Synopsis: This article seeks to discuss, in moderate detail, the fiqh ruling on giving zakāt al-fiṭr in the form of money instead of staple food item. In this author's opinion, although it is best to give zakāt al-fītr in staple food, there is no unequivocal evidence to suggest that giving it in the form of money makes it invalid. Therefore, taking into account the situation of most Muslim communities in the Western world, there is no problem giving zakāt al-fītr in the form of money, even though it would be meritorious to follow the letter of the law and give it in the form of staple food items if possible.
Zakāt al-Fiṭr: The Basics
Zakāt al-fiṭr is one of two obligatory charities that have been obligated in the Sharīʿah (the other one being regular zakāt). The fact that it is obligatory has been unanimously agreed upon amongst the scholars. It was legislated when the fast of Ramaḍān was legislated, meaning the second year of the hijrah. Hence, zakāt al-fiṭr was actually legislated before regular zakāt.
It is obligatory on all Muslims who have more than the amount of food that they and their immediate families require on the day of 'Īd. Hence, its nisāb is considerably less than the niṣāb of regular zakāt (which is 612 grams of silver or 87.48 grams of gold).
Zakāt al-fiṭr is paid on behalf of every single member of one's household, even if that member did not fast. Hence, it is paid on behalf of children, the sick and the elderly. If a woman is pregnant during Ramaḍān but does not deliver before 'Īd, it is encouraged, but not obligatory, to pay zakāt on behalf of the unborn child. If she delivers before 'Īd, then zakāt must be paid on behalf of the newborn.
The best time to give this zakāt is on the day of 'Īd, before the actual 'Īd prayer. However, it may be given before this as well; a day or two before according to the Ḥanbalīs and Mālikīs, from the beginning of the month of Ramaḍān for the Shafiʿīs, and from the beginning of that year for the Ḥanafīs. Another opinion within the Ḥanbalī madhhab states that it may be given after the fifteenth of the month (based upon the fact that one may leave Muzdalifah after half of the night – i.e., qiyās with another act of worship). And this last opinion seems to be a reasonable one (See al-Mardāwī's Inṣāf, v. 7 p. 116).
The recipients of zakāt al-fiṭr are the same as the recipients of regular zakāt. Hence, one must find a Muslim who is deserving of it. If one is paying zakāt al-fiṭr on behalf of more than one person, the entire amount can be given to a single person, or the zakāt for each person can be given to a different recipient. Like regular zakāt, although it is allowed to distribute it in another locality, it is strongly preferred to distribute it to the needy in one's own locality.
There are two primary wisdoms behind the zakāt al-fiṭr: firstly to make up for any sins and mistakes that one might have done while fasting, and secondly, to feed the poor. In a sound ḥadīth, Ibn ʿAbbās reported that the Prophet ṣalla Allahu ʿalayhi wa sallam legislated zakāt al-fiṭr as a means of purification from the vain talk and evil deeds committed by the one who fasted, and as a provision for the poor (Abu Dawud in his Sunan). It is narrated that Wakīʿ b. al-Jarrāḥ (d. 198 A.H.) said, “Zakāt al-fiṭr is to the month of Ramaḍān as the 'prostration of forgetfulness' (sajdat al-sahw) is to the prayer,” meaning that it makes up for any deficiencies. In slightly weak tradition, it is added “…so that they (i.e., the poor) have no need to beg on that day.” Hence, one of the goals of zakāt al-fiṭr is to bring joy on the auspicious day of 'Īd to the entire Muslim community – no one should go hungry on that day.
The Prophet ṣalla Allahu ʿalayhi wa sallam instructed that a ṣāʿ of wheat, or barley, or dates, or raisins, or curled milk be given (Narrated by al-Bukharī and others). There is a lengthy debate in the books of fiqh regarding whether other food items may take the place of these ones, however it seems very clear– and Allāh knows best – that all staple food items may be given as zakāt al-fiṭr. The purpose of mentioning these specific items was that these were the staple foods of the people of Madīnah; hence for other communities, rice or other foods, such as macaroni, may be substituted, and this would constitute following the Sunnah. This is the opinion of Shaykh al-Islam Ibn Taymiyyah as well. (A ṣāʿ is equivalent to 2.75 kilograms, roughly 6 pounds).
