The (almost) weekly word: ‘ashir

January 20, 2010

You don’t see many references to ‘ashirs today.  But it’s an important concept within Islamic tax law.

“Amil” is the common term for tax collectors under Islam, but there many different words in Arabic and other languages depending on what type of Islamic tax is being collected.

In his matchless Mohammedan Theories of Finance, Nicolas Aghnides wrote, “The ‘āshirs are the collectors stationed by the imām on the public road in order to collect the zakāt of Moslem traders, as well as the tolls imposed on the dhimmi and harbi traders who pass him.”

Islamic customs duties, which are considered as zakat on articles of trade (and are sometimes referred to as ushuur because of the 10 percent rate assessed against non-Muslim traders), are a significant source of revenue for the Bayt al-Mal.

From the standpoint of tax administration, this type of zakat poses unique difficulties for the tax collector.  The standard zakat on monetary wealth is paid once during Ramadan, and is based off of the payer’s total net worth for the year.  But with the customs zakat, the tax collector does not know the net worth of the trader (who is a foreigner), or how many times the trader will enter a particular city to buy or sell goods, so the collector cannot automatically assess the zakat rate of 2½ percent of net worth on the trader.

Instead, the tax is levied on the value of the goods intended for trade.  But how do you keep a trader from being taxed for the same goods several times by different officials?  In theory, each ‘ashir has his own jurisdiction, and the caliph wouldn’t deploy more than one ‘ashir to the same area.

But this definition isn’t just some morsel of irrelevant historical trivia.  Once you understand the concept of ‘ashir, the violence and “extortion” we see throughout the Muslim world comes into stark relief.

Remember this story of “extortion” of truckers in Afghanistan by the Taliban?  If you think of zakat as just the 2½ percent wealth tax, of course theft from the truckers looks like extortion.  But if you truly understand Islamic finance, it appears that these truckers are passing through the jurisdiction of the Taliban’s ‘ashirs.

The Associated Press scoffs at the Taliban for “euphemistically” designating these payments as zakat.  But it seems that it is the Taliban who has the more accurate, historical understanding of the breadth of the zakat, and the organization that is guilty of using euphemisms is the Associated Press.

One comment

  1. […] in keeping with traditional Islamic tolls against merchants passing through the jurisdiction of an ‘ashir–a tax agent of an […]

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