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The Ushr, Part I of II

November 15, 2009

Today Money Jihad looks at the ushr tax, its basis in Islamic law, and its fundamental flaws.  Part II tomorrow will examine the catastrophic impacts of ushr collections in the world today.

Ushr fundamentals

The Islamic tax on harvests is derived chiefly from the Koran 6:142:

He it is who produceth gardens of the vine trellised and untrellised, and the palm trees, and the corn of various food, and olives, and pomegranates, like and unlike.  Eat of their fruit when they bear fruit, and pay the due thereof on the day of its ingathering:  and be not prodigal, for God loveth not the prodigal.

The Hadith refer to the zakat most often in the context of taxing monetary or animal wealth.  But the Hadith also presents the harvest tax as a type of zakat.  Specifically, the Sahih Muslim says, “A tenth is payable on what is watered by rivers, or rains, and a twentieth on what is watered by camels.” (Book 5, No. 2143).  Yields from artificially irrigated lands are taxed at the lesser rate because of the high operating costs involved.

The tax rates of 5 to 10 percent probably explain why the ushr is normally seen as distinct from the zakat.  The ushr taxes a different source of wealth (crop yields as opposed to money or livestock), at a different rate (10 instead of 2½ percent) at a different time of the year (at harvest instead of Ramadan).  But those who are required to pay the ushr and the purposes that ushr revenues can be used for by the Islamic state are identical.

Problems with the ushr…

Its purpose

Again, the Koran stipulates that one of the purposes of the zakat shall be to fund the cause of Allah, or holy war (9:60).  Ushr revenues are to be used in precisely the same manner pursuant to Islamic law.

Its penalties

The penalty for non-payment of the ushr is the same as the penalty for non-payment of the zakat, which is eternal damnation.  In Sahih Bukhari 2.24.536, if so much as a she-goat is withheld from the zakat tax collectors, Abu Bakr promised to fight the non-payers for it.  Those of you who read my series on the zakat may also remember that Muhammad promised that those who don’t pay the zakat on animal wealth will be trampled and gored by those animals on Resurrection Day.  I’m surprised that the Hadith don’t warn farmers that their crops will return on Resurrection Day and choke them to death if they don’t pay the ushr!

Its economic effects

In an age of heavy crop subsidies in the United States, the ushr puts Muslim farmers at a global competitive disadvantage.  We subsidize our farmers to farm (or even sometimes not to farm).  Islamic law provides no subsidies to farmers; it just taxes those who farm.  Don’t misunderstand me—I am glad that our farmers are productive and competitive, and I’m proud that America serves as a low-cost leader of food to a hungry world.

But judged from the standpoint of tax equity and the global economy, the ushr is nonsensical for countries that are trying to protect their agricultural base.  The ushr may have made a great deal of sense in medieval Arabia, Iraq, and Persia.  Those were primarily agricultural societies, where crops were a major source of wealth and therefore a sensible object of taxation.  Less so today, when modern agribusiness in more developed countries can produce more crops at lower prices.

The tax that time forgot

The reason that the inequity of the ushr is important to understand is because it speaks to the broader flaws of the whole Islamic tax system and Sharia economics.  The ushr is an anachronistic tax (like the “camel zakat”), which was devised in medieval times but must still be adhered to in Islam today despite changes in the world economy.

Moreover, this is the problem with any tax alleged to have been levied by God—no human law, reform, or vote can amend the rate or object of the tax imposed.  Muslims, if they survive through eternity, will always have the ushr.  If in another hundred years the whole world is buzzing around in flying cars like the Jetsons, Islamic tax law will still focus on camels.  Muhammad did not envision the modern economic world of manufacturing, services, and technologies—the tax laws are written for economies based on agriculture, trade, and war.

One comment

  1. Zakat and ushr are not jihad money like some countries from they own taxes sent bombs on Japan, iraq (to get oil), etc.
    Zakat and ushr can be given to a poor soldier of a muslim army. Not to finance a full war.
    In the same way its good be given to a poor people, or a man who have lot of debts. In ushr, most of the people give it from their own plantation (wheat, barley, corn,… ). This is the way to pay ushr. The object is to help those who are in need.
    Also note that the ruling in zakat and ushr is its must go to a physical person not a company (like hospital, school, or ministery of the army,…). Add this point that if a man received 400 hundreds dollars, it wil not be possible for him to take zakat money in futur. He have to paid zakat. so it is impossible to finance war with zakat and ushr.
    Yassine
    Jurist in islamic law



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