Don’t Violate the Rights of the Poor: A Guide to Doing Zakat Right

Muslims often pay their Zakat in Ramadan. The holy month is a sanctuary, in which good deeds and bad deeds alike weigh immeasurably more heavily. Zakat, Islam’s obligatory alms, demands that anyone with sufficient wealth must discharge a portion of it as a form of purification. It is a khass (specific) command, separate to the general encouragement to give in charity. This means that, like Salat (prayer), Hajj (pilgrimage), and Sawm (fasting), that the act of worship is only valid if carried out in its original form. By contrast, a general command, like that to remember God, for example, would be fulfilled if someone remembered Him even in a language unknown to the early Muslims.

The poor are entitled to our Zakat. And God Himself, Glory Be to Him, is the trustee of this entitlement. There are now online resources that make it much easier to correctly carry out this sacred obligation, and I will discuss them here. But it is critical that we first examine the problem so that we can guard against it as we all do our best to obey our Lord.

In Surah Tawbah 9:60, God states:

Zakat is for the poor, the destitute, those who collect it, reconciling people´s hearts, freeing slaves, those in debt, spending in the Way o­f Allah, and travelers. It is a legal obligation from Allah. Allah is All-Knowing, All-Wise.[1]

These categories have been universally understood since the earliest Muslims. Certainly, some of them, like the manumission of slaves, are hardly applicable today. It is not analogous to taxation, either, for Zakat even if collected by the ruler is to be given to its rightful recipients; it cannot be used as a source of government funding. Zakat is a sacred duty, commanded of Muslims throughout the Qur’an right next to Salat itself, which speaks to how absolutely critical it is to Islam. In modern times, some politically motivated individuals have come up with an alternative definition of Zakat. Unfortunately, they have broadcast this re-interpretation so widely that many well-intentioned Muslims and their organizations have assumed it to be true, and as a result Zakat has not gone to the right people.

The second-last category of Zakat in the verse, “in the Way of Allah”, might seem vague at first glance, especially in translation. In reality it has specific meanings: hajjis (pilgrims), the temporarily disenfranchised, and defending the frontiers of historic Islam. It has now been redefined as a metaphor for any well-intentioned project. It is true that any good deed is an act of worship, with the right intention, but it is a mockery of Islam to suggest that for 1400 years the correct interpretation eluded everyone, including the Companions and the Saints, only to be discovered in the 20th century. After all, if “the Way of Allah” was a catch-all for all good deeds, the poor, slaves, debtors, and the like would not be singled out separately as valid recipients, since they would have already been covered by “the Way of Allah”.

Some of these new interpretations are particularly shocking. Yesterday, I received an email from a political organization urging readers to take advantage of the sacred Night of Power, in which all worship is amplified, to donate to them as Zakat. A few days ago, I discovered that a Hollywood-based lobbyist group that largely runs publicity events with celebrities claims Zakat eligibility – in fact, they claim that their events are the modern equivalent to the command to ‘free slaves ’! A research organization claims that its articles qualify for Zakat, as did a Muslim magazine until recently. Another self-proclaimed “Zakat eligible” organization turns out to be an affiliate of the syncretic American religion ‘The Nation of Islam’. The list goes on.

All of these rest on a misunderstanding. Such efforts and nonprofits may well merit your sadaqa (charity), and you are free to send your money to them for this reason. However, they do not qualify as Zakat. The Hanafis say that someone who mistakenly pays Zakat to a person who later turned out to be ineligible, such as one who pretended to be poor, the Zakat does not need to be made up. But what about someone who paid Zakat in a completely invalid way? It may have to be made up.

Even if an organization helps the groups of people who are listed in the Qur’an, you have to make sure that the money is going directly to those people, rather than to the organization’s general fund. It can definitely seem scary and daunting, but thankfully, there are now some easy solutions to this problem.

How Do We Pay Zakat, the Right Way?

There are many refugees, poor Muslims, debtors, and others who find themselves in dire straits, particularly in these days of pandemic, not only abroad but here in the West as well. God has ordained that these people receive our Zakat. How do we get our money to them, especially if we don’t know them personally? There are reliable online resources you can use to make sure your Zakat goes where it needs to, in a streamlined way.

There is an excellent series by Mufti Abdur-Rahman ibn Yusuf on the fundamentals of zakat, called Simplified Zakat Guidance on ZamZam Academy’s YouTube channel. The series, which is taught according to the Hanafi madhhab (but is well worth watching regardless of one’s own school), addresses a wide range of situations and common questions. This will help you be able to do your own due diligence when presented with a giving opportunity that claims to be zakat eligible. There are also online programs laying out the requirements of zakat by traditionally-trained scholars of the Maliki and Shafi`i madhhabs. May Allah reward them all for their efforts.

The general best practice in the giving of Zakat is to provide for those in your local community who belong to the groups laid out in the Qur’an. One of the great blessings of these online programs is that they will help you understand the proper categories, so that you can give zakat yourself in a way that fulfills the proper requirements. By doing it yourself, you can rest assured that nothing got in the way between your intention and your act of worship.

The scholars have also spoken of the benefits of providing Zakat funds to specific groups of needy Muslims, such as students of `ilm, even if they are not in your immediate vicinity. However, this should not be confused with simply donating to an educational nonprofit. Some institutions of traditional Muslim learning in the United States run a Zakat system to ensure that those designated funds go directly to poor students (Zakat funds cannot be used for salaries, upkeep, or operating costs).

If you are inclined towards donating to this cause, Darul Qasim, Al-Maqasid, Darul Uloom New York, and Zaytuna College have a clearly labeled Zakat donation option, for this reason, to make sure that Zakat money is not mixed with their general funds.

The Zakat landscape can seem impossible, but thankfully the resources above make it very easy to carry out. And with this awareness of the popular misconceptions surrounding Zakat, we can make sure that our money only goes to the people who meet its requirements.

Praise be to the Lord that such resources exist to make it easy for us to fulfill this pillar of Islam, to honor the rights of the poor, and to obey Him. May God reward all of those who make it easy to do so, and may He forgive us for our misunderstandings and missteps. May He make this sacred month a means by which we may grow closer to Him.

Editor’s Note (04/20/2022) – A portion of this article has been revised in light of unfortunate developments in the online zakat field, as the information was accurate in 2020 – unfortunately the actual vetting and Q&A system was ended not much later.

Author’s Note (04/20/2022) – An earlier version of this article mentioned a fundraising website’s Zakat-eligible section, which claimed scholarly oversight. It turns out that the website only briefly had scholarly oversight, and the list now includes strange things like political lobbying. This is a reminder that, just as we make sure that we are fulfilling the requirements of our individual prayer when praying salat behind someone, we cannot outsource our own accountability when engaging in other acts of worship.

Works Cited

[1] Translated by Abdalhaqq and Aisha Bewley in The Noble Qur’an – a New Rendering of its Meaning in English (Diwan Press)


About the Author: Jibran Khan is an editor and researcher.

Disclaimer: Material published by Traversing Tradition is meant to foster scholarly inquiry and rich discussion. The views, opinions, beliefs, or strategies represented in published articles and subsequent comments do not necessarily represent the views of Traversing Tradition or any employee thereof.

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