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Tamlīk (Exclusive Personal Possession) as a precondition for Zakāh
Economic Issues
Nadir Aqeel


One of the issues regarding payment of Zakāh is that of Tamlīk, an Arabic term used by Muslim doctors of law, which has been interpreted as ‘complete and exclusive personal possession’. It means that in order to pay Zakāh, one has to hand it over to the exclusive possession of a deserving person. If accepted, the essential consequence of this interpretation is that while paying Zakāh, cash and goods can only be transferred to the personal possession of a poor or a destitute person; they cannot be handed over to an institution or a legal person. Zakāh is thus reduced to a petty personal benevolence which cannot be paid to institutions as orphanages, schools or other welfare organisations. This rigid condition confies the magnificent social institution of Zakāh to an individual act of charity extended by one person to another. This mode of payment strips the institution of Zakāh of its social dimensions and leads to the prohibition of Zakāh funds for nation building projects.

The belief in Tamlīk, as an essential condition for settlement of Zakāh, is backed by orthodox Muslim tradition, particularly by the Hanafī corpus of legal canon. The validity of Tamlīk is drawn from the following verse of the Holy Qur’ān:

Alms shall only be for the poor and the destitute, for those that are engaged in the management of alms and those whose hearts are to be won in favour of the Faith, for the freeing of slaves and the debtors, for the advancement of God’s cause, and for the traveler in need. That is a duty enjoined by God. God is all-knowing and wise. (9:60)

The argument is based on the preposition lām, which is taken to connote Tamlik. This preposition has been used in the Qur’ānic text for the first four heads of expenditure permitted for Zakāh. It has been further argued that in case of the poor, destitute, those engaged in the management of Zakāh and those whose hearts are to be won in favour of the Faith, the preposition continues to extend the condition of personal possession. Thus Zakāh can be only paid by handing it over personally to all the deserving persons qualified under the four categories.

Grammatically, the preposition of lām (an inseparable preposition) can be used in classical Arabic for about twenty-two senses. Only one of them connotes possession (Tamli$k). The others include the simple sense of ‘for’, ‘for the benefit of’ or ‘ultimately for’. The conclusion that here it is used for personal possession is not based on any convincing evidence from the context of this verse. The imposition of such a condition would require the support of Qur’ānic text or an established practice originating from the Prophet (sws) himself.

Even the grammatical analysis of the above verse of the Holy Qur’ān leaves a lot of room to interpret the preposition in other senses. The context of these verses of the Qur’ān needs to be studied as well. The verse in question appears in the Holy Qur’ān in the following context:

Among these hypocrites are people who level allegations against you concerning the distribution of alms. If they are given according to their wishes, they are pleased. If they are given nothing, they grow resentful. It would have been better if they were satisfied with what God and His Prophet have given them, and would day; ‘God is all-sufficient for us. He will provide for us from his own abundance and so will his Messenger. To God we will submit. Alms shall be only for the poor and the destitute; for those that are engaged in the management of alms and those whose hearts are to be won in favour of the Faith; for the freeing of slaves and debtors; for the advancement of God’s cause; and for the traveler in need. That is a duty enjoined by God. God is all-knowing and wise. (9:58-60)

The verses start with a reference to the ill-meaning hypocrites whose objections on the distribution of alms stemmed out from selfish motives. If they were given what they wished to get, they were contended. If they were left out, they resented the distribution and construed it as partiality on part of the Holy Prophet (sws). Thus, the following verse naturally mean that the attitude of these people was not justified because the alms are meant for the poor and the destitute and others specified in the verse. The verses do not mean that alms should be given into the exclusive personal possession of the poor and destitute. This assertion would be out of place and would divorce these verses from their context. The early commentators of the Qur’ān who used to attach priority to the context of the Holy Book (as Zamakhshari in his Al-Kashshāf) have brought out this aspect. The preposition lām has therefore been used here to convey that alms are for the benefit of the poor and the destitute etc. rather than for these hypocrites.

Apart from the construction and grammatical composition of the verse, there are other considerations which leave little room for the doctrine of Tamlik. Tamlik leads to the following inescapable conclusions:

a.  The Zakāh funds cannot be used for transporting alms from one place to another because such an expenditure does not qualify the condition of personal possession.

b.  No project of collective welfare of the poor can be undertaken out of Zakāh funds, such as construction of a mosque, school, library, dispensary, water supply scheme and lodging for the poor. Since these projects incur expenditure that is spread over a community of deserving people, the condition of personal possession is not fulfilled.

c.  Zakāh funds cannot be used to meet the expenditure on the burial rites of a poor person because, after his death, he cannot be made the owner of this money in person.

d.  Zakāh funds cannot be used for payment of loans outstanding against the deceased for the same reasons.

e.  The funds cannot be expended towards freeing a poor man in slavery because the money is to be paid to the master of the slave and thus the condition that the poor man himself should get the funds in his personal possession first is not met.

f.   Zakāh can only be paid to a poor man as a charity without any plan to enable him to become self sufficient.

These conclusion are not acceptable to us - not only because they are not workable in this age of overlapping social dependence, but also because there is no religious injunction to be found in Qur’ān or Sunnah that imposes such a condition. Tamlīk also entails another compulsion. Since the alms cannot be spent on their transportation from one place to another, the entire collection from an area therefore must be distributed to the residents of that locality. This would lead us to the preposterous situation where the backward and less prosperous areas remain deprived forever while the prosperous localities keep on getting more and more alms. Secondly such a pattern of distribution will not allow the state to envisage a bigger plan for the larger benefit of the deserving people. The Zakāh funds would get so thinly spread over the poor people that it will be of no consequence towards alleviating their poverty.

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