Zakat - harnessing social impact through charity

by Shazia Hussain


Zakat is one of the five pillars of Islam. It is an obligatory act of worship and is also a mandatory form of charity for Muslims. It has always been seen as a means by which people can achieve social impact through the redistribution of their wealth. The five pillars of Islam are the absolute fundamentals of Islam and include the following:
  • Faith (shahada)
  • Prayer
  • Zakat
  • Fasting
  • Hajj
Every Muslim is expected to fulfil these five pillars of Islam which serve as the very fundamental acts of worship prescribed by the Islamic faith.

Paying zakat, sometimes referred to as almsgiving, is an obligation for every Muslim who is able to and serves to bring economic equality, fairness, and to rebalance societal injustice.


Muslims who have the financial means and capability are required to pay zakat. They must donate 2.5% of their wealth (see our zakat calculator to work out how much you need to pay). The 2.5% is calculated on money and assets.

The aim of zakat funds is to ensure that they are used to provide the basic necessities for families and communities in need. These needs can include the provision of food, shelter, clothing, education and healthcare.

One of the most important elements of zakat is that payment of it is seen as a means of purifying your wealth whilst demonstrating empathy and compassion for others. In fact, the word zakat actually means 'cleansing' or 'purifying'.

The whole concept is based on the idea that once an individual donates a percentage of their wealth to charitable causes, they fulfil their moral obligation to serve others and build stronger communities and economies. Zakat is particularly important in times of crisis, as it can be used to alleviate hardship via the distribution of wealth.

Zakat is not the same as sadaqa which is encouraged but not obligatory. Zakat is an annual payment that is worked out in a specific way and spent in a specific way.


There are some important exemptions to be aware of when it comes to zakat.

Firstly, there are exemptions for those people who do not have to pay zakat and these include:
  • children
  • the mentally ill
  • the infirm and elderly
  • slaves
  • Non-Muslims
  • the very poor

Islamic finance principles set out clearly who can receive zakat. Those eligible to receive zakat include the following:
  • Poor people
  • The needy
  • Debtors who cannot repay their debts
  • Orphans
  • Widows
  • The stranded and destitute
  • Travellers
  • Slaves or captives
  • New Muslims
  • Those fighting a just cause
It is very important that when you pay zakat the recipients meet the eligibility criteria set out in Sharia law. Always make the intention of helping those who are in need and adhering to the principles of Islamic finance.


Social justice is one of the fundamental principles of Islam and Islamic finance. The Islamic framework is centred on social justice in all aspects from individual behaviour, to financial transactions, to how we behave in relationships with others.The teachings of Islam place great significance on ethical and moral behaviour. Islam promotes social justice by emphasizing the importance of the following concepts:
  • Anti-discrimination: all humans are seen as equal in Islam and discrimination in any form is prohibited. In fact, the Prophet Mohammad's final sermon reiterated how important it was to treat everyone equally and fairly.
  • Economic equity: Islam promotes economic justice by ensuring there are frameworks in place for wealth distribution. Zakat plays a key role in the distribution of wealth. Furthermore, the prohibition on interest further prevents exploitation and inequality.
  • Charity: as already mentioned the concept of charitable giving is an essential element of Islam. Charitable giving takes place via zakat and sadaqa (amongst other forms of donation). Muslims are encouraged to consistently donate to the poor.
  • Gender equality: as mentioned above, Islam believes that men and women are equal and it actively promotes gender rights (particularly those of women) and equality. The Quran consistently mentions treating people with respect and fairness.
  • Legal justice: Sharia rules set out the legal framework within which Muslims operate and these rules focus on justice, fairness, and equity. The legal judicial system in Islam operates to ensure that justice and fairness are implemented.
  • Ethical behaviour.

The actual potential of zakat is large, and estimated to be valued in the region of $200 billion - $1 trillion (this is according to research from the Institute of Development Studies and the World Bank). It is difficult to estimate the exact amount paid each year, but it is clear that Muslims who pay zakat on an annual basis are some of the biggest and most consistent charity givers in countries across the world.

Whilst the Western world is still learning about the impact and potential of zakat, Muslim economies have harnessed the potential of zakat for many decades by establishing leadership institutions to manage and distribute zakat. In addition, Muslim countries have had discussion and debate with scholars relating to zakat and how best to use it, incorporating it into fiscal policy.


  • Empowers individuals and communities
  • Alleviates poverty
  • Optimisation of social good
  • Social cohesion building
  • Wealth distribution
  • Funding charitable projects (such as climate and environment change programmes, education, and healthcare initiatives and practices)
  • Economic development
  • Promote social justice
An underlying philosophy of Islamic finance and Zakat is the concept of mobilising finance for the greater good. Islamic finance embodies socially responsible actions whether from companies or individuals.


As zakat is applicable to all Muslims across the globe, it is one of the largest and most successful forms of philanthropy. It acts as one of the largest methods of wealth transfer from the rich to the poor that takes place consistently and with clear guidelines.

Inspired by the Islamic faith, zakat is taking on relevance in countries throughout the world including the UK, United States, Australia and beyond.

Alleviating poverty, inequality, and hunger are not only central tenets of Islam and Islamic finance, but they are also part of the UN's sustainable development goals. According to the Quran there are 8 categories eligible for zakat (see above) and these all align strongly with sustainable development goals.

Some countries such as Indonesia have started collaborating with zakat donors to achieve partnership working towards sustainable development goals. This is a win-win for Muslims as Islam and Sharia rules relating to financial transactions state that every person should seek to work collaboratively and fairly for the good of society.


The power of zakat to harness social impact through charity is undeniable. When you clearly understand what zakat is and its function in society it becomes clear that zakat has the power and potential to alter lives and bring equity.

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