Zakāh al-Fitr is sometimes referred to as Sadaqah al-Fitr. In both cases, it means “the charity for breaking the fast.” This is because it is paid at the end of Ramadan, when the season of fasting has come to a close. The name “Zakāh al-Fitr” may also refer to the fitrah, the natural way, as mentioned in the verse: "the nature way (fitrah) which He has made for mankind." [Sūrah al-Rūm: 30]
It is not a tax on a person’s wealth. It is paid on behalf of each individual, like a head tax. Indeed, it is sometimes called zakāh al-ra's, (i.e. "the head tax") or zakāh al-badan ("the body tax").
The Wisdom behind Zakāh al-Fitr
It purifies the fasting person of the shortcomings in his or her observance of the Ramadan fast. No one’s fast is perfect in every way. We all say things or do things that we should not do. We may speak ill of another person during the course of the month. We may look at something we are not supposed to.
This Zakāh helps the poor people enjoy the Eid along with everyone else. This is why it is paid on the morning of the Eid or the night before. The Eid is a time of joy, a time of celebration. It is a day for feasting and wearing new clothes. When we pay Zakāh al-Fitr at this time, it gives the poor people a sense of belonging by including them in the festive spirit of the day. They should not have to spend this day hungry. They should not feel deprived or left out.
This is why many scholars, including Ibn Taymiyah and Ibn al-Qayyim, say that Zakāh al-Fitr should only be given to the poor and destitute, and not to the other classes of people who are generally eligible to receive charity.
Finally, Zakāh al-Fitr helps to cultivate among the members of society the habit of giving. This is another reason why the obligation of paying this form of charity is connected with each and every capable individual, regardless of how much wealth that person has.
The Ruling of Zakāh al-Fitr
It is a point of unanimous consensus among Muslim legal scholars that paying Zakāh al-Fitr is a religious obligation. This has been asserted by Ibn al-Mundhir, al-Bayhaqī, and Ishāq b. Rāhawayh, among others.
The evidence for this is as follows:
1. Allah says: "He indeed shall be successful who purifies himself, glorifies the name of his Lord, and prays." [Sūrah al-A`lā: 14-15] Ibn `Umar interpreted this verse are referring to Zakāh al-Fitr.
2. Ibn `Umar relates that the Prophet obliged the payment of Zakāh al-Fitr as a sā` of dates or barley on behalf of every Muslim man and woman, free or slave. It is to be paid before the people go out for prayer.” [Sahīh al-Bukhārī (1053) and Sahīh Muslim (984)]
Zakāh al-Fitr is an obligation on those who are able to pay it. This is defined as someone who has enough to eat for one day and night.
Zakāh al-fitr is paid as a quantity of food. The measure of used is the sā`. It is a measure of capacity (volume) that equals four double-handfuls of an average person's hands.
How is It to Be Paid?
Abū Sa`īd al-Khudrī relates: “We used to pay Zakāh al-Fitr as a sā` of wheat or barley, or dates, or dried cheese, or raisins.” [Sahīh al-Bukhārī (1435)]
The vast majority of scholars from the time of the Companions and Successors, agree that we are not restricted to the specific food items mentioned in the hadīth. It is permissible to pay it in any staple food of the locality. This might include rice or any other staple food that is prevalent in the locality.
Scholars disagree as to whether money can be paid in lieu of food. The majority of scholars hold the view that Zakāh al-Fitr cannot be paid in cash. This view is the one adopted by the Mālikī, Shāfi`ī and Hanbalī schools of law.
The Hanafī school of law follows Abū Hanīfah’s opinion that it is permissible to pay zakāh al-fitr in cash. This was the opinion of a number of eminent Successors, including the Caliph `Umar b. `Abd al-`Azīz. Al-Hasan al-Basrī said: “There is no problem with paying Zakāh al-Fitr in silver coins." [<,em>Musannaf Ibn Abī Shaybah (10368 and 10370)]
Ishāq al-Subay`ī said: "I found them paying this charity in silver coins to the value of the food." [Musannaf Ibn Abī Shaybah (10371)]
This was the view of al-Thawrī and `Atā'. Indeed, `Atā' was known to pay his Zakāh al-Fitr in cash. All of these people were among the most distinguished Successors.
