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Islamic Practical Theology: waqf and zakāt as Theological Foundations

Part of the Muslims in Global Societies Series book series (MGSS,volume 9)


Islamic practical theology represents a conceptual framework for Islamic social work as well as other fields of practice, such as pastoral care. In these fields, it is necessary to meet professional standards but theological reflection is also required. Islamic faith is intrinsically linked to social justice, good deeds and helping mankind, while material greed is strongly criticised by the Qurʾan. This chapter focuses on two terms and concepts which can play a major role in such a reflection: the first is waqf (endowment) which, going back to the practice of the Prophet and the first caliphs, binds property to charitable intentions and to God, as a receiver and possessor of all things. Manifold examples from the history of social welfare in Islam express how waqf has been implemented in different contexts. The second concept is zakāt (compulsory alms) which, as a central religious duty of solidarity, is intended to guarantee social peace and the dignity of the poor and needy. According to the Qurʾan, there are eight groups of recipients of zakāt. Looking at parallels between the historical context and the current context of establishing Muslim welfare care in modern societies demonstrates how zakāt can potentially be put into practice. For this purpose, classical and modern positions are brought into conversation. Contrary to some interpretations, the Qurʾan’s open-minded hermeneutics do not address a particular religious affiliation, so zakāt in fact goes beyond religious categories and can be applied in multicultural and plural societies. Consequently, the aim should be to integrate Muslim activities and reflections into the framework of modern welfare states. Openly understood in this way, Muslim welfare can enrich society without dividing it.


  • Islamic practical theology
  • Welfare state
  • Solidarity
  • waqf
  • zakāt


With this chapter, I would like to clarify what I understand by the concept of practical theology as a common term for a theology of Islam which aims to address the social questions and problems at the heart of life. A brief review of the last two decades, which were filled with rapid turmoil and change within our immigration society, as well as within communities of Muslim social background, reveals an increasing need for professionally organised support facilities along with a demand-oriented supply of welfare services.

Communities and so-called backyard mosques are going through a process of structural change and need to reshape their educational mission. The original educational mission of the congregations, which aimed solely to preserve Muslim identity among the diaspora, needs to be transformed into an opening of the theological discipline to take into account the concerns and problems of congregation members. This can only be achieved if the change is accompanied by the development of a special kind of practical theology. The process of change also affects Muslims based in Europe in their everyday life, as they need advice when dealing with educational issues, violence, radicalisation of Muslim youth or health care.

Practical theology, as we know, did not derive from the context of Islamic theology, although it has always been very close to the core idea of charitable religiosity. According to my understanding, waqf can be regarded as an equivalent to the concept of practical theology in the Christian tradition and plays an important role in bringing out equality and human development. “Literally, waqf means to stop, contain, or to preserve. In shari’a, the term describes a voluntary, permanent, irrevocable dedication of a portion of one’s wealth – in cash or kind – to Allah.” (Musari, 2016, 4)

Therefore, practical theology is a generic term which refers to various fields of action such as pastoral care and social work. Furthermore, it can include all conceivable social services that serve to develop and improve skills related to a healthy lifestyle such as self-efficacy, life management and, last but not least, resilience. We do not aim at a conventional theological education. From the perspective of the individual, it is the promotion of theological reflection in dealing with social problems, and overall, with the ever-increasing complexity of everyday life. On a social level, practical theology serves to shape the social ideal which a society represents spiritually. For Islamic practical theology this would mean: the establishment of desired general welfare (maṣlaḥa), according to the principle of social justice.

In the following chapter, we assume that the professional understanding of social work should not suffer from religious colouring. We are clearly opposed to the idea of a special ‘Islamic social welfare’. Professional social work – to put it more precisely – should not only target the interest of a special group: on the contrary, the impulse of Muslim thoughts and ideas for social services should be professionalised in a socio-educational manner. This intention will be demonstrated by the following: a brief explanation of the basic ideas of endowment, and compulsory alms (zakāt). Allow me at this point to mention merely the opening sentence of a long prophetic saying (Hadith) as an example:

