Zakatu'l-fitr is often referred to as sadaqatu'l-fitr. The word fitr means the same as iftar, breaking a fast and it comes from the same root word as futur which means breakfast. Thus, Islamically, zakatu'l-fitr is the name given to charity which is distributed at the end of the fast of Ramadan.
Sadaqatu'l-fitr is a duty which is wajib on every Muslim, whether male or female, minor or adult as long as he / she has the means to do so. The proof that this form of charity is compulsory can be found in the Sunnah whereby Ibn 'Umar reported that the Prophet sallallahu 'alayhi wa sallam made zakatu'l-fitr compulsory on every slave, freeman, male, female, young and old among the Muslims; one sa' of dried dates or one sa' of barely.[Collected by Al-Bukhari. Arabic/English, vol. 2, p. 339, no. 579. Two handfuls / kilo / 40 grams / 4.5 lbs / 112 oz / beaker of dates, barley, raisins, cheese, grain of wheat (see Muslim no. 2151 & 2154). Some scholars say any topic of food that is common in a particular region can be given for fitr, (e.g. flour, ground beef, or milk in the United States)]
The head of the household may pay the required amount for the other members. Abu Sa'id al-Khudri said:
"On behalf of our young and old, free men and slaves, we used to take out during Allah's Messenger's sallallahu 'alayhi wa sallam lifetime one sa' of grain, cheese or raisins."
The significant role played by zakah in the circulation of wealth within the Islamic society is also played by the sadaqatu'l-fitr. However, in the case of sadaqatu'l-fitr, 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. Thus, sadaqatu'l-fitr plays a very important role in the development of the bonds of community. The rich are obliged to come in direct contact with the poor, and the poor are put in contact with the extremely poor. This contact between the various levels of society helps to build real bonds of brotherhood and love within the Islamic community and trains those who have, to be generous to those who do not have.
The main purpose of zakatu'l-fitr is to provide those who fasted with the means of making up for their errors during the month of fasting. Zakatu'l-fitr also provides the poor with a means with which they can celebrate the festival of breaking the fast ('Eid ul-Fitr) along with the rest of the Muslims.
Ibn 'Abbas reported:
"The Prophet sallallahu 'alayhi wa sallam made zakatu'l-fitr compulsory so that those who fasted may be purified of their idle deeds and shameful talk (committed during Ramadan) and so that the poor may be fed. Whoever gives it before salah will have it accepted as zakah, while he who gives it after the salah has given sadaqat."
Hence, the goal of sadaqatu'l-fitr is the spiritual development of the Believers. By making them give up some of their wealth, the believers are taught the higher moral characteristics of generosity, compassion (sympathy for the unfortunate), gratitude to God and the righteousness. But, since Islam does not neglect man's material need, part of the goal of zakatu'l-fitr is the economic well-being of the poorer members of society.
Zakatu'l-fitr is only wajib for a particular period of time. If one misses the time period without a good reason, he has sinned and can not make it up. This form of charity becomes obligatory from sunset on the last day of fasting and remains obligatory until the beginning of salatu'l-'eid (i.e. shortly after sunrise on the following day). However, it can be paid prior to the above mentioned period, as many of the sahabah (companions of the Prophet sallallahu 'alayhi wa sallam) used to pay sadaqatu'l-fitr a couple days before the 'Eid.
Ibn 'Umar reported that the Prophet sallallahu 'alayhi wa sallam order that it (zakatu'l-fitr) be given before people go to make the salah (of 'Eid).
Nafi' transmitted that Ibn 'Umar used to pay fitr a day or two before the 'Eid prayer. [Al-Bukhari. Vol. 2, p. 339, no. 579 & Muslim, Abu Dawud] Whoever pays fitr after the 'Eid prayer wlll not get the blessings of it because it will be rendered as regular sadaqah. [See Abu Dawud no. 1605]
And Ibn 'Abbas reported that the Prophet sallallahu 'alayhi wa sallam said:
"Whoever gives it before the salah will have it accepted as zakah, while he who gives it after the salah (will not, for it will only be considered as) ordinary charity. Therefore, one who forgets to pay this zakatu'l-fitr on time should do so as soon as possible even though it will not be counted as zakatu'l-fitr."
The amount of zakah is the same for everyone regardless of their different income brackets. The minimum amount is one sa' (two handfuls) of food, grain or dried fruit for each member of the family. This calculation is based on Ibn 'Umar's report that the Prophet sallallahu 'alayhi wa sallam made zakatu'l-fitr compulsory and payable by a sa' of dried dates or a sa' of barley.
The sahabi, Abu Sa'id al-Khudri said:
"In the Prophet's time, we used to give it (zakatu'l-fitr) as a sa' of food, dried dates, barley, raisins or dried cheese."
Items other than food such as money, clothes, furniture, etc. cannot be given as zakatu'l-fitr because it is contrary to what the Prophet commanded and what Allah wants. The Prophet sallallahu 'alayhi wa sallam said:
"Whoever introduces anything in this matter (din) of ours will have it rejected."
Paying zakatu'l-fitr is an act of worship, and through the Qur'an and authentic sunnah all acts of worship are described. Therefore, to add, subtract, or alter any act of worship is a bid'ah. Thus, paying zakatu'l-fitr by other than food is a bid'ah and every bid'ah eventually leads to the fire. [See Abu Dawud no. 4590]
Not giving money for fitr is as sunnah at-turkiyyah (an action, the abandonment of which is a Prophetic Sunnah). Money existed and was prevalent in the Prophet's time but he did not nor did the Companions or tabi'in (followers of the Companions) use any money for fitr. For sure the Prophet sallallahu 'alayhi wa sallam was, is, and always will be the best of worshippers and the Companions and tabi'in are the best of generations in understanding and practicing Islam. [See Al-Qur'an 4:115 and 3:110, Sahih Al-Bukhari vol. 3 and 5, Sahih Abi Dawud no. 4586] So if he and they did not use money for sadaqatu'l-fitr why should any one else?
Compiled from the works of the two authors