Faith and Charity

Zakat, as the alms tax is known, is voluntary in some Muslim countries, enforced in others.

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All wealth belongs to God. This tenet of Islam transforms the obligatory donation of a percentage of one's income and assets from an act of charity to an act of faith.

Zakat, as the alms tax is known, is voluntary in some Muslim countries, enforced in others. The Koran does not specify how much one should regularly give. But Islamic tradition calls for dona-tions of roughly 2.5 percent of all a donor's assets aside from housing and basic needs. Today, websites help Muslims calculate their zakat, factoring in bank assets, stocks and bonds, and jewelry.

A minimum amount of property must be held before zakat can be levied; a herd of fewer than five camels, for example, is exempt. But in other cases, the tax is strikingly specific: Owners of 25 to 30 camels are required to donate a young female camel. Discovery of buried treasure calls for payment of one fifth of the value.

The creation of zakat, which literally means purification, challenged traditional tribal structures by emphasizing a Muslim's obligation to the entire Islamic community. Zakat can be dedicated to helping the poor and sick, spreading the faith, aiding travelers, helping debtors, even ransoming captives and freeing slaves. It serves as a form of self-preservation: By encouraging self-sufficient Muslims to provide for the less fortunate, zakat enables the poor to pursue the faith. Thus, all of Islam grows.