March 25, 2013


This is the third in a series of posts about the Five Pillars of Islam. The first diary was about shahadah, and the second about salat.

Zakat is the formal giving of charity in Islam. It is related to a similar concept, known as saudaqah. Saudaqah is the informal giving of charity that may be done at any time, in any amount, to any recipient. Zakat, however, is more regulated. While zakat may be given at any time of year, many Muslims try to pay their zakat during Ramadan, when spiritual rewards are greater than during the rest of the year. The amount of money (or other material goods being given as zakat) is more specific, and zakat tends to be given to institutions (mosques, foundations and other charities, and some government agencies) as opposed to individuals, which saudaqah is normally given to. Either way, the payment of charity is highly encouraged in Islam.

Indeed, the Qur'an stresses the need to practice regular charity; moreover, the payment of charity is linked to the practice of prayer. The following verse is one of over two dozen verses that encourage Muslims to both pray and give charity:

Those who believe, and do deeds of righteousness, and establish regular Prayers and regular charity, will have their reward with their Lord: on them shall be no fear, nor shall they grieve. (2:277)

In essence, the giving of charity on a regular basis is where the Muslim puts his or her faith in Allah (swt) into meaningful action. As mentioned in the previous essay, prayer (salat) is very important for a Muslim to engage in, but charity (zakat and saudaqah) is just as important. It is the Islamic example of the idiom, "putting your money where your mouth is."

However, not everyone is required to pay zakat. There are several key concepts that regulate what is "zakatable" and what is not. First, an asset that is zakatable must have been owned for at least one haul. A haul is one Islamic (lunar) year, or about 355 days. Secondly, the assets that are zakatable must have a value greater than the nisab. Nisab is equivalent to 85 grams of gold or 595 grams of silver. Because the values of these precious metals change on a daily basis, the value of the nisab will also change daily. (For example, today, as I write this, the nisab in Singapore dollars is $5,790; various Islamic websites will publish the daily nisab value so that Muslims can easily lookup this information instead of having to calculate it themselves.) As long as the value of the assets remains above the nisab for the entire haul, then zakat must be paid on the value of those assets.

The tricky part about zakat is in deciding which assets are zakatable; not every asset must be included. For the average city-dwelling Muslim, the number of zakatable asset classes is fairly limited. They normally include savings; certain monies received from or deposited into pension funds; stocks, mutual funds and other investments; gold, silver, and other jewelry; the surrender value on insurance policies (for that year, assuming the policy has been in force for over one haul); and any businesses owned by the Muslim in question. Generally speaking, the zakat owed for each of these asset classes is 2.5 percent; thus, if the Muslim had a total of $10,000 worth of zakatable assets, he or she would owe $250 for zakat.

If a Muslim makes his or her living by farming or mining, the methods for calculating zakat change. For example, if a farmer grows produce in a garden or orchard, the rate for zakat is ten percent if the garden or orchard receives its water through rainfall, nearby water channels (e.g., streams or rivers), or if the ground is naturally wet; however, if the land needs to be irrigated, then the rate is five percent. For farmers who raise livestock, the zakat owed depends upon the number and types of animals owned and their ages. For example, if a Muslim farmer owns forty sheep that are over one year in age, then one sheep would be owed as zakat. (The formulas for these types of calculations are somewhat complex, and will not be discussed in depth here.) For miners, the zakat rate is twenty percent of the value of all ores or precious metals that are excavated in the past lunar year.

On the other hand, there are a number of personal assets are never considered to be zakatable; these include personal items, clothing, furniture, computers, cars and homes. Now, for the latter three items listed above, as long as these items are for personal use, then they are not subject to zakat; however, if they are used for business purposes, then zakat must be paid on them. So, for example, if a family owns two homes, residing in one, but renting out the other, then the rental income derived from the property is zakatable.

Which leads to the next point: zakat is not an income tax, it is a tax on wealth. An equivalent secular tax would be a property tax. In this regard, zakat is a progressive tax in that the poorest members of society normally don't pay any zakat at all (although everyone, regardless of their income level, is still encouraged to pay saudaqah as the need arises). The wealthier the person is, the more zakat they are required to pay; there are no caps or limits as to what the wealthiest Muslims are obligated to pay.

