Understanding Spending In God’s Way: (Zakat Or Sadaqa) In The Quranic Light*


By Abdur Rab


The Significance of Spending in God’s Way

One of the central tenets of Islam relates to spending in God’s way—zakat (or zakah)[1] or sadaqa.  Some of the reasons why those in society who can afford to engage in such spending should spend are as follows:

  • Such spending is part  and parcel of the very worship of God;
  • It is through such spending that we bring about greater egalitarianism in society;
  • Such spending is self-purifying, and it brings real contentment and happiness for the giver; and
  • Such spending also makes economic sense.

Whether one calls it zakat or sadaqa, spending on the poor and one’s disadvantaged fellow beings or for God’s cause is part and parcel of the very worship of God—for expressing our gratitude to God for His manifold blessings we enjoy (6:141), and for our livelihood that really originates from Him (2:57, 126, 172, 212; 3:27, 37; 4:130; etc.).

There is also a deep philosophical reason for humanitarian spending on the part of the rich people in society. They are just custodians of their wealth and income[2]; they need to spend that wealth and income for godly purposes—to serve only God (12:40). There is no merit in the amassing of wealth, as it has no value as a measure of virtuousness of a human being before God (34:37). Those who are stingy in humanitarian spending and amass or hoard wealth would eventually find that wealth too burdensome for them—such wealth would be tied to their necks like a collar on the Day of Resurrection (3:180). The Quran directs us to be fully alive to the need for ensuring distributive justice in society. It strongly urged the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), who was an orphan and a needy person, not to be oblivious of the needs of the orphans and the needy (93:6-10). The Quran envisions for us an egalitarian society. A society is neither egalitarian nor healthy for its all-round development when some people swim in wealth while others are ill-fed, ill-clad and ill-housed, and when they cannot provide for their health and education even at a basic level. Spending on the helpless and disadvantaged groups in society helps overall moral and spiritual uplifting of all humankind, which is the only way we elevate all men and women and help develop their latent potentials and bring about all round progress in society.


Zakat means “purification”. Spending in a benevolent or God’s way is a way of purifying oneself (92:17-21), and often a way of atoning for mistakes or misdeeds or for inability to perform other desirable religious acts. The Quran is emphatic in proclaiming that we cannot attain piety until we spend of that which we love (3:92). The rationale for spending for others is also to be found in the consideration that a human being can hardly live alone in happiness without sharing his or her earnings and possessions with others. God-loving people spend for the poor, the orphans, and the captives out of love for, and pleasure of, God—which is essentially their own pleasure, and they seek or expect no reward or thanks in return (76:8-9; 92:20-21).

2Ye will not attain piety until ye spend of what ye love. And whatever ye spend, God is well aware of it.” (3:92)

“As for the righteous, he will be spared it (the blazing Fire), one who giveth from his riches for self-purification. He seeketh nothing in return, but seeketh (only) the pleasure of his Lord, the Most High. It is he who verily will find contentment.” (92:17-21)

“Take (O Muhammad) contributions (sadaqa) from their riches to purify them, and make them grow (in spirituality), and encourage them. Verily your encouragement is reassurance for them.” (9:103)

Spending thus works essentially like prayer, or can broadly be conceived as part of prayer itself. Indeed, as God warns us in the Quran, neglecting needed help and support to needy people renders one’s prayer null and void (107:1-7). Spending in God’s way is thus an essential component of righteousness (2: 177).

The Quran emphasizes spending in God’s way as a greatly virtuous act:

“Ah, what will convey unto thee what the Ascent is!”

“(It is) to set a slave free,”

“And to feed the hungry,”

“An orphan near of kin,”

“Or a poor person in misery,”

“Then he has become one of those who believe, and enjoin one another patience and kindness.2

“Those are the people on the right path.” (90:12-18)

“The example of those who spend their wealth in God’s way is like a grain that groweth seven ears, with a hundred grains in every ear. God giveth increase manifold to whomever He pleaseth.” (2:261)

 It is only the wrong-headed people who dispute the case for spending for others:

“When they are told: Spend of what God hath provided you, those who disbelieve say to those who believe: “Shall we feed those whom God could feed, if He so willed?” Ye are clearly misguided.” (36:47)

From even a purely economic point of view, a high concentration of income and wealth in fewer hands is counter-productive. Such a concentration adversely affects the development of human resources, and holds down effective demand and holds back economic expansion. High inequality of income and wealth destroys social cohesion, peace and harmony, and breeds bitter feelings on the part of the poor and deprived people, and creates scope for social crimes, immorality and frustration. The have-nots at some time may feel so frustrated that they may even feel prompted to rise against the haves to pull them down.

The Scope of Spending in God’s Way: the Wider Meaning

“Spending in God’s way” means much more than is conventionally being understood. A careful reading of the Quran does reveal that such spending should be from both income and wealth, that the amount we should spend should be a considerably higher proportion of our income and wealth than is currently being practiced, and that the purposes for which we should spend are much more varied than are usually thought.