Those favoured by Allah are the useful souls! Allah approves of the following actions: bringing joy to the heart of a person, taking care of someone, freeing someone from the burden of debt, giving the hungry food and nourishment. I also prefer to accompany someone and do good for that person rather than staying in the mosque (iʿtikāf) for a month; Whoever has his anger under control, experiences God’s protection for his weakness; He who controls his anger while he is able to enforce it, fills Allah’s heart with satisfaction on the day of judgment; He who accompanies his brother until he reaches his goal safely, will surely reach his goal on the day of judgment, a day on which many people will miss their goals; Bad manners truly spoil every good deed, just as vinegar spoils the taste of honey. (Al-Ṭabarānī: Al-muʿğam al-awṣaṭ, Hadith No. 6:139)

Faith transforms man into someone who, among other things, gives away his possessions for the needy, whether they be relatives, orphans, the poor, travellers, or beggars, and for (the ransom of) slaves, as well as in the event of calamities. Qurʾanic exegesis offers an insight into the meaning of the term birr, its complex and multi-layered structure: the term birr stands for actions that extend beyond the individual arena and positively involve other people. Birr essentially means doing good to people (Helli, 2017, 122, 136ff.). Helli notes that three areas of birr are addressed: faith, interpersonal actions and actions between man and God, or joint actions. In addition, Helli draws attention to a fourth dimension, which is enormously important for pastoral care and social work, namely acting on one’s own self. Steadfastness in times of need, suffering and crisis is elementary within pastoral care and social work– for both partners of the process, the service provider and the beneficiary.

Although practical theology is not familiar as a term of Islamic erudition, it has played a central role since the beginning of the revelation of Islam in the seventh century. Islam has been from the beginning and is still now, a religion with a strong socio-ethical and social-religious character. Even the first Surah of the revelation addresses social-critical and social issues such as wealth and poverty, equality of all people and various forms of social disadvantage. The social-religious consciousness in Islam is familiar to every Muslim. Thus, the allegory of the single body of the community and the feeling of holistic pain when a member of this body is affected based on a prophetic saying in which this allegory is used (Muslim: Ṣahīḥ, Hadith No. 2586), has remained valid until today as a symbol of community solidarity and one of true faith. “No one is truly believable who goes to bed satiated while he knows that his neighbour is starving” (Al-Albānī, 1994, 1:279), are the words of the Prophet Muhammad. For this purpose, Islamic theology has constructed the concept of waqf – welfare or endowment – as a field of action for practical theology and filled it with many wonderful examples in terms of content. Against this background, it is somewhat difficult to understand why the infrastructure of Islamic welfare is not fully developed enough to cater for the needs of Muslims living in Europe. The great challenge, among other things, is to empower a conscious identification with the principles and fundamental values of the welfare state and to build up social responsibility for the social integration of all people. A turnaround has already taken place in the self-image of the majority of Muslims as citizens of this society. It is the task of science, civil society and politics to actively shape this process.

Religiosity in the Sense of Social Justice

The Islamic doctrine of faith has – from the very beginning – been characterised by the call for monotheism (tawḥīd), yet this call was never theologically abstract. Faith in God was always connected to the core idea of helping mankind in all circumstances. Thus, the entry of Islam into the social world at the beginning of the revelation happened mainly due to socio-ethical and sociopolitical input. The demand for social justice and equality of all human beings was even embedded in the Qurʾan (Q 18:28). This was also supported by the fact that on the Arabian Peninsula of the sixth century, religion or faith were not regarded as unfamiliar phenomena. Both, the Abrahamic monotheistic tradition (al-ḥanīfiyya) and the worship of various deities and sanctuaries, shaped the religious image of Arabia (Halm, 2010, 20ff.).

The knowledge of Allah was widespread (Q 29:61; 31:25; 39:28; 43:87). What the Arabian peninsula did not know of, however, was a uniform or comprehensive sociopolitical order, which regulated social class differences, legal relations among different groups of society, sociopolitical issues such as the equality of all people (Q 4:1; 21:46; 49:13), justice (Q 4:135; 55:6–8; 57:25; 16:90) and a fair distribution of wealth. The message of Islam, which the Prophet himself embodied authentically, also consistently sought the liberation of the oppressed people from the rule of the Meccans. The first Surahs in the chronology of the revelation attested to this fact, in particular to the lack of a sense of social responsibility, and addressed the grievances of socially disadvantaged groups such as women, slaves, and the poor; they denounced unjust ownership and, above all, the misuse of money and the inhuman use of interest. The message of God, the merciful, was closely connected to the scales as a symbol for righteous action:

