The Arabic word kaffara (also spelled kaffarah) is a legal term of art in Islamic Law, or fiqh, for an obligatory penalty that makes up for a violation of sacrosanct prohibition. Kaffara (kaffarah) comes from the three-letter Arabic root kaf • fa • ra, which in one of its senses means “to cover.” It is usually translated to the English “atonement” or “expiation,” and, less suitably, as “ransom.”
Scholars often contrast the kaffara (kaffarah) expiation penalty with the “redemption payment” known as fidyah (also spelled fidya) in Arabic.
A fidyah payment is a fee paid by a Muslim who has a valid excuse not to perform an obligatory act (like not fasting in Ramadan because of a health condition or traveling).
A kaffara (kaffarah) payment is a required penance penalty to remedy an unauthorized or illegitimate violation, like deliberately breaking a fasting day in Ramadan (e.g. by eating, drinking, or engaging in sexual intercourse) with no validating allowance.
Notably, in the case of kaffara (kaffarah), each such violation (e.g., every fasting day violated without authorization) requires its own kaffara (kaffarah) payment in full.
(You can read about fidyah for Ramadan in What Is Meant by Fidyah for Making Up Missed Ramadan Fasts? and kaffara (kaffarah) for Ramadan violations in What Is Meant by Kaffara (Kaffarah) for Violations of Ramadan Fasts?)
The Quran and the Prophet, on him be peace, specify five violations for which kaffara (kaffarah) as just defined comes due. The first four violations remain generally current. The fifth concerns a historical common-law practice among the Arabs before Islam (which, incidentally, may have still-existing analogous practices in other cultures).
Violating a fasting day of Ramadan
Breaking an Oath (yamîn)
Violating the divinely circumscribed limits of the Hajj-Pilgrimage
Committing voluntary or involuntary manslaughter
And the fifth historical kaffara (kaffarah): Pronouncing the sexual estrangement of one’s wife by way of a husband unilaterally declaring a change in his wife’s legal status to be henceforth equal to that of him having sex with his own mother, therefore rendering coitus with his wife forbidden to him while he retains her as a wife. (This is known as zihar.)
The Quran and the Prophet, on him be peace, specify a scale, or schedule, of various penalty payments based upon the particular violation and the individual financial and physical capacities of the violator.
These kaffara (kaffarah) penalties almost universally include three forms of penance: (1) freeing a Muslim from slavery; (2) feeding a specified number of the poor; and (3) fasting a specified number of days.
Sometimes these penalties come in a required order that the penitent, or atoning violator, must fulfill according to his or her capability before going to the second and (failing that ability) then the third kaffara (kaffarah) alternative.
For other violations, the offender may choose between options — again, these penalties usually involve the three common kaffara (kaffarah) payment forms just mentioned.
Finally, the kaffarah (kaffarah) penalties that include a material payment, according to most scholars, may be transformed into monetary payment equivalents, provided they are properly distributed to achieve the desired end.
So, for example, if one must feed 60 people in need of food as a kaffara (kaffarah) penance, which means providing 60 meals like one would himself or herself normally eat, then the kaffara (kaffarah) payer may give the equivalent in money, which will be properly distributed to those in need of food, according to the rules of that kaffara (kaffarah). This may be feeding a family of five in need of food 12 meals each, or one person in such need 60 meals, or 60 different qualified recipients, and so forth.
Very briefly, these expiations include the following kaffarah (kaffarah) penalties:
Freeing a Muslim bondservant (one who is in some way enslaved) from bondage
If incapable of (a), then fasting two consecutive Islamic lunar months
If incapable of (a) or (b), then feeding 60 of the poor
Note: This kaffara (kaffarah) penalty applies to each fasting day violated without valid exemption. If one were to intentionally violate all 30 days of a Ramadan fast, his or her kaffara (kaffarah) would equal, for example, the feeding of 1,800 people, that is 1,800 meals. (See the details in What Is Meant by Kaffara (Kaffarah) for Violations of Ramadan Fasts?)