The Quran urges us to spend out of our wealth and income or production (2:254; 6:141). Besides, we should use part of our income for our and our families’ current consumption, and save and invest part of our income for future consumption, but we should not keep it idle or hoard it. Hoarding is bad for an economy. It deprives others; it curbs effective demand in the economy and holds back economic expansion, and if the hoarding is done in goods, it creates artificial scarcities and high prices of the hoarded goods. The Quran strongly condemns hoarding (3): 180).

Though, everything prescribed in the Quran is fard or obligatory for us, God specifically mentions sadaqa as fard for us, and He mentions where such spending should go:

“The alms (sadaqa) are for the poor, the needy, and those who administer them, and those whose hearts are to be reconciled (to truth), and to free the slaves and the debtors, and for the cause of God, and (for) the wayfarers; an obligatory duty (fard) imposed by God. God is Knower, Most Wise.” (9:60)

Such spending is for those who beg or are needy, and for those who are deprived or poor (70:25), and also for parents, near relatives, orphans, wayfarers, and for those who ask (2:177), and for other causes of God, including that for freeing of captives or slaves and for necessary reconciliation or rehabilitation of new converts to religion (2:177, 215; 8:41; 9:60; 24:22). Spending is also for those who are in need of help, but being involved in the cause of God, are unable to move about in the land, and who do not beg importunately (2:273). Likewise, we need also to spend for other noble causes such as for relieving the burden of those who are heavily laden with debt (9:60), and for miscellaneous other noble purposes, which can be termed as causes of God. As for the spending for the new converts, the Quran speaks well of the God-loving believers during the Prophet’s time, who were so generous to those who came to them for refuge that they gave preference to the refugees over themselves in helping them, even though they were poor (59:9).

God advises those of us who are affluent that we should not make such promises as not to help our relatives, poor people, and those who leave their homes for the cause of God; and we are urged to forgive them and ignore their faults (24:22). He loves those who spend not only when they are in affluence or ease, but also when they are in hardship (3:134). He admonishes us to give others what is good, and not what we regard as bad and do not want to receive for ourselves (2:267). God characterizes freeing of war captives or slaves or marrying them as equal partners as very important righteous deeds. Spending for such purposes is likewise a great virtue in the sight of God (2:177; 9:60).

Although unlike in the case of sadaqa, the Quran nowhere mentions where the zakat should go, and by how much in relation to income or wealth, both sadaqa and zakat appear to mean the same thing in principle, and also in practice. The current practice of zakat at a low proportion (21/2 percent) of one’s wealth (which includes the value of most of one’s assets with some exceptions such as the family house) appears inadequate in light of the Quran, especially for high-income people, as well as from the point of view of the demands of society for a multiplicity of beneficial works (for God’s cause) on top of provisions for the poor.

Concerning what to spend in God’s way and how much, the Quran explicitly states:

“O ye who believe! Spend of the good things which ye have earned, and of what We bring forth from the earth for you, and seek not the bad to spend thereof when ye would not take it for yourselves unless ye close your eyes.” (2:267)

“They ask thee concerning what they should spend. Say: That which is in excess (of your needs). Thus God maketh clear (His) revelations, that you may think.” (2:219)

“And they, when they spend (in charity), are neither extravagant nor niggardly; they keep a just (balance) between these (two limits)” (25:67).

In these verses, the Quran asks us to spend out of what we earn and produce (i.e., from our income and production), out of what we like for ourselves, and from that which is in excess of our needs. Our needs can be understood as those for our own consumption, including needs that accommodate provisions for savings and investments for our needed future consumption. “Need” is a subjective term, and hence can be interpreted variously. The same is true of the term “niggardliness”—in one of the above verses the Quran exhorts us not to be niggardly in spending as well. When deciding about how much to spend in God’s way, individuals concerned need to make their decisions according to what they feel or think about their own needs and what they consider as niggardly. Thus the amount of spending in God’s way should be in excess of our needs, and a reasonable balance between extravagance and niggardliness.

Two other verses of the Quran also shed more light on how much one should spend out of windfall income or wealth like the spoils of war and other gains:

“They ask thee (O Muhammad) about the spoils of war. Say: The spoils of war are for God and the Messenger. So be careful of (your duty to) God, and settle matters of your difference, and obey God and His Messenger if ye do believe.2 (8:1)

“And know: Of anything ye gain, a fifth is for God and His Messenger, relatives, orphans, the needy, and the wayfarer, if ye do believe in God and in what We have revealed to Our servant.” (8:41).

