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Islam / Cult and Festivals / Five Pillars
Arabic: zakāt

In Islam, alms given by a Muslim to the needy inside their own society. It is generally considered to be obligatory, and one of the Five Pillars of Islam.
Practices vary enormously throughout the Muslim world since most of its regulations were defined by different theological orientations over a period of two centuries. In most cases, the zakat is defined to be 1/40 of a person's property; not on someone's income. The nature of zakat comes from verses like this:
Koran sura 35: The Creator
26 Verily, those who (...) give alms of what we have bestowed in secret and in public
(The very same passage is also found in Koran sura 13: Thunder verse 22)
Zakat is from Judaism, implemented with Muhammad's arrival in Yathrib (later Madina). The word is derived from Aramaic, zākūt. Much of the system and obligation of Zakat is defined in the Koran and during the lifetime of Muhammad, but the Koran does not state any exact size for it, only that it is "the surplus" (Sura 2: The Cow verse 217).
The original mechanisms of zakat differs little from normal forms of tax. Muhammad forcibly collected zakat to fund warfare, a practice that after his death would develop into involving the financing of the Muslim state. There are several passages in the Koran mentioning the opposition from groups against paying zakat. In Koran sura 9: Repentance verse 58 and verse 99 Muhammad laments about those asking for services in return of paying zakat.
In the middle of the 7th century, Zakat was linked to ethics of modesty. In one Koranic verse, belonging to the last years of Muhammad, Sura 9: Repentance verse 34, wealth kept private instead of being given to religious work was scorned upon. Ali is told to have set the maximum wealth for one individual at 4,000 dirhams. Some theologians went even further, to question whether wealth and luxury at all was acceptable for true Muslims.
Defining the size of the zakat became the task of the law schools (madhhab). The Shafi'i school defines the zakat to depend on type of income; whether it be crops, gold and silver or merchandise. Percentages range from 10% down to 2.5%.
A special case of zakat is the one which belongs to the completion of Sawm (Ramadan), called zakāt al-fitr. Regulations here vary much, some consider this to be the only obligatory zakat to be paid, others consider it an additional zakat. This form of zakat is to be distributed privately.
There are 8 categories of persons eligible for zakat. The two first, the poor and the needy, are so close that few seem to be able to distinguish:
Koran sura 9: Repentance
60 Alms are only for the [1] poor and [2] needy,
[3] and those who work for them,
[4] and those whose hearts are reconciled,
[5] and those in captivity,
[6] and those in debt,
[7] and those who are on Godís path,
[8] and for the wayfarer. This is an ordinance from God, for God is knowing, wise.
The actual type of recipient is not clearly defined, so technically zakat can be given to a stranger as well as to the closest of relatives. Still, close relatives are generally considered incorrect recipients of alms. A few Hadiths go to the point of stating that zakat can even be given to the rich; it is the act of giving which is central, not helping.
The term zakat is mentioned indirectly several times in the Koran, and directly in Sura 2: The Cow verse 277. Other terms used for alms is sadaqa, a word that relates to friendship.
Although not formally defined, all traditions make it so that zakat can not be given to non-Muslims. This appears probable as the reason for why Muslims in modern times tend to only give international aid to the needy when these are Muslims.

By Tore Kjeilen