Zakat, also known as alms giving, is one of the Five Pillars of Islam, the fundamental tenets which all Muslims around the world follow as part of the practice of their faith. Under Muslim beliefs, people must give alms annually, and they may opt to give additional alms and donations to charity above the amounts required by zakat. All adult Muslims who are capable of giving alms must do so as part of their faith.
In Islam, maintaining communities and doing things for the glory of God are both very important principles. Alms giving is designed to support communities, as people may only give zakat to certain types of groups and individuals, and it is also done for God. Many Muslims believe that wealth and blessings come from God and are held in trust by the community, and that therefore they are obligated to give back to purify their own wealth, ensuring that God will permit it to grow.
Essentially, zakat is like a tax. It is levied on the wealth held by a Muslim, which can include precious metals, animals, profits from a business, funds in savings, and other investments. Traditionally, 2.5% of one's wealth must be given as zakat, and it can also be given in kind. In other words, someone with money would give alms in the form of funds, while a farmer might pay zakat in the form of grain, cattle, or other agricultural commodities.
People can give alms at any time of the year, and are encouraged to do so, but many people make a point of paying their zakat during the holy month of Ramadan. During Ramadan, devout Muslims are also expected to pay an additional zakat which is based on the amount of food they utilize during the month. Muslims may give out alms directly, or give them to an intermediary who is responsible for distributing them responsibly.
The poor and needy are prominent recipients of zakat, but alms can also be given to travelers in need of funds, enslaved peoples, and the individuals who collect and administer the tax, according to the Qu'ran. People can also opt to give alms “for the cause of Allah” by funding a school, providing a needed service in a community, or performing other acts which benefit society as a whole. Alms may also be given to “allies” such as friends and converts to Islam, and one need not necessarily be poor to receive alms.
Many websites have calculators for people who want to make sure that they give the appropriate amount. Imams and other religious leaders can also assist Muslims who are having difficulty determining the amount of their zakat payments.