The Compassionate taught the Quran; created man. (…) Heaven He has raised and the Balance He has set, that you transgress not in the balance. So set right the weight and fall not short in the balance. (Q 55:1–9)Footnote 1

The revelation unequivocally criticised “the desire for more” (Q 102), greed for money (Q 104), deceit and unjust actions (muṭaffifīn) (Q 83), the cruel ancient custom of burying unwanted new-born girls alive (Q 16:59; 81:9), unjust inheritance structures and abuse of the property of orphans (Q 5:10; 6:152; 17:34). With regard to the weak members of society, the ruling stratum of the Meccans was criticised for not practicing polytheism and idolatry as a deep faith, but instrumentalising it for the oppression of people. Since then, the Qurʾan has acted as a voice for the socially weak and has had an oppositional character when it comes to social injustice.

In the 14th year of revelation, according to the history of the early Muslim community, God ordered a change in the direction of prayer. Since then, Muslims have no longer directed their prayers to the Al-Aqsa Mosque in present-day Jerusalem, but to the Al-Harām Mosque in Mecca. What seems of particular interest in the present context is the socio-ethical response of revelation in the debate sparked within the multi-religious society of Medina, regarding the meaning and purpose of changing the direction of prayer. The following verse marks an important turning point in the fundamental understanding of religiosity as a social action and basically prevents any kind of non-purposeful debate about religious affiliations. It draws attention to the common responsibility to provide social assistance services:

It is not piety to turn your faces toward the east and west. Rather, piety is he who believes in God, the Last Day, the angels, the Book, and the prophets; and who gives wealth, despite loving it, to kinsfolk, orphans, the indigent, the traveler, beggars, and for [the ransom of] slaves; and performs the prayer and gives the alms; and those who fulfill their oaths when they pledge them, and those who are patient in misfortune, hardship, and moments of peril. It is they who are the sincere, and it is they who are the reverent. (Q 2:177)

At the level of religious practice, the language of the Qurʾan distinguishes between good deeds for the individual (ḥasanāt) and socially oriented deeds (ṣāliḥāt). Both types of good deeds are certainly not to be separated and flow into each other in terms of their individual and social effects. Fasting, for example, expresses the bipolarity of Islamic religiosity. A close bond with God supports the fasting person’s effort to renounce individual needs and replaces the temporal limitation of daily habits life with spiritual experiences and the development of strength of character. However, fasting is inconceivable without a socio-ethical dimension of solidarity. This fact also applies to the levy of a poor tax, as will be explained further down. But firstly, a concretion of this social idea from the life of the prophet will be briefly presented.

The Basic Principle of Ongoing Donation and the Theological Support of a Social Foundation – waqf

When man dies – as mentioned in a prophetic saying (Muslim: Ṣahīḥ, Hadith No. 1631) – the possibility of doing good ends for him. However, any socially effective deed can be viewed as an option for society to benefit from it beyond the death of a person. The Prophet himself cites the following three examples: a continuously productive fundraising activity; knowledge from which people can benefit sustainably; a well-educated person who, praying for his parents, multiplies the good. Among other things, the idea of waqf is derived from the first example: “continuously productive fundraising activities”.

The first institution of ‘social assistance or welfare’ was created by the Prophet’s decision to establish a place of residence for all the socially disadvantaged and needy. The term ahlu-ṣ-ṣuffa embodies the core idea of solidarity within the Islamic doctrine. Ahlu-ṣ-ṣuffa (Q 2:273 and 9:92) were the inhabitants of a shelter near the Prophet’s mosque in Medina. They were mainly poor and defenceless, having emigrated from various cities of Arabia to Medina to seek refuge with the Prophet Mohammad. In addition, there were always other emigrants from Mecca in need of help, who had initially found a place to stay in this emergency shelter until they found assistance and established contacts in the city of Medina. Most of the inhabitants neither had relatives in Medina, nor were they wealthy enough to establish an independent existence. For the very few who, by their own efforts, failed to integrate into the new Medinean society, the ṣuffa remained permanent. Caring for the poor inhabitants of the ṣuffa was always one of the main concerns of the Prophet. He commissioned his close companions and his daughter Fatima to collect the alms tax and to send it to the inhabitants.

