City of Brass

This is a guest post by Aamer H. Jamali.

By now, the regular reader of this space knows that Ramadaan is about a lot more than fasting. Prayers, purity, and the reading of the Quran all play a role. But Ramadan is also about another of the “pillars” of Islam: Zakaat (alms to the poor).

The obligatory zakaat is 2.5% of one’s wealth. While not mandated to be given during Ramadaan, it is traditionally given during this time due to teachings that acts of worship acquire a greater significance during this month. Zakaat is considered an actual act of worship (rather than just a good a deed) and its importance is underscored regularly in the Holy Quran when it is equated with regular prayers:

“And they were commanded not, but that they should worship Allâh, and worship none but Him Alone (abstaining from ascribing partners to Him), and perform Salat [prayers] and give Zakaat: and that is the righteous religion” (98:5)

There are very few who can argue with the moral favorability of donation of a portion of one’s wealth to those less fortunate. This sentiment is almost universal throughout the world’s religions and belief systems. What makes this system unique, however, is the individual mandate (to borrow an oft used term). This is also what separates Zakaat (alms) from sadaqah (charity). While Zakaat is a required giving of 2.5% of one’s wealth in alms to the poor, sadaqah represents a voluntary contribution of any amount (presumably after the 2.5% has been reached) to the poor. Both are considered highly favorable actions, while only one (zakaat) is considered an act of worship and a pillar of faith.

While there may be no doubt that giving alms is a good thing to do, and even arguably better if not mandated, the reasons behind requiring one to give alms (and a specific amount at that) are less clear.

After all, Muslims consider Allah to be the giver (and taker-away) of all wealth. “If He has given me this wealth”, the reasoning goes, “He wanted me to have it! If He wanted someone else to have it, He would have given it to them!” It is easy to fall prey to this sort of logic. If Allah gave me my wealth, and then asks for me to give 2.5% back… Why didn’t he just give me 2.5% less to begin with? This sort of rationalization of Allah as “redistributer-in-chief” ignores a fundamental human truth; and by ignoring it simultaneously provides its greatest support: It is really difficult to part with money. Spending money is perhaps the hardest single act in human nature. Definitely harder than praying five times a day, probably harder than fasting for thirty days, and some would say harder than putting ones’ self in harm’s way (which people routinely do to make money). In the Holy Quran, spending on alms or charity is described metaphorically as a steep uphill road:

“And shown him the two ways (good and evil)? But he has made no effort to pass on the path that is steep. And what will make you know the path that is steep? (It is) Freeing a neck. Or giving food in a day of hunger. To an orphan near of kin. Or to a poor person afflicted with misery.” (90:11-16)

Perhaps, then, the individual mandate serves as a test. On the honor system, one is simply required to give 2.5% of one’s wealth to charity. The first stage of the test seems easy enough; will you agree to do it? The subsequent stages become harder. How does one define one’s wealth? Shall we use, for example, our yearly income? Net or gross? Do we include home equity? What about other investments? Retirement funds? College savings? From here it gets even harder: what is charity? If my brother wants to buy a house and makes less money than me, does that make him “less fortunate” and worthy of zakaat? Is it better to give to Muslims or non-Muslims? Is tuition to church-sponsored daycare appropriate? Various scholars and schools of thoughts exist as to each of these questions (and many more), but ultimately, as with most matters of faith the answer is left to each individual to make for himself.

There is no zakaat IRS, and no zakaat audits. I have never heard of someone being struck by lightning after feeding the hungry with only 2% of their income. The only deterrent to cheating is the faith that somehow, Allah is watching:

“He says (boastfully): “I have spent wealth in abundance!” Thinks he that none sees him?” (90:6-7)

The penalty for skimping on one’s zakaat is described as severe in various ahadeeth, and the “ungiven” zakaat is said to poison the remainder of one’s wealth, rendering it less bountiful. However, the benefit to giving zakaat is described in the Holy Quran:

“The likeness of those who spend their wealth in the Way of Allâh, is as the likeness of a grain (of corn); it grows seven ears, and each ear has a hundred grains. Allâh gives manifold increase to whom He pleases. And Allâh is All-Sufficient for His creatures’ needs, All-Knower.” (2:261)

It is made clear that the giving of zakaat is rewarded with wealth over and above that which was given. In the most basic terms, then, Zakaat can be considered an investment. As with all investments, it needs to be made with a careful eye to the expected rate of return (in this case, high), balanced with the trustworthiness of the entity making the claims (in this case, Allah). The act of giving zakaat then, forces one to take a fundamental test of faith: how much do you trust Allah?

On the back of every US dollar bill is printed in bold letters “In God We Trust”. Think about that statement. Really think about it. Let it encompass you. Internalize it. Do you believe it? If so, give that dollar away, with faith, confidence, and a clean heart. Then remember the other Latin phrase on the back of that bill “Annuit Coeptis”: He approves of your undertaking.

Aamer H. Jamali, MD, FACC is a cardiologist in Los Angeles.

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