Zakat is not a tax on believers – it is sexual purity

A pan-textual analysis of the meaning of zakāt in the Qur’an

zakāt – purity

The Traditionalist claims that the expression ātā al zakāt means to pay a specific annual tax on wealth in order to purify it.

I previously subscribed to the view that ātā al zakāt bore some relation to the value the Traditionalist claims for it albeit in a way which precluded any insistence upon a particular amount; one which emphasised, rather, a right attitude; namely, the imperative to give some part of that which God gives one with the intention of seeking the countenance of God.

That view was actuated in part by the only instance in which zakāt can be directly connected both with giving (at least in a context where any sort of indirect object may be discerned) and with an implied imperative addressed to believers. This single instance occurs in an adverbial phrase; that is, it outlines how one should give, not what one should give:

But what you give of purity desiring the countenance of God:
These receive recompense manifold. (30:39)

I continue in the view that such is the right – and, in fact, the only Qur’anically sanctioned and eternally beneficial – method of giving, and that the Qur’an requires a believer to give some part of what God gives him.

However, having revisited this question, I have come to the view that ātā al zakāt bears no direct relationship whatever with the requirement to give in the mundane sense, and in this revised Article I outline what my position is vis-à-vis ātā al zakāt and the reasons for it.

The verb ātā

There is a grammatical ambiguity implicit in the verb ātā since this weak verb has forms which could make it either a form III or form IV verb. This situation is summarised by Badawi-Haleem (p. 9), who say:

ātā [a phonetically ambiguous form of either v. III or v. IV. Contextually there seem to be good grounds for assigning the 204 occurrences of ātā in the Qur’an to form IV rather than to form III. However the subject must remain open]

The form III of the verb without a preposition encompasses meanings such as: to furnish; to favour; to befit. The form IV of the verb without a preposition encompasses meanings such as: to give; to pay; to render.

It is clear why Badawi-Haleem discern contextual grounds for favouring verb form IV (the values of which are unquestionably those the Traditionalist requires one to accept): his expectation of al zakāt as a yearly tax – a position found nowhere in the Qur’an – requires it of them. However, one can reasonably and rationally infer (based upon Badawi-Haleem’s own observations) that this collocation may equally mean: to favour purity or to befit purity.

The meaning of ātā al zakāt in the Qur’an

I have elected not to approach this question on the basis of the verb’s admittedly ambiguous grammatical form since I think the results will, at best, remain open-ended and unsatisfactory; rather, I leave ātā al zakāt as to give the purity – a rendering that should be entirely acceptable to everyone, including the Traditionalist – and focus, rather, upon the question of what this collocation, as found in the Qur’an, denotes.

In summary, the facts are these:

  • The core, non-sectarian dictionary definitions of zakāt are purity, sincerity and integrity
  • There are occasions in the Qur’an where this noun is rendered – and, in fact, can only be rendered – after its core, non-sectarian dictionary definitions (18:81, 19:13), a point with which the Traditionalist himself concurs
  • Nowhere do the Traditionalist’s values for either the noun al zakāt or the collocation ātā al zakāt find support in the Qur’an; he claims that what is referenced is a tax on wealth (the details of which, naturally, he claims to know), and one simply has to believe him
  • The Qur’an nowhere applies indirect objects to ātā al zakāt; that is, it nowhere says ātā al zakāt of such-and-such to such-and-such; it simply states ātā al zakāt as a blanket imperative or statement, one devoid of any object or clarification; all claims as to what this collocation denotes have originated with the Traditionalist and his extraneous literature
  • Not only does the Traditionalist’s creeping claim for a specific tax not find support in the Qur’an, it contradicts explicit Qur’anic precepts; namely, the fact that material giving is by free will and in an amount to be decided upon by the giver (2:219)
  • There are several cases where an exhortation to give and the expression ātā al zakāt are met together, rendering ātā al zakāt (if it, in fact, meant giving material goods) redundant or superfluous (2:83, 2:177, 5:12, 73:20)
  • The only occasion in which the verb to give (Arabic: ātā) and zakāt occur together with a clear indirect object, the recipient is the prophet Yaḥyā – who is given zakāt by God (19:12-13); Yaḥyā’s central and defining characteristic is that of (sexual) purity (3:39) – i.e. ‘honourable and chaste
  • The term ātā al zakāt is one component of the allegiance believing men and believing women have toward each other (9:71) and is found in the context of enjoining what is fitting and forbidding perversity
  • God enjoined al zakāt upon ʿĪsā, son of Maryam throughout his life (19:31); it is not possible to argue convincingly that an infant is capable of paying anything to anybody
  • The expression ātā al zakāt occurs twice in chapter 24 (24:37, 24:56); the unifying point and focus of chapter 24 is the safeguarding of sexual morals in the context of a believing community
  • The wives of the prophet are exhorted ātā al zakāt at 33:33 in a context where they can be assumed to have little or no material wealth of their own (33:28) and in which they are expressly directed to embrace perfect marital commitment to the prophet (to the exclusion of possible further husbands after his death) and to maintain an exacting level of marital scrupulosity befitting their roles as his wives; see 33:28-34
  • Two characteristics of the idolaters are that they do not ātā al zakāt and that they deny the hereafter (41:7); sexual immorality is a consequence of idolatry in its broadest sense
  • Those who fear (i.e. due to lack of means) to send ahead charity at the time of confidential conversation with the prophet – and who are, therefore, understood to be bereft of material means – are told, nevertheless, that they should ātā al zakāt (see 58:12-13) – an imperative which jars appreciably with the context given the Traditionalist’s reading; sexual purity is something one may maintain in any material circumstance

