Zakah: Qualifications to benefit by zakah

Q737 :You have mentioned on more than one occasion that zakah money may be paid only to eight classes of people in which you included the poor, the needy and those whose hearts are to be won over. Could you please explain what is meant by these three classes. How to differentiate the needy from the poor? Is it permissible to pay zakah money to people who wish to embrace Islam in order to encourage them to take that step?

A737 : Let me begin by giving a translation of the verse which enumerates the eight classes who may benefit by zakah. It may be rendered in English as follows : " Alms may be given only to the poor, the needy, officers in charge of zakah, those whose hearts are to be won over, and for the freeing of human beings from bondage, and for those who are overburdened with debts, and for the struggle in Allah's cause, and for (stranded) wayfarers. This is an ordinance from Allah; and Allah is all-knowing, wise." ( 9; 60). Scholars differ as to whether "the poor and the needy" are one class or two different classes of people. They also differ as to who is worse off: the poor or the needy? It is beyond the scope of this column to go into the details of these differences. It is sufficient to say that all sorts of poverty and all its degrees qualify the poor to benefit from zakah. The operative criterion which determines poverty is not how little a man has, but whether he has enough or not. If a person has an income from his work or from a pension or a building he lets out, but the income does not satisfy his own and his family's needs, then he qualifies as a poor person who is entitled to receive zakah. Basic needs include food and clothes for the person and his family as well as reasonable accommodation and furniture and the necessary tools for his trade and means of transport. In order to know for certain who qualifies to benefit from zakah under these two headings, it is useful to throw some light on the opposite state of being "rich." Scholars agree on the meaning of richness which makes one liable to pay out zakah. This sort of richness means that one owns a certain minimum of money in certain conditions. According to the Maliki and El-Shaf'ie and the Hanbali schools of thought, richness means owning what is enough for one's needs. He who does not need extra money to provide for his basic needs cannot be entitled to zakah, even if he does not own anything. Conversely, if he is in need, then he qualifies as poor or needy, even if he owns what may be considered a fair amount of money by many people. Imam El-Shaf'ie says : "A man may be rich if he owns only one dirham (the smallest currency unit at the time) and is able to earn, while another may have one thousand dirhams but may still be considered poor if he is unable to earn or if he has too many dependants." Thus, poverty means being in need while richness is the opposite case. It may be asked whether zakah money may be paid to someone who is able to work but prefers not to do so, because he feels that without work he may claim zakah. The answer, according to most schools of thought is that such a person cannot claim zakah and may not be paid any zakah money which is apportioned to the poor and needy. The prophet states very clearly : "Zakah may not be paid to anyone who is rich or to anyone who is strong and healthy." This pronouncement is restricted by another condition which is that the strong and healthy should also have a job to earn his living. If he cannot find work, then he may be paid from zakah, or, better still, he should be helped to find work. Muslim scholars have also specified that if a person who is able to work decides to spend all his time in worship, praying for much of the time and fasting as many days as he can, then he may not be paid from zakah. We are told clearly that to work in order to earn one's living is far better, in Allah's view, than voluntary worship, provided that one does not contravene the bounds of religion in his work. Islam does not approve of this type of full-time worship if it means that one becomes a burden to society or to others. On the other hand, if one seeks better education and cannot combine this with working for his living, then he may be paid from zakah what is enough for his needs until he finishes his studies. Such a student is given from zakah because the benefit of his education is not restricted to himself. The whole society benefits from it. People "whose hearts are to be won over" may be divided into several groups : 1. A person who, if given from zakah. may become a Muslim or may persuade his people to become Muslims. 2. A person who is hostile to Islam but, if given from zakah, he and others with him may keep quiet. 3. A newcomer to Islam, even if he is rich. The point here is that a newcomer may find certain difficulties. His family or his people may turn against him, and he may lose his job, or he may encounter other types of opposition. Financial assistance in such cases may go a long way to reassure him that he has made the right decision. 4. Some of the leading figures among the non-Muslims may be given from zakah in order to encourage others like them to become Muslims. 5. People who live in the border areas may also be given from zakah in order to encourage them to defend the borders, in case they are attacked by non-Muslims. Some scholars, including Imam El-Shaf'ie, are of the opinion that this class of people does not include non-Muslims. Other eminent scholars say that this class of people includes Muslims and non-Muslims alike. Quite a few scholars, over the ages, have been of the opinion that there is no longer any need to win over the heart of anyone. They argue that since Islam has established itself as a strong, firmly rooted religion, there is no longer any need to spend zakah money in order to make some people sympathetic to Islam. Other scholars who have a different view argue that the need to win the sympathy of certain people can be assessed at any particular time. It does not follow that there will always be such people to win over. This need varies according to the situation of the Muslim community. It is up to a Muslim ruler to decide, in his discretion, whether to utilize part of the zakah money in order to win over certain people. It is up to him also to decide not to give such money to any people who used to receive it under his predecessor. Zakah is paid to those of its beneficiaries who exist at any particular time. If one or more of the eight classes of beneficiaries does not exist at any particular time, then its share is not paid out. Withholding it does not constitute an invalidation of Allah's ruling. Indeed the need to win certain people over to Islam does not cease. Some scholars of the Maliki school of thought argue that such people are not given zakah money in order that they will help us, but to make Islam acceptable to them so that we help them save themselves. In other words, this is one of the means of calling people to Islam. Imam Al-Tabari points out that there are two reasons for paying out zakah. One is to remove a certain weakness of a Muslim and the other is to strengthen Islam. if zakah is paid for the latter purpose then it may be paid to rich and poor people alike. The recipients here are not given zakah money because they need it but because Islam needs their help.It is needless to say that only a Muslim ruler may decide to pay zakah money to this class of people. Such decision relates to the internal and the external policy of the Muslim state. It is possible, however, that an Islamic organization takes over such a responsibility in a situation where the government does not care about zakah or about Islam generally.

Our Dialogue ( Source : Arab News - Jeddah )