Zakat al Fitr is a small amount that Muslims are obliged to pay as charity at the end of Ramadan. It is unanimously recognized by all schools of Islamic Law as a pious duty of every Muslim man or woman.[I] The origin of the obligation can be dated to the month of Shaban in the second year of Hijrah.[II] Ibn Umar said: “Allah’s Messenger enjoined the payment of one Sa of dates or one Sa of barley as Zakat al Fitr on every Muslim slave or free, male or female, young or old, and he ordered that it be paid before the people went out to offer the `Eid prayer.”[III]
The Purpose of Zakat al Fitr
Every Muslim is required to pay Zakat al Fitr at the conclusion of the month of Ramadan as a token of thankfulness to God for having enabled him to observe fasts. Its purpose is to purify those who fast from any indecent act or speech and to help the poor and needy. This view is based upon the hadith which reads, “The Messenger of Allah, upon whom be peace, enjoined Zakat al Fitr on those who fast to shield them from any indecent act or speech, and for the purpose of providing food for the needy. It is accepted as Zakah for the one who pays it before the Eid prayer, and it is sadaqah for the one who pays it after the prayer.” Al-Qaradawi comments on this hadith by saying that there are two purposes: one is related to the individual; for completion of his fast and compensation for any shortcomings in his acts or speech. The other is related to society; for the spreading of love and happiness among its members, particularly the poor and needy, during the day of Eid. It also purifies one’s soul from such shortcomings as the adoration of property, and from miserliness. Furthermore, it purifies one’s property from the stain of unlawful earnings. It is also a cure for ailments. The Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, said, “It would be better that you treat your patients with charity.”
In addition, it provides for the needs of the poor and the indigent and relieves them from having to ask others for charity on the day of Eid. The Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, said, “Fulfil their need on this day (i.e., the day of Eid)”
Who must pay Zakat al Fitr
Zakat al Fitr is incumbent on every free Muslim who possesses one Sa of dates or barley which is not needed as basic food for himself or his family for the duration of one day and night. Every free Muslim must pay Zakat al Fitr for himself, his wife, children, and servants. This is the opinion of Imam Malik, Al-Shafii, and Ahmad. Imam Abu Hanifah, however, said that it is only obligatory for one who possesses a nisab (a minimum amount of property) after fulfilling the costs of his house, servant, horse, and weapon.
Al-Khattabi explained that Zakat al Fitr was obligatory for all Muslims, not only those who possess the nisab stating that this is the view of the majority of scholars. He said, “In essence, the rationale behind it was stated to be the purification of one who fasts from any indecent act or speech. And since every Muslim needs this, it is therefore obligatory upon every fasting Muslim, whether rich or poor, who possesses one Sa` in excess of his main staple food for the duration of one day and night. This is because so long as the essential rationale is shared by all Muslims, then they also share the same obligation.”
Al-Qaradawi also asserts the majority view when he says, “It is a virtuous wisdom of Islam that it makes this Zakah obligatory not only on the rich, but also upon nearly every Muslim, for you can hardly find a person who does not possess one Sa` of food above his main staple food for the duration of one day and night. The wisdom behind this obligation, therefore, is to prepare the poor to practice benevolence and feel the dignity and honour of giving in charity. Allah described the believers with these words, “Those who spend (freely), whether in prosperity, or in adversity…” Thus if we contemplate on this wisdom, we will not find it strange that the needy pay this Zakah, because it does not cause them to suffer any loss. He will pay only his Zakah and then receive the Zakah of various people.” 
Moreover, we have to bear in mind that Zakat al Fitr is obligatory for everyone who lives until the sun sets on the last day of Ramadan. This is the point of view of the Shafi`is, Hanbalis, and Malikis. Accordingly, whoever dies before the sun sets on the last day of Ramadan is exempted. Likewise, a person who has a baby on the last day of Ramadan should pay Zakat al Fitr for the baby. The majority of jurists argue that we should not pay Zakat al Fitr for an embryo. But Imam Ahmad holds that Zakat al Fitr is also obligatory for an embryo, because it is permissible to assign property to an embryo by means of a will.
