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Zakah — The Spiritual Dimension

I once had the chance to stay overnight at a chalet that was erected over a shallow creek. It was a surreal and unique experience, to say the least. During the night, I could hear the gentle, rippling swish of the sea waves beneath me. As they gently struck the pillars on which the chalet was constructed, our small, wooden abode for the night would shake just a little.

It was a little scary, knowing that the sea waves could become stronger at any time, and though the chalet was above very shallow water, it was still a delicate structure erected atop metallic pillars. It did not stand a chance before the stronger forces of nature!

What can we conclude from this analogy? For one, that the strength and resilience of pillars are extremely important for the sturdiness and stability of any structure that is resting upon them. Had even one of the pillars been weak or broken, the chalet could have tumbled down at the slightest push!

Islam’s 3rd Pillar: Systematic Annual Charity

In multiple authentic narrations, Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) has listed the 5 pillars of Islam in chronological order. The first is tawheed, monotheism, or belief in only one god, and it is the most foundational pillar of Islam. Tawheed is based almost entirely upon what a person firmly believes in their heart about Allah.

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This belief acts as the base of their perceptions about the purpose of this worldly life, and their ultimate destination after death. It is the most important pillar, on which all the other 5 pillars are based, and whose essence they practically display and sustain.

The second pillar is that of establishing salah, or the 5 daily obligatory prayers, which have to be performed within their designated times. This pillar is the most obvious demonstration of a person’s Islamic belief. It is the single most definitive outward action that differentiates believers from non-believers, and hence it comes second in the chronological order.

The third pillar of Islam, which follows that of salah not just in the ahadith narrated from Prophet Muhammad, but also at several places in the Quran — is that of zakah. Zakah is obligatory annual charity that a Muslim has to pay to other needy Muslims in their own towns or countries. It becomes due only after the passage of one lunar year, upon a certain threshold value of wealth/assets, and amounts to a portion of 2.5% of the asset’s current value.

In an ideal Islamic state or government, zakah is collected from all Muslims residents who qualify to pay it, by government officials appointed for this job. They collect the zakah from all around the city/town and bring it to one place, which was known historically as “Bait al Maal”, or treasury. From here, it is distributed systematically and methodically amongst needy Muslims in the area.

An Islamic system of zakah distribution includes the process of verifying the validity of financial claims made by those who approach the Bait Al Maal with appeals for receiving zakah money. Their claims to be deserving of it due to straitness or other hardship, are checked, investigated, and authenticated by state employees/officials. In addition, those unknown but deserving recipients of zakah, who hide their neediness from the public eye out of shyness or shame, are also sought and helped by the Islamic government.

This system works like clockwork in a Muslim town or state, to make sure that not a single needy person ever goes without food, shelter, basic healthcare, or community support.

The Spiritual Side of Zakah

One thing important to note about zakah, is that it is the third pillar of Islam that immediately follows the first two foundational pillars. That is, right after one’s belief in, and the daily ritualistic worship of Allah, comes the obligation of helping one’s brethren in faith who are closest in physical proximity. It entails sacrificing a portion of one’s wealth to alleviate the suffering of one’s hard-up brothers and sisters in faith. This creates stronger community bonds, removes hardships, and promotes brotherhood and compassion in the community.

After the belief in a Muslim’s heart, and obligatory worship of Allah on a daily basis, therefore, the most significant spiritual aspect of Islam involves mutual relationships: the ties of brotherhood based purely on faith.

Even though this act of worship is performed just once a year, zakah is still a kind of strong and potent spiritual “tonic” that gives a Muslim a special kind of “high” as soon as they give some of their money to another Muslim brother or sister. No other kind of spending can beat the feeling that they experience after they have paid their zakah!

Conclusion: Each Pillar Counts!

Coming back to the analogy of the chalet, one can hypothesize about the order of construction of its pillars in order to throw further light upon the importance of laying the foundation of Islam.

The first pillar is symbolic of the commencement of the construction of a forthcoming structure. It is vital, because the other pillars will be based upon its design, and erected close around it. Each subsequent pillar will serve to fortify not just the structure of the chalet on top, but also work in conjunction with the other pillars to uphold its foundation and prevent it from collapsing. Each pillar shares the burden of the others.

Zakah might just be a simple outward action of an annual transfer of money via hands or bank accounts, but if this simple “transactional” act of worship is based on pure and sincere faith, it goes a long way in fortifying the other pillars of Islam for a Muslim.

Zakah makes their income and provision blessed, pure and prone to rapid growth. It strengthens their belief in the oneness of Allah, purifies their hearts from sins, makes their bodies healthier and stronger (due to purification of the food that they are eating), and allows them to ably fulfill the remaining two pillars of Islam: Hajj and Ramadan fasting.

Zakah might be discharged just once a year, but its spiritual “ripple effects” are long-term and permanent!