Historical Roots of Twelver Shīʽī Legal Tax Theory

By Mohammad Sagha

This post provides a basic historical background, evolution, and categorization of Shīʽī[1]  attitudes on religious financial obligations (known as zakāt and khums) as conceived of by Shīʽī legal thinkers in both the modern and pre-modern period.[2] Both zakāt and khums are obligatory taxes[3] originally levied on all Muslims, and take on special valence in the Shīʿī community. That community’s current global population is upwards of 200 million people.[4] Given the significant size of the population, the practical implications of these tax obligations are significant. Explicating these forms of taxation is essential for understanding the nature of the financial and banking system in the Shīʿī world, how the Islamic legal obligation of paying taxes affects state borders and religious boundaries, and more generally how that obligation helps define the relationship between the modern state and clerical institutions in Shīʽī-majority countries such as Iran and Iraq. This post posits that Shīʽī juristic thought regarding zakāt and khums historically hinged on the particular theological conception of the Imām as the legitimate head of the Muslim community, which developed partly through ideological political resistance to de facto government rulers following the death of the Prophet Muḥammad in 11/632.

According to various early Shīʽī and Sunnī scholars, the purpose of the obligation to pay zakāt and khums is for believers to purify themselves and the money they earn or acquire.[5] The obligation of the first category, zakāt, stems from the Qurʾān. Etymologically, zakāt means “to increase and to be pure,”[6] and the literal meaning reflects its religious origins. [7] The Shīʿī scholar Muḥammad b. al-Ḥasan b. ʿAlī Abū Jaʿfar al-Ṭūsī (d. 460/1067) in his al-Mabsūṭ fī Fiqh al-Imāmīyya similarly states that zakāt is purification.[8] According to Aron Zysow, there is evidence that giving zakāt was institutionalized as early as the time of the Prophet Muḥammad, who sent agents to collect it.[9]

Shīʽī and Sunnī jurists historically disagreed over how and to whom the zakāt should be paid. The main theoretical difference between Shīʿī and Sunnī jurists regarding the right to collect zakāt centered on differing conceptions of political legitimacy and leadership. While early Shīʿī jurists argued that it was the imām’s theoretical right[10] to legitimately administer zakāt collection, Sunnī jurists recognized the power of the caliph or de facto ruler to do so.[11] For the early Shīʽīs (at least until the advent of the Ṣafavid empire in the 10th/16th century) aside from the brief caliphate of the Shīʿī Imām ʽAlī b. Abī Ṭālib (d. 40/661), other political rulers were considered usurpers. Since the Imāms did not head governments, voluntary payment of the zakāt to government authorities was considered illicit. Instead of paying money to these illegitimate rulers, early Shīʽī jurists including al-Ṭūsī, Ibn Idrīs al-Ḥillī (d. 598/1202), and Muḥaqqiq al-Ḥillī (d. 676/1277) specified that zakāt should be given to fellow Shīʽīs who recognized the spiritual authority of the Imām.[12] However, these same early legal authors, including al-Ṭūsī made it permissible for Shīʿī Muslims to give zakāt to needy recipients whose identity as Shīʿa was unknown: “if it is not possible to give [zakat al-fiṭra][13] to the people of knowledge,[14] it is permissible to give [it] to the needy (mustaḍʿafīn).”[15]

Moreover, writing during the period of major occultation,[16] Ṭūsī states that if the Imām or those whom he appointed are present then the zakāt must be transferred to the Imām or his representative, however if the Imām or his representatives are not present (as is the case in his time period) then three portions which are no longer standing (and thus “sāqiṭ”) are: the portions of the administrators (sāʿat), those “whose hearts have been reconciled” (al-muʾalifa qulūbuhum), and the portion of jihād.[17] In the modern period, zakāt, for Ayatollāh al-ʿUzamā Abū Qāsim al-Khūʽī (d. 1992),[18] who represented the mainstream jurisprudential positions of the Shīʿī clergy as an Ayatollāh with one of the largest followings, was due for proceeds on nine categories: “(i) wheat; (ii) barley; (iii) palm dates; (iv) raisins; (v) gold; (vi) silver; (vii) camels; (viii) cows; and (ix) sheep (including goats).”[19] Rates differ for the amount of zakāt to be paid on the various items but are generally on the lower single-digit range (2.5% on certain quantities of gold, for example).