During the Medinean phase, this first shelter turned into a learning community, in which the residents were assigned the task of caring for and teaching young Muslims. Over time, living in poverty and financial dependence led to an ascetic teaching and learning community with a socially vital mission in educational matters. When the Muslims arrived in Medina and became involved in the society, the companion and brother-in-law of the Prophet, ʿUthmān ibn ʿAffān, bought a well with his own money and made it available to all the inhabitants of Medina as a “public water dispenser” (Al-Tirmidhī: Jāmiʿ aṣ-ṣaḥīḥ, Hadith No. 3703). Similar facts are reported about the second caliph, ʿUmar ibn al-Khaṭṭāb. He contributed to the establishment of waqf as an institution (dīwān) organised by the state (Bukhārī: Ṣahīḥ, Hadith No. 2737; Muslim: Ṣahīḥ, Hadith No. 1632). His property could no longer be sold, inherited or donated. The eternal receiver – figuratively speaking – is God, while all the needy can benefit from the proceeds.

The Moroccan legal scholar and world traveller of the fourteenth century, Ibn Baṭṭūṭa (d. 1377), wrote the travel journal ar-Riḥla (The Long Journey – which lasted about 29 years), one of the most important works of the Middle Ages. He was named the “Marco Polo of the Orient”. In this travel report, entitled “sights for foreign travellers and the wonders of travel” he described, among other things, his fascination with the effectiveness of waqf, from which he greatly benefited in the course of his journey. A unique example, on which Ibn Baṭṭūṭa reported during his stay in Damascus, was the “public foundation for the protection of the household” (awqāf al-awānī). He himself witnessed an event, when a young housekeeper dropped an expensive piece of porcelain which broke into pieces. He was immediately advised to collect the broken remains and to bring them to the “waqf area for the replacement of household items”. Ibn Baṭṭūṭa describes the function of this particular waqf as a “social healing place for broken hearts” (kāna haṯa al-waqf jabran li-l-qulūb). The public foundations (awqāf) – as Ibn Baṭṭūṭa concludes – embody within Islam the fundamental value of brotherhood among believers, as well as the human attachment to all people, regardless of their ethnicity, religion, or regional origin (Ibn Baṭṭūṭa, 2001, 17ff.).

In his travel report, the geographer and travel journal writer Granadas Ibn Jubayr (1145–1217) highlighted the significance of public foundations, from which he benefited enormously as a traveller. As a foreigner in the cities of the Orient, he was able to rely on strangers (pilgrims, students, scholars, or even refugees from some regions of Andalusia), on an unfailing infrastructure of public foundations with a variety of services such as prayer, accommodation for travellers, accommodation for extended stays of ascetics (zawāya), food for travellers, public bathing facilities, guidance, mosques, libraries, and so forth.

In a historical study of the role of foundations (awqāf) as an establishment of social services and institutions, the Egyptian Ministry of Endowments (awqāf) names well-known mosques, hospitals and schools, in addition to the following examples from the history of social welfare in Islam (Dusūqī, 2000, 24–46):

  • Financial support for marriage among the poor;

  • In Fes (Morocco), a foundation for the support of the visually impaired;

  • Bread donation facility (in Beirut) to meet daily bread needs for families and older people;

  • Wives’ house (Cairo) for women, who for a certain period of time can find protection in the course of their divorce or during a family dispute, and thus are protected by the family court judge (qāḍī);

  • Donation of clothing;

  • Donation station for milk and baby food (in Damascus): this Foundation is dedicated to mothers during the lactation phase. Donations include milk, sugar, clean water and basic food for nursing mothers;

  • Accommodation for strangers and passers-by (Ibn as-sabīl);

  • Foundation for budgetary donations: this foundation is likely to mainly benefit domestic workers (service personnel) and minors who have suffered financial damage and who are unable to pay for the damage themselves (in terms of liability insurance);

  • Foundation “Palace of the Poor”, which was built by Nūr al-Din b. Zangī (1118–1174) known as “the righteous ruler” in the great kingdom of the Seljuks in today’s Damascus. That “the needy should not be ashamed of their poverty and receive the help of society in a dignified atmosphere” –was the idea of this foundation;

  • Public dining facility;

  • Public cleaning service for clothes, blankets and household equipment;

  • The foundation for irrigation channels and the establishment of public drinking water donors (for people and animals).

