The short answer
Yes, if the orphan is a near relative, or in the Zakat-payer’s care, or in one of the eight divinely designated categories of Zakat recipients (The Quran, Surat Al-Tawbah, 9:60) (see What Is Zakat?).
The horrific reality is nearly all of the world’s catastrophically mushrooming orphan population — which grows by a staggering UNICEF estimate of 10,000 children a day — qualifies for Zakat on multiple counts.
Who does Islam count as an orphan?
God and His Messenger, on him be peace, do not restrict their description of the orphan, meaning the category is expansive, including the child absent his or her father, which is the traditional definition of “orphan” (yatîm, in Arabic) among Muslims. A child deprived of father or parents can come under Islam’s broadly inclusive designation of orphan.
What does “near relative” mean when it comes to the orphan and Zakat?
The general rule for giving Zakat to near relatives endorsed by most Muslim scholars is that as long as the Zakat payer does not already have legal, financial, or household responsibility in Islam to provide for a family member, that Zakat-eligible relation can receive the payer’s Zakat (see Can Zakat Be Given to Family?).
As a matter of practical reality, Zakat-qualified orphans can almost never come under the Zakat rules that would exclude them from one’s Zakat as a family dependent. On the contrary, prominent Companions of the Prophet, on him be peace, and a succession of Muslim scholars hold the near relative as most deserving of one’s obligatory Zakat alms and voluntary ṣadaqah charity because of the Zakat recipient’s closeness and condition of need.
“Ṣadaqah to the needy is merely ṣadaqah, while it is both ṣadaqah and a kindness to kin when given to relatives.”
This exhortation of the Prophet, on him be peace, is for one to gain two measures of reward through one’s single act of charity (including Zakat) by giving to a close relative (Bukhari, Muslim). Coupled with Islam’s insistent calls to care for orphans, this prophetic entreaty carries all the more weight when it comes to giving to relatives who are orphans.
The Companion Ibn ‘Abbas, renowned for his religious erudition, flatly said: “One should give Zakat to relatives in need.”
The renowned Quran commentator known as Mujahid put it more bluntly: “One’s Zakat is not accepted if it is given to others when one has needy relatives.” (See Can Zakat Be Given to Family?)
What if the orphan is part of your household or caregiving?
This is the highest form of orphan care, fulfilling the true prophetic meaning of “sponsorship” in Islam and becomes all the more reason to give Zakat to an orphan. Ibn Mas‘ûd, a Companion noted for his knowledge of the Quran, approved of his wife’s right to give Zakat to orphans in her care.
How are most orphans today included in Zakat?
The overwhelming number of orphans in our time qualify for Zakat under the top two categories of Zakat recipients designated by God in the Quran: the poor (al-fuqarâ’, in dire need but prevented from asking), and the indigent (al-masâkîn, whose destitution drives them to beg).
In addition, war, persecution, and climate catastrophe, and the resultant violence, famine, and disease, have orphaned countless millions and displaced them from their homes. Muslim jurists of the modern era have included refugees and the displaced (both groups accounting for virtual nations of orphans) as wayfarers (ibn al-sabîl, literally “son of the road”), the eighth and final category of Zakat recipients.
Muhammad Rashid Rida, a prominent Lebanese scholar at the turn of the previous century, made a special point of including foundling children, who would fall into the contemporary classification of “social orphan,” as Zakat-eligible under this category. While not orphans in the strict linguistic sense of the term, such children undoubtedly qualify as orphans in the reality of their condition and by analogy under Islam’s inclusive definition of orphan.
What did the Prophet, on him be peace, say of supporting orphans?
The Prophet, on him be peace — himself an orphan and whose “character was that of the Quran,” as his wife Aisha, God be pleased with her, famously described him — constantly enticed and invited anyone who truly believed to sew the fruits of that faith simultaneously in this life and the next by way of caring and providing for the orphan. In this regard, he made one of the most compelling statements in all Heavenly religion:
“I and the one who sponsors an orphan shall be in Paradise like these two” — and he raised his index finger and the one next to it, holding them together, barely separate (Bukhari).
The great scholars of prophetic reports (aḥadîth) took this as an actionable duty for all Muslims. This means we each must find a way to care for the orphan in a manner that may approximate the prophetic intent of that sponsorship. That is to say, to care and provide for the orphan as one would one’s own child. By doing this, we seek the everlasting companionship of the Prophet, on him be peace, in Paradise. (See Sponsoring the Orphan in Islam)
He said this, as well, about spending on the orphan:
“[It is] fresh and sweet. Blessed is the wealth of the Muslim from which one gives to the poor, the orphan, and the wayfarer” (Bukhari and Muslim).
In this statement, the Prophet, on him be peace, places the orphan between two explicit Zakat categories of divinely designated recipients. His command to spend on orphans is not restricted in any way to voluntary sadaqah charity. It, therefore, may include Zakat.
Do orphans who have wealth qualify for Zakat?
No, according to the vast majority of Muslim scholars. They stipulate Zakat as a general divine obligation on wealth, regardless of the incapacities of its Muslim owner. For this reason, the Prophet, on him be peace, instructed their guardians to “invest the wealth of orphans so Zakat does not deplete it” (Al-Shâfi‘î). (See Are Children and Those Lacking Mental Capacity Obligated to Pay Zakat?)
Orphans wealthy enough to pay Zakat constitute a miniscule number of the estimated 400 million fatherless and parent-deprived children, registered and unreported, in our world. It is urgently imperative that we Muslims today deploy our Zakat and as much voluntary ṣadaqah as we can, even amid our own economic hardship, to become Orphan Sponsors, as our beloved Prophet, on him be peace, has urged us to do, calling us by the graces of these solitary little ones to his company in the Garden.