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Understanding the Wisdom Behind Zakat al-Fitr

The Hanafī school of law follows Abu Hanifah’s opinion that it is permissible to pay zakat al-fitr in cash. This was the opinion of a number of eminent Successors, including the Caliph `Umar ibn `Abd al-`Aziz. Al-Hasan al-Basri said:

“There is no problem with paying Zakat al-Fitr in silver coins.” (Musannaf Ibn Abi Shaybah (10368 and 10370))

Ishaq al-Subay`i said: “I found them paying this charity in silver coins to the value of the food.” (Musannaf Ibn Abi Shaybah (10371))

This was the view of al-Thawri and `Ata’. Indeed, `Ata’ was known to pay his Zakat al-Fitr in cash. All of these people were among the most distinguished Successors.

Recently, the scholar Mustafa al-Zarqa 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:

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1. Most jurists see no problem with paying Zakat al-Fitr in whatever foods are locally used, even though most of these foods are not mentioned in the hadith. 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.

Main Purpose

The purpose of Zakat al-Fitr is to help the Muslims. It helps the poor to enjoy the Eid 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 Zakat 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 ibn `Abd al-`Aziz who enjoined upon his subjects to pay Zakat 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-Shafi`i, Ahmad, Ishaq, and Malik, pinpoint the time of obligation at sunset on the night before the Eid, while Abu Hanifah 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.” [(Al-Bukhari (1053) and Muslim (984))

Likewise, the Prophet said:

“Whoever pays it before the prayer, then it is accepted as Zakat. Whoever pays it afterwards, it is ordinary charity.” (Sunan Abi Dawud: 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 Zakat. This is the majority view. Indeed, al-Shafi`i 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 Hanbali 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 Zakat paid “to provide food for the poor.” (Sunan Abi Dawud (1609))

Moreover, Zakat al-Fitr is different than the general Zakat in that it is not levied on a person’s wealth, but taken equally from 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 Zakat 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.

Zakat 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 `Uthman paid Zakat 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.

Republished from Islam Today.

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About Salman al-Ouda
Muslim scholar. Al-Ouda is a member of the International Union for Muslim Scholars and on its Board of Trustees. He is a director of the Arabic edition of the website Islam Today and appears on a number of TV shows and authors newspaper articles.