When Zakat al Fitr is due
The jurists agree that Zakat al Fitr is due at the end of Ramadan. They differ, however, about the exact time. Al-Thawri, Ishaq, Malik (in one of two reports), and Al-Shafii (in one of his two opinions), are of the opinion that it is due at the sunset of the night of breaking the fast, for this is when the fast of Ramadan ends. However, Al-Layth, the Hanafi school, Al-Shafii (in his other opinion), and the second report of Malik say that Zakat al Fitr is due at the start of Fajr (dawn) on the day of Eid because it is an act of worship connected with Eid, so the time of its payment should not be before Eid just as sacrifice on the Eid of Adha.
These two different views acquire relevance if a baby is born after sunset but before dawn on the day of `Eid; the question then is whether Zakat al Fitr is obligatory for the baby or not. In accordance with the first view, it is not, since the birth took place after the prescribed time, while according to the second view, it is obligatory because the birth took place within the prescribed space of time.
Time of payment
It is not permissible to delay giving Zakat al Fitr after the day of Eid (i.e. one may give it up to the time of theEid prayer). However, there are some jurists who think that it is permissible to delay giving it even after the `Eid prayer. The founders of the four schools of Fiqh hold the first opinion, but Ibn Sirin and al-Nakha‘i say that its payment can be delayed. Ahmad says: “I hope that there is no harm [in delaying the payment].” Ibn Raslan says that there is a consensus that payment cannot be delayed merely for the reason that it is a type of Zakah. Thus, any delay is a sin and is analogous to delaying one’s prayers without an acceptable excuse.
Anyway, the founders of the four accepted Islamic legal schools agree that Zakat al Fitr is not nullified simply by failure to pay it on its due time. If it is not paid before `Eid prayer, one is not exempt from it. It becomes a debt payable even after death. The heirs must not distribute the deceased’s legacy before payment of the deceased’s unpaid Zakat al Fitr.
Most scholars believe that it is permissible to pay Zakat al Fitr a day or two before Eid. IbnUmar reported that the Messenger, upon whom be peace, ordered them to pay Zakat al Fitr before the people went out to perform the Eid prayer. Nafi‘ reported thatUmar used to pay it a day or two before the end of Ramadan. However, scholars hold different opinions when a longer time period is involved. According to Abu Hanifah, it is permissible to pay it even before Ramadan so long as you make the intention of Zakah. Al-Shaf‘i holds that it is permissible to do so at the beginning of Ramadan. Malik and Ahmad (in his well-known view) maintain that it is permissible to pay it only one or two days in advance.
Al-Qaradawi explains the reasons for these differences in opinion by saying that the Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, used to pay Zakat al Fitr after Fajr prayer on the day of Eid but before the Eid prayer for the reason that the Muslim community was still small and limited in number. During the time of the Companions the payment was made one or two days before the Eid. After the spread of Islam the jurists permitted its payment from the beginning and middle of Ramadan so as to ensure that the Zakat al Fitr reached its beneficiaries on the day of Eid, thereby avoiding the possibility that the process of distribution would delay reception of the payment after the day of Eid. After explaining the different views regarding the time of payment, Sheikh Atiyyah Saqr stated that these differences of opinion among the jurists justify some leniency for Muslims in regard to the time of payment, and therefore a Muslim can pay at any of these times. He also took the view that paying it at different times gives the poor and needy the opportunity to benefit from Zakat al Fitr and fulfil their needs for longer periods.
In my opinion these differences are due to taking into consideration both the needs of the poor and the opportunity of attaining the wisdom behind the obligation of Zakat al Fitr. Therefore, the most acceptable and practical approach is to apply whichever practice fulfils the purpose and wisdom behind Zakat al Fitr, that is bringing happiness to the poor on the day of `Eid and giving their children a chance to enjoy this day as others do.
