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-ul-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-ul-Fitr in money.
Ibn Al-Qayyim highlighted these different viewpoints and concluded that the Prophet ﷺ prescribed Zakat-ul-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-ul-Fitr
The amount of Zakat-ul-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 ﷺ 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 Mu`awiyah 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 ﷺ 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 ﷺ 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-ul-Fitr in money makes its value unstable. That is why the Prophet ﷺ prescribed it with a stable measure, that is an amount of food which fulfills 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 centers in Western countries announce the value of Zakat-ul-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-ul-Fitr in money. This is the view of Al-Thawri, Al-Hasan al-Basri, and `Umar ibn `Abd al-`Aziz. However, the other three schools did not permit this. Their argument is that the Prophet ﷺ did not do so and hence its payment in money contradicts the Sunnah of the Prophet ﷺ. 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-ul-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 ﷺ 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.
Originally published here.