Scholars differed regarding the meaning of this phrase in three schools of thought:

First opinion:

Those who fight in the way of Allah (soldiers of the Muslim army) who are not paid by the Muslim ruler even if they are rich in their land or in their city. Some scholars see that zakat should be given solely to the mujaahideen whereas other scholars see that zakat funds should also be used for the equipment and training of those people (Maliki madhab). This particular opinion is shared by Imam Al Qortobi, Sheikh Al Uthaymeen (See Sharh al Mumti’ ‘ala Zaad Al Mustani’) and sheikh Fawzan (Al Mulakhas al Fiqhee), etc… This category (i.e the mujaahideen) is eligible to receive zakat funds even if they are rich.

Note:

The mujaahideen are those who take part in a legislated military activity under the leadership of a Muslim ruler or emir in the context of a Muslim state. The conditions for the jihad to be legislated under shariah law are strict and most of them are rarely met in our present circumstances. This is mostly due to the lack of Islamic knowledge within Muslim masses around the world and within Muslim rulers. This state of affair is unfortunately due to the fact that most Islamic institutions were either destroyed after the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire or during the time of colonization. Since the time of independence most Muslim countries have not been successful in rebuilding those institutions such as Islamic schools, Islamic universities, Islamic libraries, Islamic courts, etc… Therefore there is a lack of qualified judges and qualified male and female teachers at all levels of the Islamic curriculum. This state of affair has left a vaccum filled by various groups with different sectarian methodologies and ideologies. They caused division whilst harming and weakening Muslim communities and nations. This opinion is shared by most major scholars of our time such as Sheikh Muhammed Nasruddin al Albani, sheikh Muqbel Bin Hadi Al Wadi'ee, sheikh Rabee’ bin Hadee Al Madkhali and others may Allah have mercy upon all of them. (See Fataawa sheikh Al albani wa muqaaranatuha bi fataawa al ulama page 294-314, also see the book of sheikh Abdulmalik Ramadhani:”The Distinction of The People of Insight Between the Nobility of Jihad and the Bloodshed of the Trials”/”Tamyeez dhawil fitan bayna sharafil jihad wa sarfil fitan”) and the research of sheikh Abdullah bin Abdil Azeez Abdullah As-Suwaid called “Al qitaal fil fitna, diraasat ta’siliyah ‘aqdiyah”/Fighting in the midst of the trial, Academic Study From The Angle of the Islamic Creed.)

Second opinion:

Those who fight in the way of Allah as well as those who perform hajj and Umrah. This opinion is mentioned by some scholars such as the companion Abdullah ibn Umar and by Imam Ahmed but this opinion was refuted by Ibnu Qudaamah who mentioned: "Zakaat funds should be distributed only to two types of individuals: those who need it for themselves such as the fuqara, the masaakin, the debtors, the poor travelers, and those whose services are needed and deemed to be in the public interest such as the zakaat worker, the mujaahid, the one who reconciliates between two differing parties. As for the hajj of the faqir, it is of no benefit for the Muslim community and no one in the Muslim community needs them to perform it. This is also due to the fact that hajj is not an obligation upon the faqir." The jumhur (Hanafis, Malikis and Shafi’is) do not include hajj nor umra in this category for the same reason.

Third opinion:

This phrase applies to anyone who is involved in any activity that is beneficial and is in the public interest of the Muslim community (al masaalih al ‘amma). This third opinion is shared by scholars like Sheikh Safiur Rahman Al Mubarakpuri (who wrote "The Sealed Nectar") and Sheikh Siddiq Hassan Khan.

Examples:

a. Employment of preachers, Imams or Islamic teachers

b. Islamic schools in poor villages of Africa and Asia (building, school development and assistance) (Sheikh Ahmed An-Najmee shared this opinion in his book “Fathu rabbil wadood fil fataawa, wal rasaail war- rudood, p237/ See also “Majmoo’ al fataawa” of sheikh Al Uthaymeen).

c. Building Muslim clinics and hospitals (in single gender settings)

d. Community development in general which would include Islamic youth development and engagement.

e. Providing money to young men who want to marry but cannot afford Mahr/Dowry.(Sheikh Al Uthaymeen included this matter in the first and second category. See Sharh al Mumti’ ‘ala Zaad Al Mustani’page 221)

f. To defend Muslims who are under attack (Assistance to the Mujaahideen)

g. To pay for the studies of a student of knowledge (who studies Islamic Law and Islamic Sciences).

Sheikh Muqbel and Sheikh Al Uthaymeen amongst many other scholars may Allah have mercy upon them included this matter in the category of the Muslim soldiers as seeking Islamic knowledge is considered as a type of jihad; the goal being to protect the Islamic institutions through teaching Islamic sciences to the general public so that the teachings of Islam are acted upon. Sheikh Al Uthaymeen also stated that zakat funds can be utilized for buying books to distribute to students from poor backgounds or to put on the shelves of a library which would be accessible to students who are poor. If students are poor, then Zakat funds can be utilized to build a residence for them such as in poor rural communities in Third World countries. If there is no one to build a school for them, zakat funds can also be utilized for this purpose. See “Majmoo’ al fataawa” vol18 page 391/392.