What type of food can be given and permissible substitutes
The jurists hold different views as to the types of food which must be given as Zakat al Fitr. The Hanbali view is that the kinds of food which can be given are five: dates, raisins, wheat, barley, and dry cottage cheese. Imam Ahmad is reported to have said that any kind of staple grain or dates are also permissible, even if the above five types are available. The Malikis and Shafi`is are of the view that it is permissible to give any kind of food as long as it is the main staple in that particular region or the main food of the person. As for the Hanafis, they permit paying the value of Zakat al Fitr in money.
Ibn Al-Qayyim highlighted these different viewpoints and concluded that the Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, prescribed Zakat al Fitr as one Sa of dates, barley, raisins or dry cottage cheese. These were the main staple kinds of food in Madinah. As for people of other territories, what they should pay is one sa’ of their staple grain, such as corn, rice, etc. But if their main staple food is other than grain, such as milk, meat, fish, etc., then they should pay one Sa of that particular food. This is the opinion of the majority of scholars and is the preferred point of view, since it achieves the purpose of fulfilling the needs of the poor on the day of `Eid with the staple food of their region.
The calculation of Zakat al Fitr
The amount of Zakat al Fitr, as we referred earlier, is one Sa of food. There is consensus on this amount among the scholars with regard to all types of food except wheat and raisins. As for these two types the Shafi is, Malikis and Hanbalis agree that the prescribed amount is one Sa , however the Hanafis say it is sufficient to pay half Sa from wheat and they differed with regard to raisins. After discussing the arguments of these two opinions al-Qaradawi reached the following conclusion: wheat was not a common food amongst them during the time of the Prophet so he did not prescribe one Sa of it as he did with the other types of food. As for those of the Companions of the Prophet who prescribed half Sa of wheat instead of one Sa of barely or dates like Muawiyah and other Companions, he views that they did so by analogy, since the value of wheat was more than those of other types of food which were equal. But according to their opinion, he says, the value should be considered and taken as the criterion and this will cause instability and confusion for it changes from place to another and from time to time. He mentioned that in Pakistan the value of wheat is less than that of dates, then how should we pay of it half the amount (i.e. Sa ) that we should pay of dates? He also mentioned that nowadays raisins are more expensive than wheat and dates. The only solution for these problems, he says, is to regard Sa as the criterion and basis.
Al-Qaradawi explains why the Prophet appointed Sa as the measure and did not prescribe it in money saying that in his opinion there are two reasons for this: First, money was still rare among the Arabs particularly the Bedouins. They did not have their own currency. So if the Prophet had prescribed it in money, he would have caused hardship to them. Second, the purchasing power of money changes from time to time. For instance, the purchasing power of a certain currency sometimes becomes low and other times high, so paying Zakat al Fitr in money makes its value unstable. That is why the Prophet prescribed it with a stable measure, that is an amount of food which fulfils the needs of one family. For one Sa provides a family with food for a whole day.
The amount of Sa`
Sa is a certain measure which equals 4 mudds (a mudd equals a handful of an average man). The contemporary equivalent weights of Sa differs according to the stuff which is weighted. For example a Sa of wheat equals 2176 grams, a Sa of rice is 2520 grams, a Sa` of beans equals 2250 grams etc. Therefore some scholars are of the view that the criterion should be the measure not the weight for there are kinds of food which are heavier than others. But I think this is the case if the equivalent weight of a certain kind of food is not known. If there is no available measure or weight with the person, then he should pay 4 mudds. Nowadays, it is not that problem because ministries of religious affairs in Muslim countries and mosques and Islamic centres in Western countries announce the value of Zakat al Fitr every year. Anyhow, this is the obligatory amount which every Muslim should pay. It is better and recommended that one pays an extra amount, particularly for those who are wealthy, for they will be rewarded for it.
