A pillar of Islam, a principle of nature
In the name of Allah, the Gracious, the Merciful
Every person has a tendency within themselves to yearn for something greater, to give their lives and effort over to something bigger and better than themselves. This tendency was placed in us by the Creator as a fact of nature and activated within us by the wisdom of divine revelation. When we take hold of this urge and nurture it, we begin to be filled with good will towards all of Allah’s creatures and even nature itself.
The concept of living selflessly beyond one’s individual desires is encapsulated in one of the pillars of Islam, the concept of Zakāt. The word Zakāt in Arabic means growth (namā’), purity (ṭahārah), and blessing (barakah). It is mentioned over twenty seven times in the Quran in association with Ṣalāt, or prayer. In other words, it is just as important in Islam as prayer.
The practical manifestation of Zakāt is the Islamic obligation of donating a specific amount of charity every year to the poor (2.5% of surplus wealth). Unfortunately, many Muslims mistakenly reduce the idea of Zakāt to charity only, but in reality it is much more than that. Zakāt in its general meaning is seeking growth, sustainability, and wellness in all aspects of life; charity is just one aspect of it. Allah created humanity to be a “successor” (khalīfa) on earth, which implies responsibility for custodianship of the natural environment and care for our fellow creatures.
To clarify the concept of Zakāt, Allah related it to natural phenomenon in the chapter entitled al-Naml (the ants). This chapter gives us a rare chance to listen to nature’s perspective and how it reacts to the abuses of humanity.
Allah begins the chapter by defining the believers by their prayers and their commitment to Zakāt:
الَّذِينَ يُقِيمُونَ الصَّلَاةَ وَيُؤْتُونَ الزَّكَاةَ وَهُم بِالْآخِرَةِ هُمْ يُوقِنُونَ
They are those who establish prayer and deliver zakāt and are certain of the Hereafter.
Surat al-Naml 27:3
Zakāt can only be achieved by living for what is beyond one’s self. In this context, the believers are the most committed to this principle as they live for Allah, the greatest of all and by extension they live for the benefit of all creatures. Allah then gives the example of Moses, peace be upon him, in the same chapter where his journey to prophecy began first with a journey to serve his family:
إِذْ قَالَ مُوسَىٰ لِأَهْلِهِ إِنِّي آنَسْتُ نَارًا سَآتِيكُم مِّنْهَا بِخَبَرٍ أَوْ آتِيكُم بِشِهَابٍ قَبَسٍ لَّعَلَّكُمْ تَصْطَلُونَ
Moses said to his family: I have seen a fire, so I will bring you some news from there or bring you a torch to warm yourselves.
Surat al-Naml 27:7
In keeping with the theme of Zakāt, Moses was living and contributing to something greater than himself, his family, which then led him to serve Allah. To live for our family is something natural and healthy, but we should not stop there. It can be cultivated into greater respect and altruism towards all the creatures of the earth.
When it comes to nature, Allah bestowed Solomon, peace be upon him, with the special ability to understand animals:
وَقَالَ يَا أَيُّهَا النَّاسُ عُلِّمْنَا مَنطِقَ الطَّيْرِ وَأُوتِينَا مِن كُلِّ شَيْءٍ ۖ إِنَّ هَٰذَا لَهُوَ الْفَضْلُ الْمُبِينُ
Solomon said: O people, we have been taught the language of birds and we have been given all things. Verily, this is a clear favor.
Surat al-Naml 27:16
In Solomon we get a glimpse of what nature has to say through an insightful example we should ponder. An ant warned its fellow ants in the colony as Solomon was marching by with his army, as it was alarmed that it and its fellow ants might be crushed. Solomon, a prophet who lived by the philosophy of Zakāt, was delighted:
حَتَّىٰ إِذَا أَتَوْا عَلَىٰ وَادِ النَّمْلِ قَالَتْ نَمْلَةٌ يَا أَيُّهَا النَّمْلُ ادْخُلُوا مَسَاكِنَكُمْ لَا يَحْطِمَنَّكُمْ سُلَيْمَانُ وَجُنُودُهُ وَهُمْ لَا يَشْعُرُونَ فَتَبَسَّمَ ضَاحِكًا مِّن قَوْلِهَا
When they came upon the valley of ants, an ant said: O ants! Enter your dwellings that you will not be crushed by Solomon and his soldiers while they do not realize it! Thus, Solomon smiled in amusement at her words.
