What is the meaning/significance of dasond (zakat) in the modern context? What is this dasond used for?
The concept and meaning of dasond or zakah remains the same in modern times since the origin of the practice. The Qur’an mentions the phrase – “Establish the prayer and give the zakah” in over 20 verses. That zakat is most often mentioned with prayer (salat) underscores its religious and spiritual importance in early Islam. Many people today have the impression that zakah means “charity” or “alms” and that its essential meaning is to give one’s wealth to the poor. This idea is incorrect from the Qur’anic point of view. Although later Muslim jurists would interpret zakah as obligatory charity, the concept of zakah as it appears in the Qur’an has a different meaning from charity.
- The word zakah is best translated as “purification due(s)” and is related to the Arabic verbs zakka (form II) and tazakka (form 5) that both mean “to purify” – used throughout the Qur’an for spiritual purification of the human soul. For example, see Qur’an 35:18 and 91:9 where the verbs are used for the purification of the soul.
- The fourth form verb anfaqa and specifically, infaq al-mal (spending of one’s wealth) is used in the Qur’an in reference to spending one’s wealth for the poor, the relatives, the travelers, etc.
- The word sadaqa is a broad term meaning “offering” and has been used to refer to any kind of offering of wealth – including zakah and general charity.
It must be noted that in the Qur’an, giving zakah is different from giving one’s wealth to the less fortunate. For example, the below verse is about spending one’s wealth on the less fortunate:
They ask you, [O Muhammad], what they should spend. Say, ‘Whatever you spend of good is [to be] for parents and relatives and orphans and the needy and the traveler. And whatever you do of good — indeed, God is Knowing of it.’
Holy Qur’an 2:215
But two verses mention that the act of charity — giving to those in need is a different matter from the giving of zakah.
So give the relative his right (haqqahu), as well as the needy and the traveler. That is best for those who desire the Face of God , and it is they who will be the successful. And whatever you give for interest to increase within the wealth of people will not increase with Allah. But what you give in zakah, desiring the Face of God — those are the multipliers.
Holy Qur’an 30:38-39
Righteousness is not that you turn your faces toward the east or the west, but [true] righteousness is [in] one who believes in God , the Last Day, the angels, the Book, and the prophets and gives wealth, in spite of love for it, to relatives, orphans, the needy, the traveler, those who ask [for help], and for freeing slaves; [and who] establishes prayer and gives zakah;
Holy Qur’an 2:177
Both of the above verses mention “giving one’s wealth” to the relatives, to the needy, the poor, etc as a separate act than giving zakah. While zakah does involve giving of one’s wealth, the purpose of the zakah offering is specifically for purification of one’s soul. Several Qur’anic verses speak giving zakah in the context of spiritual purification:
And the righteous one will avoid it [Hell]: he who gives of his wealth to purify himself (yatazakki).
Holy Qur’an 92:18
He has certainly succeeded who purified himself (tazakka) and remembers the Name of his Lord and prays (salla).
Holy Qur’an 87:14-15
The zakah was an offering (sadaqa) that the believers were required to submit to the Prophet Muhammad specifically and not an offering given to the poor. The Qur’an does not specify any percentage for zakat. But the Qur’an does outline the entire practice of zakah in the below verse which describes those believers who committed wrongdoing and were seeking God’s forgiveness. The Qur’an instructed the Prophet Muhammad to do the following to accept their repentance:
And (there are) others who have acknowledged their faults. They mixed a righteous action with another that was bad. It may be that God will relent toward them. Lo! God is Forgiving, Merciful. Take offerings (sadaqah) from their wealth, and purify (tutahhiruhum) and sanctify (tuzakkihim) them by means of it (biha). And pray/send blessings over them (salli ‘alayhim). Verily, your prayer/blessing (salataka) is a source of peace (sakan) for them. And God is the Hearing, the Knowing. Do they not know that it is God who accepts repentance from their servants and receives the offerings and that it is God who is the Accepting of repentance, the Merciful.
Holy Qur’an 9:102-104
The Qur’an orders people – who have committed sins and wrongdoings – to give an offering (sadaqah) from their wealth (amwal) to the Prophet Muhammad. The Prophet is then ordered to “take” (khud) these offerings (sadaqah) and purify and sanctify the Believers. The Prophet Muhammad is also told to give his special prayers or blessings upon the Believers – and that the special prayer of the Prophet is a source of peace (sakan) for them (the Arabic word, salat, for “prayer” and “blessing” is the same). The above verse actually reveals the essential purpose and method of the Prophet Muhammad collecting the believers’ zakah.
