The Short Answer
Zakat al-Fitr, or the Zakat of Breaking the Fast of Ramadan, is the special obligatory alms paid by all Muslims at the end of the Ramadan fasting month.
It is also called Sadaqat al-Fitr, “the Charity of Breaking the Fast” of Ramadan, and Zakat al-Fitrah, the Alms of Human Nature, or the Human Creation, because it is a mandatory charity due on every Muslim at the end of Ramadan, regardless of age or gender.
Its obligatory payment is termed fitrah, derived from the Arabic term fitr, a word which signifies the “nature” upon which God created the human being, related also to the Arabic word for “fast-breaking” (iftar), eating after a period of abstention from this “natural” and defining human activity.
Zakat al-Fitr’s Background
Zakat al-Fitr comes into existence as an obligatory alms in Sha‘ban, the eighth month of the Islamic lunar calendar, in 2H, or the second year of the Hijrah.
(The Arabic word hijrah (sometimes represented as Heigra or Hijra in English) means “migration,” or “emigration.” It denotes the migration of the Prophet, on him be peace, and his followers away from the persecution of the idolaters of Arabia’s central trade and holy city of Makkah. From there, they went north to the agrarian city of Yathrib, which then became known as Al-Madinah Al-Nabi, or the City of the Prophet, shortened to simply The City, or Al-Madinah. The Muslim hijri calendar, or Hjrah year, begins with that migration.)
The obligation to pay the alms of Zakat al-Fitr at Ramadan’s end coincides with God’s revealed commandment in 2H for Muslims to memorialize the beginning of the Quran’s revelation to the Prophet Muhammad, on him be peace, 15 years before. It was revealed in the month of Ramadan, the ninth month in the Islamic lunar year, by reestablishing a primordial worship form, fasting (from dawn to sunset), for the entire month whenever its new crescent appears.
O you who believe! Fasting is prescribed for you as it has been prescribed for those who have believed before you, so you may be ever God-fearing.
It is for a specified number of days. … It was the month of Ramadan in which the Quran was first sent down as guidance for all people, having in it clear proofs of divine guidance and the criterion for right and wrong. So whoever among you bears witness to the month shall then fast it. (Surat al-Baqarah, 2:183-85)
Zakat al-Fitr differs from other kinds of alms or charity in that it is imposed on the individual Muslim and not on his or her measures of wealth or earnings.
Is Zakat al-Fitr Obligatory on All Muslims?
The Prophet, on him be peace, specifically called the Ramadan Fast-Breaking Alms “Zakat,” and the Quran says:
And duly establish the Salah-Prayer and give the Zakat-Charity. (Surat al-Baqarah, 2:110 and Surat al-Nisa’, 4:77)
The Companions of the Prophet, on him be peace, report:
The Messenger of Allah, God bless him and grant him peace, “imposed” the Zakat of Fast-Breaking [at the close of Ramadan] at the measure of one sa‘ (4 double-handfuls) of dates or one sa‘ of barley, on every Muslim, free or bondsman, male or female.
The vast majority of scholars recognize this wording as enjoining an “obligatory” alms levy. Similar prophetic reports use other language that directly “commanded” every Muslim to give a required alms payment at the conclusion of Ramadan.
There is a technical difference between the four major schools of Islamic Law only in that Hanafis distinguish the “obligatory” as two categories: an explicit prescription of Revelation that relates to the soundness of one’s belief they term fard, obligatory, and non-explicit practical instructions they call wajib, mandatory.
So all schools hold Zakat al-Fitr as religiously compulsory, carrying a strength of legal ruling similar to scholarly consensus, or ijma‘.
What Is the Purpose of Zakat al-Fitr?
Zakat al-Fitr has two primary purposes, one spiritual for the individual worshiper and the other communal.
The Spiritual Function of Zakat al-Fitr
As a worship form, fasting constitutes, if you will, a “spiritual technology” that God has taught the human being. Its purpose is to help someone unfetter his or her soul for an interim from the worldly appetites that preoccupy it, to free its heavenly nature somewhat from its clay confines so that it may draw itself nearer in consciousness to God. This, as we’ve just seen, the Quran itself tells us: So that you may be ever God-fearing.
Practically speaking, the Arabic word that “God-fearing” translates is the unique religious term taqwa, meaning, in its essence, to keep mindful of God so that one becomes habituated to doing what He commands and resolute in holding back from what He forbids.
As such, the perfection of fasting, the worship rite, demands of one more than merely depriving his or her body of drink, food and passionate fulfillment. It aims to train the human spirit to master the physical nature that frames it. So fasting also requires us to hold our tongues from unseemly speech (In the past, fasting meant to some no speech at all. See Mary, mother of Jesus, peace on him: Indeed, I have vowed a fast to the All-Merciful. Thus, I shall not speak today to any human being (Surat Maryam, 19:26)); and to keep our hands from bad action; as well as to deny our hearts impure thought.