Khums (literally “one-fifth”), the other financial obligation required by Islamic law, is unique in its scope and practice in Shīʽīsm. Shīʽī jurists interpret khums to refer to a tax levied on believers for general categories of goods not limited just to war gains, as Sunnī jurists have argued.[20] These basic categories for Shīʿī jurists have basically remained consistent over time.[21] In contemporary Shīʿī law, as Grand Ayatollāh al-Khūʽī states in his manual of Islamic law, khums payments are obligatory on seven areas: “(i) profit or gain from earnings; (ii) minerals; (iii) treasure-troves; (iv) mingling of lawful property with unlawful property; (v) gems obtained from the sea by diving; (vi) war booty; and (vii) land which a dhimmī [an early Islamic term for a non-Muslim living under the protection of Islamic Government] purchases from a Muslim.”

Shīʽī jurists divide khums into two categories: the share of the imām and the share of the sādāt (family of the Prophet).[22]  Khums has remained uniquely salient for Shīʽīs in this sense and has financially supported their jurists with significant direct contributions up until current day. This revenue has in turn provided institutional independence and power to the clergy with Shīʽīsm and supported them institutionally and ideologically to remain unified as a clerical class.[23]


[1] Unless otherwise noted, the use of the word “Shīʿī” connotes Twelver Imāmi mainstream Shīʿism which today constitutes 80-85% of the global Shīʽī population. Other significant branches of Shīʿism include Zaydīs and Ismāʿīlīs; these groups are today mainly present in Yemen and India, respectively.  Shīʿīs today believe in a line of twelve consecutive imāms who were the legitimate successors to the Prophet after his death in 632 CE. Sunnīs, on the other hand, believe in a different line of legitimate rulers after the Prophet’s death. For a general overview of Shīʽīsm, see Najam Haidar, Shi’i Islam: An Introduction (2014).

[2] In this context of this post, the pre-modern period refers to Shīʿī jurisprudence before the creation of the marjaʿīyya system in which Shīʿīs must choose a “most learned” mujtahid (known as a “Grand Ayatollāh” or Ayatollāh al-ʿUzmā) to donate their khums obligations. This system was established by the renowned Shaykh Murtaḍā Anṣārī (d. 1281/1874); for more information see: S. Murata, Anṣārī, Shaikh Mortażā (December 15, 1985), and Roy Mottahedeh, Mantle of the Prophet 211 (2002).

[3] The use of the English word “tax” for zakāt and khums is mainly applied out of convenience and does not necessarily capture the full meaning of zakāt and khums as concepts; likewise “alms” or “tithes” can serve as alternative translations but also encapsulate translation issues. “Tax” may imply a punitive dimension and “alms” or “tithes” while perhaps closer to the religious/charitable aspects of zakāt and khums do not necessarily capture the definite legal and spiritual/moral obligations that these terms imply within Islam. These English words also have etymological roots in Old English or Greek which are unique from the etymologies of the Arabic words “zakāt” and “khums” as well as containing philological genealogies which are distinct from one another.

[4] Pew Research Center, Mapping the Global Muslim Population (2009).

[5] Norman Calder cites Abū Ḥasan ʿAlī b. Muḥammad b. Ḥabīb al-Māwardī (d. 450/1058), Muḥammad b. Idrīs a-Shāfiʿī (d. 204/820) and Abū Yūsuf Yaʿqūb b. Ibrahīm (d. 182/798) as early Sunnī theorists who covered jurisprudential issues related to zakāt; Zakāt in Imāmī Shīʽī Jurisprudence 468 (1981).

[6] Aron Zysow, Zakāt, (Encyclopaedia of Islam, Second Edition).

[7] The Qurʼān, 9:103 states: “Take, [O, Muhammad], from their wealth a charity (ṣadaqa) by which you purify them (tuahhiruhum) and cause them increase (tuzakkīhim), and invoke [Allāh ‘s blessings] upon them. Indeed, your invocations are reassurance for them. And Allāh is Hearing and Knowing.”

[8] Muḥammad b. al-Ḥasan al-Ṭūsī, al-Mabsūṭ fī Fiqh al-Imāmīyya 190 (p. 1386/2007).

[9] Aron Zysow, Zakāt, (Encyclopaedia of Islam, Second Edition).

[10] Shīʿīs believe in a line of twelve consecutive Imāms who were the legitimate successors to the Prophet after his death. Sunnīs, on the other hand, believe in a different line of legitimate rulers after the Prophet’s death.