The first of these verses relates to gains such as the war booties. Such gains wholly belong to “God and the Messenger”, which means that such gains should be distributed entirely for God’s cause—for meeting the needs of the poor and needy people and other welfare needs. The handling and distribution of these gains should be done and administered by the state or by state-sponsored appropriate public or private sector organizations (modern-day NGOs, for example). There may be other gains of the nature of what economists call “windfall gains”, the handling and distribution of which warrant similar treatment. Some examples of such gains are instant treasure troves found by some people, and real estates, bank deposits and other assets left by deceased people who have no near relatives with any legitimate claim to such assets. Lottery earnings also fall in the category of windfall gains, which deserve to be heavily taxed by the state for welfare needs. Note, however, that the Quran strongly discourages us to indulge in games of chance (2:219; 5:90–91). Hence, in Muslim countries lotteries and gambling should not be allowed in the first place. However, if any citizens in these countries receive profits from lotteries overseas, such profits deserve to be highly taxed by the Muslim state.

The second verse (8:41) calls for spending or distribution of a fifth of other gains or income we earn for God’s cause, and for near relatives, orphans, needy, wayfarers, etc. That implies that there should be a twenty percent tax on normal or regular gains or income for both state and other welfare activities. These verses warrant drawing the following summarized implications concerning how much we should spend in God’s way:

  • First, we should spend in excess of our needs, and choose an appropriate balance between extravagance and niggardliness;
  • Second, the excess over needs implies a more than proportionate ability to spend in relation to income and wealth of a person suggesting a need for progressive taxation for welfare needs;
  • Third. windfall gains such as war booties and other gains of the essentially same nature should be spent entirely in God’s cause, and their distribution should be left at the discretion of the public authority, i.e. the state; and
  • Fourth, we should spend in God’s way one fifth of our normal gains—income or wealth, which are gains other than windfall gains of the nature of war booties. This entitles the state to tax people’s normal income or wealth at the rate of 20 percent for meeting the welfare needs of the state.[3]

These directions of the Quran highlight that the proportion of our income, wealth or gains to be spent in God’s way should normally be a considerably higher fraction than the 2½ percent (of wealth), which is generally believed as the zakat amount. Note that such spending should go not only to the destitute and needy, it should be used also for a multiplicity of noble causes, which we can lump together as God’s cause. A substantial chunk of such causes is best handled at the government level, while others may be left for private individuals. During our Prophet’s time, considerable resources in the forms of believing men and goods were mobilized for conducting war against the invading infidels.

“Go forth (O ye who believe), equipped with light arms and heavy arms, and strive with your wealth and your lives in God’s cause. That is best for you if ye only knew.” (9: 41)

Resources mobilized in the forms of men and goods used for purposes of defense are spending in God’s cause. There are many such needs in God’s cause that need to be met at the government or public sector level. The government should cater to such needs, and sadaqa or appropriate taxation should finance such needs. All those parts of government expenditure, which are meant for social welfare—feeding and rehabilitation of destitute people, provisions for unemployed workers, education, labor training, health and hospital services and similar spending directed especially to amelioration of the conditions of the poor, and those which are meant for making available what economists call “public goods” that are best produced at the public sector level—are indeed instances of spending for God’s cause. Public goods are those goods and services, the production of which, if left to the private sector alone, is grossly neglected or inadequately met. Public goods are similar to what Muslim scholars recognize as acts or goods of public interest (muslaha), but they are not exactly the same. Some examples of public goods are social peace and security, defense against external aggression, administration of law and justice, promotion of social, cultural and spiritual development, economic policymaking and general public administration for miscellaneous government functions. All such state functions should count within the purview of God’s cause. And in an impoverished developing economy, the state has a special role to play in promoting economic development, which indeed is the best answer to alleviation of poverty for the poor. For promoting economic development, considerable investment is needed in physical infrastructure (such as roads, highways, railways, waterways, ports, telecommunications, power and energy, etc.) as well as in human skills and education, technology and research. Promotion of such development is crucial for expanding employment opportunities and raising living standards and, in the long run for dealing with the problem of the poor.

It is clear that spending in God’s way covers a lot more things than are currently covered by the zakat or sadaqa system. It matters little whether one calls it zakat or sadaqa. But this system is in need of major reform in light of the directions given in the Quran and in light of recent developments in the conception of functions of a modern state. Spending in God’s way then of individuals will comprise both the taxes they pay for benevolent works of the government at the government level and whatever they can afford to spend voluntarily at the private sector level on top of the taxes they pay. It should be recognized that what the government can or should do efficiently is inadequate to deal with the total problem of social inequity and to promote overall social welfare; and there is much still left to be done at the individual level. But limiting such benevolent and humanitarian spending to just 2½ percent of one’s wealth will be taking a very narrow view of spending in God’s way in light of the Quran. Such spending should not be limited just to a proportion of wealth alone as is generally understood in the case of zakat. The verses (2:267; 6:141) cited above clearly point to spending from earning and production. Hence earning or production could also be used as a base for such spending. And the proportion should be a flexible one depending on how much one can afford neither being too generous nor too niggardly as directed in verse (25:67) cited above, taking into account what he or she has already paid to the government in the form of taxes for God’s cause.

