Zakat is the third Pillar of Islam; it is an integral part of Islam. It is a required (fard) tax of 2.5% on certain types of wealth and assets that must be distributed to the needy*. There is a broad consensus among scholars that zakat cannot be distributed to non-Muslims. The verb "zakka" in Arabic means to make grow or thrive, to purify, and to improve. Thus, paying one's zakat encompasses all of these meanings. Not everyone is expected to pay zakat; only those whose wealth meets a certain threshold are obligated. And neither is all of one's income subject to zakat; only the amount of accumulated wealth that goes unused for a full year. The pairing “Establish the prayer and pay zakat” occurs 28 times in the Qur’an, indicating the particular importance of zakat. It is as critical as the prayer, and has been referred to by scholars as the partner of the prayer.
Zakat is not a voluntary donation or an act of charity. Allah says in surah al-Tawbah:“Take zakat from their wealth to purify them and cleanse them thereby and pray for them. Your prayers bring relief to them – and Allah is All-Hearing, All-Knowing.” Here, the command
khudh (“take”) is addressed to the taker, not the giver, which implies the authority to take it. One of the first actions of Abu Bakr – the first caliph in Islam after the death of the Prophet ﷺ – after he became Caliph was to fight the tribes who refused to pay zakat , even though some of them accepted the obligation of the prayer. Though‘ Umar and others advised him to have patience with these tribes, Abu Bakr was adamant:“Even if they were to refuse me a hobbling-cord which they used to pay to the Messenger of Allah ﷺ, I would fight them for it. By Allah, I will fight anyone who separates prayer and zakat!
When the Messenger ﷺ sent his Companion Mu’adh Ibn Jabal to govern Yemen, he left him with these words: “Inform them that Allah has made the five prayers each day and night obligatory for them, and that Allah has made the zakat obligatory for them, which would be collected from their wealthy and distributed to their needy.” This hadith,* which opens the very first chapter in Sahih al Bukhari’s Book of Zakat, highlights not only the obligation of paying zakat, but also the localised way in which that obligation was to be carried out.
Another hadith* tells the story of an Umayyad governor sending the Companion Imran ibn Husayn to a city to collect the zakat. When Imran returned from that city, the governor asked him: “Where is the zakat you collected?” Imran replied: “Did you send me to bring the zakat? We collected it from where we used to collect in the lifetime of the Messenger of Allah ﷺ, and we spent it where we used to spend during the time of the Messenger of Allah ﷺ.” This shows us that zakat was not to be taken away from where it was collected.
Sahnun reports in his Mudawwana that when Imam Malik was asked where zakat should be distributed, he replied: “Among the people of the land from which the zakat is taken, and in the places where the people from whom it is taken [live].” Based on the aforementioned ahadith and others, the great early scholars of Islam agreed that zakat should be given to the people of the place it is collected from, if people there are in need of it.
The early Muslims leaders took this emphasis on local collection and distribution very seriously. Sufyan al-Thawri, for example, reports that when zakat was taken from the city of Rayy to the city of Kufa 500 miles away, the Caliph ‘Umar II ordered it to be returned to Rayy. 'Umar bin ‘Abd al Aziz is often called the first Mujaddid (renewer) of the deen for calling Muslims back to the Islam of the early community.
There are no reports of any zakat proceeds being transferred from one area to another during the life of the Prophet ﷺ. This is why when, after the Companion Mu'adh sent one-third of the zakat he collected from Yemen to Medina, Caliph ‘Umar initially admonished him, saying he was sent to Yemen to take from their rich and give to their poor. To this Mu’adh replied: “I would not have sent you anything had I found someone to take it from me.” Such was the astonishing impact of locally collected and distributed zakat that only a few years after being sent to Yemen by the Prophet ﷺ, Mu'adh could no longer find anyone in need around him. Only then was the zakat sent away from the area in which it was collected.
*In terms of who is eligible for zakat, Allah says in His Book: Zakat is for the poor, the destitute, those who work to collect it, reconciling people’s hearts, freeing slaves, those in debt, spending in the Way of Allah, and travellers – a legal obligation from Allah, and Allah is All-Knowing, All-Wise. (9:60)
*Sahih al-Bukhari 1395
*Sunan Abi Dawud 1625