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Historical Perspective Reference to the Ottoman Case

Of the three monotheist religions, Islam has put the greatest emphasis upon the plight of the poor and the destitute and only in the Qur’an neglect of the poor is directly associated with the “most grievous penalty”. Moreover, although both Judaism and Christianity urge the believers to provide support for the poor, this support is of voluntary nature, whereas in Islam supporting the poor assumes an obligatory character and disregard for the poor becomes tantamount to abandoning Islam. Furthermore, other monotheist religions have, left charity largely to the individual domain and have given no responsibility to the state in the collection and redistribution of the charitable funds. By contrast, Islam has determined the conditions which obligate a Muslim to give alms, it has calculated the exact percentage of income to be distributed as such and identified the individuals who qualify to receive the zakah. Since one of the eight recipients of zakah has been clearly stated as “those employed to administer the (funds)” (Qur’an, 9:60), it is clear that the state is given the responsibility to collect and administer the zakah funds (Qaradawi, I, 1984:66).

The following suras and the ayats in the Qur’an refer to the duty of the Muslim to give charity and care for the poor: Muddaththir, 38-46; Qalam, 19-33; Haqqa, 25-34; Fajr, 17-18; Maun, 2-7; Zariyat, 19; Ma’arij, 27-28; Isra, 26; Rum, 38-39; En’am, 141. In addition to these, there are many other ayats which emphasise the importance of zakah. Thus, these examples support the statement made above concerning the importance given by Islam to the care of the poor.

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In addition to the zakah, Islamic civilisation has encouraged the foundation of other institutions which played a decisive role in the alleviation of poverty throughout Islamic history. But before we begin an analysis of these institutions it might be appropriate to note that alleviation of poverty can be achieved by capital accumulation, capital redistribution as well as a combination of both. Looking at the struggle against poverty from this perspective, we may identify basically five institutions which Islamic civilisation developed in the fight against poverty. The first one, zakah, has already been mentioned and the others were state provisionism, auqaf, business partnerships and the pilgrimage.

Of these institutions, state provisionism, zakah and auqaf were clearly institutions of capital redistribution while business partnerships and the pilgrimage have functioned in history as instruments of capital accumulation and redistribution. We will now look at these institutions and observe how they functioned in history to combat poverty.

The Ottoman Experience

The reason why we concentrate here on the Ottoman experience is that of all the great Islamic civilisations it was the Ottomans alone who left a major archive. Put differently, when we wish to inquire how a specific Islamic institution actually functioned in history, whether it fulfilled its mission and what were its relative strengths and weaknesses, Ottoman archives are often the only source available for research. Consequently, the Ottoman archives containing more than half a billion documents constitute for all Muslims an inestimable linkage between the present and  the past. In short, Ottoman economic and institutional history reflects how an Islamic economy actually functioned in history. In what follows a brief outline of this vast experience as far as  the struggle against poverty is concerned will be presented.

Dr. Murat Cizacka


Source: Poverty Alleviation in Pakistan: Present Scenario and Future Strategy, Mohibul Haq Sahibzada. Republished with permission.