Zakah: Remedy for Poverty in Islam

Islam looks upon poverty, as a dangerous social problem which puts man under trial dissuading him from his religion and compromising his dignity and character. It is a potential threat to the peace and stability of society. The objectives (maqasid) of Shari’ah in preserving faith, human soul, progeny, property and mind would not be fulfilled in the state of poverty. These objectives require the provision of basic human needs such as food, clothing, shelter and marriage so that people may not be pushed to cross the limits of religion and morality. Islam has enjoined upon the state as well as community to share the responsibility of eliminating poverty from society. The Qur’an and the Sunnah of the Prophet (peace be upon him), within the generality of the Message which came for all times and places, identify’ the ways and means by which this responsibility should be carried out. The economic philosophy of Islamic aims, in the first place, to eliminate poverty by providing the basic human needs, narrowing the gap between the rich and the poor, and developing the resources of the earth for  the  welfare of human  beings  for whom every thing in heaven and earth is made subservient. Within the boundaries of its economic philosophy, Islam has contrived many ways to cure the problem of poverty. Some of these are the responsibility of the state, others are to be fulfilled by the society and some are a shared obligation of both state and society. Before discussing zakah, it is useful to present some other means used by Islam to combat poverty because the role of zakah should be seen within the whole context of the Islamic solution.

a)     Role of the state

Islam enjoins upon the individual to earn his livelihood by labour. The Prophet (pbuh) says: “No one ever eats food better than that which he earns by the labour of his hands; the Prophet Dawood (AS) used to eat from the work of his hands.” It is incumbent upon the state to enable its citizens to find a suitable job for which they are qualified. The Prophet (pbuh) instructed a man from the Ansar of Madinah, who came begging for help, how to obtain an axe by which he could cut wood and earn living for his family. A modern Muslim state, is required to offer the opportunity of work to all its able persons by promoting economic development, and by educating and training people for the various vocations required in the labour market. Islam also enjoins upon the ruler to distribute equitably the returns of economic activities so that the wealth of the nation should not only rotate among the rich in society. Since the freedom of economic activity benefits the rich it has to be balanced by social justice. The state may achieve this objective through preferential treatment of the poor in its fiscal and economic policies as well as through deliberate investment in the poorer regions of the country. The Muslim world suffers from disproportionate distribution of wealth between the countries and within the same country, but Islam calls for minimising the gap to benefit the poorer sectors.

Islam also enjoins upon the state to prohibit all unfair dealings and those which harm society such as interest loans, selling liquor or drugs, hoarding of basic necessities, monopoly, cheating in transactions, etc. The state should protect rights of property, fulfillment of contracts and trusts, and legality of all dealings. It should punish anyone who usurps the rights of others by any means. Such a protection usually benefits the weaker members in society. On the other hand, the state is responsible for every minor or disabled who has no supporter or a needy person who does not get sustenance. The Prophet (pbuh) said on the occasion of the martyrdom of Ja’far b. Abi Talib who had left behind small children: “I am their guardian in this world and in the Hereafter. The ruler is the guardian of those who have no supporter.” Al-Bukhari narrated the Prophet’s (pbuh) tradition: “I am more responsible for a believer than he for himself, so that who dies in debt and left no property to cover his debt it falls upon me to meet his obligation.” Since Islam aims at fulfilling the basic needs of the individual it is the duty of the ruler to impose extra charges upon the rich if the zakah alone was not enough to meet that objective. Imam Al-Tirmidhi transmitted the tradition of the Prophet (pbuh) which says: “Verily there are rights on wealth other than the zakah.” Then the Prophet recited the verse in the Qur’an, “It is not righteousness that ye turn your faces towards East or West but it is righteousness to believe in Allah, and the Last Day, and the angels, and the Book, and the Messengers, and to spend of your substance, out of love for Him, for your kin, for orphans, for the needy, for the wayfarer, for those who ask, and for the ransom of slaves; to be steadfast in prayer, and give zakah, to fulfill the contracts which ye have made, and to be firm and patient,..” 12:177]. Ibn Hazm, the famous jurist, asserted this point: “It is the duty of the rich in all countries to look after the poor. The Imam had to impose that on them if the zakah was not enough to sustain the poor.” Imam Al-Juwaini said: if it so happened that with all possible efforts zakah could not do away with the needs of the poor, then it is the duty of the Imam to take care of the remaining needy as his first priority because the whole world cannot balance the harm done to one poor man from amongst the Muslims.”

b)  Role of society

Islam puts more emphasis on the role of society in easing poverty than on the role of the state, because it desires it to be a form of voluntary worship that cements the brotherly relations between the believers and because society is closer to the needy than the government. With this end in view, Islam instructs the Muslim to take care of his close relatives. The Prophet (pbuh) says: “The hand of the giver is the upper one, and start with your dependents: your mother, father, sisters and brothers, then the nearest of kin.” Imam Abu Hanifah made it obligatory on the Muslim to support the needy among his close relatives even if they were non-believers. It is allowed for the ruler to fix a certain amount of money on a man who refuses to support his needy relatives, especially his parents and minor sisters and brothers. The regulations of inheritance are meant to distribute, wealth among a wide circle of relatives. Islam takes special care of the relatives, neighbours and the hungry. The Prophet (pbuh) recommended the help of the neighbour so many times that his companions thought that he would allow him to have a share in the inheritance of his rich neighbour. As for the hungry, the Prophet (pbuh) warns that “If one person starves over night, all the people in that locality are responsible that they have abandoned the contract of Allah. However, the major way by which Islam attempts to eradicate poverty from the society is through zakah because it targets the poor, in the first place, and it is paid by a wide section of people who own the nisab.


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