Ibn Khaldun on Taxes

by FSTC Published on: 1st July 2002

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Ibn-khaldun enters the frame of Islamic scholarship, associating both intellectual might and near perfect organisational skills to set the foundations for our modern social, economic, historical and political sciences.

Nearly four centuries would elapse after Al-Muqaddasi (died 946AD), see full article, before Ibn-khaldun enters the frame of Islamic scholarship, associating both intellectual might and near perfect organisational skills to set the foundations for our modern social, economic, historical and political sciences.

A dedicated article is needed in this section on the life and works of Ibn Khaldun. However, so much exists already, and is of very good quality. There are a couple of web-sites devoted to him, some of which are quite good, and a few excellent. In this particular note we will examine Ibn-Khaldun’s attitude towards taxing farmers.

Extracts from Ibn khaldun’s Muqqadima on his passage on the cause which increases or reduces the revenues of empire, in Bulletin d’Etudes Arabes, Vol 7, pp 11-15, extracted from De Slane’s edition, vol II, pp 91-4;

In an empire that has just been founded, taxes are light, and yet bring much revenue. However, when it (the empire) approaches its end, they become heavy and bring very little revenue.

Here is the reason: if the founders of the empire follow the road of religion, they only apply the taxes authorised by Divine law, that includes Zakat (alms), Kharaj (land tax), and Jizyah. The amount of each is not too hard to bear, as everybody knows that tax on corn and livestock is not heavy; it is the same for Jizyah and Kharaj. The rate of such taxes is fixed by law and so cannot be raised. If the empire is founded on a tribal system and conquest, civilisation must have first been that of a nomadic sort.

The impact of such civilisation is to engage the rulers towards kindness, forbearance, and indifference towards the acquisition of wealth, except in rare cases. Thus, taxes and personal duties which finance the revenues of the empire are light. This being the case, the subjects carry their tasks with energy and enthusiasm. Work on the land grows because everyone wants to make the most of the lightness of the taxes, and this in turn raises the numbers of those engaged in the task, hence raising the revenues of the state.

When the empire has endured a rather long period, under many successive sovereigns, the heads of states acquire more ability in their business, and lose with their habits (links with) nomadic life. Then simplicity of manners, forbearance, and casualness which characterised them hitherto disappear. The administration becomes more demanding and harsh; sedentary customs promote shrewdness amidst state employees, and they become more able men of business. And as they experience well being and pleasure, they also indulge in a life of luxury, and acquire new needs. This drives them to raise taxes on all, including farmers. They want taxes to bring in more revenues to the state. They also impose duties on farm products on sales in towns and cities.

Expenditure on luxuries gradually rise in the government, and as the needs of the state increase, taxes rise further, and become heavier to bear by the people. This charge appears, however, as an obligation due to the fact that the increase has been imposed gradually, without it being too much noticed, and who did it remaining unseen. The increase, thus, taking the form of an obligation long accustomed to. With time, taxes grow beyond the bearable, and destroy in farmers the urge and love for work.

When they compare their charges and expenses with what their profits, they become disheartened; and so many leave farming. This leads directly to a fall in taxes collected by the state, which affects its revenues.

Sometimes, when the heads of states notice such a fall, they believe they can resolve it by raising taxes further, and so they do more and more until the point is reached whereby no profit could any longer be made by farmers. All charges and taxes leave no hope whatsoever of any profit. In the meantime, the government is still raising taxes. Farming is now abandoned. Farmers leave the land which has become worthless. All ill consequences fall upon the state…

The reader thus gathers that the best way to make agriculture prosper is to reduce as much as possible the charges that the state imposes. Then farmers work with enthusiasm knowing the great benefits they derive-and God is the Master of all Things.


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