Zakah – Quranic Economics (Dr. Mansoor Alam, Ohio, USA)

Before beginning this final part of our discussion of Zakah, let us briefly summarize the first two parts ( Part 1 & Part 2) to maintain focus and continuity.

In the first part we showed how our present approach to Zakah has turned into a lifeless ritual leading to differences in Zakah items and Zakah rates among various Sunni sects; major differences between Sunni and Shi’ia sects in this matter; non- uniform policy for collecting Zakah by Muslim governments which can range anywhere from voluntary contribution to compulsory deduction from bank accounts. These certainly were not the ways our Prophet (PBUH) and the rightly guided Khalifas practiced Zakah.

In the second part we emphasized that the real system of Zakah must lead to economic growth and development, and that, for this to occur, Zakah needs a strong foundation. Several verses from the Quran were presented which provide the basis of this foundation.  Although Muslims continue to give the ritual Zakah, the economic problems continue to get worse.  In fact, corruption in the system of Zakah collection and distribution is quite common in many Muslim countries and charitable organizations.

We also pointed out that we really cannot talk about a system of Zakah as long as Allah-given resources are under the control of dictators/kings, capitalists, and/or priests whose primary objective is not to serve Allah or his servants, but to maintain their own power and control. Until Allah’s resources are purified from their corruption (the root of Zakah also means purification), we cannot truly hope to implement Zakah.

In this final part of the article, we venture to show how the Quranic concept of Zakah, if implemented in its pristine form, will, ultimately, lead to economic growth and development of not only Muslims but of the entire human race.  This may sound strange or even impossible under the present system of Zakah being practiced by Muslims. But this situation has to do with Muslims andnot Islam. We must differentiate between  Muslims and Islam.

No one can argue that we, Muslims, are no longer the Ummah referred to in the Quran. We are divided into sects. We make excuses to justify our sectarian divisions in spite of Allah’s stern and clear warnings against it (6:159, 30:31,32). We play with the verses of Allah and compile books—such as the book of tricks mentioned in Part-I—to circumvent Allah’s clear orders about “giving Zakah.” According to the Quran, accumulating wealth and looking for ways to multiply it leads to hell (104:2-4).

On the other hand, if we follow in the footsteps of the Prophet (PBUH) and his companions there will be no doubt or skepticism about the universal goal of Zakah. The skeptics (both Muslims and non-Muslims) have to go back to the period of the Prophet (PBUH) and the rightly guided Khalifas—and not to the Umayyad and Abbasi periods—to find a proof of the positive impact that the economics of Zakah created on the society. That society was established and ruled solely on the basis of the universal permanent values of the Quran.

 Quranic Zakah Requires Its Own Independent State

Because the Quran is a Constitution, it requires its own independent and free state where  its unique economic system of Zakah can and should be implemented. The positive output (growth and nourishment at all levels) of this economic system is termed by the Quran “Aata-wuz-Zakaat” or “to give Zakah.” The Quran says:

(They are) those who, if We establish them in the land, establish regular prayer and give Zakah “Aata-wuz-Zakaat”, enjoin the right and forbid wrong: with God rests the end (and decision) of (all) affairs. [Al-Hajj 22:41, Translation: Yusuf Ali]

“Establish them in the land,” means the establishment of an Islamic state by the momineen or the believers.  The beneficial outcome of Zakah must manifest in this world through its own government established along the lines of the Prophet (PBUH) and the Sahaabaa (R).

Therefore, the establishment of this Islamic state is different from the ones established by the proponents of so-called Shariah, from the Ummayah and Abbasids down to the present. How can a so-called Islamic government under the control of kings/dictators, capitalists, and/or priests implement the Quranic economics of Zakah when, in fact, they are the ones who corrupt it? The Quran does not even recognize their existence, let alone allow them to rule in the name of God. In fact, the Quran condemns religious priests who unjustly devour people’s hard earned wealth (9:34).