Its payment in money
As it is mentioned earlier, the Hanafis permitted the payment of Zakat al Fitr in money. This is the view of Al-Thawri, Al-Hasan al-Basri, and Umar ibnAbd al-`Aziz. However, the other three schools did not permit this. Their argument is that the Prophet did not do so and hence its payment in money contradicts the Sunnah of the Prophet. But some contemporary scholars support the Hanafi view since this is easier nowadays for the payer particularly in cities where people use only money for dealings. Among them are Sheikh Shaltut, al-Ghazali, and al-Qaradawi who mentioned earlier the two reasons for which the Prophet did not prescribe it in money. He also stated that the purpose of Zakat al Fitr is to fulfil the needs of the poor and this is achieved also by payment in money and that in most cases and most countries the payment in money is more useful to the poor. He also mentioned that when the Prophet prescribed it from food, it was easy for the payer and useful for the recipient during that time. But nowadays to pay it in food is not useful for the poor because he cannot make use, for instance, of wheat or dates unless he sells them with any price, generally low, to buy his needs with the money.
Al-Qaradawi excluded the times of famines where the payment of food is more useful for the recipients and said that the criterion is the benefit of the poor so if food proves to be more useful as in times of famines and catastrophes, then its payment in kind is better. But if money is more useful, then its payment in money is better.
Nowadays, if we consider the condition in the Muslim world in general and that of Muslims in the West in particular we will discover that the second view is more convenient with the spirit of Islamic legislation and the present condition of Muslims. As we will see later when Muslims living in the West decide to transfer their Zakah funds or some of them to needy Muslims in Muslim countries, then the payment in money is more convenient.
The Distribution of Zakat al Fitr: The eight categories of recipients
The distribution of Zakat al Fitr is the same as that of Zakah, for the former is included within the broader sense of the latter. The recipients of Zakat al Fitr are the eight categories of recipients mentioned in surat Al-Tawbah, [9: 60]. They include: (1), (2) the poor and the needy, (3) collectors of Zakah, (4) reconciliation of hearts, (5) freeing captives (fi al-Riqab), (6) debtors (7) sadaqa for the cause of Allah ‘fi sabil illah’, and (8) the wayfarer.
The seventh category will be elaborated on for it bears relevance to further discussion. ‘Fi sabil illah’ means for the sake of Allah—that is, making use of knowledge and deeds to attain Allah’s pleasure. Most scholars understood this phrase as Jihad (fighting for the cause of Allah). Part of Zakah designated for the cause of Allah is given to volunteer fighters, especially those who are not on the payroll of the state, regardless of their financial status. Another part is for the preparations for war, including buying arms, food supplies for soldiers, means of transportation, and equipment for warriors.
However, Sayyid Sabiq is of the view that an important item in this category could be the preparation of Muslim missionaries and sending them to non-Muslim countries to spread Islam, just as non-Muslim missionaries are now spreading their religions in Islamic countries. Also falling under this heading would be school expenses to prepare adequate courses in religious sciences and in other areas of public interest.
Some contemporary Muslim scholars hold the view that this category includes all acts that are in interest of the society such as building mosques, schools, hospitals etc., among them are Sheikh ‘Abd al-Halim Mahmudand Sheikh Hasanayn Muhammad Makhluf. However, Sheikh Muhammad Bakhit al-Muti‘i, former Mufti of Egypt, issued a fatwa on this issue in which he quoted the opinions of the majority of Muslim jurists and concluded that by this category are meant the strugglers in the cause of Allah since all acts of worship are included within the broader meaning of ‘in the cause of Allah’, but in the juristic usage this term ‘fi sabil illah’ is confined to strugglers in the cause of Allah. So it does not include other charitable acts like building mosques, supporting those who want to perform hajj, buying shrouds for the dead, etc. Al-Qaradawi holds a moderate opinion which will be discussed later.
