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Revisiting Zakat: Balancing Spiritual Duties with Modern Financial Realities

Continuing from where I left off…

If I were to reiterate the reason for this confusion, which no sound mind could accept, it would be the mixing of the zakat’s financial aspect (ta’lili) with its worship aspect (taabbudi), and the failure to display the necessary jurisprudential approaches, updates, and modernizations in its financial dimension.

Unfortunately, this situation continues even today. As previously mentioned, the ‘zakat nisab’ signifies owning wealth above the minimum standard of living, which those deeply engaged with the topic argue represents the annual living standard for a family of three.

For instance, Yusuf Qaradawi, renowned for his two-volume doctoral thesis on zakat, asks: “Are these nisabs immutable shari’a boundaries, or are they rulings that can change based on social and economic conditions and the changing purchasing power of money?”

To provide a short answer, it is undoubtedly the latter.

This type of approach is also applicable to the items subject to zakat. The goods specified by the Prophet (pbuh) were of economic value within his society. To adopt a literalist approach and assert that only these goods are subject to zakat would mean, for example, excluding oil from zakatable goods, which contradicts the purpose of zakat’s institution.

The reason I mention oil is precisely because there are scholars who make this argument. “The Prophet did not mention pitch, so it is not subject to zakat!” they say, which is entirely correct within their own time period. After all, pitch, as understood, had no economic value, its utility was unknown, and it decreased the value and productivity of the lands or deserts it emerged from at that time.

But what about today?

I could continue discussing the defined rate of zakat, 1/40, and the expenditure categories, but assuming my point is understood, I’ll summarize in one sentence and conclude here. The principles and rules governing the financial aspect of zakat are all proportional to the socio-economic and cultural conditions of the Hijaz region from 610-632.

So, the crucial question is: What do we do today?

Considering that we are Muslims and subject to the duty and obligation of zakat, how will we calculate our zakat, to whom, when, how, and in what amount will we give it?

In my personal opinion, it is not possible to replicate today the period when zakat functioned like a tax and was part of public finance. Neither in Islamic countries nor in the current world do I think it’s possible to have such a regression that would make the reasons zakat was instituted fully functional.

Therefore, when seeking an answer to this meaningful question of “What do we do today?”, we must first accept that this possibility should be ruled out. Such a possibility would only be feasible if states were to restructure their tax legislation around the zakat practices of the Prophet’s era and support it with sanctions. Considering that this is at least currently impossible, I suggest we set this possibility aside.

The second, and in my view, feasible option is for zakat to remain as a form of worship that supports social solidarity, outside of public finance – essentially what has been practiced for centuries. From this perspective, I’m not saying anything new, I’m aware. Let me elaborate; this is a reality that has its roots in the era of Caliph Uthman, began to institutionalize during the Umayyad period, and continued to be institutionalized thereafter. Zakat is an individual act of worship, and taxation, separate from zakat, is a duty of citizenship organized by the state that concerns public finance.

Am I saying that the jurisprudence of zakat is one thing, and tax law another? Yes, that’s exactly what I’m saying. Zakat has been regulated in the civil sphere through shari’a law and personal fatwas, while taxes have been governed in the official domain through customary law and general laws that bind everyone, for centuries.

I will continue on this important topic.

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Dr. Ahmet Kurucan is a an author and scholar focusing on Islamic Studies and Law.


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