The meaning of the hadîth:
This form of charity is also 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 zakâh al-fitrfitrah, the natural way, as mentioned in the verse: "the nature (fitrah) made by Allah in which He has made mankind." [Sûrah al-Rûm: 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 zakâh al-ra's, (i.e. "the head tax") or zakâh al-badan ("the body tax").
Since it is a head tax and not a tax on wealth, the person who pays zakâh al-fitr must do so for himself as well as 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.
Zakâh 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 `Uthmân paid zakâh al-fitr on his unborn child. At the same time, a number of Companions stated that it was not obligatory to do so. [refer to: al-Mughî (4/316)]
Zakâh al-fitr is paid as a quantity of food. The measure of used is the sâ`. It is a measure of capacity (volume) that equals four double-handfuls of an average person's hands.
Ibn al-Mundhir states that there is unanimous agreement among Muslims that paying zakâh al-fitr is obligatory. Ibn Râhawayh and al-Bayhaqî also declare it to be a matter of consensus.
The hadîth under discussion is clear and indisputable evidence that paying zakâh al-fitr is a religious duty.
Some scholars also cite the following verse of the Qur'ân as evidence for it: "He indeed shall be successful who purifies himself, glorifies the name of his Lord, and prays." [Sûrah al-A`lâ: 14-15] Ibn `Abbâs claims that this verse is referring about zakâh al-fitr when it speaks about purifying the self.
The following are conditions that must be fulfilled for a person to be obligated to pay Zakâh al-fitr:
1. The person must be a Muslim.
2. He must be free. A slave does not have to pay zakâh al-fitr for himself. This is the opinion of the majority though not the opinion of the Hanbalî school. The slave's master is required to pay it on behalf of his slave.
3. He must have the ability to pay it. This does not mean that he has to possess savings of the amount where he will be required to pay his annual zakâh. On the contrary, if he has anything more than what he needs to provide for himself and his dependents for the day nad night of `Id, then he has to pay zakâh al-fitr. This is because zakâh al-fitr is a charity t upon a person – like a head tax – and not upon the person's wealth.
It is agreed that it becomes obligatory upon such a person to pay zakâh al-fitr at the end of Ramadan. Scholars differ as to precisely when this obligation takes effect. Abû Hanîfah says that it happens at dawn on the morning of the `Id. Ahmad b. Hanbal, al-Shâfi`î, and Ishâq say that the obligation takes effect from sunset on the night before Id.
Its legal implications:
A major point of disagreement among scholars regards what can be paid as zakâh al-fitr. Specifically, does it have to be paid in food or can it be paid in cash?
In the hadîth under discussion, Ibn `Umar mentions "dates or barley".
Abû Sa`îd al-Khudrî relates: "We used to pay zakâh al-fitr as a sâ` of wheat or barley, or dates, or cheese, or raisins." [Sahîh al-Bukhârî (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 hadîth. It is permissible to pay it in any staple food of the locality. This might include rice or a number of other foods.
Scholars disagree as to whether money can be paid in lieu of food. The majority of scholars hold the view that zakâh al-fitr cannot be paid in cash. This view is the one adopted by the Mâlikî, Shâfi`î and Hanbalî schools of law.
Ahmad b. Hanbal was once asked whether it was permissible to pay zakâh al-fitr in cash. His reply was: "I fear that it might not be valid." When they objected by stating that the Caliph `Umar b. `Abd al-`Azîz allowed it, he replied: "It is better to follow the Sunnah. When we say that the Prophet said such-and such, do they tell us: 'but so and so said'!"
The Hanafî school of law follows Abû Hanîfah's opinion that it is permissible to pay zakâh al-fitr in cash. This was the opinion of a number of eminent Successors, including the Caliph `Uma b. `Abd al-`Azîz. Al-Hasan al-Basrî said: "There is no problem with payingzakâh al-fitr with silver currency." [Musannaf Ibn Abî Shaybah (10368 and 10370)]
Ishâq al-Subay`î said: "I found them paying this charity in silver coin to the value of the food." [Musannaf Ibn Abî Shaybah (10371)]
This was the view of al-Thawrî and `Atâ'. Indeed, `Atâ' was known to pay his zakâh al-fitr in cash. All of these people were among the most distinguished Successors.
Recently, the scholar Mustafâ al-Zarqâ 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. Many jurists see no problem with paying zakâh al-fitr in whatever foods are locally used, even though most of these foods are not mentioned in the hadîth. 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 `Id. This is not really different than what the people who pay in their local food do. 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 zakâh 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 zakâh al-fitr. It helps the poor and purifies the giver, and it does not contradict any explicit text.
Those who declare it obligatory to pay zakâh al-fitr in food like to point out certain benefits they see as particular to doing so. However, the arguments that they give are only appropriate for certain societies. They argue, for instance, that the giving of food brings the Sunnah to life, since the activities of buying and selling food in the marketplace and of distributing it to the poor is something conspicuous. By contrast, pressing some money in a poor person's hand is not something exceptionally visible. It does not foster an open atmosphere of giving in the community.
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.
And Allah knows best.