Now the question arises: should all these categories be given of Zakat al Fitr or only some of them? Al-Qaradawi summarized the opinions of jurists concerning this question in the following three:
1) It must be divided equally among the eight categories. This is the most preferable opinion among the Shafi`is.
2) It is permissible to distribute it among the eight categories or to be given to the poor and needy only and this is the opinion of the majority of scholars.
3) It must be restricted to the poor and needy only and this is the Maliki point of view and one of the two opinions of Ahmad. It is also preferred by Ibn al-Qayyim and Ibn Taymiyah.
Al-Qaradawi comments on these views saying that even if the last view is more considerable and keeps up with the main purpose of Zakat al Fitr, we should not exclude the possibility of distributing it among the other categories if need be. The hadiths indicate that the most important thing is to fulfill the needs of the poor on this day in particular. Then they must be given precedence over other recipients unless there is a need or a considerable interest to give the latter.
Giving Zakat al Fitr to a dhimmi
Like the regular Zakah, Zakat al Fitr is an act of worship dedicated to Allah and pre-eminently the right of Allah, hence it may never be given to non-Muslims. However, Al-Zuhri, Abu Hanifah, Muhammad, and Ibn Shubrumah make it permissible to give Zakat al Fitr to a dhimmi. They quoted the Qur’anic verse which reads, “Allah forbids you not, with regard to those who fight you not for (your) Faith nor drive you out of your homes, from dealing kindly and justly with them: for Allah loveth those who are just.” Dr. Jamal Badawi explains that it is the view of Abu Hanifah and others that it can be paid to the poor among Jews and Christians if there is no needy Muslim in the area.
Transfer of Zakat al Fitr
Another question remains to be answered: Is it possible to transfer Zakat al Fitr from one city to another?
In Islam there is no centralization of wealth. It is not of the policy of Islam to collect Zakah from villages to spend it on capitals and big cities. But the main policy is to collect Zakah from the rich of a certain territory and then be distributed to its poor citizens. This was the policy of the Prophet and the rightly guided caliphs. This explains why the jurists insist that the Zakah funds should be distributed among the recipients of the territory from which it is collected.
As for Zakat al Fitr, which is a form of Zakah, the rule is that it should be distributed in the city where the payer exists for the former reason and because Zakat al Fitr is a form of quick relief to fulfil the needs of the poor in a certain occasion—the day of `Eid.  This is the rule whether the payer’s holdings are there or not. This is because this type of Zakah is associated with the person rather than with the holdings. Thus the most deserving recipients are the neighbours and the inhabitants of the city. But in case that there is no poor or needy person, it should be transferred to the nearest territory.
Al-Qaradawi’s opinion on the transfer of Zakah
In the famous program Ash-Shari`ah wal-Hayah, al-Qaradawi said that the transfer of Zakah and Zakat al Fitr to a more needy territory is permissible and called upon rich countries to send their Zakah funds to such poor territories where there are many poor who are in need of food and clothing. He argued that Muslims are one nation and brotherhood. In another statement he said if there is no poor or needy people in one country, then the poor people of other countries are more deserving of the Zakah of such country, and if there is a country which is more poor or suffers a catastrophe such as an earthquake, then it is the most deserving of the Zakah.
Again in another episode of this program some Muslims told al-Qaradawi that they want to send some of the funds of sadaqat to Muslims in Chechnya but some fatwas are issued that it is better to distribute them locally. Al-Qaradawi stated that local expenditure is required if there are needy Muslims in the locality, but if Muslims in other territories are in need, then it is the duty of Muslims to help them. Then he wondered, is it acceptable to say that Zakah should be distributed locally and cannot be transferred? He quoted some hadiths and Qur’anic verses stressing the meanings of unity and brotherhood among Muslims. He then concluded his speech by referring to the fatwa he issued in the Qatari Newspapers that it is permissible to transfer Zakah to needy Muslim countries particularly those which need relief, food, clothing, medicine, and heating.