The real issue of debate in our times is whether this zakāt may be given in currency (i.e., cash) instead of staple food. And that is the question that this article seeks to answer.
Classical Opinions on Giving Zakāt al-Fiṭr in Currency
The scholars of the tabiʿūn differed regarding the permissibility of giving zakāt al-fiṭr in gold or silver coins instead of food. Al-Hasan al-Basrī, Sufyān al-Thawrī, and Abū Ishāq al-Sabīʿī allowed it, whereas Aṭāʿ disapproved. The famous Umayyad Caliph, ʿUmar b. ʿAbd al-Azīz, even issued a decree that half a silver coin should be deducted from all those who get a stipend from the government, in lieu of zakāt al-fiṭr. Hence, this shows that not only did he approve of giving this zakāt in cash, he actually enforced it in his caliphate. (For these reports, see the Muṣannaf of Ibn Abī Shaybah, 'The Chapter of Giving Dirhams as Zakāt al-Fiṭr.' v. 2, p. 398-399,)
Amongst the four classical madhhabs, the Ḥanbalīs, Shafiʿīs and Mālikīs prohibited giving zakāt al-fitr in cash. (As with most opinions, there are minority opinions within these madhhabs deeming it permissible; both the Mālikīs and Ḥanbalīs have positions that allow it, and there is even a saying in the Shafiʿī madhhab as well, but the relied upon ruling in these three madhhabs is that it is not allowed – for references, see al-Mardāwi's Inṣāf v. 7, p. 130; al-Nawawī's al-Majmūʿ, v. 5, p. 428; al-Dasūqī's Ḥashiyah v. 1, p. 502).
Only the Ḥanafīs deemed it permissible (see al-Sarakhsī's al-Mabṣūṭ v. 2, p. 156).
The primary evidence used by the majority is the famous ḥadīth of Ibn ʿUmar quoted above, in which specific food items are mentioned. These scholars claimed, “The fact that the Prophet ṣalla Allahu ʿalayhi wa sallam specifically mentioned these food items shows that it is impermissible to substitute others for it.” This is the crux of their argument.
However, in response, it can be said: The reason why the Prophet ṣalla Allahu ʿalayhi wa sallam mentioned these items is simply due to the fact that these were the staple food items of Madīnah. Hence, the majority of scholars – including those who did not allow giving zakāt al-fiṭr in cash – allowed giving other food items instead of these ones, such as rice. There is no explicit evidence prohibiting giving this zakāt in money; the opinion rests primarily on taking the standard practice of the Prophet ṣalla Allahu ʿalayhi wa sallam as being exclusively representative of the zakāt, and ruling out all other possibilities.
Those who allowed giving cash (i.e., the Ḥanafīs) have some evidences for their opinion.
Firstly, they use the report of Muʿadh b. Jabal when he was the governor of Yemen. It states that Muʿadh told the people of Yemen to give him clothes and robes in lieu of grain, since giving cloth would be easier for them, and more useful for the people of Madīnah, where the zakāt was heading (reported in muʿallaq form in al-Bukhārī). This is a very crucial and important piece of evidence. It shows that Muʿadh did not take their zakāt in the way it normally would have been taken (e.g., sheeps, goats, grain, silver, gold), but rather took its equivalent in another commodity. He did this for two reasons. Firstly, since cloth was more readily available in Yemen, hence easier for them to give, than gold and silver. Secondly, since Yemeni cloth was a prized commodity, especially in Madīnah, and it would have been appreciated much more than, say, Yemeni dates, grain or sheep. Hence, giving zakāt in cloth proved easier for the Yemenites, and more beneficial for the recipients. And this is a fatwa from no less an authority than Muʿādh b. Jabal, whom the Prophet described as being the most knowledgeable of ḥalāl and ḥarām.
For our situation, this report can be extrapolated to claim that cash and currency is easier for us to give, and more appreciated by its recipients.
A second evidence is that the purpose of zakāt al-fiṭr, as expressly mentioned by the Prophet ṣalla Allahu ʿalayhi wa sallam, is to ensure that no one is deprived on the day of 'Īd. Therefore, if one lives in a society where 'deprivation' is not of staple food items but of other necessities, it would make more sense to give zakāt to fulfill those needs.