Zakah Must Lead to Growth and Development of All 

The term “giving Zakah” means a) making available to all human beings the provisions of growth and development by providing equal opportunity within its jurisdiction and b)  purifying a corrupt economic system. This is in contrast to the present situation where the governments “take away (a ritual) Zakah” instead of “giving (the Quranic) Zakah” to the people as instructed by Allah.

In the first place, the duty imposed by Allah for “giving Zakah,” i.e. making available the provisions of growth and development, cannot be fulfilled unless the Quranic government has the capability to discharge this responsibility. The needs of the people determines how much Zakah is taken. Zakah is not a special religious tax or levy that is different from the government tax.  In a Quranic state it is not possible for some people to hoard  material possessions beyond their needs and indulge in excesses, while the rest are deprived of the basic means and provisions of life. The Quran explains the justification for this.

  1. The Earth is the source of all the provisions of life. Like water, air and light, the Earth has been created by Allah for the benefit of all. Therefore, no one has the right to own it except Allah. We, humans, are only the trustees and  beneficiaries. We are not owners. As discussed in the second part of this article, the claim of ownership of any part of the Earth by human beings is shirk in the sight of Allah.
  2. In this system, individuals cannot hold onto surplus wealth.

“They ask thee how much they are to spend; Say: ‘What is beyond your needs.’” (2:219).

iii.            Surplus wealth should go to the treasury (Baitul Maal) of the Islamic government, as was the case during the time of the rightly-guided Khalifas. Therefore, in this system, there is no question of individual, or group investment.

  1. This system will provide all the basic needs of life like housing, hospitalization, and education. No one will need to borrow money with interest for the above; no one will have surplus money to invest with interest.
  2. The question of individual business for profit also does not arise in this system. Shops will be cooperative distribution centers, not sources of individual profit. Those who run the centers will receive compensation for their efforts.

[Note: Some may claim that the above advocates Communism. Nothing can be farther from the truth. Contrary to Islam, Communism does not believe in any power higher than itself.  While people in a Communist state work for the good of the state in this life, Muslims work for the benefit of all to develop the individual soul for the Afterlife.]

Interest-free Economics Based on the Quran 

The economic system of the Quran must be run on an interest-free basis. While this topic is hotly debated in Islamic circles, the proponents of interest-free Islamic economics mostly seek ways to adapt it to Western capitalism. But the economic system of Zakah, grounded in the Quran, is unique, relying on the desire of individuals to uplift themselves morally and spiritually, not materially.  Brothers and sisters! Just as Islam is opposed to Communism for putting the State before God and the “Self”(Soul), it is also opposed to Capitalism for putting money before God and the “Self.”

The term Riba in the Quran encompasses more than “interest.” Riba is the foundation of an economic system that is so directly opposed to the economic system of the Quran that Allah asks believers in the Quran to declare that this system is a war against “Allah and the Prophet (PBUH),” (2:279) and, therefore, to fight it. Ironically, today our Ulema occupy themselves with seeking solutions to the Riba-based economy of an un-Quranic system. Otherwise, what other explanation could there be for Imams (religious leaders) and Fuqahaa (religious jurists) who allow indirect silent partnership in business or land (read investment), a relatively mild form of exploitation compared to Riba? [Detailed discussion of Riba requires a separate article.]

To recollect, our discussion of Zakah thus far can be summarized as follows:

  1. Whatever is collected in the name of Zakah nowadays is really a charity. It has nothing to do with the Quranic Zakah.
  2. For Zakah, the existence of an Islamic government based solely on the Quran as its Constitution is essential (22:40). This must replace any man-made economic system (like Capitalism or Communism) or purify any system based on an amalgamation with the divine system like the one based on the so-called “Shariah” developed under the Abbasi rule.
  3. It is this government that can truly give (the Quranic) Zakah  (“Aatawuz Zakah”) to its people by providing the means of growth and nourishment to everyone equally while demolishing such barriers as wealth, status, race, gender, ethnicity, language, etc.
  4. To discharge this responsibility, the entire revenue of this government can be called Zakah. There cannot be a permanent fixed-for-all-time Zakah rate or Zakah items. The government will determine these based on the needs of the time and place. Whatever the Prophet (PBUH) fixed was based upon the needs of his time and place and was not meant to be permanent for all times and all places.
  5. The charitable contributions to deal with emergency situations are called Sadaqaat (not Zakah) by the Quran.