Surat al-Naml 27:18-19
Even creatures as small as ants should be respected and should be left unharmed except only when necessary. On one occasion, a prophet was stung by an ant and he retaliated against the whole colony by burning it. Allah was displeased with this action, as the Prophet ﷺ told us:
فَأَوْحَى اللَّهُ إِلَيْهِ أَفِي أَنْ قَرَصَتْكَ نَمْلَةٌ أَهْلَكْتَ أُمَّةً مِنْ الْأُمَمِ تُسَبِّحُ
Allah revealed to him: A single ant has bitten you, yet you have destroyed a nation that glorifies Allah?
Zakāt encourages us to live for the benefit of even the smallest creatures, then how much more should we care for other people?
The reality of Zakāt is that it is a natural phenomenon instilled in our hearts by Allah; it is what makes a mother put herself in danger to save her children, it is what compels people to contribute to something greater than themselves. Those who ignore or suppress that feeling within themselves will never be able to transcend the despair of a selfish life.
At this point, we need to connect the philosophy of Zakāt with the pressing need to sustain the development of the human species. The vice of humanity is to exalt the personal ego over the needs of others; this vice is multiplied when it turns abusive against the natural world upon which we all depend.
The Prophet ﷺ told us that our refusal to live by Zakāt, as crystallized in the form of charity, will permeate negatively into nature itself:
وَلَمْ يَمْنَعُوا زَكَاةَ أَمْوَالِهِمْ إِلَّا مُنِعُوا الْقَطْرَ مِنْ السَّمَاءِ وَلَوْلَا الْبَهَائِمُ لَمْ يُمْطَرُوا
People do not withhold zakāt from their wealth except that rain will be withheld from the sky, and were it not for the animals there would be no rain at all.
Growth and sustainability are universal principles we cannot ignore. Anything that wants to sustain itself has to look beyond itself. No one can truly live a purely selfish life and expect to grow at the same time.
For example, the Zakāt of knowledge is to teach it to others, yet by doing so the teacher reinforces his own knowledge. Likewise, the Zakāt of wealth ensures that free-flowing and fair economic activity will continue to benefit the entire community; charity should be viewed as an investment and not a loss.
As the Prophet ﷺ said:
مَا نَقَصَتْ صَدَقَةٌ مِنْ مَالٍ
Charity does not decrease wealth.
We can revive the value of Zakāt in Islam to meet the sustainable development challenges of the modern day. It is not difficult to observe our abuse toward other living beings and nature in the form of pollution and ruthless economic practices. This behavior threatens not only our own human existence, but also every creature on the earth.
In this turbulent time for Muslims, it is easy to ignore our abusive relationship with nature and to justify our ignorance by turning to other pressing issues that need our attention. Yet, such thinking misses the point entirely, for it is only by renewing the divine values of Islam that we will come up with wise solutions. Ignoring the need for sustainable growth and development is ignoring Zakāt, and ignoring Zakāt is ignoring the pillar of Islam.
The value of Zakāt is a philosophy of life in Islam. It means to live a life of good deeds for all creatures around us; to constantly give charity to others in the form of wealth, time, effort, prayers, good thoughts and words, or anything that makes the world a better place.
As the Prophet ﷺ said:
كُلُّ مَعْرُوفٍ صَدَقَةٌ وَإِنَّ مِنْ الْمَعْرُوفِ أَنْ تَلْقَى أَخَاكَ بِوَجْهٍ طَلْقٍ
Every good deed is charity, even meeting your brother with a smiling face.
Zakāt includes every good deed we do for others, everything we do to contribute beyond our own selves. We cannot assume we have done enough by paying the obligatory charity while ignoring the serious issues that threaten our own communities and environment. We have a duty to secure our own generation as well as those to come.
Our positive thoughts, our prayers, our knowledge, our values, our wisdom, our skills, our wealth, and every positive trait we have is needed by somebody, somewhere. Part of our purpose in this life is to share and transfer everything good we have to our families, to our communities, to the next generations, to humanity as a whole, and to nature itself. By being a source of purity, growth, and beneficence towards all beings we can truly fulfill the deepest meanings of Zakāt, the pillar of Islam.
Success comes from Allah, and Allah knows best.
 Lisān al-‘Arab 7/46