Once Ramaḍān ends, our empathy for the poor whilst fasting throughout the blessed month still continues with hopefully a new habit of giving charity regularly. The first stage of this is something which is given just before the ‘Eed Prayer itself called Zakāt’l-Fiṭr which could almost literally be translated as “The Purification For The End Of Ramaḍān”. It is to be given on behalf of everyone in a household which has enough food for themselves for a day and night, to all those who don’t, one or two days before the ‘Eed prayer but no later than the prayer itself.
‘Abdullāh b. ‘Umar (raḍyAllāhu ‘anhumā) narrated that, “The Messenger of Allāh (ṣallallāhu ‘alayhi wa sallam) obligated the giving of a ṣā‘ of dates or a sā‘ of barley upon all Muslims, whether slave or free, male or female, and young or old. He ordered that it should be given before the people went out to pray.” (Bukhāri)
Abu Sa‘īd al-Khudri (raḍyAllāhu ‘anhu) said, “We used to give our Zakāt’l-Fiṭr as a ṣā‘ of food or a ṣā‘ of barley or a ṣā‘ of dates or a ṣā‘ of dried yoghurt or a ṣā‘ of raisins.” (Bukhāri)
A ṣā‘ is a measure equal to four medium-sized handfuls, which approximates to about 2.25kg in weight.
Because the above aḥadīth mention only food, one of the fiqhi matters associated with Zakāt’l-Fiṭr is whether one can pay the needy in cash as opposed to giving them food items.
It is the opinion of the majority of the scholars such as Imām Mālik, Imām al-Shāfi‘ī, Imām Aḥmed and many more that it is not permissible to give Zakāt’l-Fiṭr except as a food item; specifically the requirement is to give it in the form of the staple food of that country. Rice is used very commonly for this in the Muslim world because it can be stored, weighed easily and is readily available in most countries.
However, some scholars like Imām Abu Ḥanīfah allowed the Zakāt’l-Fiṭr to be paid in cash, without any conditions. This is thus the official position of the Ḥanafi school as well as Mu‘ādh b. Jabal, ‘Umar b. ‘Abd’l-‘Azīz, al-Ḥasan al-Baṣrī, Sufyān al-Thawrī, Ṭāwūs, Bukhāri and others. Some scholars like Abu Thawr only allowed paying in cash if there was a pressing reason and it would be to the greater benefit of the poor.
The difference of opinion revolves around the fact that the Prophet (ṣallallāhu ‘alayhi wa sallam) and the Companions did not give their Zakāt’l-Fiṭr except as food. The question is: does the fact that they only gave it as food, mean that it is prohibited to give as money?
At first glance, this would seem the case. They had access to money and other valuables whether dirhams or dinars or gold etc. So why did the Prophet (ṣallallāhu ‘alayhi wa sallam) only mention food items except that this means it is restricted to food? Yes, this could be argued but the reverse is also worthy of consideration: much of the trade at that time was not with dinars and dirhams but with bartering of foodstuff and the like. Life was very simple back then and many folks had little need for a small piece of valuable metal as much as their immediate need for food or different types of food. Thus it would be quite understandable why the focus was on foodstuff alone. But in our time today, it’s all about money.
Not only that, but the description of the way the Prophet (ṣallallāhu ‘alayhi wa sallam) had told his Companions to give x or y or… and this repeated use of “or” would suggest flexibility. This is further indicated by the fact that the majority of scholars extended the possible food groups to those which were not mentioned by the Prophet (ṣallallāhu ‘alayhi wa sallam) because they understood the intention to be a focus on the staple food of that country. That is why in our time, wheat and rice are the most commonly distributed items for Zakāt’l-Fiṭr even though they were not mentioned in the ḥadīth.
Practically speaking though, there are many occasions where the poor and needy prefer money itself. It is often the case that people will purchase food in local areas of need to give to the poor, who ironically will sell it back to the shopkeepers for half the price because their need for money is greater. Other times the poor themselves are able to purchase that same food for much less than it is being paid for by the one donating it.
It is useful to reflect on the purpose of Zakāt’l-Fiṭr, as explained by ‘Abdullāh b. ‘Abbās (raḍyAllāhu ‘anhumā) who said, “The Messenger of Allah (ṣallallāhu ‘alayhi wa sallam) obligated Zakāt’l-Fitr as a purification for the fasting person from useless talk and obscenities, and to feed the poor.” (Abu Dāwud, 1609, ḥasan)
Feeding the poor can be done easier with money than with just one type of food. Indeed you may give your ṣā‘ of rice but then what of the other ingredients and costs involved to cook it and make it satisfactory to eat? There is a weak narration as collected by Imām al-Dāraquṭnī where the Prophet (ṣallallāhu ‘alayhi wa sallam) was meant to have said, “Enable them to not have to beg anyone today.” Begging is solved equally by money as it is by food, indeed perhaps money is even better.
It is interesting when we remember that in the normal obligatory Zakāh that we give on wealth, the Prophet (ṣallallāhu ‘alayhi wa sallam) allowed in certain cases upon camels for the Zakāh to be given as either two sheep, or 20 dirhams cash when in principle it should also be paid in camels or a lesser camel. This flexibility due to the need was allowed in the major Zakāh, what then of in the minor one i.e. Zakāt’l-Fiṭr?
Also, giving one’s Zakāt’l-Fiṭr in food form can bring unnecessary hassle for a person who has to go and find the food and then take it around to distribute it. The majority of the people in the West don’t do this anyway and give a sum of money approximating $5-$10 to a charity for them to do this on their behalf by purchasing the food in bulk and distributing it.
Often the people who receive the food from such charities have a need for other types of food and will then go and barter, or sell it back at a loss. This has been proven anecdotally and by personal experience. This does not benefit the poor, and the entire objective behind this charity before ‘Eed is to benefit the poor as much as possible and not to give them extra problems and hassle.
It must be conceded by those who insist on giving food only that there is not a single clear evidence that prohibits giving Zakāt’l-Fiṭr in money form.
However because difference of opinion exists amongst the scholars, we should respect that and take a safer option. Thus if someone has food that they can give to a poor person who will readily and happily accept it and use it, then one should do that and you will have taken a position that satisfies all scholars.
But if someone does not have food to give, then they shouldn’t hassle themselves to go and buy it, and it is permissible to give money to the poor and those deserving of Zakāt’l-Fiṭr as per the rules of fiqh.
Wallahu ta‘āla a‘lam.