The topic of recipients versus non-recipients of zakah has already been covered. It does happen, however, that a zakah payer inadvertently gives it to an ineligible person at the expense of an eligible one. Upon the realization of such a mistake, would he be considered to have fulfilled his obligation of zakah or would it still be a debt upon him until he pays it to the right people? The jurists differ over this point. Abu Hanifah, Muhammad, al-Hasan, and Abu ‘Ubaidah maintain that in such a case he would not be required to pay another zakah.
Ma’an ibn Yazid reports: “My father set aside a few dinars for sadaqah and gave them to a man in the mosque. I went and took them and brought them back to my father. He said: ‘By Allah! What have you done?’ I consulted the Prophet, upon whom be peace, about it. The Prophet observed: ‘O Yazid, for you is what you intended and O Ma’an, for you is what you have taken.'” This is related by Ahmad and al-Bukhari. The meaning of this hadith is that sadaqah is supererogatory (nafl); however, the word ma (meaning what) in laka rna nawayta (for you is what you intended) denotes generalization. Abu Hanifah and Muhammad are supported in their stand by a hadith from Abu Hurairah which reports the Prophet, upon whom be peace, saying: “A man [from Banu Isra’il] said [to himself]: ‘Tonight I will give away something in sadaqah.’ So he went out with his sadaqah and [unknowingly] gave it to a thief. The next morning he was told by the people that he had given sadaqah to a thief. [On hearing this,] he said: ‘O Allah! Praised be You. Certainly I will give sadaqah again.’ So, he went out with his sadaqah and [unknowingly] gave it to an adulteress. The next morning he was told that he had given sadaqah to an adulteress. The man said: ‘O Allah! Praised be You. [I gave my sadaqah] to an adulteress. Certainly I will give sadaqah again.’ Thus he went out with his sadaqah again and [unknowingly] gave it to a rich person. The next moming the people said that the night before he had given his sadaqah to a wealthy person. He said: ‘O Allah! Praised be You. [I have given my sadaqah] to an adulteress, a thief, and a rich person.’ [In his dreams] he saw someone saying to him: ‘The sadaqah you gave to the thief might make him abstain from stealing, and that given to the adulteress might make her abstain from illegal sex [adultery], and that given to the wealthy person might make him learn a lesson from it and spend his wealth, which Allah, the Exalted One, has given him in Allah’s cause.'” This is related by Ahmad, al-Bukhari, and Muslim.
The Prophet, upon whom be peace, said to a man who asked him for sadaqah: “If you were eligible for zakah, I would have given you your due.” He (the Prophet) gave (zakah) to two well built persons saying: “If you wish, I will give from it [sadaqah]. There is no portion in it for a wealthy person or a healthy individual who is eaming.” Ibn Qudamah says: “If he would have considered the reality of the rich person, he would not have been contented with what they said [concerning this matter].”
The opinion of Malik, ash-Shaf’i, Abu Yusuf, ath-Thauri, and Ibn al-Munzhir is that it will not be sufficient for a zakah payer to give it to the undeserving, especially when his mistake becomes clear. In that case, he should pay zakah once again to those who deserve it. His case is similar to the case of unpaid debts (owed) to other people. Ahmad says that there are two opinions concerning one paying zakah to a person whom he thought was poor and later learned was rich. The first contends it would be considered paid, while the second says that it would not be. When it becomes known that one who received zakah is a slave, an unbeliever, a Hashimite (a person from the Prophet’s family), or an ineligible relative of the zakah payer, then one has not discharged one’s obligation, the reason being that it is difficult to know who is rich and who is poor: “The ignorant man thinks that since they [who do not ask for] are modest they are free from want” [al-Baqarah 273].