Such institutions are financed by social welfare, either through private foundations (al-waqf al-ahlī or al-dhurrī), or public foundations (waqf khayrī). In the first instance, the founder dedicates his foundation to a specific purpose within the extended family. This can be set up to protect family assets for a certain period of time and to promote all the needy within a family (comparable to the principle of subsidiarity). In the second instance, a public foundation is dedicated to a specific purpose for the common good, for an unlimited period of time.

The idea of waqf, as all the historical examples show, is based on the theological principle that man is not the true possessor of anything, only God is the true possessor. Man should – as mentioned above – be the governor of God’s mercy and make it available to all people. Foundations, like no other religious charity, exemplify the concretion of the divine attributes of justice, mercy and care within the human realm. In comparison to the social question which arose in the course of industrialisation in Europe, the religiously motivated concept of waqf – as it will become clearer with the topic of ‘poor tax’ or zakāt – sees itself as a principle ideal for social peace in society. This formative principle of social justice has advanced to a central religious duty.

Zakāt: The Needy’s Claim to Solidarity?

In the classical concept of Islamic scholarship, the zakāt represents, among other things, the main funding pillar of Islamic welfare. In English, the term zakāt is shortened to the term ‘poor tax’. However, this translation reduces the entire semantic field and the theological concept of this Islamic commandment to an aspect of supporting the poor or to the aspect of state tax (Reidegeld, 2005, 525–526). The zakāt is neither alms, nor tax, nor a pure aid to the poor. First and foremost, zakāt sees itself as a central comprehensive concept of solidarity for the promotion of social justice.

The term zakāt basically stands for an ethical principle for the financial promotion of social solidarity through the participation of the poor and needy in the total wealth of a society. The historical context of origin emphasises the community aspect. However, in this chapter – as is formulated in the conclusion – the position is that under the current conditions of the welfare debate, the social dimension by extension is of course at stake.

The aspect of social cohesion lies at the heart of this concept, which is to be ensured by meeting people’s basic needs and fighting poverty. The aim is to preserve the dignity of people in need or of the poor and needy within society. Within Islamic theology the “right of the poor to the wealth of the wealthy” is clearly mentioned (Bukhārī: Ṣahīḥ, Hadith-No. 1396, 1458). Both traditions speak of claiming the share of the poor from the rich and returning it to the poor. Furthermore, individual responsibility for the realisation of a just community (Q 24:33) exemplifies human’s status on earth as the governor of God (khalīfatu-l-llāh).

In contrast to the voluntary donations, which are recommended at all times (ṣadaqa, pl. ṣadaqāt), the zakāt (purification) is a compulsory levy; therefore, the options for its payment are defined in the Qurʾan (Q 9:60). In this verse, the term ṣadaqāt is used as a generic term for all possible forms of donation. However, there is clearly a consensus among scholars that this is explicitly about the spending options for the annual mandatory alms (zakāt) (Al-Zarqa, 1996, 2:200). Eight groups of recipients of the zakāt are explicitly mentioned. These are as follows:

  1. 1.

    For the absolutely and permanently poor to secure basic needs (fuqarāʾ);

  2. 2.

    For those with an income below the minimum subsistence level, and permanently in need (masākīn);

  3. 3.

    For the zakāt representative, responsible for the collection and distribution of the zakāt (al-ʿāmilīn ʿalayha);

  4. 4.

    For those whose hearts are to be won over for the cause of Islam. This may also include those who have lost their belongings due to their entry into Islam, so that they can be compensated for their loss (al-muʾallafati qulūbuhum);

  5. 5.

    For the liberation and redemption of slaves and the oppressed (fi-r-riqāb);

  6. 6.

    For those who borrow out of necessity (al-ghārimīn). This may also include compensation for victims of natural disasters who have unexpectedly become financially distressed. Several contemporary scholars also promote the possibility of financing interest-free loans (Al-Zarqa, 1996, 2:395);

  7. 7.

