Jizya: Oppression or Beneficial?

Mohammad Wasim for BeyondHeadlines

While in primary school, I came across the word jizya for the first time in my life. We were taught that great Mughal ruler Akbar was tolerant for abolishing jizya and his successor Aurangzeb was less tolerant towards non Muslims for introducing it again. At that stage of my life I did not care whether jizya was something wrong or beneficial. As time progressed my love for knowledge increased and began to ponder over these topics.
Jizya has always been a disputable concept not only in the minds of non Muslims but also among Muslims. The word jizya has always been employed as a weapon to support prejudiced opinions, to spread misunderstandings about Islamic law.

The word jizya is derived from the root word jaza which means to ‘compensate’. Reputed Orientalist Edward William Lane describes jizya as a “tax that is taken from the free non-Muslim subjects of Muslim governments whereby they ratify the compact that assures them protection.” It was collected only from the free able bodied men and could not be collected from dependant women, salves or any other dependents.

The collection of jizya or compensation was not new to the world. It was a common practice throughout the ancient Egypt and Rome. In Rome this was charged on the alien business community of the state. The victorious nations throughout the history have persisted in levying the ‘poll tax or capitation tax’ on the conquered lands.

Biblical text too refers to Joshua collecting tax from the people of Canaan. Islam inherited this system as a source of revenue and maintenance of financial expenditure. It should be mentioned here that Muslim subjects, besides paying zakaah (2.5% of savings), ushoor (10% of agricultural lands), also had to pay sadaqah, khums, and fitrah. As a matter of fact the per capita collection from the Muslims was several fold than the non-Muslims.

Jizya, thus, was a mere tax collected in return for protection granted by Muslim states to the non–Muslim subjects, who were exempted from participating in wars. Stanley Lane Poole in The Muslims in Spain writes: “The citizen classes, instead of bearing the whole burden of the state expenditure had only to pay a poll tax of no very exacting amount, and they were free of all obligations, unless they held cultivable land, in which case they paid the kharaj, or land tax…assessed equally on Christians, Jews or Moslems.”

The Islamic state is obliged to formulate and implement policies based on the general interest of the people. If the state by any means failed to protect the lives and property of the non Muslims, it is incumbent upon the ruler to return the collected amount to the payers. There have in fact been instances when it was actually returned.

During the reign of second caliph Omar bin Khattab, a huge sum of money was returned to Christians of Syria when the Muslim army feared losing to Romans on directive of the Caliph. Thomas Arnold comments: “enormous sums of money were paid back out of the state treasury and the Christians called down blessings on the head of the Muslims saying ‘may God give you rule over us again and make you victorious over the Romans.’

Abu Yusuf, an eighth century scholar, wrote a book on the appropriation of taxes from the Islamic empire at the behest of the then ruler Harun al Rashid, kitab al kharaj: “It is proper o commander of the faithful that you treat leniently those who have a contract of protection from your prophet, you should look after them so that they are not oppressed, mistreated or taxed beyond their means.”
Although the Holy Quran prescribes the appropriation of jizya, it does not specify the rates and conditions. The second source of Islamic law, i.e. the tradition of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) clarifies rates and methods of collection of the tax.

Whether Akbar abolished jizya or Aurangzeb re-imposed it, it was kept primarily keeping in mind the exchequer, and was in any case nominal.

(Mohammad Wasim is a student of Economics at Calcutta University. Keenly interested in comparative religious studies, Wasim can be reached at khanwasim.md0@gmail.com )

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect BH’s editorial policy.

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