We have been observing fasting in the holy month of Ramadan for the second time amidst the Covid-19 pandemic. The Bangladesh government has already imposed lockdown in the wake of a more deadly second wave of coronavirus infections that kills dozens of people every day. The resulting economic crisis has been unprecedented.
Due to the lockdown and slowdown in economic activities since March 2020, the marginalised people have suffered the most from the burden of Corona-induced economic losses. Many of those who are unable to work in the ongoing lockdown may have to starve if they do not receive the necessary financial assistance. Thus, the situation demands redistribution of income from the rich to the poor.
In this article, I argue for institutionalising Zakat al-Fitr, also commonly referred to as "Fitrah", at the community level, if not at the district, divisional or national level, as a tool for redistributing income to alleviate the sufferings of the poor and needy albeit temporarily.
Zakat al-Fitr and its purposes
Both fasting in the month of Ramadan and Zakat al-Fitr as a kind of compulsory charity (sadaqah) were decreed in the second year after the hijrah (migration) of the Prophet Muhammad (Peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) from Mecca to Medina. Unlike Zakat al-Mal (commonly referred to as "Zakat"), Fitrah is not a tax on a person's wealth. Rather it is paid on behalf of each individual, like a head tax. Hence, Fitrah is also known as zakat al-ra's, (i.e. "the head tax") or zakat al-badan ("the body tax").
Every Muslim, who is not in financial difficulty, has to give fitrah in the middle or at the end of Ramadan before the prayer of Eid al-Fitr. Although the one who is in financial difficulty is not obliged to pay Fitrah, Islamic shari'ah has clarified the term 'financial difficulty' so that there is no room for ambiguity or misinterpretation. According to Shari'ah, a person has enough and is not in financial difficulty if he has one saa' more than he needs for himself and those whom he is obliged to support on the night and day of Eid. Saa' is an Islamic measure. According to an expert of measures and weights in the Islamic World Walther Hinz, the Saa' of the Prophet" (Pbuh) is a value of 3.24 kilograms of wheat.
The obligation to pay Fitrah is associated with the celebration of the Eid al-Fitr, the biggest festival of the Muslim community. Hence, an eligible Muslim person has to give Fitrah before the sunset on the last day of Ramadan. A household head can pay Fitrah for his/her spouse, children, other dependents such as servants, and any dependent relatives.
The purpose of Zakat al-Fitr and the timing of its payment are very clear in a prominent hadith reported by Abu Dawood, 1371. In this hadith, Ibn 'Abbaas said: "The Messenger of Allah (PBUH) made zakat al-fitr obligatory as a means of purifying the fasting person from idle talk and foul language, and to feed the poor. Whoever pays it before the prayer, it is an accepted zakat, and whoever pays it after the prayer, it is just a kind of charity (sadaqah)."
So we see that Zakat al-Fitr brings two major benefits. Firstly, at individual level, it provides the one who has fasted with an opportunity to purify and compensate for any shortcomings during the month of Ramadan. Secondly, at the societal level, Fitrah is a means of including the poor and needy into the joy and happiness of Eid-ul-Fitr celebrations with the spirit of the Quranic teachings as practically shown by the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) by way of feeding them.
Potentials of the Zakat-ul-Fitr collection: A conservative estimation
The National Zakat Al-Fitr Fixation Committee has set a minimum of Tk70 and a maximum of Tk 2,310 as Fitrah for the year 2021.
Now, according to macrotrends.net, the current population of Bangladesh is 166,303,498 or 166 million. Let us assume that 40 percent of the total population, including non-Muslim community and the poor, do not need to pay zakat al-Fitr. We can classify the rest 60 percent into five groups: 5 percent super-rich (8.3 million), 15 percent rich (24.9 million), 15 percent upper-middle income (24.9 million), 15 percent middle income (24.9 million) and 10 percent lower-middle income (16.6 million). Now suppose, Muslim community chooses the expensive option based on their economic position in society to pay their zakat al-Fitr. For example, the super-rich prefer to pay by cheese, whereas lower-middle income by flour. Thus, Bangladesh has the potential to raise Tk10, 126 crores as Fitrah for 2021.
The significance of the institutionalisation of Zakat al-Fitr
The majority view is that like Zakat, Fitrah is to be given to the eight categories of people as stated in the Holy Qur'an (9:60), namely: (1) the poor, (2) the needy, (3) the zakat collector, (4) new Muslims, (5) the slaves, (6) those who are in debt, (7) in the cause of Allah, and (8) the traveller. However, several scholars, including Ibn Taymiyah and Ibn al-Qayyim, have said that Zakat al-Fitr should be given exclusively to the poor and needy, because the purpose of Fitrah is to give the poor people a sense of belonging by including them in the festive spirit of the Eid day.
Unlike Zakat, however, Fitrah is preferable for the person who is giving to share it out himself. Imam Al-Shaafa'i said: "I prefer to share out zakat al-Fitr myself rather than give it to the one who is collecting it." Similarly, Imam Al-Nawawi said: If one chooses to give Zakat al-Fitr to the Muslim leader or the collector or the one who is collecting the people's Zakat al-Fitr, this is fine, but sharing it out himself is better than all of this".
Since the amount of Fitrah per person is very minimal and disbursement efficiently at individual level is barely possible, the institutionalisation of Fitrah with a community approach formed by friends, family members and relatives may be one of the viable options in the payment and distribution of Zakat al-Fitr. In this case, the community will act as a unit and the bond between the members of the community will be strong and rock-solid. On the other hand, the socio-economic benefits of Zakat al-Fitr will be more visible.
For an example, I may cite a Prothom Alo (April 26, 2021) article titled "One crore families can provide food to another crore families if they want", in which Syed Abdul Hamid, Professor of Health Economics, University of Dhaka has shown that there are about four crore families in Bangladesh. Of these, perhaps one crore families need immediate food aid. Even if one crore is not needed now, it will be needed if the lockdown continues.
Of the remaining two crores, one crore may not have the financial means to help the other. But even then, there are one crore families, each of whom can afford to provide food assistance to one family every day. He argues that if each of this one crore families takes charge of a family's food for the next one month, then no one in the country will go hungry. For this to happen, they may need to donate one-month food aid that will cost Tk10 thousand per family which is equal to the amount of Fitrah or Zakat for many families. From the above estimation I made, it is certainly possible to provide at least Tk10 thousand for the one crore families who need immediate food aid through institutionalisation of Zakat al-Fitr.
Foyasal Khan, PhD is a research fellow at the Bangladesh Institute of Islamic Thought. He can be reached at [email protected]
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and views of The Business Standard.