    For those who are following Allah’s will (fī sabīli-l-llāh). This may also include those who are committed to take part in a defensive war. The reduction of this option of expenditure to the use in a defensive war is a common opinion, which we will discuss in the following;

  8. 8.

    For travellers who are in need and seek help on the way (ibn as-sabīl).

As already mentioned, these eight groups are designated as recipients for the zakāt as a compulsory levy, in comparison to the unlimited use of voluntary donations for all possible charitable purposes (ṣadaqāt). The following input refers to the parallels between the historical context and the current context of establishing Muslim welfare care in modern societies. Therefore, it can be regarded as scientific desiderata within the theological field of research. The tendency to update classical interpretation only indicates the character of reflecting on a socially integrated reading (ḥukm – law). As already mentioned, this task has yet to be completed by the responsible parties. From a socio-ethical perspective, several urgent questions arise about the practice of re-allocating certain spending options in connection with the establishment, for example, of a Muslim welfare association according to the principles of the welfare state. Of the eight recipient groups or expenditure options mentioned above, four will be explained in detail, as follows:

Regarding categories 1 and 2: classical scholars (from the four established fiqh schoolsFootnote 2) sought to distinguish between the two categories of “the poor” and “the needy” and to establish a ceiling for poverty and neediness (Ibn Rušd, 2000, 408ff.; Al-Zarqa, 1996). Since it was not feasible to define such categories across regions, scholars continued trying to determine the limitations of such an assessment. For example, against this background, the scholar ash-Shāfiʿī (768–820) coined the principle: “the working person can be described with his merit as poor as well as wealthy. It depends on his income, the size of his family and the extent of his obligations.” (Ibn Ḥajar, 2001, 341) With this, he referred to respective differences in language and habits in specific societies (ʿurf).

Erudite scholars were thus prompted to seek the principle which defines different categories. Regarding the history of creation in Surah 20, verses 118 and 119, there are constant elements to the definition of a subsistence level: food, clothing, shelter. Ibn Ḥazm (994–1064, Córdoba) confirmed this position and declared it to be the state’s duty. He states:

It is a duty of the wealthy to provide for the needy. The ruler can induce (if necessary) if the revenues of zakāt cannot meet the basic needs. The poor and needy must be provided with enough food, sufficient summer and winter clothing and dignified accommodation [on behalf of the state] to protect them from rain, the sun and living on the street. (Ibn Ḥazm, 2003, 281)

In addition to these constant elements which must be supplied, the basic needs of a person or a family are determined according to cultural practice and regional standards. Differentiated debates among scholars on the definition of a lower limit of livelihood, on protecting the dignity of people in critical situations and in poverty, on the working capacity of the poor and needy and on many other aspects cannot be of concern here (Ibn Rušd, 2000, 408ff.), as they mostly do not apply to the current living conditions of Muslims residing in Western Europe. Yet they bear witness to the intense efforts of Islamic scholarship to achieve maximum social justice in determining the meaning and purpose of zakāt expenditures. Where there is mixed financing of welfare associations in a functioning social system, as in many European countries, new coordination with state institutions is absolutely necessary.

Regarding category 4: this group of recipients – as mentioned above – literally consists of people whose hearts are to be won over for the cause of Islam (al-muʾallafati qulūbuhum). The Arabic verb ʾallafa emphasises the aspects of reconciliation, reparation, and benevolent union (Al-Aṣfahānī, 2009, 81). In Medina, the Prophet Mohammad dedicated the zakāt to those who, in his eyes, should convert to Islam. Another target group which benefited from this item of expenditure were those who suffered from financial disadvantage due to their acceptance of Islam. The Prophet granted them financial aid in order to “calm their hearts”, in reference to the Qurʾanic expression.

