The Islamic ruling on Al-Luqatah (lost and found)
Linguistically, 'Al-Luqatah' refers to anything that is found and picked up from the ground. Technically, as Imam Ibn Qudamah a Muslim scholar, defined it as: 'Property that the owner loses and a person finds and takes away (to preserve it in trust).'
Muslim scholars vary about the ruling. The Hanafi and Shafi'i jurists maintain that it is better to pick up a lost property because a Muslim is duty-bound to preserve his Muslim brother's property, as evidenced by the saying of the Prophet when he was asked about Al-Luqatah: "Remember the description of its container and the string with which it is tied. Make a public announcement of it for one year. If nobody comes and claims it, then utilise the money but keep it as a trust with you. And if its owner comes back one day seeking it, then return it to him." [Al-Bukhari and Muslim]
According to the Maliki and Hanbali jurists, it is a Makrooh (disliked) act to take away such property. This is also the opinion of Ibn 'Umar and Ibn 'Abbas . They argued that by taking away such lost items, one is bound to use something that is deemed unlawful. They also argued that one may not be able to undertake his duty efficiently regarding it, in terms of advertising it, returning it to its lawful owner and preserving it.
Its Ruling in Terms of Liability
Al-Luqatah remains a trust with the person who finds it and keeps it, and he is deemed liable for it only if he abuses it. He is also deemed liable for it if he gives it to somebody else without the permission of a judge. If it is damaged while still in the finder's possession, after publicly announcing that he has found it and asking people to refer its rightful owner to him, then he is not deemed liable for such damage because he volunteered to preserve it in trust. The Ahaadeeth (prophetic statements) on this issue are very clear. The Prophet said in the above-quoted Hadeeth: "...But keep it as a trust with you".
Types of Al-Luqatah
1. If it is an animal, the finder should see if it is able to protect itself or not. If it is able to, then he is not allowed to take it away. When the Prophet was asked about the Islamic ruling concerning a lost camel, he replied: "It is none of your concern. Leave it, for it has its feet and a water-container (reservoir), and it will reach water and eat from the trees until its owner finds it." [Al-Bukhari]
However, if the lost animal is not able to protect itself, such as a sheep, a sick camel or a horse with a broken leg, the finder is allowed to take it away. When the Prophet was asked about the ruling concerning a lost sheep, he replied: "Take it, for it is either for you, or for your brother (i.e., its owner), or for the wolf." [Al-Bukhari]
2. As for lost property that is not an animal, such as money of an unknown owner, one should consider the following rulings:
The Ruling Concerning Trivial Fallen Items
For trivial items such as a loaf of bread, a whip, a date or anything that people generally do not claim when they lose, according to the predominant custom, the person who finds such an item is allowed to claim it as his own without publicly announcing it. He is also allowed to utilise it. Jabir bin 'Abdullah who was one of the Prophet's companions, said: "The Messenger of Allah allowed us to utilise (such trivial objects as) a rod, a whip and a rope if we found it." [Al-Bukhari and Muslim]
Announcing Lost Property Publicly
a) If someone finds an object, he should acquaint himself with the features that distinguish it from all similar objects. This will allow him to identify the right owner if he comes to claim it and asks him about its distinguishing features.
b) If he knows its distinguishing features, he should advertise it in public places, markets and outside Mosques, but not inside the Mosques, as this is deemed a Makrooh act. He should then wait for a year.
How should the finder be compensated for announcing, publicising or maintenance expenditure?
Hanafi and Hanbali jurists maintain that the finder should incur such expenses. Imam Malik maintained: "The owner is to be given two options: either to reclaim it from the person who has found it, by paying him back for what he has spent on it, or to give it to him in return for the expenses incurred." Shafi'i jurists say that the judge takes the money from the public treasury of the Muslim state and gives it to the finder of the lost property to use it for advertising purposes, or the finder may borrow this money and would consider it as a loan to the owner.
Returning Lost Property to the Person Who Claims It
If someone comes and claims that the lost property is his, its finder should ask him about its distinguishing characteristics. If the claimant adequately describes it and distinguishes it from similar items, or if he proves to him with clear evidence that it belongs to him - by describing its container or the string with which it is tied, for instance - then the finder should return it to him, as the Prophet said by way of example: "If its owner shows up and satisfactorily describes its container, the string with which it is tied and the amount of money in it, then return it to him." [Muslim]
A question arises here: After the claimant provides a satisfactory description of the lost property, should the finder return the property to him or should he take him to a judge to establish the evidence and act upon the judge's decision? According to the Hanafi and Shafi'i schools of Fiqh (jurisprudence), the finder of the lost property is not obliged to return it. The followers of the Maliki and Hanbali schools of Fiqh have stated that he is obliged to return it to its owner if the latter gives a satisfactory description of it, in accordance with the dictates of the prophetic tradition mentioned above.
Claiming Lost Property as One's Own
The finder of the lost property can claim such property as his own if he still has it, or he can claim its price as his own in case he sold it after advertising it for the required period of time. In such a case, he should give it or give its value to the owner should the latter come forward to claim it, as the Prophet said in this regard: "Advertise it for a year. If nobody claims it, then utilise it, and keep it with you as a trust." One is not allowed to claim it as his own without advertising it for a full year.
Some scholars argue that it is not permissible to consider lost property as one's own, and whoever finds it should, after advertising, give it in charity to the poor because it is considered other people's property, and it is not permissible to use it without its owner's consent, in accordance with prophetic textual evidence: the Prophet said: "A Muslim's property is not lawful (for another Muslim) without the former's own free will." He also said: "Lost property is not lawful. Whoever finds it should advertise it for a year. If its owner shows up and claims it, he (the finder) must return it to him; if he does not show up, he should give it in charity." [Al-Bazzar and Ad-Daraqutni]