This is fasting in its purity — an ideal, perhaps, no human being can attain. Zakat al-Fitr, the obligatory alms at the breaking of Ramadan’s month-long fast cleanses our fast from the adulterations we have accumulated in the course of observing it.
The Communal Function of Zakat al-Fitr
Ramadan’s fast concludes with one of the two great celebrations in the Muslim year, Eid al-Fitr, the Commemoration of Fast-Breaking.
On this day of joyful prayer and gathering (may Allah return it to us soon), every Muslim in every locality is to receive it with an obligatory charity, communal Salah-Prayer, and a feast.
Zakat al-Fitr infuses the fasting and believing poor with the food resources to whole-heartedly glorify God, celebrate the Eid Prayer, and share the day’s merriment and delight with their children and families. The Prophet, on him be peace, famously said in this regard: “Gratify [the poor] on this day” (Al-Shawkani, Nayl Al-Awtar).
Who Must Pay Zakat al-Fitr?
Every Muslim: A number of the Prophet’s Companions, God be pleased with them — particularly some associated with preserving and conveying the statements of the Prophet, on him be peace, like Abu Hurayrah and Ibn ‘Umar — note that Zakat al-Fitr is a universal Muslim obligation. That is, every Muslim is liable for its payment. In the words of Abu Hurayrah, it is due on “every Muslim, free or bondsman, male or female, young or old, poor or rich” (Bukhari).
Married Muslim women: The vast majority of scholars hold that Zakat al-Fitr falls due for every single Muslim, with no exception. The Hanafis (and Zahiris) believe that the individual obligation for its payment includes Muslim women, married or unmarried, from their own wealth. The other legal schools require husbands to pay Zakat al-Fitr on behalf of their Muslim wives. The Hanafi position, here, seems stronger in light of the hadith just cited, but bear in mind that, in the end, the Zakat al-Fitr payment must still be remitted for each individual.
Children: If children possess wealth, Zakat al-Fitr comes due out of their individual holdings, otherwise the child’s guardian pays on behalf of his son or daughter.
Some scholars say only a father as guardian must pay it for his child, while it is not due on the orphan (in Islam, the fatherless). A few scholars rule that Zakat al-Fitr amounts to only a faster’s obligation, as it amends the faster’s mistakes or purifies one’s fast from moral contaminants.
But the position that the Zakat al-Fitr payment is due for every Muslim, “young or old,” is the stronger and more widely held opinion. This does not include the unborn child still in the womb, according to the vast majority of scholars, though the practice of some of the most prominent Companions, like ‘Uthman ibn ‘Affan, God be pleased with him, seems to encourage fathers to pay it for their babies unborn.
The poor: Most scholars say each Muslim bears the obligation to pay Zakat al-Fitr, even if they are poor, because the obligation falls on the person and not on a person’s wealth, unlike Zakat Al-Mal, the Obligatory Alms of Wealth. The only exemption is for one who does not possess food sufficient for the day of Eid, shelter, clothing and similar essentials. (For a discussion on basic needs see What Requirements Qualify Wealth for Zakat?) Nor does deferred debt exempt one from paying Zakat al-Fitr, unless that debt is due the day of Eid and its payment reduces one to an insufficiency of food for the day and basic needs, as just described.
Can the Payment of Zakat al-Fitr Be an Equivalent Value of Money?
Yes, according to most contemporary scholars.
The report from the Companion Abu Sa‘id Al-Khudri (and other Companions, God be pleased with them) forms the basis for the amount and kinds of Zakat al-Fitr.
“We used to pay Zakat al-Fitr at the end of Ramadan when the Messenger of Allah, God bless him and grant him peace, was among us with one sa‘ of food, one sa‘ of dates, one sa‘ of barley, one sa‘ of raisins, or one sa‘ of dried yoghurt. We continued to do this until Mu‘awiyah came to us in Madinah and said: ‘I think two mudds of Syrian wheat is equivalent to one sa‘ of dates.’ People accepted this.” Most hadith collections add to this that Abu Sa‘id then said: “But I continued paying it the same way I used to.”
Recall that a sa‘ is a volume measure equal to four double-handfuls and a mudd is a quarter-sa‘, one double-handful. Here’s a chart of volume measures used at the time of the Prophet, on him be peace.
The point most scholars today make is that this hadith clearly shows value equivalency, as wheat, at the time, was rare in Arabia and deemed of comparatively higher worth.
Traditionally, most scholars did not approve payment of Zakat al-Fitr in money, but either restricted its payment to the food items the Prophet, on him be peace, mentioned, or to food staples common to the Muslims of the region in which it was being paid. But Abu Hanifah, and some other prominent individual scholars, did allow for payment of Zakat al-Fitr in value.