Since the death of the Prophet, how this matter has been interpreted has been under discussion, namely whether this group of recipients should still exist after the death of the Prophet. Originally, this zakāt was for all people (Muslims as well as non-Muslims), whom the Prophet wanted to win over as peace makers for the young Muslim community. In the case of Muslims, the purpose of such financial assistance was their compensation for certain disadvantages (as a result of dismissal, resettlement etc.). In the case of non-Muslims, such financial assistance was originally intended to free financially weak people from possible financial dependencies so that they could decide liberally about their religious orientation. Others increased their acceptance of Islam on financial support; even then the Prophet fulfilled their wish and assigned them a share. Some tribal chiefs wanted to convince their followers of the Prophet’s generosity. After the death of the Prophet and the establishment of a Muslim society, it became evident that zakāt was still a topic of major concern. The position represented at this point (Al-Qurṭubī, 1994, 166ff.; Al-Zarqa, 1996) does not support the abrogation of zakāt. Assistance is still necessary, especially with regard to families and youth.

Regarding the category 7: in view of the current social challenges in our society, this option must be thoroughly reflected upon and redesigned, with regard to civil society and the sociopolitical aspect of a Muslim contribution to the welfare system. The common and widespread reading of fī sabīli-l-llāh (in the way of God) is – as described above – reduced to the financing of soldiers and their families. Although this opinion is widespread and has gained a broad consensus (Al-Qurṭubī, 1994, 166ff.) among the Sunni law schools, it limits the general meaning and purpose of this zakāt enormously. A second, less popular, reading reduces this zakāt to the financing of pilgrimages and visits (ʿumra) for poor Muslims. The Qurʾanic expression “in the way of God” is interpreted as relating to the way to Mecca. However, we believe that the semantic field of this expression has been openly formulated for a reason. Ar-Rāzī states in his commentary on the Qurʾan: in its wording, the Qurʾanic expression fī sabīli-l-llāh cannot be reduced to military purposes only. The expression – according to ar-Rāzī – allows for all possible options for expenditure of this item, such as road construction, drilling wells, building mosques, setting up schools, etc. (Ar-Rāzī, 2004, 113). The scholar Rashīd Riḍā (1865–1935) interprets the term fī sabīli-l-llāh as promoting the common good.

Against the background of this controversial discussion, I would like to suggest the use of a socio-ethical point of view. Firstly however, I will start by looking at the three categories around which the theological discussion revolves: (1) annual obligatory alms (zakāt); (2) voluntary donations (ṣadaqa) and (3) alms for breaking the fast (zakāt al-fiṭr).

The controversy about giving alms (zakāt) to non-Muslims refers only to the first category. There are two positions in this controversy (pro and contra), each of which has its legitimate justification within normative theology. These positions will not be discussed at this point, yet as there is more than one position on a disputed subject, one cannot assume that only one absolute opinion exists. This fact contradicts the maxims of legal theory (ʾuṣūl al-fiqh). For self-positioning in relation to this controversy we need to consider the social context in which the two legitimate positions are to be compared. I would therefore like to outline the position of al-Azhar University in order to explain my own opinion, which is thoroughly positive:

  1. 1.

    The Qurʾan does not address a particular religious affiliation in the respective verse in which the alms to the poor and needy are recommended (Q 9:60). The given phrasing in the Qurʾan stands for open-minded hermeneutics. These Qurʾan passages are not abrogated.

  2. 2.

    The Prophet is regarded as a role-model concerning obligatory alms. Under category 4 he gave alms to non-Muslims. But even beyond this category, tradition affirms that the Prophet replied to the question “to whom shall the zakāt be paid?” the following answer: “to the needy among Muslims and the dhimmis (needy Jews and Christians)” (Ibn Šayba: Muṣannaf, Hadith No. 721:911).

  3. 3.

    In his work “The Consensus” (al-ijmāʿ) the legal scholar ibn al-Mundhir (855–930) reveals the consensus among the established schools of law of his time, stating unanimously that compulsory alms (zakāt) are only to be forwarded to Muslims, with the exception of the category 4 of the recipients of zakāt. In this important script ibn al-Mundhir speaks of the so called ‘charges’ (al-dhimmi) who are not to receive this kind of zakāt as they are already being provided for. Furthermore, it is noted that Abū Ḥanīfa recommended the obligatory alms (zakāt) be given to monks and nuns (Ibn al-Mundhir, 1999, 8–12).

  4. 4.

    Within both positions, there is a clear consensus that the recipient should not be classified as an enemy or an active warrior.

