Definition: zakat
Almsgiving. One of the Five Pillars of Islam.

Almsgiving is a central activity in Islam and one of the five pillars of the religion. The Quran explicitly requires it (9:60) and often places it alongside prayer when discussing a Muslim's duties. ("Perform the prayer and give the alms." 2:43, 110, 277). For those who are greedy and use their money outside of the will of Allah, the Quran has harsh words: the fires of hell will heat up the coins and the greedy will be branded with it (9:34-35).

The zakat is an alms tax, required of every adult Muslim with sufficient means. In many ways it resembles the modern welfare state, in which the "haves" are taxed to help the "have-nots." For most of Islam's history, the tax was enforced by the state. Today it is mostly left up to the individual, except in Saudi Arabia where religious law (Sharia) is strictly adhered to.

The rate of zakat is 2.5 percent, not of income, but of the value of all of one's possessions. Five categories of goods are taxed: grains; fruit; camels; cattle; sheep and goats; gold and silver; and movable goods. The recipients of the tax are the poor, debtors, slaves seeking to buy their freedom, volunteers in jihad, pilgrims, and the collectors of the tax. Along with the zakat, both the Quran and the Hadith emphasize the importance of voluntary almsgiving (sadaqa) to the needy. In Shia Islam, an additional one-fifth tax (khums) must be paid to the Hidden Imam and his representatives for the benefit of orphans, the poor, travelers, and the imams.


    - "Islam." Encyclopædia Britannica. 2005. Encyclopædia Britannica Premium Service <>.

    • "Zakat." John Bowker, ed., Oxford Concise Dictionary of World Religions (Oxford UP, 2000), p. 655.