Thirdly, they state that money is the primary commodity used to barter with, hence it is the aṣl, or 'general rule', with regards to zakāt.
This opinion (that zakāt al-fiṭr may be given in currency) is the opinion of many respected scholars and researchers of our times, including Sh. Qardawī.
Personal Anecdotes and Practical Issues
Once upon a time, I followed the opinion that it was obligatory to pay zakāt al-fiṭr in grain. As with most opinions I followed fifteen years ago, it was based purely on taqlīd – even though at the time I was sure that it was ittibāʿ of the Sunnah. We were in Houston, TX, and a group of us, making taqlīd of our Shaykh, decided to collect rice and distribute it to some families. To make a long story short, it was not easy finding people who were interested in taking thirty pounds of rice; eventually, we did find a few refugee families, but after much calling and searching. Even back then, I realized the futility of trying to implement such a program on a city level. Had we been responsible for the zakāt al-fiṭr of the entire community, we would have had to figure out how to distribute tons of rice (Houston easily has thirty thousand Muslims giving zakāt al-fiṭr, if not more)
After moving to Madīnah, I would buy grain and physically find a poor person to give it to. I did this for all the years that I was there. Poverty in Madīnah is more pronounced and apparent than America, yet even then I had some interesting experiences. Once, I approached a beggar who was sitting in front of the masjid al-Nabi, and offered him a bag of grain. He just gave me one of those 'looks', handed the bag back to me, and said, “I don't want it.” Imagine that… refused by a beggar! On another occasion, I gave it to a young girl who was begging on the side of the road. She eagerly grasped it and put it next to her. On my way back home, I saw her sitting at the same spot, still begging, but without any grain. As I wondered what happened to the bag of grain, another person walked by and handed her a bag. As soon as the generous 'Samaritan' had walked away, she ran to a stall nearby where the bags of grain were being sold, and then sold it back to the original owner for less than its buying price. She then returned to her place, waiting for more generous people, eager to give their 'zakāt al-fiṭr' to her. After some questioning and research, I found out there was a nice little racket going on between the stalls and the beggars: bag sold to customer for ten riyals, given to beggar, who promptly sells it back for eight riyals cash. Net result: beggar gets eight riyals, stall keeper gets two, and the grain remains with him.
The question arises: how many dozens of pounds of rice would a poor person really want or need to collect? Wouldn't it be more beneficial for her to simply be given the money so that she can use it on more important needs? This is especially the case in Western lands, where the quantity of extremely poor Muslim families – those who are so desperately poor that they need to be given staple food items – is typically far, far less than the quantity of those who are paying zakāt al-fiṭr.
Zakāt al-fiṭr was given in staple food items during the life of the Prophet ṣalla Allahu ʿalayhi wa sallam because there were many families who were in dire need of it. Such food items were more accessible to the Muslims than gold and silver, and poverty was so pronounced that it was more needed by the poor than gold and silver.
There is no unequivocal textual evidence that implies that it is a requirement for the zakāt to be accepted that it only be given in staple food items. Rather, what is required is that such staple items or their equivalent be given, depending on the need, situation and circumstance of each community. And one of the equivalents is money.
There are quite a few opinions from the early scholars allowing such a substitution, and in fact it became official policy during the Caliphate of the noble ʿUmar b. ʿAbd al-Azīz, the 'fifth Rightly Guided Caliph'. Hence, one of the madhhabs adopted this position as well.
Taking into account the goals of the Sharīʾah and applying them to the situation of Western Muslims, there seems no reason to oblige Muslims to give zakāt al-fiṭr in staple food items. For us, money is more easily available than grain, and it is also more needed by the poor. Additionally, trying to apply the majority opinion at a community level is very impractical, if not outright impossible.
Having said that, there is no doubt that if an individual person is able to do give zakāt al-fiṭr in staple food, and finds worthy recipients, he or she has followed the letter and spirit of the law. But if someone gives money instead, the obligation of zakāt al-fiṭr has been fulfilled.
And Allāh knows best.