Does Islam have a Infidel Tax? Is it Jizya?

Does Islam have a Infidel Tax? Is it Jizya?


Salam alaikum, Im Muslim, my friend asked me about “infidel tax” & said that would happen if Muslims took over a country & that they have it in Muslim countries… I dont know what to say…

Wa alykum as-salaam,

This is an interesting question, I just have to add I think its funny that your friends ask you about something and then tell you about it.

Did I mention how much I love dealing with the word “infidel?” Let’s start with that word, since this answer requires a lot of clarity in the definitions of terms before we can even understand what we’re dealing with. An infidel, if you look it up, means someone without faith. It’s generally meant in a negative way. Great.

Now, for some reason, today we translate the Arabic word “kafir” (singular) or “kufar” (plural) into infidel, but we don’t use the word “infidel” in the same way as its supposed to be used. Today, people use the word “infidel” not just to denote those without faith, they associate the word “infidel” with all people who do not specifically agree with Islam, such as Christians or Jews.

In a previous post, I explained one way of understanding the concept of “belief” in The Qur’an, which is an expansive and very inclusive one, and then you can also factor in the famous “Ahl al-Kitab” (People of the Book) principle in The Qur’an, which makes the use of the word “infidel” as popularly used to not just be a fabrication, but a contradiction of The Qur’an.

So there is no “infidel tax,” but here’s the bad news: there was a tax that Muslims levied against non-Muslims. It was called jizya. I know what you’re thinking, damn, Muslims actually taxed non-Muslims just because they had different religious beliefs, this sucks.

And you’d be right. It would suck. If only it was just because Muslims stroked their beards and taxed non-Muslims, while planning on how they could make their non-Muslim subject’s lives more terrible. Oh, wait, that didn’t happen at all.

Yes, Muslim Empires would tax their non-Muslim citizens. Funnily enough, they also taxed their Muslim citizens as well. So, why would they call the tax on non-Muslims jizya and the Muslim tax something else? The tax on Muslims was called Zakat, one of the five pillars of Islam, and was a tax structure that was designed to support the State.

The differentiation between the taxes levied upon Muslims and non-Muslims is “marketed” to people today as an illustration of how terrible Muslims were to people who did not share their faith. Contrary to this characterization of the differentiation between jizya and Zakat is not just for accounting purposes, nor is it simply a label meant to show a symbolic difference in funds.

The reason why early Muslim leaders created this differentiation was on a much deeper level. First, let’s remember that Zakat is a religious obligation upon the Muslim, and therefore, before looking at this particular tax as just that, a tax, it is a religious act. Therefore, the early Muslims saw that those who pay the Zakat should only be doing so if they believe in Islam as a system, especially in light of the famous Qur’anic verse “There shall be no compulsion in [acceptance of] the religion.” [Qur’an 2:256]

If you imposed this same tax upon non-Muslims, can’t that be interpreted to be forcing them to change their beliefs? Would you not be violating the commandment of The Qur’an? Of course you would, so, not only would you be violating The Qur’an’s clear command against compulsion, but you would be making non-Muslims engage in a religious ritual (Zakat). Therefore, the problem with making non-Muslims pay something specifically called Zakat is wrong on two levels: it violates the compulsion ‘clause’ in The Qur’an, and it forces non-Muslims to preform a religious ritual that is not their own.

On the other hand, these early Muslim leaders had a problem: Muslims were a minority group in the countries that they ruled. For example, Egypt was the largest Christian country when it was taken over by Muslims, and continued to be for quite some time. Muslim leaders in the Middle East, North Africa, and Europe** were thus initially dealing with populations that could not pay Zakat, yet these fledgling states had to raise money some how, whether to pay for public works or defense, they still had to establish revenue structures.

Therefore, jizya was a system of taxation that was designed so that these Muslim leaders could tax their non-Muslim populations like they were already taxing the Muslim population. If you look at the jizya alone, then yes, it looks horrid. However, when you look at the entire context, it makes a lot more sense.

As far as the fear of Muslims taxing non-Muslims into oblivion suddenly, it strikes me that your friend doesn’t exactly understand how different taxes are today to taxes back in the day.

If the early Muslim leaders could tax their populations like a modern state does, they would have kept Zakat as a charitable device and jizya would have never been needed. The modern nation state taxes you in ways that would be literally fantasy to leaders from a hundred years ago, let alone, someone in the 8th century.

A state can take sales tax, VAT, luxury taxes, hell, they even tax service personnel’s tips. The ability to extract taxes is the major feature of modern nation states, they are able to control so much more of your life, and subsequently tax so much more of it. However, even more importantly, there are several Muslim countries where there are significant non-Muslim populations and none of them have to pay special taxes. So, on any level you cut it, the idea that your friend is advocating is very flimsy, to put it nicely.

Anyways, for Muslim leaders, the fact that Zakat was seen as a religious duty, it made their job much easier when it was time to collect taxes. I mean, think about it, when you collected taxes, there was a guy who went around to actually collect taxes, this wasn’t just something you saw taken out of your pay stub, they literally took taxes.

Therefore, it is very difficult to compare the methods of taxation back then and today, since we understand taxes very differently, in terms of structure and the systems of obligations. However, one theme that has carried throughout history, is that people hate paying taxes.

I know that’s a long answer, but, it was the sort of question that really had so many themes running through it. I realize I am not touching the concept of the Devşirme or Mamluks, but if anyone has any questions on those subjects, please do not hesitate to ask.

I hope that I answered your question, and if you have any other questions related to this subject or others, please do not hesitate to ask, Insha Allah.

**The South Asian experience between Muslim leaders and the larger population is very different to those found in the aforementioned areas.

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