(A version of this article was carried by the Huffington Post)
Ramadan starts next week, which means it is time for me to cleanse my pocketbook. No, I’m not planning to embark on any shopping sprees during the Islamic month of fasting. But I do intend to spend a lot more money than I would in other months of the year.
At one point every year, Muslims are obliged to purify their wealth by calculating 2.5% of their assets – including money in bank accounts, shares, investments, pensions, gold, etc – and giving it to those less fortunate.
This is known as zakat, often loosely translated from Arabic as ‘charity’, which should go toward helping orphans and the poor, as well as assisting people in debt, suffering from illness or facing numerous other financial struggles. Zakat, one of the pillars of being Muslim, represents the minimum amount of charity that each individual is obliged to give as a virtuous human being who considers the welfare of others. In this sense, everyone is in a position to pay forward a standard amount of their wealth and everyone is credited for doing so whether affluent or not.
Like many Muslims, I determine my zakat at beginning of the month of Ramadan, and strive to pay it before the month ends. Ramadan is a great time to cleanse our wealth since we are already focused on purifying our bodies and thoughts. When reading the Quran, the significance of zakat appears to be equal to prayer as an expression of faith. The two are often mentioned simultaneously in the symmetrical rhythm of the Holy Book’s verses.
“It is righteousness to believe in God, the Last Day, the Angels, the Book, and the Prophets; to give of your substance, out of love for Him, to relatives, orphans, the needy, the traveller, those who ask [for help], and for freeing slaves; to be steadfast in prayer and practice regular charity…” Quran 2:177
In the past, if I offered a couple hundred dollars each year to charities I felt I was doing enough as a young, middle-class professional, with a number of financial commitments of my own. I did not follow any formula, and when I started to properly calculate zakat, I realised that I tended to give much less than I should.
The 2.5% minimum is a small enough sum not to place a major dent in your savings, but large enough to make a difference. For every $10,000 of your assets, for instance, you should filter out $250 each year to purify this wealth and give it to those in need.
So, if you have $50,000 in savings, the zakat you owe is $1,250, and if you have $100,000 you should pay no less than $2,500, and so on. The more wealth you acquire, the greater your responsibility becomes. Someone with $100 million must pay $2.5 million of it every year to charity.
There are rules in giving zakat. For instance, it is important to give priority to relatives and members of your community in need, which is why I will focus on giving my zakat in Egypt.
To understand the concept of zakat properly, you first must abandon the idea that the money in your bank account belongs to you. All of our money and possessions are temporary and in a sense function as tools of our worldly existence. Each of these tools belongs to God and He has entrusted us with these resources in order to examine how we will distribute, divide and share them. Once I embraced this concept, I understood why paying zakat is so crucial. It is God’s way of ensuring the adequate re-distribution of the wealth He has placed in our possession. It has the ability to balance disparities between people and possessions; as every single person has equal access to God in all moments, there should be no barrier preventing individual assets that belong to God from flowing between people.
I suppose it is something like the process of diffusion, which describes the spread of particles from regions of higher concentration to regions of lower concentration; zakat is a process that should become natural for a Muslim in order to promote a greater equilibrium in the world through a just distribution of wealth.
I like to think of humans as God’s agents or ambassadors on earth. We are here to make choices that represent Him and one of our foremost duties is to be very sure that the tools He bestows are continually distributed as blessings for others. So even if we have only a little savings, it is our duty to contribute our share to the grand formula.
Disparities in wealth distribution occur when too many of us take full ownership of our assets, sometimes taking on unsustainable debts in order to gratify our desires, which can skew the balance out of favour for those less fortunate.
Realising that the money in my possession belongs to God has helped me spend it more wisely and give more generously. It also has the power to change your motivation for earning money. As you become more successful and wealthy, you become an agent with a wider reach to re-distribute.
Other than zakat, which is obligatory, people can also offer voluntary alms known as sadaqah. Virtually every month of the past year I’ve been motivated to give sadaqah to help families struggling in Egypt, Yemen and Libya due to political instability, people devastated by a tsunami in Japan or the heart-breaking famine in Somalia.
Living in Dubai, I often come across young men separated from their families in Bangladesh, Indonesia, Pakistan or India who are struggling on very small wages to provide for families that, in many cases, they haven’t seen in years. If you stop and listen to their stories, you find many reasons to give generously.
Embracing Islam, which describes a state of mind in which a person lives in submission to God, has turned on my sensors and me made more aware of my duties toward my community. Being charitable has also shown me that the proverb ‘the more you give the more you get’ is absolutely true.
In the past year, I have given far more charity toward various causes than I did at any point in my life and yet it has not reduced my wealth in the least. When I sat down to calculate my zakat this week I was surprised to discover the amount I owe has nearly doubled compared with last year.
It is hard to describe how, but giving generously and with the right intention in no way diminishes your wealth. Somehow the wealth finds its way back to you in material and spiritual ways. Your money has greater baraka in it. The Arabic word meaning ‘blessing’, baraka implies that your money goes further; you sense that you waste less and save more.
In essence your assets are replenished through generosity. So even though the act of giving seems like a loss of something, the profits somehow find a way back to generous hands.
The parable of those who spend
of their substance in the way of Allah
is that of a grain of corn:
It grows seven ears, and each ear has a hundred grains.
Allah gives manifold increase to whom He pleases;
And Allah cares for all and He knows all things. (Qur’an 2:261)
I’ve learned how much power I have as an individual to make a difference in my life by establishing a direct relationship with God and being in tune with my community’s needs.
On several occasions, I have read that when we are handing someone charity, it first passes through the Hand of God before it reaches the recipient’s hand. I always imagine that when I give, it helps me do it with greater humility. Holding wealth truly is an immense blessing that comes with great responsibility and untold reward when we pass it along.
“By no means shall you attain righteousness, unless you give of that which you love.” (Quran 3:92)
You can calculate your zakat using this calculator.