The Purpose of Zakat-ul-Fitr
Every Muslim is required to pay Zakat-ul-Fitr at the conclusion of the month of Ramadan as a token of thankfulness to Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala 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 hadeeth which reads,
“The Messenger of Allah ﷺ enjoined Zakat-ul-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 hadeeth 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.
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.
Who must pay Zakat-ul-Fitr
Zakat-ul-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-ul-Fitr for himself, his wife, children, and servants. This is the opinion of Imam Malik, Al-Shafi`i, 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-ul-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 honor of giving in charity. Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala described the believers with these words, ‘Those who spend (freely), whether in prosperity or in adversity…’ (Aal ‘Imran 3:134). 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-ul-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-ul-Fitr for the baby. The majority of jurists argue that we should not pay Zakat-ul-Fitr for an embryo. But Imam Ahmad holds that Zakat-ul-Fitr is also obligatory for an embryo, because it is permissible to assign property to an embryo by means of a will.
When Zakat-ul-Fitr is due
The jurists agree that Zakat-ul-Fitrr 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-Shafi`i (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-Shafi`i (in his other opinion), and the second report of Malik say that Zakat-ul-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-ul-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-ul-Fitr after the day of `Eid (i.e. one may give it up to the time of the `Eid 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-ul-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-ul-Fitr.
Most scholars believe that it is permissible to pay Zakat-ul-Fitr a day or two before `Eid. Ibn `Umar radhiAllahu ‘anhu reported that the Messenger ﷺ ordered them to pay Zakat-ul-Fitr before the people went out to perform the `Eid prayer. Nafi‘ reported that `Umar radhiAllahu ‘anhu 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 ﷺ used to pay Zakat-ul-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-ul-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-ul-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-ul-Fitr. Therefore, the most acceptable and practical approach is to apply whichever practice fulfils the purpose and wisdom behind Zakat-ul-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.
Originally published here.