Incentive for Giving

As we have seen, according to the Quran, it is the responsibility of the Islamic state to provide equal opportunity to all as a basic human right for growth and development. For this purpose, every family returns its surplus wealth to the Islamic state (2:219). Moreover, it is the duty of Muslims to extend this system to include the entire humanity (1:2).

What is the incentive that will drive people to give their surplus wealth to the Islamic system willingly?  What benefit will the individual derive who gives his/her surplus wealth to this system?

Without satisfactory answers to the above questions, people will not be motivated to part with their surplus wealth. No one wants to part with his/her hard earned money without receiving some benefits in return.  The Quran says:

He sends down water from the skies, and the channels flow, each according to its measure: But the torrent bears away the foam that mounts up to the surface. Even so, from that (ore) which they heat in the fire, to make ornaments or utensils therewith, there is a scum likewise. Thus doth God (by parables) show forth Truth and Vanity. For the scum disappears like froth cast out; while that which is for the good of mankind remains on the earth. Thus doth God set forth parables. [ar-Ra`d 13:17, Translation: Yusufali]

The above verse reveals clearly and beautifully the answer to our questions: only that system will stay forever which is beneficial to all of humanity. This is the fundamental law that decides whether a system or an ideology is capable of being maintained or is transient and will disappear. According to this law, a system which is designed to benefit only a particular group or nation, will disappear sooner or later.  The ruins of past empires (including  Muslim ones) attest to the effectiveness of this law.

Therefore, when we choose an ideology of life other than what the Quran prescribes, we have to face the consequence of that choice.

Two Alternatives, Two Choices

Individuals tend to work for their own benefit. This is the driving force which motivates people to work. But according to the Quran:

  • That system in which everyone works for one’s own individual benefit does not have the ability to stay—no matter how much tinkering or patch-up job is done to save it. On the contrary,
  •  The system in which everyone works for the benefit of entire humankind will stay forever. It stays on the basis of its own intrinsic strength and power.

In the second system, individual benefits are not ignored.  They just do not occur immediately or directly. Rather, they occur indirectly – and in the long run, while, in the first system, everyone gets his/her individual benefit right away. The Quran calls this  short-term gain or Mataa‘uddunya, while the long-term gain that comes to a person who has shared and circulated his/her worldly benefits with humankind, is called the future benefit or Aakhira. This is also referred to as the life of the future or Ha-yaatul Aakhira which includes the life after death as well (87:16-17).

Thus, according to the Quran, an ideology based on the welfare of the individual is short-sighted and doomed to perish, while the one based on the welfare of the entire humankind is just.

The Quranic Ideology: Universal Welfare

The Quran does not advocate this ideology on the basis of emotion or blind faith. Unlike other religions, the Quran provides objective proof for every claim it makes. So, why is an ideology based on the welfare of an individual or a family, or a race, or a nation wrong while the one based on universal welfare right? The Quran explains it through a practical example and provides an objective proof for this claim.

If human beings lived only at the animal level, then it would have been acceptable to look for one’s own self-interest. Eating, drinking, and the pursuit of happiness from material things in life would have been their goal (47:12). But life at the human level is different than at the animal level. Animals do not have a sense of tomorrow or future.  This distinguishes human beings from everything else in the universe. The human body in this world, which is a vehicle for the “self,” or “soul,” is left behind while the soul journeys on to another dimension which the Quran calls Ha-yaatul Aakhira, just as the mother’s womb is a vehicle for the fetus which eventually separates and journeys on independently.

