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Definition of Poverty

Scholars gave different definitions to the two types of poor persons: fuqara and masakin, who occur at the beginning of the Qur’anic verse mentioning those who deserve the payment of zakah. “Alms are for the poor and the needy, and those employed to administer (the funds), for those whose hearts have been (recently) reconciled (to Truth), for those in bondage and in debt, in the cause of Allah, and for the wayfarer. (This is it) ordained by Allah. And Allah is full of knowledge and wisdom” [9:60]. Abu Yusuf, disciple of Abu Hanifah, and Ibn al-Qasim, companion of Malim, said that they [fuqara and masakeen] are the same; the majority of ulema said they are two types for one category that is the needy. Imam al-Tabari said; “faqir is the needy who does not lower himself by asking people’s help, and miskeen is the needy who does ask.” Shaikh al-Qaradawi summarised those who deserve zakah from fuqara and masakin in three categories:

  1. One who has no property and, no source of income.
  2. One who has some property or income but it is less than half of his needs.
  3. One who has some property or income which covers half of his needs but does not meet all his needs.

The Malikites and Hanbalites speak about the needs of poor in terms of one year while the Shafi’ites speak in term of one’s whole life.


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We may conclude from the above sayings that poverty is relative and differs according to the conditions in societies. However, there are different levels of poor persons, those who have a little and those who have nothing. This conclusion is not different from that reached by international organisations, but the Muslim scholars, include in the “needs” of the poor person items like; lodging, clothing, domestic animal to carry him and his belongings, a servant if his status justifies that, books... That means the tine of poverty in the ulema’s thinking is much higher than the amount given by international agencies.

The zakah regulations adopted in some Muslim countries use simple and flexible definitions of those who deserve zakah as fuqara and masakin. The zakah law in Sudan defines fuqara as those “who do not possess their food for one year, and in the case of the family supporter that who does not have enough income to support his family. It includes the full-time student who cannot meet the expenses of his study,” and defines al-masakin as “the needy who do not get what is enough for their nutrition, that includes the disabled, the sick who does not have the expenses of medicine and the victims of natural disasters.” The Libyan zakah law of 1971 says: “faqir means that who does not possess his nutrition for one year, and miskeen is the one who does not possess anything.” The Pakistani law did not seek a literal definition but used the general sense to say that the “zakah fund” shall be utilised for the following purposes, namely:

“Assistance to the needy, the indigent and the poor, particularly orphans and widows, the handicapped and the disabled, eligible to receive zakah under Shari’ah, for their subsistence or rehabilitation,..” It is clear from the reports of the Zakah House in Kuwait that their financial assistance given in the name of fuqara and masakin goes to orphans, widows, the old, the sick, the families of jailed or missing guardians, poor students and those with low income. Nasir Bank of Egypt, in distributing zakah for the poor, follows a similar approach.

It seems from the previous examples that the definitions of faqir and miskeen do not present any practical problem for the distributors of zakah. As it is spent by people living in the same locality they know the conditions of people around them and they can estimate the basic necessities according to the standard of living in the region. It is understandable that those necessities in a community like Sudan or Pakistan will be different from that of Kuwait. It also seems logical that emphasis should be more on the poorest of the poor in each society.

 

Source: Poverty Alleviation in Pakistan: Present Scenario and Future Strategy, Mohibul Haq Sahibzada. Republished with permission.