The Arabic word used for “purify them” is tuzakkihim which is the conjugation the verb zakka – the verb used to refer to the act of someone purifying another. This verb [form II], zakka, is of the same root as the word zakah. Several Qur’anic verses with this same verb, zakka, speak of God purifying human beings (Qur’an 21:74, 4:49), and also the Prophet Muhammad purifying the believers (2:151, 2:129, 62:2, 3:164). Thus, the zakah is a specific kind of offering that the believers gave to the Prophet Muhammad for the purification of their sins and for the Prophet’s blessings and prayer for their inner peace. As a result of the Prophet’s purification of their souls and his prayer, the believers receive the forgiveness of God. In this ritual, the Prophet effectively manifests and represents God since 9:104 states that by this practice, God is receiving the believers offerings and accepting their repentance. For further reading on the spiritual roles of the Prophet Muhammad, read this article.
Early Muslim commentaries (tafsir) on this verse from both Sunni and Shi’i sources also agree that the verse 9:103 is about zakat and its purpose. The scholar Suliman Bashear (p. 97) in an article titled “On the Origins and Development of the Meaning of Zakat in Early Islam” (Arabica, Vol. 4, Issue 1, 1993) summarizes the early interpretations of 9:103:
One must note here that the position of the exegetes (ahl al-tafsir) and most legal scholars that this verse implied the ordaining of regular zakat upon the Muslims, had to face the more general meaning implied by it, i.e. that the aim of zakat/sadaqa was the purification of sins. And this difficulty is clearly reflected in the variant reading of tutahhirhum/tathuruhum in reference to either the Prophet or to the sadaqa itself as the purifier of sins. Also noteworthy is the second part of verse IX:103 in which the Prophet was ordered to pray for those who pay the sadaqa (wa-salli ‘alayhim inna salataka sakanun lahum). Ibn Qutayba (d. 276/889) understands prayer here as supplication (du’a’). From the exegetical commentaries on this verse we learn that whenever zakat/sadaqa was paid, the Prophet prayed for the cleansing/forgiveness of the donor’s sins.
In the Shi’i Ismaili tradition, the essential purpose and meaning of zakat has remained the same as the Qur’anic concept although the particular forms have evolved according to the time and intellectual-legal contexts. Writing in the late eleventh century, Nasir-i Khusraw (Wajh-i Din) explains the meaning of zakat as an offering by which the believers’ property and souls are made pure by the Prophet Muhammad and the Imam who holds the Prophet’s authority. By this period, the forms of zakat were quite intricate and a simple summary is as follows: zakah paid on growing crops was 10% (one-tenth) also called ‘ushr; zakat on camels, sheep, and cows was about 2.5% (one-fortieth); zakat on other items like gold and silver was 5% (one-twentieth). Interestingly, despite the fact that the Nizari Ismaili Imams and communities have endured heavy persecution in the past centuries, the delivery of the zakat to the Imam – even during times of war and concealment – persisted in the face of great danger. This underscores the spiritual importance of zakat – to the point where many Ismaili murids gave their lives to ensure their zakat was submitted to the Imam. A summary description of this situation in the fourteenth century is provide by S. Virani in The Ismailis in the Middle Ages (p. 41):
The Ginans confirm that religious dues continued to be submitted to the Imam in this period [mid fourteenth century] and that propagation activities were conducted in secret. Procedural details provided in these accounts give us greater reason for confidence in the testimony. Of the sum collected, 20 percent was for local use, while the remaining 80 percent was dispatched to the Imam who, we are informed in the Ginanic account, resided in a fortress by the name of “Mor.”… Whether this particular fort is the same as the one in the Ginanic narrative is difficult to ascertain. Regardless, according to this Ginanic testimony, emissaries (rahi) traveled from Uch to Mor to convey the funds to the Imam, who was in concealment (alop). Such a system of delivering religious dues is presumed in the Counsels of Chivalry (Pandiyat-i Jawanmardi) of the fifteenth century Imam Mustansir bi’llah. Similarly, the sixteenth-century Ismaili author Muhammad Rida b. Sultan Husayn, known as Khayrkhwah Harati, also refers to the comings and goings of Ismaili dignitaries from various places, including India, to see the Imam as well as to submit religious dues.
In modern times, the zakat given by Ismaili Muslims is between 10% or 12.5% of one’s net income and the South Asian Ismailis tend to use the word “dassondh” (dasond) (meaning one-tenth). But the meaning and essence of zakat/dasond remains the same as outlined in the Qur’an: it is essentially a “purification due” that is given to the Imam of the Time, for which the Imam bestows his prayers and blessings on the murids and purifies them just as the Prophet Muhammad did during his own lifetime. Insofar as the Qur’an is a historical document, Dr. Fred Donner concludes that the original concept of zakat is more accurately described as a “purification payment” and not simply charity as contemporary Muslims have supposed:
Later Muslim tradition refers to such charity under the terms zakat or sadaqa, usually rendered “almsgiving”; these two terms are closely associated with prayer in numerous Qur’anic passages, and later Muslim tradition considers them, like prayer, to be one of the “pillars of the faith” that define a Believer. Recent research suggests, however, that the original Qur’anic meaning of zakat and sadaqa was not almsgiving, but rather a fine or payment made by someone who was guilty of some kind of sin, in exchange for which Muhammad would pray in order that they might be purified of their sin and that their other affairs might prosper.