Supporting Muslim institutions in the West and in poor countries with Zakah funds
Another issue, which bears relevance to Muslims in the West, is highlighted in another fatwa of al- Qaradawi in the same program. He was asked about making use of the Zakah funds in building mosques, schools, and Islamic centers in the West. He stated that there is difference of opinions concerning this issue but his view is that in respect to Muslims in the West and Muslims in poor countries which are threatened by communism or intellectual invasion, it is permissible to spend of the Zakah funds on building mosques and Islamic centers. This is because in such case the mosque is not only a place for prayer but it is a place for the protection and defense of Muslims. This act acquires the meaning of Jihad. So the building of mosques and Islamic centers, the distribution of mushafs (copies of the Qur’an) and Islamic books, and the translation of Islamic books (to foreign languages), all these fall within the broader meaning of the category of ‘fi sabil Allah’. This is especially permissible to countries where Muslim colonies are in need of them to establish such institutions. Here al-Qaradawi draws our attention to the category of ‘fi sabil illah’ regarding the support of Muslim institutions by Zakah funds as a form of Jihad to preserve Islamic identity in Western countries as well as in poor Muslim countries.
He was asked directly about the category ‘fi sabil illah’ and whether supporting Muslim institutions falls within this category or it is restricted to Jihad only. In his answer, Al- Qaradawi explained that the majority of scholars interpret this category as meaning Jihad, while other salafi commentators are of the view that it includes all religious and secular interests. Al- Qaradawi supports the first opinion for if it means all interests then it will include every act for all fall within the broader sense of ‘in the cause of Allah’. But he extended the meaning of Jihad to include other forms of Jihad like the intellectual and educational forms which serve to preserve Islamic identity. He quoted some hadiths to explain the broader meaning of Jihad such as the hadith which reads: “Never a Prophet had been sent before me by Allah towards his nation who had not among his people (his) disciples and companions who followed his ways and obeyed his command. Then there came after them their successors who said whatever they did not practice, and practiced whatever they were not commanded to do. He who strove against them with his hand was a believer: he who strove against them with his tongue was a believer, and he who strove against them with his heart was a believer and beyond that there is no faith even to the extent of a mustard seed.” (Reported by Muslim) Then he also said that these forms are also included in Jihad by analogy for both of them are intended to support Islam and defend it against its enemies.
Zakah must be collected even if there are no poor and needy
Under the title ‘ Zakah is a right not a favor’, al-Qaradawi writes that Zakah is a right of Allah for He is the Creator and Possessor of the whole universe, a right of the poor for they are the brothers of the rich in humanity and Islam, and a right of society because it plays a role whether direct or indirect in one’s earning of his wealth, since everyone cannot practice his activity without the help of society. A trader, for example, should find someone from whom he buys, to whom he sells, etc. He comes to the conclusion that if there are no poor and needy persons in the Muslim society, Muslims are still under obligation to pay Zakah as a reserve for the Muslim community to be paid if need be, and also to be spent in the cause of Allah which is a general category and will remain as long as the religion of Islam exists.
A practical example of a situation when there are no poor and needy persons in the Muslim society appeared during the period of Umar b. ‘Abd al-‘Aziz. Yahya b. Sa d said: “ Umar b. ‘Abd al-‘Aziz sent me to collect the sadaqat (alms) in Ifriqiyyah and I did so. Then I sought the poor so that we could give it to them, but we could not find any poor there or anyone else to receive it, since Umar b. ‘Abd al-‘Aziz had made the people free from want, so I bought slaves by it (i.e. the alms) and set them free.” Thus we find that if there are no poor and needy in the area there are other recipients of Zakah not to mention that Muslims are one Ummah and that they should transfer Zakah funds to needy Muslims everywhere and if there are no needy and poor in the whole Muslim Ummah, there are still the category of ‘fi sabil illah’ which is an everlasting recipient.