The concept of Zakat in Islam: Practical lessons from 2023 Zakat al-Fitr
It is important to emphasize that there is a difference between Zakat and Sadaqah. Whereas Zakat is an annual and mandatory charity for every eligible Muslim, Sadaqah, on the other hand, is a voluntary charity that can be carried out every day, multiple times a day, and is not restricted to specific items.
Zakat is one of the five pillars of Islam. It is a concept of almsgiving that is incumbent on all eligible Muslims. It is derived from the Arabic word Zakat, which means cleanliness, purification, increase, growth, righteousness, blessing, and praise. Allah says, “And establish regular prayer and give Zakat, and bow down your heads with those who bow down (in prayer).” Qu’ran 2:43
There are two types of Zakat. The first type is Zakat in wealth, which is a mandatory annual payment from qualifying adult Muslims whose wealth exceeds the Nisab value (thus, the minimum amount of wealth a Muslim must have before being obliged to pay Zakat) for one Islamic (lunar) year.
The second type of Zakat, which is the focus of this article, is Zakat-al-Fitr. This type of obligatory charity applies to every able Muslim at the end of Ramadan, whether male or female, minor or adult, as long as he or she has the means to do so.
Zakat in wealth is binding on a category of Muslims who are wealth-driven, but Zakat al-Fitr covers every able Muslim, male or female, minor or adult. A Muslim does not necessarily need to have minimum wealth to pay Zakat al-Fitr, as in the case of Zakat in wealth.
The proof that this form of charity is compulsory can be found in the Sunnah, where Ibn ‘Umar (RA) reported that the Prophet (PBUH) made Zakat al-Fitr compulsory for every slave, freeman, male, female, young, and old among the Muslims: one Saa’ (small container, cup, or goblet) of dried dates or barely.
Scholars also state that any type of food that is common in a particular region can be given for Fitr (e.g., rice, maize, flour, ground beef, milk, etc.). The head of the household may pay the required amount for himself, his family members, and those he is obliged to maintain.
It is important to emphasize that there is a difference between Zakat and Sadaqah. Whereas Zakat is an annual and mandatory charity for every eligible Muslim, Sadaqah, on the other hand, is a voluntary charity that can be carried out every day, multiple times a day, and is not restricted to specific items. It is often said that even simple good deeds such as a smile or a helping hand are seen as acts of Sadaqah in Islam.
Significance of Zakat al-Fitr
Like Zakat in wealth, Zakat al-Fitr plays a significant role in circulating wealth in society. It helps in providing some relief to the poor, which enables them to also celebrate Eid al-Fitr, the festival to break the fast of Ramadan. Here, each individual is required to calculate how much charity is due from himself and his dependents and go into the community in order to find those who deserve such charity or give it to Zakat administrators for distribution. Zakat al-Fitr also provides a platform for the rich to come into direct contact with the poor and the needy, which helps in creating a bond between the haves and the have-nots. It also teaches people how to be generous.
Who is eligible to receive Zakat
Zakat cannot be paid to everyone. Accordingly, there are eight specific categories of people who qualify to receive Zakat. These groups of people are:
- Al-Fuqara (the poor): Fuqara are those who don’t have enough money to lead a normal life like everyone else and live below the poverty line. They are deserving of your Zakat in order to provide for their basic needs.
- Al-Masakin (the needy): Masakin are people who are desperately poor and in need. These people have no goods and no source of income. They can enhance their living situations with the aid of your Zakat donations.
- Zakat Collectors: Zakat can be provided to those who are tasked with gathering it and distributing it to the poor and needy. It consists of reputable organizations and non-governmental organizations that support underserved Muslim communities.
- Who converted to Islam? New converts or reverts are eligible to receive Zakat (if they are needy). If someone has converted and is detached from his or her family and friends, you can give your Zakat to such a person so that the person can start a new journey.
- Freeing captives: Slavery is prohibited in many parts of the world, but still, people are trafficked and kept as slaves. Zakat money can help slaves free themselves and improve their living standards.
- Debtors: Zakat can be given to pay off the debts of someone who cannot repay the debts on his own. However, one must make sure that the money borrowed by the debtor was not used for any unlawful purpose.
- In the path of Allah: Those who are striving in the path of Allah are entitled to receive your Zakat. These are the people who are striving for Allah’s cause far away from their homes. Your Zakat can help them have a better life.
- Wayfarer (Travelers): For a traveler who is alone in a foreign land and is in need of money to fulfill his objective of traveling. Refugees can be given Zakat money as they leave their countries because of violence and oppression in search of a safe and better place.
Lessons from 2023 Zakat al-Fitr payments
It is reported that many Muslims pay their Zakat al-Fitr between sunset on the last day of fasting and Eid prayers. Although this approach is acceptable, it appears to be posing challenges to administrators, facilitators, imams, and even beneficiaries. Administrators and facilitators of Zakat al-Fitr must always make sure that they identify qualified people to distribute the Zakat to. Unfortunately, late receipt of Zakat items often creates a situation where administrators have to struggle to distribute all received items to beneficiaries in line with Zakat al-Fitr’s requirements. The 2023 Zakat al-Fitr did not go without these challenges. As a matter of fact, a number of Imams even indicated their unwillingness to receive any late Zakat for onward distribution to beneficiaries due to its inconvenient nature. Moreso, it is believed that whoever pays Fitr after Eid prayer will not get the blessings of it because it will be rendered as regular Sadaqah (Abu Dawud no. 1605). Administrators or imams wouldn’t want to be responsible for the inability of Muslims to fulfill their Zakat al-Fitr obligations. They would rather not receive late Zakat items than fail to distribute them.
The way forward: more awareness is needed.
Inasmuch as payment of Zakat al-Fitr between sunset on the last day of fasting and Eid prayers is acceptable, there is a need for us to help ourselves by ensuring that our Zakat al-Fitr gets to the beneficiaries in time to enable us to derive the full benefits. More importantly, it is believed that many of the companions of the Prophet (PBUH) used to pay Zakat al-Fitr a couple of days before Eid. Ibn ‘Umar (RA) reported that the Prophet (PBUH) ordered that Zakat al-Fitr be given before people go to make Salah (Eid). Nafi’ transmitted that Ibn ‘Umar (RA) used to pay Fitr a day or two before Eid prayer.
Other Imams also corroborated the position of the companions of the Prophet (PBUH) by recommending that Muslims start paying Zakat five (5) days before the end of Ramadan. The reason is to give administrators and other facilitators, if any, a reasonable time to distribute any received food items to beneficiaries in time before Eid so that all parties can derive the full benefits of their efforts. Last but not least, the uncertainty of Eid al-Fitr also provides a crucial reason for Muslims to be more proactive in paying their Zakat early. It is common knowledge that Eid al-Fitr occurs after fasting for either 29 or 30 days in the month of Ramadan. There are times when the announcement of Eid occurs in the middle of the night, dawn, or early morning, by which time it will be too late for people to organize themselves to pay Zakat al-Fitr on time.
As a result of these difficulties, there’s a need to encourage ourselves to make conscious efforts to pay Zakat al-Fitr early enough to avoid the possibility of it becoming Sadaqah instead. Early payment will also allow enough time for the administrators, facilitators, or imams to effectively distribute Zakat al-Fitr items. Beneficiaries will also be able to plan their lives and possibly redistribute some of their Zakat al-Fitr items.
May Allah forgive us our shortcomings and make it possible for us to always fulfill this important obligation of Zakat al-Fitr on time.
…and Allah knows best!
By Mohammed Ali