Recently, the scholar Mustafā al-Zarqā has come forth as a strong supporter of this point of view. He defends this position with the following strong arguments, among which are the following:
1. Most jurists see no problem with paying Zakāh al-Fitr in whatever foods are locally used, even though most of these foods are not mentioned in the hadīth. This is why they see it as permissible to pay it in rice or maize or whatever else is locally eaten as a dietary staple. If these foods that are not mentioned in the Sunnah are permitted, then it makes more sense to permit paying it in cash, since this is more useful to many poor people on the day of Eid. This is not really different than what the people do who pay in their local food. We determine the equivalent value of those foods in cash. They determine the equivalent of those foods in their local staples.
2. The enumeration of those foods is not a matter of pure, abstract worship that cannot be departed from. There is a clear benefit intended from them. The purpose of Zakāh al-Fitr is to help the Muslims. It helps the poor to enjoy the `Id and participate in celebrating the successful completion of the month of fasting with the rest of the Muslims. It also helps the giver in that it is a charitable act. The giving of money – which can be dearer to both the giver and recipient – realizes the purposes of Zakāh al-Fitr. It helps the poor and purifies the giver, and it does not contradict any explicit text.
This question is a detail of Islamic Law about which some of the greatest scholars disagreed since the earliest days of Islam. Among them was the caliph `Umar b. `Abd al-`Azīz who enjoined upon his subjects to pay Zakāh al-Fitr in cash.
Our purpose in mentioning the difference of opinion in this matter is to show that there is flexibility. There is no reason to be rigid and dogmatic. Islamic Law seeks to facilitate matters and to ease things for the people.
When Must It be Paid?
It becomes incumbent at the time the people break their fasts at the end Ramadan. This is why it is called the charity for breaking the fast. Its name refers to its rationale. Some jurists, including al-Shāfi`ī, Ahmad, Ishāq, and Mālik, pinpoint the time of obligation at sunset on the night before the Eid, while Abū Hanīfah says that it becomes incumbent on Eid morning right before the prayer.
Ibn `Umar relates: “It is to be paid before the people go out for prayer.” [Sahīh al-Bukhārī (1053) and Sahīh Muslim (984)]
Likewise, the Prophet said: “Whoever pays it before the prayer, then it is accepted as Zakāh. Whoever pays it afterwards, it is ordinary charity.” [Sunan Abī Dāwūd: 1371]
Everyone, therefore, agrees that the time after Fajr and before the Eid prayer is the correct time to pay it.
It is also permissible to pay Zakah al-Fitr a day or two before the Eid, because Ibn `Umar related: “They used to sometimes pay it a day or two before the end of fasting.”
Who Is Entitled to It?
There are two opinions on this matter:
1. It can be paid to all eight categories of people who are eligible to receive Zakāh. This is the majority view. Indeed, al-Shāfi`ī goes further and argues that it should be divided up and distributed to all eight categories.
2. Only the poor and destitute are entitled to receive it. This is one of the opinions of the Hanbalī school of law, and it is the opinion adopted by Ibn Taymiyah and Ibn al-Qayyim.
The second opinion seems to be the best, since the Prophet once described it as a Zakah paid “to provide food for the poor.” [Sunan Abī Dāwūd (1609)]
Moreover, Zakāh al-Fitr is different than the general Zakāh in that it is not levied on a person’s wealth, but taken equally form each and every person. It, therefore, seems more suitable for it to be restricted to the poor and needy.
Upon Whom Is It Levied?
Since it is a head tax and not a tax on wealth, the person who pays Zakāh al-Fitr must do so first for himself and then for all of his dependents. A man, for instance would pay on behalf of his dependent wife and his children. He would also have to pay it on behalf of his parents if they are dependent on him to provide for them.
Zakāh al-Fitr does not have to be paid on behalf of an unborn child. However, it is preferred to do so, especially if the pregnancy is at an advanced stage where the soul has already been breathed into the child. It is narrated that `Uthmān paid Zakāh al-Fitr on his unborn child. At the same time, a number of Companions stated that it was not obligatory for him to do so.