It is obvious for three reasons that the role of the public treasury and zakat (which is one of the sources of income for it), is of extreme importance. Firstly, Islam did not manifest itself as an ethical, philosophical or theological doctrine but rather, came forth as a comprehensive religion that catered for all the material and spiritual needs of the people. Secondly, Islam, from its very onset during the time of the Noble Prophet (s.a.w), had always been associated with the establishment of a government, and thirdly, Islam pays special attention to supporting the underprivileged ones and combating class difference in the society.
Without any doubt, every society has its share of people who are incapacitated, diseased, handicapped, orphans without guardians and the like, who need to be cared and looked after.
In addition, in order to protect the society from the evil intentions of enemies it is in need of an army, whose expenses are covered by the government. Similarly, there is also the need for funds to be allocated for the employees of the Islamic government, judges, religious centres and, advertising and promotional equipments, which cannot be organized and regulated without an assured and disciplined monetary support.
For this reason, the issue of zakat, which in reality is regarded as a kind of 'tax on income and production' and 'tax on stagnant wealth', acquires great significance in Islam, to the extent that it is even placed at par with the most important acts of worship - on numerous occasions it has been mentioned together with the prayers and has even been regarded as a condition for the acceptance of the prayers!
We even read in the Islamic traditions that if an Islamic government seeks zakat from some individuals and they stand up against the government and refuse to pay it, they shall be regarded as apostates. Furthermore, in spite of repeated counselling, they refuse to back down from their stubborn stance, it is permissible to use military force against them. The incident of the People of Raddah is well known in Islamic history. It is about a group of people who refused to pay their zakat after the demise of the Noble Prophet (s.a.w), whereupon the Caliph of the time initiated a military campaign against them. Even Imam 'Ali (a.s) had endorsed this expedition and had been one of the commanders on the battle-field.
In a tradition, Imam as-sadiq (a.s) states:
مَنْ مَنَعَ قِيرَاطاً مِنَ الزَّكَاةِ فَلَيْسَ بِمُؤْمِنٍ وَ لاَ مُسْلِمٍ وَ لاَ كَرَامَةَ.
“One, who withholds (even) one carat of zakat, is neither a Mu'min nor a Muslim and possesses no esteem and value!”1
Interestingly, it can be concluded from the traditions that the measure of zakat has been so meticulously evaluated in Islam that if all the Muslims were to pay their zakat completely and correctly, not a single poor and destitute person would exist in the entire Islamic nation!
Imam as-sadiq (a.s) says: If all the people were to pay the zakat of their wealth, not a single Muslim would be left indigent and needy. People do not turn needy, destitute, hungry and bare except due to the transgressions of the affluent ones!2
From the traditions it can also be deduced that payment of zakat becomes a reason for the protection of proprietorship and strengthening of its foundation, such that should the people become heedless of this important Islamic principle, divisions and schisms would erupt amongst the groups in such a great measure that even the properties of the affluent ones would fall in jeopardy.
It has been narrated that Imam Musa b. Ja'far (a.s) said:
حَصِّنوا أَمْوَالَكُمْ بِالزَّكَاةِ.
“Protect your possessions by means of zakat.”3
The above meaning has also been conveyed in other traditions that have been reported from the Noble Prophet (s.a.w) and the Commander of the Faithful (a.s).4