Another point to consider is, where does the money go? The Qur'an gives some guidelines as to who can receive zakat money. The relevant verse is:

Alms are for the poor and the needy, and those employed to administer the (funds); for those whose hearts have been (recently) reconciled (to Truth); for those in bondage and in debt; in the cause of Allah; and for the wayfarer: (thus is it) ordained by Allah, and Allah is full of knowledge and wisdom. (9:60)

Thus, the Qur'an gives eight categories of people who are eligible to receive zakat monies. The first two categories, the poor (fakir) and the needy (miskin), are very similar to each other, but have slightly different definitions. The poor are those who may not have enough money for their basic needs, but the needy are those who have neither material possessions nor the means to earn a living, the truly indigent who, out of necessity, are forced to beg for their survival. (In Singapore, this category accounted for over one-third of all zakat monies distributed.)

The third category, those employed to administer the funds, are those employees of the agency that administers the zakat. The Qur'an recognizes that people legitimately work to collect, account for, and distribute the zakat monies, and they are eligible to receive wages from the zakat monies as opposed to volunteering to get the job done.

The fourth category, those whose hearts have been recently reconciled to the truth (i.e., recent reverts to Islam), is perhaps one group of people who don't receive very much zakat money in comparison to the other groups. Very rarely, in my experience, do Muslim organizations (especially in the US) give out any money to recent reverts. In my own case, I only received any money while here in Singapore, when I needed to prove that I was a Muslim in order to marry my wife, that I received a grand total of S$40. Certainly not enough money to become rich on. (To be honest, I was surprised I received any money at all; I certainly hadn't expected it!) I don't know of anyone who's reverted to Islam for the chance to receive zakat money.

The fifth and sixth categories, for those in bondage and in debt, is interpreted somewhat differently now than it used to be in the past. Many Muslim organizations now refer to "bondage" in terms of a lack of education. As a result, zakat monies are sometimes given in the form of scholarships, grants and bursaries, especially to those families with children who are already receiving zakat because of their poor economic status (fakir/miskin). Those who are in debt doesn't mean that they will help to relieve, for example, credit card balances, but that they might help to pay off utility balances or other bills of necessity that the person or family is unable to pay.

The seventh category, in the cause of Allah (swt), also has a more modern interpretation. Today, those funds are often used to pay for religious programs, mosque leadership and administration, school development and assistance, youth development and engagement, Islamic education, and community development.

The eighth and final category, for the wayfarer, is where zakat monies may be given to those travellers who are stranded. The aid given might include financial assistance and a plane ticket home, if necessary.

So, what benefits do Muslims receive for their giving of charity, whether it is zakat or saudaqah? The word zakah actually comes from the root zāy kāf wāw (ز ك و), which literally means "to purify." (There are actually 21 verses in the Qur'an where zāy kāf wāw is used as the verb to purify.) By giving zakat, a Muslim benefits by purifying both his or her own soul and his or her wealth. On the one hand, zakat purifies the soul by helping a person to overcome his or her selfishness, obsession with wealth, and any neglect of the poor. Likewise, giving zakat helps a Muslim the opportunity to cleanse their wealth of the taint it would acquire if it had not gone through the purification process of zakat. Muslims try to earn their incomes in a halal manner; however, people don't always do so. For example, not always giving a full effort at work (e.g., playing games on the computer when one should be working, to use a simple example). Giving zakat helps to purify the manner in which that wealth is earned.

The rewards a Muslim may receive for giving charity may also bring about significant rewards in either this life or in the hereafter. The Qur'an gives a parable that helps to explain just how much reward might be given, insha'allah:

The parable of those who spend their wealth 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 wills. And Allah is All-Sufficient for His creatures' needs, All-Knower. (2:261)

By giving zakat, Allah (swt) may reward us up to seven hundred fold, insha'allah, for the acts of charity we have done. Unlike in the so-called "Prosperity Gospel," though, there is no promise of riches in this life for having been charitable. The rewards may come entirely in the hereafter, insha'allah. What we try to acknowledge, however, is that all sustenance comes from Allah (swt), and that the rich are being tried on their ability (or inability) to pass on the sustenance due from them to weaker members of the community. Insha'allah, the rich will pass the test by paying the zakat they owe; otherwise, the punishment for failing to do so may be extremely severe:

Asma bint Yazid reported: "My aunt and I, while wearing gold bracelets, went to the Prophet. He asked: 'Did you pay their zakat?' She related that they had not. The Prophet said: 'Do you not fear that Allah will make you wear a bracelet of fire? Pay its zakat." (Ahmad, 6.461)

March 06, 2013


This is the second in a series of posts about the Five Pillars of Islam. The first diary, about shahadah, can be found here.

