During the month of Ramadhan, all Muslims are required to pay zakat fitrah, regardless young or old, rich or poor, bonded or free. The other form of zakat, called zakat harta (assets), is only obligatory if certain conditions are fulfilled. In Malaysia and indeed many Muslim countries in the world, the practice of paying zakat fitrah is in the form of cash as a substitute to a `gantang' of rice.
Since the administration of Islam falls under state jurisdiction, each state in Malaysia determines the value of this cash substitute. We therefore have different zakat fitrah rates for different states. For example, the fitrah in Johor this year is RM6.50 per person (last year RM5.00). In Kedah it is RM7.00, in Kelantan RM7.60 but in Selangor and Kuala Lumpur it is only RM5.20. It would seem that Muslims in the poorer states have to pay more than their brothers who live in the richer states. Sure doesn't seem logical to me.
Table of zakat fitrah from JAWHAR, Jabatan Perdana Menteri
So why this discrepancy and a significant one at that? Muslims in KL pay RM2.40 less that those in Kelantan. That's a 46% difference.
This issue of having a uniform zakat fitrah rate has been discussed by the various state religious councils for many years. From the look of things, I doubt that they would reach a consensus any time soon.
To understand why this non-uniformity exists, it is perhaps good to know the basis of how the zakat fitrah is calculated. The first aspect to consider is quantity. The requirement of zakat fitrah (zakat ul-fitri in Arabic) is based on Prophet Muhammad's hadith that states that one Sa'a of barley or dates be made as payment. Now, one Sa'a has been translated into one `gantang Baghdad' in Malaysia. But what exactly is a `gantang Baghdad' and what is its equivalent in modern terms?
Scholars are in disagreement on how much a gantang Baghdad equates to, but a common value cited nowadays is 2.7 kg. In Singapore, they have calculated it to be 2.3 kg. I have no doubt other Muslim countries have different figures too. In standard Malay, the gantang is principally a measure for rice. It measures volume rather than weight. Therein lies part of the discrepancy.
The next aspect to consider is the commodity itself. The original `barley' or `dates' in the Prophet's hadith have been interpreted to include the wide definition of `staple food or diet' (makanan ruji) of the general population. In Malaysia, this is of course, rice. But then, what type of rice is normally eaten by the average Muslim in Malaysia? Most state Islamic councils have adopted Beras Super Special Tempatan Gred A as the basis of calculation. Since the price of rice as determined by Bernas is not very much different from state to state, the huge difference in fitrah rates is still puzzling.
To add to the confusion, some states like Perlis and Terengganu (and Singapore too) have different classes of fitrah rates depending on the quality of rice that you normally eat. So if you consume the higher rice grades such as Beras Siam Wangi, then you are expected to pay the higher rate. A blog entry by Ibnu Hasyim has an interesting write-up on this subject that you can read here -> Zakat Fitrah Orang Kaya Sepatutnya RM13.50 Seorang.
It's not my intention to make all this sound too perplexing. It has been oft-said that Islam is a simple religion... it is only the people that make it difficult.
Which now brings me to the story that prompted me to make this post in the first place. It happened back during my student days in Sheffield, United Kingdom. I was with some friends at their house for the iftar. As we were waiting for the time to break the fast, one of my friends named Arazi, said that earlier in the day after Friday prayers, an Arab brother had approached him. Arazi was asked by the Arab whether he had any debts, to which Arazi said yes.
`He then shook my hand and gave me some money. The Arab brother said that this is zakat money for me', I remember Arazi saying.
This prompted some of my other friends to remark that they had debts too... and wondered why rich Arabs have not approached them to give zakat money. Hehehe... memang dah rezeki kau tu Arazi.
To my non-Muslim readers, let me just explain that last part. There are eight (8) categories of persons who are qualified to receive the zakat collections. Apart from the poor & needy, other qualified recipients include those who are in debt. Many Arabs interpret this literally and make it easy to comply with the many requirements of religion. Simple.