It is this sense of a larger future (or future life) that binds a human being with the rest of humanity just as individual members of a family work together for the future success of all the family members. Working for the benefit of humanity’s future leads, in turn, to development and growth of the “self,” an essential requirement for each individuals’ future journey. The Quran says:

Verily, (the ends) ye strive for are diverse. So he who gives and fears [Wattaqa], And (in all sincerity) testifies to the best,- We will indeed make smooth for him the path to Bliss. But he who is a greedy miser and thinks himself self-sufficient, And gives the lie to the best,- We will indeed make smooth for him the path to Misery; Nor will his wealth profit him when he falls headlong (into the Pit). Verily We take upon Ourselves to guide, And verily unto Us (belong) the End and the Beginning. Therefore do I warn you of a Fire blazing fiercely; None shall reach it but those most unfortunate ones Who give the lie to Truth and turn their backs. But those most devoted to God shall be removed far from it,- Those who spend their wealth for increase in self-purification, [Surah Al-Layl 92:4-18, Translation: Yusufali.]

Human efforts are spent in different directions. But the one who “gives” (Muttaqi) saves himself/herself from dangers. (The root of Taqwa is: protection from dangers, therefore Muttaqi is one who is protected).

The above verses also provide the motivation for why one should “give.”  “Giving” achieves two things. First, it provides a source of nourishment, growth and development at the physical level. This is so obvious that it does not require further elaboration. Second, what is not so obvious is how it affects the non-physical or “human” aspect of life. In the interest of simplicity and brevity it is said that “giving” leads to spiritual growth. But what is this spiritual growth and how does it occur?

Human Activity Is Subject to Higher Law

The Quran explains in concrete terms that “spiritual growth” is not something imaginary or metaphysical. It says there is a higher law that operates on the “self” just as the physical law operates on the body. This higher law is that the “self” grows by giving whereas the body grows by “taking.” Let us see a rational explanation for this law.

When human beings employ intelligence as a tool, human emotion tries to fulfill its ambitions and desires to excel by competition. Since human intelligence knows no other world than its own, it guides human beings to compete for this world. This is the material concept of life in which people try to outwit each other in conflict situations using every means, primarily power, money, influence. This is amplified several folds (in terms of its influence and impact) at the national and international levels. The Quran says that this way of life is transient, leads to waste of human potential, and ultimately to human catastrophe.

Know ye (all), that the life of this world is but play and amusement, pomp and mutual boasting and multiplying, (in rivalry) among yourselves, riches and children. Here is a similitude: How rain and the growth which it brings forth, delight (the hearts of) the tillers; soon it withers; thou wilt see it grow yellow; then it becomes dry and crumbles away. But in the Hereafter is a Penalty severe (for the devotees of wrong). And Forgiveness from God and (His) Good Pleasure (for the devotees of God). And what is the life of this world, but goods and chattels of deception? [Sura Al-Hadid 57:20, Translation Yusuf Ali]

Human Desire to Compete Cannot Be Crushed

Thus, according to the above verse, the Quran recognizes the very real existence of the human emotion to compete. But it also warns that the end result of the competition for material things is short-lived. The race for material things weakens rather than strengthens the human “self” and character. Instead, the Quran tells us to compete in a different arena, one which will not only strengthen our character and “self”, but the results of which will encompass both this world and the hereafter:

Race one with another for forgiveness from your Lord [Rab or Nourisher] and a Garden whereof the breadth is as the breadth of the heavens and the earth, which is in store for those who believe in Allah and His messengers. Such is the bounty of Allah, which He bestoweth upon whom He will, and Allah is of Infinite Bounty. [Sura Al-Hadid 57:21, Translation: Pickthall]

This competition leads to a system in which Allah’s bounty flows like a continuous river – a river that covers the breadth of the heavens and the earth—satisfying everyone’s needs in this life and extending to the other. No one, in this system, erects any barriers in this free flowing economic bounty (garden) of life. Rather, everyone seeks forgiveness from Allah from such acts so that this bounty remains freely available for nourishment and growth for all, as Allah has promised (1:2, 17:31).

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