Salat (sing., salah) are the formal prayers that are required of Muslims five times per day. In addition to these required (fard) prayers, Muslims often perform additional prayers that are optional (sunnah); these latter prayers are not required, but Muslims are encouraged to do them.

Before any salah is performed, fard or sunnah, the person must be in a state of ritual purity. This is done through two different forms of ablutions known as ghusl and wudu. Ghusl is the full-body ablution that is performed less frequently than wudu. Ghusl is required under certain circumstances. For men, this is most commonly after sexual activity; for women, it includes after sexual activity, after menses, and after childbirth. Wudu, on the other hand, is normally done after certain bodily functions; for example, urination, defecation and passing gas. Because of the frequency of these bodily functions, it is not uncommon for Muslims to perform wudu several times a day. Both wudu and ghusl require various parts of the body to be washed in a prescribed order: both hands, a rinsing of the mouth, rinsing the insides of the nostrils (by snuffing up a small amount of water - especially helpful if one's had a recent bloody nose), washing the face, washing the forearms up to the elbows, rinsing the hair, washing the ears and, finally, washing the feet up to the ankles. For all of the above, with the exception of rinsing the hair, everything is performed three times (for the hair, one passes his or her wet hands over his or her hair once). For the hands, forearms, and feet, the right side is always washed first (three times), then the left side. Ghusl, on the other hand, is the same as wudu, except that the entire body, including all of one's hair, must be washed three times after the feet are done. Obviously, ghusl requires the use of a shower to perform, whereas wudu may be done at a footbath or even a sink.

Prior to every communal prayer is the adhan, or call to prayer. There are actually several different versions of the adhan, although the one most commonly used is the one non-Muslims may be most familiar with. This version of the adhan reads as follows in English (although it is always recited in Arabic):

God is most great, God is most great.
God is most great, God is most great.
I testify that there is no god but God.
I testify that there is no god but God.
I testify that Muhammad is the Prophet of God.
I testify that Muhammad is the Prophet of God.
Hurry to prayer, hurry to prayer.
Hurry to success, hurry to success.
God is most great, God is most great.
No god but God!

For the dawn (fajr) prayer, an additional line is spoken after the second "hurry to success"; that is "Prayer is better than sleep, prayer is better than sleep."

After the adhan is recited, salah does not begin immediately, but people are usually given about five minutes to get to the prayer hall. When salah is about to begin, a second recitation of the adhan is done, called the iqama. The iqama is a shorter version of the adhan. It is essentially the adhan halved with the addition of "Stand for prayer, stand for prayer" added after "hurry to success." Once the iqama is said (in a normal voice, not in the sing-songy version that is most people are familiar with), the prayer will begin as soon as everyone is ready. (It should be noted that individuals doing their prayers alone do not have to recite the adhan or iqama, although to do so is sunnah (recommended but not obligatory). Small groups of Muslims praying together may also recite the iqama only, especially if the communal prayer for that time period has already been done.)

When the Muslim is ready to pray, either individually or collectively, he or she speaks quietly his or her niyat, the intention behind the prayer. In Islam, all deeds are judged by their intentions, and salat is no exception. Are you praying a fard prayer or a sunnah prayer? A special prayer (discussed below) or trying to make up for a prayer that was not done at an earlier time? And so, for the niyat, we will briefly state which prayer we are performing at that time.

To actually describe how salat is performed would take some time to do, so I'd rather put in a video that demonstrates the steps involved in performing salat (see below). However, several points should be made. First, due to the number of body postures involved, furniture is not normally used. (For those who need furniture, like the elderly or handicapped, salat may be done as much as possible either sitting or even lying down.) Secondly, each prayer is divided into a number of cycles, called raka'at (sing., raka'ah). Three of the five fard prayers involve four raka'at each, although the dawn prayer only has two and the evening prayer three. Sunnah prayers can be either two or four raka'at in length, two raka'at being the absolute minimum number for any prayer. Moreover, sunnah prayers may be done either before or after (or both) the fard prayers (with the exception of the dawn and late afternoon prayers, in which case no sunnah prayers are allowed after the fard prayer).

