The Recipients of Zakat
There are eight categories of people to whom the collected zakat must be distributed by the leader of the Muslims and Allah, may He be exalted and glorified, lists them for us in the Qur’an when He says:
“Collected sadaqa is for: the poor, the destitute, those who collect it, reconciling people’s hearts, freeing slaves, those in debt, spending in the way of Allah, and travellers.”
The poor are considered to be those muslims who have some means of support but not sufficient to cover their needs, so they may have a job or a business but their income is not enough to pay the basic living expenses of themselves and their families. Such people are entitled to enough zakat to bring their income up to a level which enables them to meet their basic needs. This may well be the case with a merchant whose capital and stock reach the amount of the nisab. In that case he must pay whatever zakat he owes but will also be entitled to receive zakat on the basis of his personal financial situation.
The destitute are Muslims who have no property and no income whatsoever. There are, of course, many reasons which might bring this situation about. It might be due to a calamity that has befallen them or a disability which prevents them from earning or they may be people who have some property to which for some reason they temporarily have no access. Students might also fall into this category if their studies genuinely prevent them from earning and they have no other means of support.
The collectors and the distributors of zakat are also entitled to a share of it. Such men must, however, be Muslims, free men, upright and just, and well versed in all the prescriptions of the shari’a relative to the assessment and collection of zakat. This applies even if they have other means since it is in the nature of a salary for the work they do. No zakat, however, may be given to those who are placed in the position of being its custodians. They must be paid from other sources.
People whose hearts are to be reconciled
This can apply firstly to people who have just become Muslim or are on the point of doing so and who may be strengthened or swayed by help from zakat funds, and secondly to non-Muslims who are friendly towards the Muslims and who can be of some help in a war situation. This permission of the law is dependent upon close examination of the circumstances of those involved because zakat grants should only be made to non-Muslims when there is real necessity for their services or when there is a certainty of their sincere desire to become Muslims.
Zakat may be employed to help Muslim slaves to buy their freedom. Slaves freed by this means remain under the clientage of the Muslim community.
Those in debt
Zakat may be given to an individual to pay his debts, as long as these are not debts connected with the deen. This applies even to debtors who have died. Zakat to debtors is conditional on them already having handed over to their creditors all the spare money and property in their possession.
In the way of Allah
This category is generally considered to be confined to those fighting jihad to enable them to mount and equip themselves properly. Such grants may be made to fighting men even if they are well off. No part of the zakat may, however be used for the construction and upkeep of fortifications, nor for works entailed by a defensive war, nor for the construction of warships, nor for the building of mosques or any other public works.
Zakat may also be used for the support and repatriation of travellers, providing they are free Muslims, who have need of such help. This is dependent on them not being able to find anyone who can lend them what they require.
What is clear from the above categories is that zakat acts in Muslim society as the helper of last resort, a kind of final social safety net. The recipients of zakat are all people who have no access to any other source of help in their particular situation. It is important to understand that zakat is not charity. Private giving and the establishment of awqaf take care of all the ordinary charitable needs of the Muslim community. Zakat is there see to the needs of all those who have no where else to go. This is another reason why it is important that zakat should be collected communally and distributed locally since it is only communally that sufficient funds can be gathered and efficiently distributed and only at a local level that people’s real needs can be properly recognised and taken care of.
A political leader is necessary in each community to oversee the collection and distribution of zakat in each locality. Normally some of the the zakat, although not a fixed share, is allocated to the collectors and then the needs of the community’s poor and destitute taken care of, and then those of the other categories when and where appropriate. The decision about this rests in the hands of the political leader of the Muslims and such a leader must exist in every community to enable zakat to be distributed properly. Imam Malik puts the whole matter of distribution very clearly in the Muwatta when he says in the Book of Zakat in the section on those entitled to receive zakat:
The position with us concerning the dividing up of zakat is that it is up to the individual judgement of the man in charge. Whichever categories of people are in most need and are most numerous are given preference, according to how the man in charge sees fit. It is possible that this may change after a year, or two, or more, but it is always those who are in need and are most numerous that are given preference, whatever category they may belong to. This is what I have seen done by people of knowledge with whom I am satisfied.