123. Why should we give alms to the poor?

In Exodus 23 verses 10-11 God’s people were instructed to carry out their farming and agriculture with a view to providing for the poor. ‘Plant and harvest your crops for six years, but let the land be renewed and lie uncultivated during the seventh year. Then let the poor among you harvest whatever grows on its own. Leave the rest for the wild animals to eat. The same applies to your vineyards and olive groves.’ In Deuteronomy chapter 15 verses 7-11 it is written: ‘If anyone is poor among your fellow Israelites in any of the towns of the land the LORD your God is giving you, do not be hardhearted or tight-fisted toward them. Rather, be open-handed and freely lend them whatever they need. Be careful not to harbour this wicked thought: ‘The seventh year, the year for cancelling debts, is near,’ so that you do not show ill will toward the needy among your fellow Israelites and give them nothing. They may then appeal to the LORD against you, and you will be found guilty of sin. Give generously to them and do so without a grudging heart; then because of this the LORD your God will bless you in all your work and in everything you put your hand to. There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore I command you to be open-handed toward your fellow Israelites who are poor and needy in your land.’

A certain ruler asked him, ‘Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ ‘Why do you call me good?’ Jesus answered ‘No one is good—except God alone. You know the commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery, you shall not murder, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, honour your father and mother’.’ ‘All these I have kept since I was a boy,’ he said. When Jesus heard this, he said to him, ‘You still lack one thing. Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.’ When he heard this, he became very sad, because he was very wealthy. Jesus looked at him and said, ‘How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God! Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.’

In Christian teaching God is the father of all mankind. As the Father of all of us He has a caring and compassionate heart for everyone especially the poor. The teaching of the Bible is clear. The rich need the poor to humble themselves. Many times in the Old Testament the prophets complain that God had to send His people off into captivity because they did not show compassion to the poor. God reprimands His people about the hardness of their hearts and the desperate need of the poor. In the hadith 417 the Prophet said: ‘The most meritorious form of Almsgiving is the effort to help a poor man, made in secret, by one who is himself of little means.’ (Ahmad). And then in hadith 418 it states; ‘Seven will Allâh shade on the day when there will be no shade but the shade of His Throne: one of them is a man who offers alms without his left hand knowing what his right hand has given.’ (Bukhari, Muslim). The blessing of giving is described in the hadith 419: ‘Blessed is the servant who spends out of the wealth he has earned without sin.’ (Ibn Adi, Bazzar).

Zakāt (Arabic: زكاة [zæˈkæʃ], means ‘that which purifies’ or ‘alms’), is the giving of a fixed portion of one’s wealth to charity, generally to the poor and needy. It is one of the Five Pillars of Islâm. Zakat, a practice initiated by the Islâmic prophet Muhammad, has played an important role throughout Islâmic history. Initially, Muhammad instituted zakat as a voluntary, individual offering, but during his lifetime certain forms of zakat have been declared obligatory. The caliph Abū Bakr, believed by Sunni Muslims to be Muhammad’s successor, was the first to institute a statutory zakat system. The third caliph, Uthman ibn Affan (who reigned from 644–656) significantly altered the zakat collection protocol, by decreeing that only ‘apparent’ wealth was taxable, which had the effect of limiting zakat to mostly being paid on agricultural land and produce. Ultimately, the practice of state-administered zakat was very short-lived, ending with the reign of Umar bin Abdul Aziz from 717–720 A.D.

There are eight categories of people (asnaf) who qualify to receive zakat funds, according to the Qur’an:

• Those living in absolute poverty (Al-Fuqarā’)

• Those who were restrained because they cannot meet their basic needs (Al-Masākīn)

• The zakat collectors themselves (Al-Āmilīna ‘Alaihā)

• Non-Muslims who are sympathetic to Islâm or wish to convert to Islâm (Al-Mu’allafatu Qulūbuhum)

• People whom one is attempting to free from slavery or bondage. Also includes paying ransom or blood money (Diyya). (Fir-Riqāb)

• Those who have incurred overwhelming debts while attempting to satisfy their basic needs (Al-Ghārimīn)

• Those working in God’s way (Fī Sabīlillāh)

• Children of the street / Travellers (Ibnus-Sabīl)

According to the Hadith, the family of Muhammad should not consume any zakat. Zakat also should not be given to one’s own parents, grandparents, children, grandchildren, or spouses. It is also forbidden to disburse zakat funds into investments instead of just straight to those who are in need. Some scholars disagree whether the poor that qualify should include non-Muslims. Some state that zakat may be paid to non-Muslims, but only after the needs of Muslims have been met. Fi Sabillillah is the most prominent asnaf in Southeast Asian Muslim societies, where it is broadly construed to include funding missionary work, Qur’anic schools and anything else that serves the community (ummah) in general.