U.S. tax prof puts cart before horse, misreads zakat data

July 26, 2010
Russell Powell, an associate professor of law at Seattle University has penned a glowing review of zakat-based tax systems as a progressive model for the rest of the world to adopt (h/t TaxProf Blog).
Leaving aside that problematic premise, we’ll focus instead on one supposed “correlation” that Prof. Powell sees in the Islamic world.  There are countries in the Islamic world with mandatory zakat laws (such as Saudi Arabia and Pakistan), countries with voluntary zakat programs run by the government, and countries with no government run programs.  Powell argues that there is a positive relationship between national wealth and economic equality and which countries adopt zakat systems.
Powell says the slight relationship in his chart, which shows that the Middle Eastern countries with the highest per capita GDP are likelier to have zakat systems than poorer countries, is worthy of futher study:
Zakat systems in the Islamic world sorted by GDP

Chart by Russell Powell, Seattle Univ. School of Law

I’ll help you out.  The relationship is not about national wealth.  It’s not that these countries experience a economic boon because of zakat.  Collecting zakat, skimming off the top through corruptly high tax administration, and transferring whatever is left over to a mishmash of political cronies, imams, terrorists, and a few poor Muslims, does not “produce” a higher gross domestic product.
It’s somewhat true that richer countries may impose zakat because their citizens can actually afford to pay it.  But get beyond the materialist arguments and take a look at the actual countries that mandate zakat:  Libya, Malaysia, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, the Sudan, and Yemen.  What’s the common thread?  Look elsewhere, sir, than GDP to explain it.  These are all Muslim theocracies or countries that have outsourced vast realms of public policy to Islamists.
National wealth (ie, oil wealth) can fuel the degree and speed of Islamization of the country, which itself could lead to calls for a host of Islamized public policies.  But let’s not fool ourselves into thinking zakat creates wealthy, egalitarian societies.

(I may address Powell’s broader points at a later date, but for now I’ll simply say that the paper is well researched but profoundly myopic.  One cannot examine Islamic tax law properly by researching only zakat.  Powell even suggests that zakat presents a model for small government because zakat is simply passed through and not retained by government hands.  This ignores that the bayt al mal of the caliphate throughout history has been funded by the jizya and kharaj taxes against non-Muslims.  Professor, I look forward to reading your next article if you take Islam’s total tax picture into account.)


  1. […] zakat, more poverty.  That about sums it up.  Somebody get Dr. Asri on the phone with Russell Powell so he can tell him how “successful” zakat is in producing economic equality.  Zakat is one of […]

  2. […] zakat, more poverty.  That about sums it up.  Somebody get Dr. Asri on the phone with Russell Powell so he can tell him how “successful” zakat is in producing economic equality.  Zakat is one of […]

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