The ultimate aim of the zakat or sadaqa system should be to eradicate poverty, and help people get work opportunities and become self-reliant, and not to perpetuate a beggars’ class in society, which is not only degrading for them but also a nuisance in society. To the extent possible and economically efficient, such spending should be handled at the state level. Many modern developed countries have well-planned public welfare and social security systems embodying unemployment benefits and certain medical benefits and administered at the state level in conjunction with enterprise level retirement, lay-off and medical insurance benefits, and it is not left to the whims of individuals to cater to such welfare needs. Social security systems existing in some of the developed countries essentially exhibit the basic principles of the sadaqa system that the Quran propounds. Though there is some debate as to what developed countries are really doing for developing countries (they often take back what they give in different ways[4]), the concessional aid they give and what their sponsored multilateral development financing institutions give to the developing countries is also a kind of sadaqa at state level on the part of the rich countries to the poor ones. Such aid should also be counted in the calculation for how much more resources the government should mobilize domestically to cater to the needs of the poor and development and social welfare needs. The need for paying sadaqa at the individual level will last as long as the state cannot pay full attention to the problems of helpless people. The state in many developing countries is almost invariably unable to take full care of the poor and the needy. Also considering that public sector welfare systems in developing countries are found to be almost always plagued by significant corruption as available evidence suggests, there remains considerable room for charities at the individual level. When a believing man or woman can afford to spend and perceives the need for such spending, it becomes incumbent on him or her to do it. That is as good as his/her prayer for his/her own spiritual advancement. And a significant part of such spending should be given to reputable international charitable organizations and international and domestic NGOs (non-governmental organizations), which engage in development and social welfare activities, and which are known to be more efficient and less corrupt than the relevant government departments.

Another point to be noted in this regard is that the scope of such spending should also embrace interest-free or concessional lending, which the Quran calls qarz-hasana (beautiful lending) (2:245; 57:11, 18; 64:17; 5:12; 73:20). In modern days, some of this concessional financing function is being performed in developing countries by developed country aid agencies and multilateral development financing institutions. The Quranic message of interest-free loans is applicable only for disadvantaged borrowers, who deserve to be treated with a humanitarian approach. The Quran also encourages the lenders to remit interest on remaining loans, and postpone or write off the original loans in cases where the borrowers are in difficulty to repay them (2:278-280). In cases, which deserve humanitarian considerations, loans should indeed be extended free of interest, and where appropriate, such loans should be given as grants or alms, which is sadaqa in the Quranic terminology.


Spending in God’s way should be understood in a much broader sense than the generally understood zakat system. It involves considerable spending on the part of a modern state for a variety of functions financed through a well-devised taxation system, besides charitable spending at the individual level. The best kind of spending in God’s way is helping others stand on their own feet. To help another person in a way, which makes him or her look for help all the time, is inherently ill motivated, and is like that of those who like to be seen by men, and is of no intrinsic virtue to them (2:264). From this point of view, the modern state should take appropriate measures to promote investment and development to increase opportunities for gainful employment of unemployed people, along with crafting a well-devised social welfare and security system. At the individual level, such efforts should include savings, investment and work that would help build infrastructure and industries for employment-generating development, along with their humanitarian spending in deserving cases.

*This article is a summarized, consolidated and revised version of the discussion on the same subject in some parts of the author’s recently published book Exploring Islam in a New Light: An Understanding from the Quranic Perspective. An earlier version under the title “The Significance of Spending in God’s Way” can be seen on the website: http://free-minds.org

[1] The word zakat is generally understood as a kind of obligatory poor-due at a certain fixed fraction of one’s wealth. The word has also another meaning – purification. The use of the word zakat in the same verse after “spending for the poor” suggests that the word zakat in this verse should be taken to mean purification, rather than poor-due. In that case the meaning of the later part of the verse “akimus-salat o-atuz- zakat” should be like “establish prayer and attain purification”.

[2] Current earnings make up income, and wealth is accumulated earnings and/or inherited assets.

[3] I am grateful to Layth Al-Shaiban, who manages the Internet website http://free-minds.org and is also a co-author of Quran—A Reformist Translation, for a comment on an earlier interpretation of mine, which has helped to rephrase the interpretation into the present one.

[4] One important case in point is the system of protection that the developed countries themselves provide to their domestic activities through government tariffs on imports from developing countries and government subsidies to their farmers for production of agricultural products, and in some cases, through subsidies on exports of certain agricultural products. According to recent World Bank estimates, such trade restrictions of both developed and developing countries hurt the poor developing countries more than they receive by way of aid from the rich countries.