In summary: regarding Islamic welfare, a shift in paradigm is necessary. The establishment of a committee to process traditions and develop innovative models of expenditure for zakāt seems to be an indispensable necessity (Riḍā, 1968, 587ff.).

Muslim Welfare Is an Affirmation of Social Responsibility by the Muslim Community: A Conclusion

The establishment of Muslim welfare organisations in Western Europe (several charities are also conceivable) shows a ground-breaking decision by the Muslim minority to succeed in promoting the common good, by professionally contributing their culture and religious resources to support Muslims who seek help. These efforts are accompanied by the important decision that Europe needs to be considered as a new home and a new centre of life. For decades, Muslims have been the recipients of aid from religious as well as non-profit organisations and associations. Synergy can now arise when professionals with a Muslim background actively contribute their services. A Muslim welfare association would function as a possible employer, with appropriate funding, and the theological and socio-ethical knowledge to guarantee a highly professional service from an Islamic perspective. The impact of this development is vast in terms of integration policy, especially with regard to social peace.

For the development of a practical theology of Islam which is of relevance, theological tradition offers several possibilities of connectivity, which were exemplified in this text by the conceptual equivalence of waqf and the actual theological concept of birr. A readjustment of these two guiding principles towards (1) aid for the individual in coping with certain problems, and (2) changing social conditions is necessary in order to improve the living condition of those in need. In order to be able to work on both levels, practical theology must act in an interdisciplinary manner and make use of methods found within social research. The identification with society and the legal system in force correlates with a reflection and reinterpretation of conventional theological concepts. The options of zakāt refer to the urgent necessity for an active and people-oriented exegesis of sources regarding a new framework for a multicultural and plural society.

Considering the current situation of Muslims in Western Europe as legally equal citizens, this chapter takes the position that all people can benefit from zakāt expenses. The reason why this position should be emphasised at this point lies within the theological dispute over whether non-Muslims can benefit from zakāt funds. As already mentioned, the expenditure items for zakāt are quite fixed as a religious duty, compared to the voluntary donations (ṣadaqāt). Thus, among classical scholars, the view prevails that only Muslims can benefit from zakāt, while all people benefit from ṣadaqāt. This is justified by the fact that only Muslims are obliged to contribute to this expenditure. However, regarding the current living conditions of Muslims in Europe, the contemporary scholar Al-Zarqa (1996) discusses, among other things, the arguments in favour of classical scholarship against the historical context of its emergence and calls for its reform. At the end of his discursive analysis, he comes to the conclusion, that the terms “poor” and “needy” are of general nature (al-fāẓ ʿāmma) and can therefore encompass all people (regardless of their faith and origin). If funds are scarce and cannot provide for all eligible needy citizens, funds combining zakāt categories 1, 2, 4 and 7 can be put into use (Al-Zarqa, 1996, 209). A society in which Muslims can enjoy all rights as equal citizens and fulfil their duties requires adjustment and kindness on both sides (Q 60:8). The good – as aṭ-Ṭabārī (838–923) clarifies – do not discriminate against anyone (Aṭ-Ṭabarī, 1998, 308 on Q 9:60). It will also be necessary to discuss how the classical zakāt system should be adapted in order to meet the requirements of the welfare state and the statutory benefits of welfare. Within an institutionalised Muslim welfare system able to address all those in need of help, practical theology can highlight that Muslim religiosity is clearly aimed at peace-making. Therefore, practical theology needs to be redefined, in order to refer to the living Islamic tradition of waqf and to engage in new forms of living and Muslim action embedded within the current context.

The ideas outlined are designed to be compatible with social policy. Muslim welfare care must not lead to the division of society: on the contrary, it should serve as a supplement and enrichment to already existing welfare systems.


  1. 1.

    All Translations of the Qurʾan by Seyyed Hossein Nasr (The Study Quran).

  2. 2.

    I deliberately use the term fiqh schools instead of ‘law schools’ as the term law is heavily connotated. On the other hand, the term fiqh emphasises understanding as a methodological approach to the primary sources of Islamic doctrine.


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Badawia, T. (2022). Islamic Practical Theology: waqf and zakāt as Theological Foundations. In: Schmid, H., Sheikhzadegan, A. (eds) Exploring Islamic Social Work. Muslims in Global Societies Series, vol 9. Springer, Cham.

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