A tax imposed on property and districts rather than on individual persons. The exact meaning of the word is “land yield,” signifying the harvest produced by a given territory. It was originally paid in kind as in the preceding Byzantine system of taxation. P. Schwartz (1916) has attempted to establish the thesis that the Arab system was inherited from the Arabs’ Byzantine predecessors. Linguistically kharaj is a corruption of the Greek choregia, and both words are identical in their practical usage.
With the passing of time, payment in kind was considered to be impractical and was replaced by its equivalent in currency. In later centuries the tax became a somewhat unlimited impost on farmers, who gradually became more and more like slave laborers on land owned theoretically by the conquering Muslim community as fay’ (Qur’an 59:6-7), signifying that all goods, chattels, and land should be secured from unbelievers without fighting. Hence the proceeds of all such property must be ceded to the state.
Legally, the governors in Egypt had a free hand in the imposition of the kharaj on the inhabitants of all villages. The governors often imposed such massive levies as to leave the Coptic farmers without the slightest share of what the land produced, a situation that eventually led to their migrating to neighboring towns in search of a livelihood. As can be seen from the histories of certain medieval patriarchs, the migration movement became so strong that whole territories became fallow, a state that alarmed the rulers because of the loss of kharaj. Consequently, the government issued firm decrees to stop migration and ordered the return of the migrants by force to their original homes.
In the Abbasid period, the legal particulars of the kharaj were codified by jurists such as Abu Yusuf Ya‘qub and, later, Mawardi and others. However, the kharaj as land tax became obsolete as more and more Christian inhabitants converted to Islam and thus automatically became liable to tithing (‘ushr) and zakat instead of kharaj. The kharaj eventually fell into disuse.
It is noteworthy, however, from the HISTORY OF THE PATRIARCHS that additional irregular taxes were imposed by the governors of Egypt on every Coptic pope after his consecration, and the beleaguered patriarch had to ask for special dispensation to tour the country to collect the requested impost, so that he would be left to occupy the throne of Saint Mark in relative peace. Such extraordinary financial measures became customary for each pope at his accession.
- Becker, C. H. “Die Entstehung von ‘Ushr- und Kharaj-Land in Ägypten.” Zeitschrift für Assyriologie 18 (1904-1905):301-319. Fagnan, E. Abou Yousof Ya‘koub. Le Livre de l’impôt foncier. Paris, 1921.
- Gaudefroy, D. Le Monde musulman et byzantin jusqu’aux croisades. Paris, 1931.
- Schwartz, P. “Die Herkunft von arabisch ‘Kharaj’ (Grund) Steuer.” Der Islam 6 (1916):97ff.
- Wellhausen, J. Das arabische Reich und sein Sturz. Berlin, 1902. Ye’or, Bar. The Dhimmi: Jews and Christians Under Islam, trans. from French, David Maisel, Paul Fenton, and David Littman. Rutherford, Calif., and London, 1985.