Chapter 9: Mutilation of the Concept of Zakat and Khums

Having deprived the Ahlul Bayt (a.s.) of their rightful position, it was essential that they should be subjected to poverty and want. The next step of the conspiracy was to deprive them of the very source of their sustenance. At the same time, funds were needed to enrich the opponents of the Ahlul Bayt (a.s.). Under the Divine Law, provision was made to the poor in the form of a Poor Tax [Zakat] of 2.5 percent on some products (if they reach a certain specified amount) of every Muslim. The Sayyids {progeny of the Prophet(S) } were specifically prohibited from receiving Zakat from non Sayyids. Islam highly recommended alms giving [Sadaqa or Khairat] every day. No limit was prescribed for Sadaqa or Khairat. The Sayyids were specifically prohibited from receiving Sadeqa.

Thus, Sayyids were left with Khums, which is one fifth of the total accumulated profit in the form of cash or goods that remains as balance in the account of a Muslim at the end of the financial year. Both Zakat and Khums are in accordance with Qur’anic Injunctions.1

In Islam, there was no need to create a treasury or a central fund, for whatever was recovered as ghanimah [spoils of war] was immediately distributed. K. Ali writes, “So no regular system for the collecting of revenue grew up. The small sources of revenue that would come to the State treasury were distributed among the people then and there.”2 When there was no treasury, there was no question of collection of funds nor was there any organization to collect such funds. Hence, there was no possibility of misappropriation by those in possession of such funds.

The responsibility of payment of Khums and Zakat rested solely on the individual.3 Such of the Muslims who could afford, were commanded to voluntarily set apart Zakat and Khums from their income and property at the end of every financial year and pay the same to those indicated in the Qur’an. It was made obligatory that every person should himself distribute Zakat and Khums to the deserving and the needy; firstly among the relatives within the family, and then to the orphans, the wayfarer, and lastly to deserving others. Muslims were also commanded to give generously in charity to the poor, whether Muslims or non-Muslims. The burden was laid on the individual because people should be made aware of their obligations to and the rights of others over them. The act of complying with injunctions relating to economy had to be performed by the Muslims voluntarily and conscientiously with the fear of Punishment for breach or a hope for reward for adherence to the Divine Law, in the afterlife. In this structure of economy, there is no provision for an agency for enforcement of collection of funds or a treasury for its safekeeping or distribution. Until today, the command regarding Zakat4 and Khums5 remains unaltered. Contrarily, Khums and Zakat were made state revenue. The Government was never aware of the plight of the poor in distant territories. Khums and Zakat was doled out to the cronies who hovered around the persons in power. Instead of the self-conscious duty of a Muslim, Khums and Zakat became cumbersome levies payment of which every Muslim avoids!

K. Ali writes, “In the Holy Qur’an, Zakat has been mentioned just after prayer. It is said, ‘Perform the prayers and pay the tax6’ [Sura 2:80]. Zakat indeed is the tax for the poor. It was imposed on the men of means, and all the money realized as Zakat was distributed among the poor and needy. Through this system of Zakat, the social consciousness has been reflected. There was an idea behind this consciousness.” 7 Earlier on the same page, he writes:“With the expansion of the Islamic empire under Umar, the amount of regular collection of revenue increased and it necessitated a well regulated revenue system.” Umar also innovated and imposed a new type of Zakat unheard of during the times of the Prophet (S) and even during the period of Abu Bakr. Umar imposed Zakat on foreign non-Muslim merchants and horses.”8

Regarding Khums, the fifth-share reserved in the Qur’an as the amount payable by every Muslim to the progeny of the Prophet (S) (the Sayyids), K. Ali writes:“This [Khums] was an important source of income of the state under the first two caliphs. It was divided into three portions according to the Holy Qur’an. But the share of the Prophet (S) and that of his relatives were spent on the weapons and equipments of the army.”9 This statement brings out two things:firstly, that only during the period of the first two Caliphs, Khums was made an important source of income for the state. Secondly, the amount meant to be paid to the Prophet’s relatives was stopped and diverted for purchase of arms, contrary to the Qur’anic injunctions. However, Umar increased the share of Aa’isha several fold, for which bounty she ever remained thankful to Umar.

Islam had prescribed an astute life bereft of pomp and revelry. What the Prophet (S) taught was a simple way of life and a simple belief in an Unseen, Omnipotent God. It prohibited wine and a pompous way of life. The Umayyads, who by nature were boisterous revelers, could not suffer the prohibitions, as much as they could not comprehend an Unseen God. Nicholson wrote that the Umayyads who had come to power as ‘kings by right, Caliphs by courtesy’, adds, “As descendants and representatives of pagan aristocracy, which strove with all its might to defeat Muhammad, they were usurpers in the eyes of the Moslem community which they claimed to lead as his successors.” 10

In the pre-Islamic times, the Arabs never believed in a life after death, nor did they believe in resurrection, the Day of Judgement, or the Final Reckoning. They had no concept of accountability, reward, or punishment for their deeds. They lived their life to enjoy it uninhibited to the full, for the moment. They suddenly realized that Islam sought to put strange shackles, which they were only too eager to remove and abandon on the slightest pretext. The death of the Prophet (S) provided the opportunity. In a show of asserting their independence they theorized that no Divine sanction is necessary in the matter of the Prophet’s successor to govern the temporal affairs of the Islamic State. Thus assuming power, the Caliph demanded that Zakat and Khums should be directly paid to the agents of the Caliph instead of paying it to the deserving, as the Qur’an directed.