My rendering of 23:1-11 is below. The key terms and parsing decisions were all taken in compliance with the methodology which governs the entire work; what I have rendered act in accordance with is the verb to do or to act (Arabic: faʿala) in combination with the preposition li. Commentators try, unconvincingly, to bend this collocation to mean those who work with (i.e. collect) the yearly tax which they call al zakāt; the meaning, in fact, is to do or to act (for the sake of, for the purpose of, what is fitting or behoves) plus the object – in this case al zakāt.

Successful are the believers:
Those who are humble in their duty
And those who turn away from vain speech
And those who act in accordance with the purity
And those who are custodians of their modesty
Save with their spouses
Or what their right hands possess
(Then are they not censured.
But whoso seeks beyond that:
These are the transgressors.)
And those who are compliant with their trusts and their pledge
And those who keep to their duties.
These are the heirs
Those who inherit Paradise
Wherein they abide eternally. 
(23:1-11)

The obvious and plain reading is that the general imperative to act in accordance with al zakāt is something (along with the requirement to be humble in one’s duty, to refrain from vain speech, and to maintain modesty) which one may relax only with a legally acceptable marital partner.

It is a fact that a person speaks about himself and his achievements to a spouse more freely than with outsiders; it is, likewise, natural for a married couple to enjoy a lightness and frivolity in conversation which is unfitting beyond the bounds of their relationship; it is in the order of things that spouses see each other without clothing.

It is also natural and right for married people to have sexual relations if they so choose. Thus, it is with a spouse only that one does not need to act in accordance with ‘the purity‘ or al zakāt.

On the basis of the above, I conclude that the import of the expression ātā al zakāt – i.e. what it denotes – is the imperative, in its most basic form, to constrain sexual activity of any kind strictly within the bounds of marriage; at higher levels of scrupulosity it would encompass bringing all actions into conformity with this ethos and controlling the eyes and the thoughts to that end.

Thus, ātā al zakāt is, in effect, an exhortation to eschew fornication of any kind; it is the imperative to be fully chaste in every sense; it means to give – to God, to the community, to one’s spouse or spouses – that purity which is the seal and the confirmation of a believer’s integrity and sincerity.

Summary

Compliance with the imperative ātā al zakāt is a normative obligation upon a believer; the believer is also – as objectively and unambiguously stated in the Qur’an – obliged to give something of whatever God gives him. The Traditionalist is correct on both counts. But he has – as he so often does – assumed his conclusions (here, those he has imported from outside the Qur’anic narrative as a value for ātā al zakāt) and he has conflated that assumption with the Qur’anic imperative to give. There is no Qur’anic basis for either of the operations he has performed.

To assert that ātā al zakāt means what the Traditionalist claims for it is to ascribe to the term a value nowhere corroborated in the Qur’an. The result is the loss of the central place which sexual purity occupies within the Qur’anic preaching and, instead, the creation and surreptitious imposition of a tax the principle of which contradicts the content and tenor of a number of Qur’anic statements (for example 2:215, 2:219, 2:188, 4:29, 6:136, 7:199).

The value discerned here for ātā al zakāt (that of preserving moral and sexual purity) is entirely consonant with all contexts as well as with the uncontested common meanings (i.e. those senses untouched by the Traditionalist’s hand) of the Arabic noun zakāt.

I render this convention to give the purity for simplicity’s sake; to enter the quagmire of grammatical ambiguity which Badawi-Haleem mention and argue from that direction would distract from my broader case. My argument rests on the demonstrable preponderance of Qur’anic contexts rather than on my ability to prove definitively a moot point of grammar which the Traditionalist himself cannot resolve.

In summary, by the collocation ātā al zakāt I understand to give (what is conducive to) – or to pay (the price of) – (sexual) purity (i.e. to abjure social activity of any type with an implied sexual connotation outside the bond of marriage), and I do so on the basis of pan-textual contexts and usage.

All instances in the text are footnoted.

References

2:43, 2:83, 2:110, 2:177, 2:277, 4:77, 4:162, 5:12, 5:55, 7:156, 9:5, 9:119:18, 9:71, 18:74, 18:81,19:13, 19:19, 19:31, 19:55, 21:73, 22:41, 22:78, 23:4, 24:37, 24:56, 27:3, 30:39, 31:4, 33:33, 41:7, 58:13, 73:20, 98:5

About the Author Sam Gerrans

Sam Gerrans is an English writer and activist with professional backgrounds in media, strategic communications, and technologies.

He is driven by commitment to ultimate meaning, and focused on authentic approaches to revelation and Realpolitik.

He is founder of Quranite.com and author of The Qur’an: A Complete Revelation where his consistent, Qur’an-centric hermeneutical methodology is applied to the text of the Qur’an in its entirety.

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