Money. These days it is hardly of secondary importance for those who don't have it. And even for many who do! What does Islam say about it? Islam recognizes the value of wealth. It refers to it as:
"Your property which Allah has made for you a means of support."[Al-Nisa, 4:5].
But it also warns about its dual nature: it could be a blessing or a curse. It is a blessing if used to do good. Prophet Muhammad, Sall-Allahu alayhi wa sallam, declared that person to be in an enviable position who has lot of wealth and he spends it day and night in the cause of righteousness. Otherwise it is a curse. No one who reads the following verse can think of it in any other way:
"And there are those who hoard gold and silver, and spend it not in the way of Allah. Announce unto them a most grievous chastisement. On the day when it will be heated in the fire of Hell, and with it will be branded their foreheads, their flanks, and their backs. `This is the treasure that you hoarded for yourselves. Taste then the treasure you hoarded.'"[Al-Tauba 9:34-35]
The two characters are brought together in a beautiful juxtaposition in a hadith. "The case of a miser and a giver of charity is similar to that of two persons clad in armor from their breasts to their collar-bones. Every time the generous person gives charity, his armor expands, till it covers his finger tips and toes. Every time the miser intends to spend something, his armor contracts, every ring of it sinking into his flesh. He tries to loosen it but cannot." [Bukhari and Muslim]. It should be remembered that here a generous person is one who spends generously in the path of Allah. A miser is one whose love of money keeps him from such spending even though he may be spending lavishly in other areas.
Such love of money is a disease of the heart and the first purpose of charity in Islam is to work as an antidote against that. That is why the Qur'an asked the Prophet, Sall-Allahu alayhi wa sallam,
"Of their wealth take alms to purify and sanctify them." [Tauba 9:103].
Hence the name Zakat (purification) for the main form of that obligation. And it is for this reason that Zakat remains obligatory even if there are no needy persons in a community.
Of course, the system of Zakat is designed to help the poor and the needy and it is a highly desirable characteristic of the believers that in addition to prayers and other acts of worship they are always conscious of this duty.
"And in their wealth there is due share for the beggar and the deprived." [Al-Zariyat, 51:19].
They do it for no other motive but to please their Lord.
"And they feed, for the love of Allah, the indigent, the orphan, and the captive, saying: `We feed you for the sake of Allah alone. No reward do we desire from you, nor thanks.'" [Al-Insan, 76:8-9]
Charity itself has been a cherished institution in all human societies. It remains so even in the capitalistic society. But without a strong belief in Allah and the Hereafter, a charitable act can only be motivated by a desire for fame or some other worldly reward. Human beings are driven by rewards. The only truly selfless act is one in which the reward is sought from Allah instead of other human beings. And that is the change in orientation that Islam provides and that remains its most distinguishing feature. Once a goat was slaughtered in the Prophet's household and its meat was distributed. Later on the Prophet, Sall-Allahu alayhi wa sallam, asked Aisha, Radi-Allahu unha, what was saved from the goat? "Nothing but a shank," she said. "Everything but the shank," said the Prophet, Sall-Allahu alayhi wa sallam. For what was given away in charity was truly saved for the hereafter.
There are other distinct features of Islam's system of Zakat. The Qur'an mentions where it can be used.
"The alms are only for the poor and the needy, and for those employed in connection therewith, and for those whose hearts are to be reconciled, and for the freeing of slaves, and for those in debt, and for the cause of Allah, and for the wayfarer." [Al-Tauba 9:60].
These are very precise and specific categories, the seemingly general category of "cause of Allah" referring to Jihad by consensus of scholars.
We can better appreciate the immense wisdom in this arrangement if we compare it with Tithe. Under that system, adopted by the Christian Church, lay people were forced to pay a tenth of their income to the church to "support the clergy, maintain churches and assist the poor"-- mostly in that order. The system led to widespread abuses. It was for this reason that tithe was abolished in France in 1789 during the Revolution and in other countries after that. England finally ended it in 1936. It was never accepted in the U.S.
Zakat, on the other hand, cannot be used to maintain mosques or support the scholars. Neither can it be used to support the normal functioning of the government. No one can change its rate, sources, or application, which are all pre-determined by the Qur'an and Sunnah. All these distinguish Zakat as an act of worship rather than a tax and have been responsible for keeping the system mostly free of corruption, even at a time when some Muslim countries have generally fallen victim to the corruption epidemic. Yet the problem is that a very large number of those who should be paying Zakat are careless about their responsibility.
To be sure, a Muslim has financial obligations other than Zakat (to support mosques, schools, and other community projects on an as needed basis), but Zakat itself remains the most potent system for addressing the economic problems of the Ummah. With 2.5% of the savings of the rich people throughout the Ummah going to its poor people every year, the basic needs of everyone could be satisfied. In fact if used properly, it could put IMF, the World Bank, and other shylocks who have been enriching themselves at the expense of the poor out of business in the Muslim countries.
Even for our economic problems, Islam is the solution. If only we would give it a chance.