[11] Within Sunnī sources, as Norman Calder states, “the right to collect and distribute [zakāt] granted to the accepted sharʽī executive, the de facto ruler, pre-empted the right of the individual to asses and distribute for himself. For the Shīʽīs the accepted sharʽī executive was manifestly not the de facto ruler but the faqīh” who delegated that authority from the hidden Imām; Zakāt in Imāmī Shīʽī Jurisprudence 478 (1981).

[12] Norman Calder, Zakāt in Imāmī Shīʽī Jurisprudence 471 (1981).

[13] Zakāt al-Fiṭra is a special type of zakāt given to the needy at the end of the holy month of Ramadan.

[14] The phrase here used is “ahl al-maʿrifa,” a phrase most likely connoting the Shīʿa.

[15] Muḥammad b. al-Ḥasan b. ʿAlī Abū Jaʿfar al-Ṭūsī, al-Nihāya fī Mujrrad al-Fiqh wa al-Fatawā 196 (p. 1979/1400). Further, Jaʿfar b. Ḥasan al-Ḥīllī al-Muḥaqqiq al-Awwal seems to confirm this point on zakāt al-fiṭra as he does not challenge Ṭusī’s point in his commentary of al-Nihāya; al-Nihāya wa-Nukatuhā 443 (p. 1412/1991). As Norman Calder explains this legal reasoning: “The Imāmīs were concerned not with islām as the relevant category but with īmān; that was specified by all writers as a necessary condition in the recipient of zakāt… Ṭūsī suggested that in the absence of Imāmī recipients of zakāt… might be distributed to mustaḍʽfīn in general”; Zakāt in Imāmī Shīʽī Jurisprudence 471 (1981). For modern Shīʽī law, see the chapter on “zakāt” in: Grand Ayatollah Abū al-Qāsim al-Khuʽī, Islamic Laws of Ayatulah Khui, where he states that the tax “may be given to those non-Muslims who may be inclined to Islam.”

[16] The occultation refers to the physical disappearance and inaccessibility of the Twelfth Imām following the death of his father, the previously accepted Imām among the Shīʽī community. Given the doctrinal adherence of the Shīʽīs to the Imām as the sole legitimate leader and religious guide of the Muslim community, the occultation (ghayba) confronted the Shīʽīs with unprecedented challenges both doctrinally and socially. For a detailed study on this subject, see: Hossein Modarressi, Crisis and Consolidation in the Formative Period of Shiʻite Islam (1993).

[17] Muḥammad b. al-Ḥasan b. ʿAlī Abū Jaʿfar al-Ṭūsī, al-Nihāya fī Mujrrad al-Fiqh wa al-Fatawā 185 (ed. Āghā Bozorg Tehrānī).

[18] In the modern period, al-Khūʿī was one of the leading Grand Ayatollāhs in terms of followers.

[19] Grand Ayatollah Abū al-Qāsim al-Khuʽī, Islamic Laws of Ayatulah Khui.

[20] Norman Calder, Khums in Imāmī Shīʽī Jurisprudence 144-145 (1982).

[21] Stating that “these categories did not change through the centuries,” Calder lists these items specifically as: “(1) booty taken in war; (2) minerals; (3) treasure trove; (4) what is taken from the sea (pearls or treasure); (5) the profits of trade, agriculture and craft (tijārat, sināʽāt, zirāʽāt); (6) Dhimmī land if bought from a Muslim; (7) alāl goods mixed with arām.” As Calder continues, these categorizations “cited by Shaykh-i Bahāʽī (d. 1013/1604-5) are exactly the same as those provided by Muḥaqqiq [al-Ḥillī] (d. 1277 CE) and were all available in a slightly less systematic form in [Shaykh al-Ṭāʼifa] Ṭūsī’s (d. 1067 CE) Nihāya; Khums in Imāmī Shīʽī Jurisprudence 145 (1982). Robert Gleave similarly states that, “the earliest categorisation of taxable wealth comprised booty, produce of the sea, buried treasure, minerals and malāḥa [profit from trade agriculture and craft]”; K̲h̲ums, (Encyclopaedia of Islam, Second Edition).

[22] Norman Calder, Khums in Imāmī Shīʽī Jurisprudence 144-148 (1982).

[23] As Ahmed El Shamsy states, “by deriving their primary means of support directly from the population, Twelver [Shīʽī] scholars were able to retain a higher degree of independence than their Sunnī colleagues, who were often dependent of waqf funding, direct patronage or appointments in the state-controlled judicial system”; The Social Construction of Orthodoxy 107 (2008).

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