When the Qur'an mentions the obligations of a believer, almost hand in hand with prayer comes the idea of giving charity to the poor. The word used for this in Arabic is zakāt. A typical example of this in the Qur'an is found in the sura entitled al-Baqara (the Cow). Verse 277 reads:
"Those who believe, do good deeds, keep up the prayer, and pay the prescribed alms will have their reward with their Lord: no fear for them, nor will they grieve." (trans. M.A.S. Abdel Haleem)
Many times people wonder what exactly it is that Muslims need to do in order to find a reward in heaven. This verse, and many others like it, seems to indicate that believing, doing good deeds, praying and giving charity are the criteria that are used to determine if someone will be welcomed in to heaven or not. Eventually, the notion of five pillars developed, which summarize the basic practices of a sincere Muslim. Regardless of exactly when and how these five developed, giving charity is clearly an important facet of living life as a believing Muslim.
Like many other aspects of Islamic life, few details are given about zakāt in the Qur'an, and one turns to the hadīth in order to better understand detailed expectations. These traditions outline some important factors.
One is required to annually pay a percentage (2.5%) of their accumulated wealth. Some modern religious organizations provide guidance on how to calculate the exact amount of zakāt that is required of you. It is important to add up all your "zakatable" assets (which include your cash, gold and silver, shares and investments, property and other fixed assets, pension, debts owed to you and your business assets), then subtract your liabilities, both personal and business. This is the base amount upon which the percentage of zakāt is based.
You must exceed a specific threshold in order to be required to pay zakāt. This threshold amount, known in Arabic as the nasīb, was fixed during the time of Muhammad and was based on a gold and silver standard--the currency of the day. A number of gold and silver coins was specified, those coins at the time being referred to as dinars and dirhams. In some Arabic countries, those units of currency are still in use. Modern Islamic clerics calculate the nasīb as being the equivalent of 87.5 g of gold and 612 g of silver. Current values of gold and silver are needed in order to determine the exact amount of zakāt that should be given if one wants to ensure they are paying their required share. Notice that different amounts are assessed for gold and silver, as the wealthier are expected to pay a higher amount.
The image of a hand giving and a hand receiving is found amongst the traditions of the prophets first handed down orally and then collected in hadīth collections. One tradition that centers on the wives of the Prophet Muhammad said that the first wife to die after Muhammad would be the one with the longest arm (the word used in Arabic for arm is often the same word that is used for hand, but in English, it seems that arm would be more appropriate here). The first to follow him in death was Zainab. As she was remembered to be one who loved to give, the image of having a long arm came to be understood as one who was generous.
In many faith traditions, giving is a noble value. How long is your arm?
For those who like to read just a little more...
The following hadīth is taken from Sahīh Bukhārī, Book 24 (Zakāt), number 502:
Narrated by Abu Huraira
Allah's Apostle said, "A man said that he would give something in charity. He went out with his object of charity and unknowingly gave it to a thief. Next morning the people said that he had given his object of charity to a thief. On hearing that he said, "O Allah! All the praises are for you. I will give alms again." And so he again went out with his alms and unknowingly gave it to an adulteress. Next morning the people said that he had given his alms to an adulteress last night. The man said, "O Allah! All the praises are for you. I gave my alms to an adulteress. I will give alms again." So he went out with his alms again and unknowingly gave it to a rich person. The people next morning said that he had given his alms to a wealthy person. He said, "O Allah! All the praises are for you. I had given alms to a thief, to an adulteress and to a wealthy man." Then someone came and said to him, "The alms which you gave to the thief, might make him abstain from stealing, and that given to the adulteress might make her abstain from illegal sexual intercourse adultery, and that given to the wealthy man might make him take a lesson from it and spend his wealth which Allah has given him, in Allah's cause.”
One never knows how their actions will affect others. May God give us all wisdom in what we do.