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Zakat Before the Advent of Islam
The history of Zakat is the same as that of Salaah. It is evident from the Qur’an that like Salaah its directive always existed in the Shari’ah of the previous Prophets. When the Almighty asked the Muslims to pay it, it was not something unknown to them. All the followers of the religion of Ibraham (AS) were fully aware of it. For this very reason Surah Al-Ma’arij (70:25) describes it as “A specified right.” Thus it was a pre-existing Sunnah which the Prophet (peace be upon him), with necessary reformations, upheld at the behest of the Almighty.
The Qur’an gives examples in several verses telling us how Zakat was imposed on the previous Prophets. For example:
Zakat of Prophet Isma'il (AS): “Also mention in the Book (the story of) Isma'il: He was (strictly) true to what he promised, and he was an apostle (and) a prophet. He used to enjoin on his people Salaah and Zakat, and he was most acceptable in the sight of his Lord.” [Surah Mariam 19:54-55] Zakat of the Jews: “And (remember) when We made a covenant with the Children of Israel, (saying): Worship none save Allah (only) and be good to parents and to kindred and to orphans and the needy and speak kindly to mankind; and establish Salaah and pay Zakat.” [Surah Al-Baqarah 2:83]
Zakat to the progeny of Prophet Ishaaq (AS) and Prophet Yacob (AS): “And We sent them inspiration to do good deeds and to be diligent in the Salaah and pay Zakat.” [Surah Al-Anbiyaa 21:73]
Zakat of Prophet Isa (AS): “He said: Lo! I am the slave of Allah. He has given me the Scripture and has appointed me a Prophet. And has made me blessed wheresoever I may be and has enjoined upon me Salaah and Zakat so long as I remain alive.” [Surah Maryam 19:30-31]
Zakat in the time of the Prophet (peace be upon him)
Going back to the first application of Zakat at the time of the Prophet (peace be upon him) is like studying Zakat at its source in order to discover its significance, mode of application and effects, whether social, spiritual or economic.
In Makkah the verses on Zakat were in the general form of voluntary payments and it was left to the faith and the brotherly feelings of individuals to decide what and how much to give in Zakat. Surah Al-Ma'arij (70:24-25) advises: “And in whose wealth there is a right acknowledged. For the beggar and the destitute.”
It was only in the second year of Hijrah, some eighteen months after the arrival of the Prophet (peace be upon him) to Madina that Zakat became a Fard or an obligation on Muslims. Madinan verses gave clear directives, ordering the payment of Zakat and since that time the Prophet (peace be upon him) used to send out Zakat workers to collect and distribute the due Zakat.
The Qur'an does not give the definition of Zakatable wealth, except in a few cases, only the general principles are given without the details, e.g:
1) Gold and Silver: "And there are those who hoard gold and silver and spend it not in the way of Allah. Announce unto them a most grievous penalty." (Surah Al-Taubah 9:34)
2) Crops and Fruits: "Eat of their fruit in their season, but render the dues that are proper on the day that the harvest is gathered."(Surah al-An'aam 6:141)
3) Earnings of Trade: "O ye who believe, give of the good things which ye have earned." (Surah Al-Baqarah 2:267)
4) Wealth from beneath the earth: "And of that which we have produced for you from the earth.” (Surah Al-Baqarah 2:267)
Furthermore, the Qur'an mentions Zakat in general and the word amwal (i.e. property or wealth or earning) is used as in the verse, "Out of their wealth take sadaqah thereby purifying and sanctifying them." (Surah Al-Taubah 9:103) and, "In their wealth and properties is the right of the poor, the beggar and he who is in deprivation.” (Surah Al-Dhareyat 51:19)
It is the Sunnah of the Prophet (peace be upon him) that gives us, by example and by directives, details of the general Qur'anic command and converts the theoretical axioms of the Qur'an into a living reality. The Prophet (peace be upon him) is the one who knows most about what Allah ordained and as such the Sunnah gives us detailed specifications of the kinds of Zakatable wealth, the minimum exempt of each of them and the applicable rates. The Sunnah also gives the details of the categories of people that should receive Zakat.