In addition to the sunnah prayers mentioned above (those that may be performed just before or after the fard prayer), there are a number of other sunnah prayers that may be done at different times of the day. For example, there is the witr prayer. Witr is a sunnah prayer that is performed at night after the Isha (night) prayer, before going to bed. Unlike the fard prayers, where there is a maximum of four raka'at, the witr prayer always has an odd number of raka'at, anywhere between one raka'ah and eleven raka'at. While witr is not fard, it is considered wajib (necessary) and is especially recommended for those Muslims who fear they may die in their sleep.

Other special prayers include Jumu'ah, Eid, the prayer for the mosque, and the prayer for the dead. Jumu'ah is the Friday congregational prayer held every week in the early afternoon. It is an obligatory prayer for men to attend, but optional for women. (Here in Singapore, women don't attend jumu'ah because there is literally no room for them at almost all mosques. In fact there's often no room for all of the men who attend jumu'ah. While most mosques here can normally hold several thousand people, the crowds of men frequently spill over outside the buildings.) Jumu'ah consists of a khutbah (sermon), followed by set prayers spoken by the imam, followed by a two raka'at salah.

Eid prayers are held early in the mornings of the two Eids, Eid ul Fitr (on the day after the end of Ramadan) and Eid al Adha (to commemorate the end of that year's Hajj). Because everyone in the Muslim community is encouraged to attend Eid prayers, these are frequently held in very large places where thousands of Muslims can be accommodated. As a result, I personally have done Eid prayers on the floor of a convention center and in the middle of a football field (while it was sprinkling), as well as other locations. Eid prayers are also a little unusual in that the salah happens before the khutbah, when it is normally the other way around.

The prayer for the mosque is normally done when one enters the prayer hall of a mosque. It is a two raka'at prayer one makes on behalf of the building. Muslims believe that on the Day of Judgment, everything, regardless of whether it is animate or not, will be given a voice to speak out its testimony for or against a person. (This includes body parts, such as one's eyes, ears, and skin; see the Qur'an, verses 41:19-23.) So Muslims pray for the mosque, which, insha'allah, will testify on behalf of those Muslims who have prayed at that place.

One other prayer to mention is that for the dead, Salat al-Janazah. The steps by which the funeral prayer is done is completely different from how regular salah is performed. However, what makes this prayer distinctive is that it is fard kifayah, meaning that there is a collective obligation upon all Muslims within a community to do this prayer upon the death of a fellow Muslim. This is not to say that all Muslims within a community must do this prayer when someone dies, but as long as some Muslims perform the prayer, then the collective obligation will have been fulfilled. If the body of the deceased is present, then the body will be placed in front of those Muslims performing the prayer; otherwise, the prayer may be performed elsewhere, such as at a mosque. (For my late father-in-law, we did his Salah al-Janazah in the living room of his home before we took him to be buried. For many Muslims who die in Singapore, a Salah al-Janazah is often performed after Jumu'ah has concluded. Personally, I often line up to perform the funeral prayer even though I may not have known the deceased, my thought being that I hope others will do the same for me when I die, insha'allah.)

Salat is very important in Islam. On the Day of Judgment, when every soul is assessed as to whether it should go to Jannah (heaven) or Jahannam (hell), the first thing to be judged will be the number of times a person has prayed:

Narrated Abu Huraira that Allah’s Messenger (pbuh) said, “First of the deeds for which a slave will be called to account (on the Day of Resurrection) will be his (obligatory) prayers. If they are complete (he has prospered and succeeded), otherwise Allah (swt) will say (to the angels): ‘See whether there are any (voluntary) prayers of My slave.’ If any, Allah (swt) will say: ‘Complete his obligatory prayers with them.’”

The number of times a prayer may be rewarded depends upon whether the prayer is done individually or collectively, and on the location. Let's say that one prayer done by an individual earns a reward of one unit. If one prayer is done by two or more persons together, the reward is 27 units. (The exact number rewarded for collective prayer varies from hadith to hadith, usually between 25 and 27, but the most commonly reported number seems to be 27. And God knows best.). However, should one pray at the Prophet's Mosque in Madinah, one prayer is equivalent to 1,000 prayers elsewhere; if the prayer is performed at al-Masjid al-Haram in Makkah, that prayer is equivalent to 100,000 prayers elsewhere. However, regardless of the number of rewards earned, it is always best to pray and often.