Feeding 10 of the poor
Or, clothing 10 of the poor
Or, freeing a Muslim bondservant
One who is financially (or otherwise) incapable of the above three options must perform the remaining option:
Fasting three days (preferably, but not necessarily, consecutively)
The kaffara (kaffarah) penalties for Hajj errors or transgressions depend on what the specific violation is, but these remedies generally include (1) slaughter of a prescribed sacrificial offering, (2) feeding the poor, and (3) fasting a prescribed number of days, at Hajj and/or at home.
Non-sexual violation of a Hajj rite
Slaughtering an animal of sacrificial offering (hady) to feed the poor.
But if one is truly unable to afford or find the sacrificial animal, then in lieu of the offering one must observe a 10-day fast, three during the Hajj itself (preferably other than the Day of the Standing, ‘Arafah), plus seven upon one’s return to their home, if one resides outside the Hajj precincts (see Surat Al-Baqarah, 2:196).
Prevention of one’s completion of Hajj rites
(a) If one is prevented from completing their rites of Hajj for any reason beyond their capacity to control, then one must, in order of capability:
Slaughter an animal of sacrificial offering.
If unable to slaughter for valid reason, then one must feed the poor with the value of the due sacrifice.
If one is unable to slaughter or feed its equivalent to the poor, one must fast a day for each double-handful (mudd) of the sacrifice one would have handed out to the poor, according to a common scholarly ruline. (For Islam’s weights and measures, see How Is Zakat Calculated on Wealth)
If one violates any of the personal physical restrictions of ihram (pilgrim-sanctity), then one may choose between a sacrificial offering, feeding six of the poor (in equivalence), or fasting three days, according to a common ruling.
One who is financially (or otherwise) incapable of the above three options must fulfill the fourth and final kaffara (kaffarah) alternative:
Fasting three days (not necessarily consecutively but not delayed beyond the days 11, 12, and 13 of Dhu’l Hijjah, the Hajj month)
Killing game animals during Hajj
Hunting is forbidden during the pilgrim-sanctity of Hajj. One who violates this prescription has this obligation:
Slaughtering its equivalent in sacrificial cattle and distributing the meat in the Hajj precincts
If one cannot fulfill this requirement, then
Distributing its value in food to the poor of the precincts
If one cannot fulfill this alternative, then
Fasting a day for each double-handful (mudd) of food that would have been distributed
Sexual intercourse while in a state of pilgrim sanctity (ihram)
If it is for intercourse before full release from the state of pilgrim sanctity then most scholars hold the husband responsible, unless the wife also knew of this prohibition and was cognizant of having been herself in the state of ihram, according to an accepted legal opinion.
The kaffaram (kaffarah) penalty is as follows:
Slaughter a camel, a cow, or seven sheep or goats, in that mandated order of availability
If unavailable, then distribute its equivalent value in food to the poor
If one is unable, then one fasts a day for each double-handful (mudd) of what would have been the food distribution
Some scholars hold that the violators, in addition to mandatorily completing their Hajj rites, must make up the Hajj the following year
If the sexual violation occurs after partial release from ihram, then the Hajj remains valid without required make-up, and the kaffara (kaffarah) is the offering in sacrifice of a single sheep or goat for food distribution.
Freeing a Muslim bondservant
If incapable of (a), then:
fasting two consecutive Islamic lunar months
Note: The kaffara (kaffarah) penalty is the expiation. There is a separate requirement of a restitution payment (diya) to the family of the deceased, which the heirs may forgive as a sadaqah-charity.
Allah prohibited this practice of a man sexually estranging his wife while retaining her in marriage. Yet at the time of declaring this practice prohibited, Allah also forbade those who had engaged in this practice of the days of ignorance of Islam, and who had so estranged their wives, from resuming marital relations with them (after their retraction) before atoning for their falsifying claim and this sin. They had two means of kaffara (kaffarah), in fixed preference:
Fasting two consecutive Islamic lunar months
The most common causes for kaffara (kaffarah) payment are fasting and oath violations (with Hajj violations requiring their material remittance, for the most part, at Hajj).
For those obligated to feed the poor as part of their kaffara (kaffarah) obligation and who are in need of assistance in accomplishing its proper distribution, Zakat Foundation of America offers a specialized kaffara (kaffarah) payment and distribution service under it's Essential Islamic Giving option. It ensures it is then properly distributed to eligible recipients.
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