Zakat 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 “Zakat 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. (30: 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 zakat al-ra’s, (i.e. “the head tax”) or zakat al-badan (“the body tax”).
The Wisdom behind Zakat 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 Zakat 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 Zakat 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 Zakat 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, Zakat 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 Zakat al-Fitr
It is a point of unanimous consensus among Muslim legal scholars that paying Zakat al-Fitr is a religious obligation. This has been asserted by Ibn al-Mundhir, al-Bayhaqi, and Ishaq b. Rahawayh, 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. (87: 14-15)
Ibn `Umar interpreted this verse are referring to Zakat al-Fitr.
2. Ibn `Umar relates that the Prophet obliged the payment of Zakat al-Fitr as a sa` 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.” (Al-Bukhari (1053) and Muslim (984))
Zakat 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.
Zakat al-fitr is paid as a quantity of food. The measure of used is the sa`. It is a measure of capacity (volume) that equals four double-handfuls of an average person’s hands.
How is it to Be Paid?
Abu Sa`id al-Khudri relates:
“We used to pay Zakat al-Fitr as a sa` of wheat or barley, or dates, or dried cheese, or raisins.” (Al-Bukhari (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 hadith. 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 Zakat al-Fitr cannot be paid in cash. This view is the one adopted by the Maliki, Shafi`i and Hanbali schools of law.