Indeed, even in the verse just cited (2:177), one notes that payment of zakat is mentioned after prayer, suggesting that it was something different than the giving of wealth to the poor (what we usually mean by almsgiving), which is treated in the verse before mention of prayer. This understanding of zakat or sadaqa as a payment for atonement or purification of sins is clearest in the following verses: “Others have confessed their sins … Take from their propertysadaqa to cleanse them, and purify [tuzakki] them thereby, and pray for them, indeed your prayer is a consolation to them. God is all-hearing, all-knowing” (Q. 9:102-103); the verb “to purify” is from the same Arabic root as zakat. The fact that Believers were sometimes required to make such purification payments, however, underscores how the community was, in principle, focused on maintaining its inner purity, on being as much as possible a community that lived strictly in righteousness, so as to set themselves apart from the sinful world around them and thus to attain salvation in the afterlife.
Fred Donner, (Muhammad and the Believers: At the Origins of Islam, 64)
The zakat in the Qur’an is always something given to the Prophet Muhammad and the Prophet was the one who directed how the zakat was used and spent. Similarly, for the Ismaili Muslims, the zakat is the sole right of the Imam of the Time who carries the spiritual and temporal authority of the Prophet. In this respect, writing a cheque to a charitable organization or NGO does not qualify as zakat in the Ismaili perspective.
When the Imams accepted the zakah (dasond) from their murids in the past, they made it clear that in doing so, the Imam was purifying his murids and did not accept the money as charity or because he was in need of any financial support. The following is an account of zakat (dasond) being submitted to the Imam Ja’far al-Sadiq:
Al-Mufaddal b. ‘Umar came to visit (Imam Ja’far al-Sadiq) [on one occasion] bringing with him something which he placed before [the Imam]. [The Imam] asked him, ‘What is it?’ Muffadal replied, ‘The offerings of your clients and your servants, may I be made thy ransom.’
[The Imam] then said, ‘O Mufaddal, I shall certainly accept this, but, by God, I do not do this because of need, I accept these offerings only as a means of purifying the donors.’
Then he called a servant, and when they answered his summons, he told them to fetch the basket he had given them the day before. The servant brought a basket woven of palm leaves and placed it in front of their master. ‘Lo!’ [Mufaddal exclaimed], ‘it contained a jewel the like of which I have never seen, blazing in the light with a radiance like the flare of a fire.’ Then [the Imam] said, ‘O Mufaddal, is there not in this basket what suffices the progeny of Muhammad? ‘I [Mufaddal] said, ‘By God, aye [O Imam], may God make me thy ransom! Even less than this would be sufficient’
Then [the Imam] covered up the jewel and handed it over to the servant.
Da’i Qadi al-Numan, The Pillars of Islam, 75-76)
Numerous farmans of Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah have further described the purpose and importance of zakat or dasond given by the Ismaili murids (as summarized below):
- Dasond must be given willingly, wholeheartedly, truthfully and with trust in the Imam of the Time – only then will it bring worldly and spiritual benefit to the murid (KIM, No. 1, September 1, 1885)
- The Imam of the Time is the one who distributes the dasond monies appropriately (KIM, No. 1, September 1, 1885)
- Without giving dasond, one’s worship (‘ibadat) is not accepted (KIM, No. 2, Bombay, September 8, 1885)
- Every murid has promised to give dasond to the Imam and those who do will attain spiritual liberation (KIM, No. 2, Bombay, September 8, 1885)
- Those who have not given dasond, the right of the Imam, will be accountable on the Day of Judgment (KIM, No. 21,, Manjevadi, January 2, 1894)
- One’s earnings and food are only permissible (halal) after giving dasond (KIM, No. 24, Amdavad, December 2, 1896)
- Faith (iman) remains secure through giving dasond (KIM, No. 125, Nairobi, October 6, 1905)
- The Imam accepts dasond from the murids and forgives their sins (KIM, No. 125, Nairobi, October 6, 1905)
- Without giving dasond, all other deeds are meaningless and one will have nothing in the hereafter (KIM, No. 155, September 22, 1899)
Having elucidated the concept of zakat as “purification dues” as opposed to charity, it should be obvious that the zakat funds are the sole right of the Imam who is the purifier of the believers. What the Imam actually does with the zakat or dasond funds is inconsequential and irrelevant to the believer who gives the zakat; the purification of the believer takes place through the very act of giving the zakat in full faith and recognition of its rightful recipient – the Imam. What the Imam does with the zakat has no spiritual or moral effect on the person who gives the zakat.
Nevertheless, the Imams in modern times and historical scholarship have discussed some of the ways in which the zakat funds are actually spent and we answer this question of how the Imam uses the zakat/dasond offerings in this article.