Payment in value is now widely accepted among Muslims, with many Zakat-collecting agencies, like Zakat Foundation of America, converting that currency payment into foodstuffs for distribution at the time of Eid to the destitute, refugees, the displaced and the egregiously poor.
Note that Zakat al-Fitr must be transported to reach the poor, even in other countries, to reach its most desirable recipients on the day of Eid.
Zakat al-Fitr paid in money is simply much more useful today than donations of food items. In addition, most scholars consider the foodstuffs mentioned by the Prophet, on him be peace, to have been common among the community of the time, and, therefore, most beneficial and useful to its poor. Thus, they view these items as exemplary suggestions, establishing the relative value and purpose of Zakat al-Fitr.
In addition, most scholars now establish the value of Zakat al-Fitr as equal to what will “gratify” or “enrich” a poor person in food for the day of Eid based on the cost of a common food staple or type in the place where that poor person lives.
The Hanafi position here, again, has seemed to carry, in that the legal school does not rule as to which type of Zakat al-Fitr is better to give — food items (as expressed in the hadith or analogized based on it) or its value in money. Rather, the Hanafi ruling emphasizes the payment method that proves most beneficial to the poor recipient of the Zakat al-Fitr.
Can the Payment of Zakat al-Fitr Be More than the Minimum?
Yes. In fact, one is encouraged to pay more than the minimum Zakat al-Fitr required, if one is able. “Ali, God be pleased with him, reportedly said that ‘when Allah gives you prosperity, you too should give more’ ” (see Zad Al-Ma‘ad, also Fiqh az-Zakat, 586).
When Should Zakat al-Fitr Be Paid?
Scholars have traditionally focused the question of Zakat al-Fitr’s time for payment on its last allowable time. The Shafi’is, Malikis and Hanbalis say its due time is sunset of Ramadan’s last fasting day. The Hanafis and others (including another Maliki position) say before the Eid Salah-Prayer.
Some hold that the best time for payment is early on the day of Eid. Others allow payment a day or two before. Still others say it is obligatory to pay Zakat al-Fitr before the Eid Prayer, based on a statement of the Companion Ibn ‘Abbas: “It is accepted as Zakat for one who pays it before the Eid Prayer. It is a charity like other charities for one who pays it after” (Al-Shawkani, Nayl Al-Awtar).
Al-Shafi‘i says Zakat al-Fitr can be paid anytime in Ramadan. Abu Hanifah rules it can even be paid at the beginning of the year, like Zakat al-Mal, Obligatory Alms on Wealth.
All scholars deem it sinful to delay its payment until after Eid day.
Abu Sa‘id, God be pleased with him, said: “We used to pay, during the lifetime of the Messenger of Allah, God bless him and grant him peace, on the day of fast-breaking” (meaning the day of Eid, without specifying any time marks, like the Eid Prayer or sunrise).
The point of these late-date payments is to ensure the happiness and distribution to the poor on Eid day, for their gratification, in compliance with the Prophet’s instruction, on him be peace.
In our current context, distribution of Zakat al-Fitr to its intended recipients, the poor, for its intended social reason — to “gratify” them on Eid day — becomes much easier to manage when it is paid early in Ramadan. Alhamdulillah, the latitude for this option in the unparalleled enlightenment of Islam’s multiple schools of Law seems now a mercy and a sign.
Who Can Receive Zakat al-Fitr?
All Muslim scholars agree that poor Muslims are legitimate recipients of Zakat al-Fitr (Ibn Rushd, Bidayat Al-Mujtahid).
A poor individual may also receive Fitr payments from more than one giver, without restriction, though scholars dislike dividing a single payment among many recipients, as it seems to undo Zakat al-Fitr’s objective of sufficing a poor person on the day of Eid.
Nor can Zakat al-Fitr be given to people for whom the payer is already responsible, such as a man’s wife, child, parents and so on — just like Zakat Al-Mal — or to disbelievers or the wealthy.
The majority of scholars say Zakat al-Fitr can be given to the poor and needy alone, or all eight Zakat categories. It is a choice.
The Hanbalis and Malikis say Zakat al-Fitr belongs exclusively to the poor, even if it must be sent to another country at the payer’s cost (according to the Malikis).
The Shafi’is hold that the same eight categories of eligible recipients for Zakat al-Mal apply also to Zakat al-Fitr, if the person is not distributing his or her own payment.
The Prophet’s statement, on him be peace, to “gratify” the poor, however, does put the poor in a prior position for Zakat al-Fitr among each community.
(Interestingly, some notable Muslim scholars used to give something of the Zakat al-Fitr, in humanitarian relief, to monks who had taken vows of asceticism, though the majority reject this.