Dispute about the Caliph’s Authority to Collect Zakat

At the days of the Prophet (S), Zakat was never collected by any authority. Payment of Zakat was an individual’s responsibility under Qur’anic injunctions. For the first time, Abu Bakr ordered that Zakat to be paid to tax collectors appointed by the government. This innovation was strongly resented by several Muslims, who rightly believed that Zakat was not a part of the state fund or treasury.11 It, therefore, became necessary for the first two Caliphs to change the very meaning and interpretation of the word ‘Zakat’ treating it not as an individual’s obligation but as the right of the state. In this view of the matter, the Caliph, for the first time in Islam, created a standing force to extract Zakat from all Muslims and remit it to the treasury. Later, the very same force was converted into an army for invasion against foreign countries.

The first Caliph ordered the formation of an army to subjugate the Muslims who refused to pay Zakat and Khums. The expedition brought great disrepute as its leader Khalid bin al-Walid not only killed Malik bin Nuwaira (the Prophet’s companion) unjustly, but also he got married (by force) to the beautiful wife of Malik immediately after killing him, without waiting for the mandatory period of Iddah12 to elapse. This caused great resentment among Muslims. However, the Caliph refused to take any action against Khalid, the transgressor. On the other hand, Khalid’s action was sought to be justified under a concocted tradition that if a scholar does the correct thing he will be rewarded for it, but if the scholar commits a mistake and then regrets, he will be doubly rewarded, once for repentance and the second for future abstinence!

The manner in which Imam Ali (a.s.) administered the institution of Zakat and Khums stands out in stark contrast to the coercive methods adopted by the earlier three Caliphs. He gave standing instructions as Model Code of Conduct13 to the Tax Collectors. He directed them to be gentle and considerate towards the subjects and to accept what they voluntarily disclose as their tax liability. Where tax was paid in kind, Imam Ali (a.s.) directed that the owner would have the first choice of retaining what he wished. He reminded the tax collectors that Zakat was in fact a person's due to Allah and should be distributed among the poor and the destitute with equanimity. He made it clear that the greatest crime is the crime against the community, that is the usurpation of public funds.

The difference between the administration of the State by Imam Ali (a.s.) and the other three Caliphs is the difference between a just government and a corrupt government. In the matter of appointments to government posts, Imam Ali (a.s.) was never influenced by relationship. The only criteria for him was honesty and adherence to the Islamic principles.

Under the first three Caliphs, Marwan, Amr bin al-Aas, Abu Huraira and Abu Sufyan’s sons Yazid and Mu’awiya were patronized and they amassed unlawful wealth. Persons banished by the Prophet (S) for sedition and creating wars and conflicts were reintroduced as high profile officers in the administration of the Muslim nation. People were asked to use their own surmise and conjectures in the matter of interpreting Islam.

Imam Ali (a.s.) on the other hand, never played politics and was therefore intolerant of any sort of corruption. He did not entertain anyone on the basis of kinship or any clannish considerations. He followed the Islamic tenets strictly and interpreted the Qur’an on the basis of what the Prophet (S) had taught him. He abhorred interpolations, innovations and other human interference in religious matters.

  • 1. Zakat - Qur’an, 2:3, 43, 80, 83, 177, 277; 4:77; 162; 5:12, 55; 7:156; 9:5, 11, 18, 71; 18:81; 19:13, 31, 55; 21:73; 22:41; 78; 23:4; 24:37, 56; 27:3, 30, 39; 31:4; 41:7; 58:13; 73:20; 98:5. Khums - Qur’an, 8:1, 41; 17:26; 30:28; 33:27; 59:6-9.
  • 2. A Study of Islamic History by K. Ali, p. 140-141.
  • 3. Qur’an, 2:2-4.
  • 4. Qur’an, 2:3, 43, 80, 83, 177, 277; 4:77,162; 5:12, 55; 7:156; 9:5, 11, 18, 71; 18:81; 19:13, 31, 55; 21:73; 22:41, 78; 23:4; 24:37, 56; 27:3, 30, 39; 31:4; 41:7; 58:13; 73:20; 98:5.
  • 5. Qur’an, 8:1, 41; 17:26; 30:28; 33:27; 59:6-9.
  • 6. It is curious that Mr. K. Ali translates the verse in this manner as to justify the collection of tax by the Caliph. The Verse is translated to read :“ Perform the prayer and pay the poor tax”.
  • 7. Qur’an, 8:41, A Study of Islamic History by K. Ali, p. 141.
  • 8. K. Ali’s ‘A study of Islamic History’, p. 106.
  • 9. Ibid., p. 142.
  • 10. A Literary History of the Arabs, p. 193.
  • 11. K. Ali’s ‘A Study of Islamic History’, p.870.
  • 12. A specified period of time that must elapse before a Muslim widow or divorcee may legitimately remarry.
  • 13. Nahjul Balagha, Instructions 25 and 26.