What is Zakat?
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.
Daily confession of faith (shahada)
Shahada is the first of the five pillars. Shahada is the Muslim profession of faith, expressing the two simple, fundamental beliefs that make one a Muslim:
La ilaha illa Allah wa-Muhammad rasul Allah.
There is no god but God and Muhammad is the prophet of Allah.
Daily ritual prayer (salat)
The second of the five pillars is called salat, Muslim prayer. Salat is performed five times a day: at dawn (al-fajr), midday (al-zuhr), afternoon (al-'asr), sunset (al-maghrib) and evening (al-'isha). It's always directed in the direction (qibla) of the Ka'ba shrine in Mecca. A prayer mat, sajjada, is commonly used during salat. Salat may be performed individually, but it carries special merit when done with other Muslims. The focal prayer of the week is the midday prayer at the mosque on Fridays.
Sawm (also siyam), fasting, commemorates the revelation of the Quran to humanity during Ramadan, the ninth month of the Islamic year. During Ramadan, all adult Muslims are required to abstain from food, drink and sexual intercourse during daylight hours. Exceptions are made for travelers, soldiers, menstruating women, and the ill, although such persons are expected to fast later when they become able.
Pilgrimage to Mecca (hajj)
At least once in his or her lifetime, each Muslim is expected to undertake a pilgrimage to Mecca, the sacred city of Islam. This holy journey is called the hajj in Arabic. While a visit to Mecca is beneficial any time of the year, it must take place during the month of Dhu al-Hijja (the last month of the Islamic year) to fulfill the requirements of the hajj.
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