evidently, the Companions always seeking additional opportunities by which they could support the growth of their faith community and offer themselves increasingly in the name of God. Of course, understanding the depth of service of his close Companions, the Honorable Prophet would give them support and suggestions, as well as anything material he could provide, in order to increase their benefits before God. On the sad occasions when he had nothing left to give, and he was starving himself, he would suffer the unparalleled and additional agony of having to turn back a Muslim who was willing to do more for his faith but simply had nothing more to offer. The Qur’an’s depiction of the preparations in the lead-up to the Tabuk campaign draws attention to this profound and moving situation:

Nor (is there any blame) on those who came to you, to be provided with mounts, and when you said to them, “I am unable to provide you with mounts.” They returned with tears streaming from their eyes, grieving that they could find no means to contribute. (Tawba 9:92)

As mentioned earlier, it is unimaginable in any healthy community for the rich to indulge in luxury while there are those who, out of insufficient means, are deserted to their own starvation and despair. Therefore, mobilizing all financial means towards those who have dedicated their entire lives for a noble cause—and who shed tears not for their own discomfort, but only for their failures in finding the necessary means to give more—would ultimately revive their vanished hopes, instigating an immensely efficacious movement by which the rewards of overwhelming sacrifice would be jointly shared—and enjoyed—by all the benefactors. Within the broadest sense of the term, the invaluable groundwork would thus be laid for talented students and followers, germinating in them an enormous eagerness to become passionate servants in God’s way, and upholders of universal ethics. This is, after all, the essence and vision of Islam.


On the word of the Qur’an, the last group of recipients which is identified is that of wayfarers— individuals who become needy during travel, even if they are essentially rich back home. It has virtually become impossible, especially today, to avoid traveling, whether it be for work or to spread the word of Islam to all the ends of the world. The quest to travel in order to serve in God’s way;  to provide a righteous example of  faith in parts of  the world with little or no exposure to Islam; or to resettle in different communities in order to directly invite others to Islam is, in effect, an excellent motive to establish funds, in concordance with the Qur’anic directive to accommodate the needs of travelers and those who lend their services to the mission of God.

This command is simultaneously a verification of how Islam attends to a person’s financial requirements while also decreeing the spread of good and the purge of evil—for including these altruistic souls as recipients of zakat allays their financial concerns and saves them from lagging behind in devoting their lives to the search for thirsty hearts eager to be quenched with the nectar of Truth.

The Messenger of God enunciated the rich among those who may occasionally be eligible to receive zakat while traveling (and thus in need of resources).17 The mention of travelers in the hadith is simply an elaboration of the Qur’anic command in relation to wayfarers. Therefore, though a person may possess enough wealth to donate zakat, he may also be eligible as a recipient, provided that he is in need during travels.


The essential aim of zakat is to cure all social diseases that stem from inequality in the distribution of wealth and, ultimately, create a tightly knit community resembling a robust building. Evidently, there exist certain institutions which are aimed at serving the exact purpose for which zakat is intended, and these tend to be well known within a community. Even though these institutions have technically not been mentioned among the other categories of recipients, they do receive zakat owing to their particular social aims and functions. These institutions, which are formed around the core concept of charity, have the power to reach out to the deprived, to ease their lives and, as discussed above, help avoid or discourage potential social strife.

In the words of the Prophet (upon whom be peace), Muslim society is like one body where all parts join the agony of a single limb; viewed from this angle, reviving one certain part of society is commensurable to breathing new life into the entire organism. Espousing this kind of an impetus, each member of society is expected to become active. Actualizing God’s will in all parts of society will, in effect, terminate theft and other crimes connected to financial instability, graciously giving the community a brand new lease on life. While charity and aid foundations, scholarship funds and orphanages may, at first, give the impression of being excluded from the eight groups delineated by the Qur’an, they each fundamentally relate and encompass one or more of the specified recipient groups. The dictates of the Qur’an, in effect, are both general and unrestricted—the essence of a vibrant and comprehensive system of ordinances for life. Therefore, conditions like poverty, traveling, being in debt, or striving in the way of God are inherently deemed to generate the need for assistance, so that individuals in such conditions clearly achieve eligibility for zakat, and organizations which provide such targeted assistance must receive available funds in order to deliver the appropriate relief.

Illat, in Islamic terminology, means the basic reason for determining the permissibility or the impermissibility of action, and it constitutes a crucial foundation of Islamic jurisprudence. Recall that as far as the muallafa al-qulub are concerned, they receive zakat as long as, or whenever and wherever, they exist and there is a need for warming their hearts towards Islam. The situation is similar for wayfarers, as discussed above; namely, zakat is only given to such a group as long as it exists—that is, as long as individuals fitting this description can be identified. Therefore, looking from this perspective, we can say that the very existence of institutions or foundations which serve the needs of any of the individuals defined, and which have as their primary intent and purpose the support of these groups, is sufficient reason for their entitlement to zakat.

No Comments

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.