Here's a short article I wrote on request of my dad, who mentioned Ghamidi sahib believes Zakaat can mean taxes, and gives the positive examples of Nordic countries. I disagree so hence the article.
As the saying goes, there are two certainties in life: death and taxes. Taxes are what we need to pay for civilization. Civilization, in fact, demands taxes and needs no religious justification to do so. Putting that aside for a second, let's quickly turn to two verses in the Qur'an which in turn illustrate two important points. Starting with 2:43, this names a few religious commands, namely to establish Salaat, and to give Zakaat; whereas 2:256 demands that we do not force our beliefs and religious commandments onto others. So my question is twofold; first, where does the idea that Zakaat can be thought of as taxes come from given that such a religious justification for taxes is completely superfluous; and second, even if such a religious justification is allowed in addition to the economic one, how can this even be religiously justified given that Zakaat is a religious command as per 2:43, and that we aren't allowed to enforce our religious commands upon others as per 2:256?
Paying taxes, after all, is not normally thought of as a noble act, precisely because it is the given cost of living in a civilization. To think of something as mundane as taxes as a religious duty Allah saw fit to name as Zakaat, seems rather to make a mockery of the Qur'an and to dilute any deeper meaning of the religious command therein.
Taxes, in their simplest expression, are merely payment for a service, namely the set of services provided by the state like roads, sewage, garbage collection, street lights, public transport, and other such infrastructure and services that form the garbs of civilization. The only difference between these services and those of, say a private business, is that by law everyone pays for it and everyone is entitled to its benefits, generally speaking, but no transaction can be traced between the payee of a state service and its beneficiary. But in essence that is precisely what taxes are: a business transaction. And when has anyone ever needed justification for payment of a good or service in a business transaction?
The idea, then, that the Qur’an would develop a central concept and religious duty, calling it Zakaat, only for it to refer to a payment for the passive services provided in a civilization, appears untenable. Taxes, again, are mundane. Why should we ascribe to a central pillar of Islam such a mundane responsibility taken for granted by any civilized person? Is that the extent of what Islam has to offer the civilized world?
I think there is a better interpretation here, one that raises in equal measure the stature of what Zakaat can mean and in what Islam has to offer to the world. And it presents itself in the Qur’an as plain as day in 2:219; God makes it simple here: give all that’s beyond ones basic needs. That is Zakaat. But suppose you live in one of those Nordic countries where the taxes are so high you may as well feel like you’re doing something noble by paying them. What excess income is left here, really, to give? And herein lays an important space to have a philosophical discussion on the Qur’an and its prominent emphasis on human agency. I believe this emphasis exists because God wishes for us to succeed and fail by our own hands, so that each one of us can clearly see the two paths and be held responsible for choosing between them. So a state’s artificial gaming of reality by government contracts, plopping up “too big to fail” corporations, or subsidizing failure in a welfare state; all these distort what I see as the primary dictum in the Qur’an:
QXP 18:7 We have adorned what is on earth so that We may let them test themselves as to who is best in conduct, and lives a balanced life.
It is to no one’s benefit that we distort this test of life by having high-tax states that leave no room for the exercise of human agency, not in the ultimate sense. It leaves no excess income, as mentioned in 2:219, to discriminate between those who would act well and spend well and those who would squander it for the world to see. Such a welfare state degrades human agency and does not, in that sense, manifest the “Kingdom of God”.
Such a Kingdom of God, being an ideal, must naturally lie beyond the present as something to strive towards. We haven’t yet arrived, nor should we expect as much. It’s a place where, as Dr. Shabbir suggests, the average person will be a watcher over his own self, and thus a master of his agency. It’s a place of civilization, and thus taxes, but this would in my view be a relatively minimalist state with a small government: a libertarian pipedream essentially. It would, however, be powered, and I truly mean powered, by the higher values and callings of individuals who are masters of their agency and spend entirely of their volition their excess resources on all that is good. And it wouldn’t, above all, be a utopia in the naive sense, but rather the logical conclusion of average people standing for higher callings in life by inculcating higher moral values. And in this way, truly setting an example for the world to see on what a higher state of civility can look like, and in that way raising the words of God to their proper place beyond the mediocre.