Taxation: Can an Islamic government levy taxes?

Q640 :As a student of economics, I am not exactly certain how the Islamic economic system operates. All I have been able to establish is that Islam does not approve of the interest-based banking system. It insists on an interest-free arrangement or one which includes profit-and-loss-sharing accounts. In view of the fact that Islam is a complete way of life, it must have provisions for the working of an efficient economic system. But the interest-free banking and the zakah system are insufficient. If I am not wrong, zakah is not a government tax. How can the government of a Muslim country meet its other expenses? Can it levy taxes?

A640 : Your two points are absolutely correct. Islam is a complete way of life which caters for all aspects of the life of the individual and the community. The needs of a country, whether large or small, go far beyond what can be generated by the zakah system. Hence, it is logical to expect that Islam has more to say about running the economy of a country than prohibiting interest and administering the zakah system. Starting with these two, may I first define zakah as a complete system of social security which is run by the government of any Islamic society. Moreover, it is self-financing. When you consider the rules which regulate how zakah is spent, you will find that it is a system which has been devised to ensure that every individual in a Muslim community is able to lead a decent life. Everyone who happens to be in need, whether temporarily or permanently, or indeed as a result of special, unforeseen circumstances, has his needs met from the zakah funds. Moreover, those who are employed for the administration of the zakah system, including its collection and spending, are paid their salaries from the proceeds of zakah. Therefore, no Muslim government can be justified in giving the zakah system a low priority. Even those governments who have established a social security system on their own cannot argue that they have devised a better system. The zakah system applies to every single individual in the community, whether they work or not, and whether they make contribution to the social security system or not. Moreover, it determines the level of benefit it gives to each individual on the basis of his or her needs, not in relation to past employment and level of earlier contributions. What is paid into the zakah treasury of a Muslim state comes from all sorts of wealth and income. Therefore, the funds that are received are of a level which ensures that the objectives of the system are realized. As I have already said, the overall objective is to help the individual have a decent standard of living. When you say that zakah is not a government tax, you are right in the sense that the government does not decide on the level of zakah or to whom it applies and who may benefit by it. However, a Muslim government is required to have a department which administers the collection of zakah and its payment to its beneficiaries who are defined by Allah. Islam forbids usury, which includes interest-based banking, because usury exploits the needs of those who do not have money in order to give those who have more than what they need. It is a system through which the rich can get richer without putting any efforts. Islam does not accept that money earns money by itself. It is human endeavor which earns money. People may be ready with their counter-arguments about the interest-based banking system. They may point out to a number of ways which help small businessmen get bigger and encourage enterprise. They also point to the mortgage system which provides people with a chance to own their homes, by getting loans to finance the purchase of their homes and then repay the loan by easy installments. But when such arguments are made, people tend to overlook the fact that many small businessmen do not manage to get bigger when they pay back loans on interest. Indeed, many of them watch their businesses collapse and end bankrupt. As a student of economics, you must be aware of the fact that capitalist governments have found it necessary to provide guarantees for any loans they make to new businesses during the first few years of their operation. That has been introduced to encourage banks to make such loans. The net result of this guarantee, however, is the fact that taxpayers foot the bill for unsuccessful business and the banks and finance companies are guaranteed their interest. Islam prefers to manage its finances in a different way. In the interest-based financing system, there is a net profit which goes to the banks and financial institutions, and a net loss which is incurred by the borrowers or the community as a whole. When Islam argues that only endeavor earns money, it helps society to be free of the exploitation of capital. It encourages everyone to work and makes it the responsibility of the government to help everyone find a job or establish a business. Allah's order to the Muslim community is stated in the Qur'an that they must work. In the Islamic terminology, work is equated with worship. You have no greater incentive to work hard than the Hadith of the Prophet which states: "He who comes of an evening tired after a full day's work is forgiven his sins." When you reflect that the purpose of worship is to ensure forgiveness and, consequently, gain admission to heaven, and that forgiveness can be ensured through hard work, the equation of endeavor with worship becomes clear. There is also the story when the Prophet was told of a man spending all his time to worship in the mosque. The Prophet asked how he lived. When told that the man's brother works and supports him, the Prophet said: "His brother is a better worshipper than him." The basis of the Islamic economic system is a free enterprise which works within certain checks and controls. There are points to make sure that no exploitation takes place within the system. All earnings must be legitimate and therefore, businesses which are based on illegitimate methods or which promote unlawful products are not allowed to be established. When you read about the early Islamic period, you are bound to come across references to the public treasury, which was called "Bait-ul-Mal Al-Muslimeen," which may roughly be translated as the "Finance House of the Muslim Community." This establishment is different from that [established for the collection and distribution] of zakah. It is equivalent to the public treasury in our modern terminology. Obviously, it must have its sources of revenue. The question arises here whether an Islamic government may levy taxes. The answer is in the affirmative. These are determined by the needs of the community and the way society has developed. We must not forget the Hadith which states clearly: "A duty other than zakah is payable on wealth." This establishes a general rule. It gives the Muslim government the basis for meeting its expenditures. The fact that the Prophet has chosen not to specify the level of that duty means that every Muslim government may determine that level according to the needs of the population. There are other [permissible] sources of revenue including the mineral resources of the country, gains in war, etc. It is beyond the scope of these columns to discuss the details of the Islamic economic system. I have only tried to point out certain principles which show that we have a complete system, the details of which may be learned from scholars and books. In recent years, a number of scholars have done valuable work on the working of the Islamic economic system. However, the scope of research in this area remains wide because, as you realize, the Muslim communities have developed during the periods of colonization and after independence. However, colonization moved the Muslim communities away from the Islamic system and that meant that solutions to different countries' economic problems were not solved on the basis of Islam. Therefore, there may be a wide gap between the Islamic theory and what is practiced in different Muslim communities. You need to be careful when you study the Islamic economic system in order to establish what Islam actually approves and what it rejects, although it may be practiced by Muslims.

Our Dialogue ( Source : Arab News - Jeddah )