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Islamic researcher, graduated from Al-Azhar University, Islamic Studies in the English Language. I also studied at Temple University in the US.
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In a Nutshell:
Muslims are required to pay their zakat to the Imam or Caliph, who is required by the shari'a to distribute it among the eight categories of zakat mentioned in the Qur'an. In the absence of an Imam, Muslims can pay the zakat themselves or delegate others to distribute their zakat on their behalf, providing they are trustworthy.  

Historical Background

The zakat (alms tax) was not ordained in the Meccan period, but when the Prophet (saw) migrated to Medina. The Prophet (saw) who was the ruler of Medina used to send companions to collect it from the people of Medina and the tribes.

During the time of Abu Bakr (ra), the first Caliph of Islam, Muslim tribes refused to pay the zakat arguing they used to pay it to the Prophet (saw), but now he had passed away, they could distribute it themselves. Abu Bakr (ra) fought them having built a consensus amongst the companions (ra) until they submitted and handed it over to him.

The same process continued during the time of Umar (ra), but in the time of Uthman (ra) the Muslim polity was so large, there were vast sums to be collected. To solve this problem, Uthman (ra) allowed people to distribute the zakat of their hidden (battin) money themselves.

Muslims later continued to give the zakat to the rulers until the destruction of the Muslim Caliphate in 1924, after which Muslims either distribute it themselves or give it to others to distribute it on their behalf. Charities have also formed over time to collect and distribute zakat.

Evidences

Allah (swt) says:

خُذْ مِنْ أَمْوَالِهِمْ صَدَقَةً تُطَهِّرُهُمْ وَتُزَكِّيهِمْ بِهَا
"Take alms (zakat) out of their wealth, so that thou may cleanse them and purify them thereby." (Qur'an 9:103)
In Medina, the Prophet (saw) used to send su'aat (people who collected the zakat) to collect it from the Muslim tribes.

The Prophet (saw) instructed Mu'adh (ra) when he sent him to Yemen as a governor:

أَعْلِمْهُم أَنَّ اللهَ افْتَرَضَ عَلَيْهِم صَدَقَةً تُؤْخَذُ مِنْ أَغْنِيَائِهِم، وَتُرَدُ عَلَى فُقَرَائِهِم
"Tell them Allah has made the payment of Zakat obligatory upon them. It should be collected from their rich and distributed among their poor." (Bukhari and Muslim)
The instruction here is in the imperative form of (خذ) take (تؤخذ) should be collected. So the Prophet (saw) or the political ruler after him is required to take the zakat from Muslims.

The fatwas of all the companions were that zakat should be given to the Imam. When they were asked if one should distribute it themselves or give it to the Imam:

ٌفَأَمَرُونِي جَمِيعًا أَنْ أَدْفَعَهَا إِلَى السُلْطَانِ ومَا اخْتَلَفَ عَلَيَّ مِنْهُم أَحد
"They all ordered me to pay it to the Sultan, and no one of them rejected that." (Nawawi, al-Majmu', Vol. 6, p. 136)

Juristic Analysis

It is generally agreed amongst the jurists on the collection and distribution of the zakat is to be done by the Imam.

Ibn Hajar commented on the verse and the hadith above saying:

اسْتُدِلَ بِهِ عَلَى أَنَّ الإِمَامَ هُوَ الّذِي يَتَوَلَى قَبْضَ الزَكَاةِ وَصَرْفَهَا إِمَّا بِنَفْسِهِ وإمَّا بِنَائِبِهِ فَمَن امْتَنَعَ مِنْهَا أُخِذَتْ مِنْهُ قَهْرًا.
"it is considered an evidence that the Imam is the one who is required to receive the zakat and distribute it by himself or by his representative. So whoever refused to pay his zakat (to the Imam), he is to be forced to pay it." (Ibn Hajar, Fath al-Bari, Vol. 3, p. 23, Shawkani, Nayl al-Awttar, Vol. 4, p. 124)
Nawawi proclaimed it is prescribed (wajib) on the Imam to collect zakat:

ْوَيَجِبُ عَلَى الإِمَامِ أَنْ يَبْعَثَ السُعَاةَ لِأَخْذِ الصَدَقَةَ لأَنَّ النَبِي صَلَّى اللهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَمَ والخُلَفَاء مِنْ بَعْدِهِ كَانُوا يَبْعَثُونَ السُعَاةَ ... فَوَجَبَ أَنْ يَبْعَثَ وَيَأْخُذ.
"It is mandatory upon the Imam to send zakat collectors, because the Prophet (saw) and the Caliphs (ra) after him used to send zakat collectors. … So it is mandatory upon him to send (collectors) and take (the zakat)." (al-Majmu', Vol. 6, p. 167)
The jurists classify money into two categories: hidden money (baatin) and apparent money (dhahir). The baatin is money no one is aware of but the owner and the dhahir is the known trade and property. Most scholars, if not all, agree on the right of the Imam to take zakat of dhahir money and distribute it. However, they disagreed on the baatin.

The Hanafi madhab is of the view the owner of battin money can distribute zakat himself as Uthman (ra) allowed. However if the Imam knew the inhabitants of a given city had not paid zakat, he is allowed to take zakat from their baatin money (Ibn 'Abdin, Al-Hashyah, Vol. 2, p. 5).

The Shafi'i madhab also adheres to the view that the owner of hidden money can distribute it by himself, except for dhahir money: a group of later scholars permit (ja'iz) its distribution by the owner and others (preceding scholars) prohibit it. But as soon as the Imam asks the owners to give him their zakat of dhahir money, it is wajib to give it to him. (Nawawi, ar-Rawddah, Vol. 2, pp. 205-206)

The Maliki madhabfollows the view of wujub (obligation) in both kinds of money. (al-Qurtubi, Tafsir, Vol. 8, p. 177)

According to Hanbali madhab, it is not wajib to pay either of the two kinds, but when the Imam asks to take it Muslims are to obey.

Ibn Qudamah, a jurist from this school, said:

يُسْتَحَبُ لِلإِنْسَانِ أَنْ يَلِي تَفْرِقَةَ الزَاكاةِ بِنَفْسِهِ ... سَوَاءٌ كَانَتْ الأَمْوَال ظَاهِرَةً أَوْ بَاطِنَةً. قَالَ الإِمَامُ أَحْمَد: أَحَبُ إِلَيَّ أَنْ يُخْرِجَهَا وَإِنْ دَفَعَهَا إِلَى السُلْطَانِ فَهُوَ جَائِز.
"It is recommended for a man to distribute his zakat by himself … whether this zakat is of a dhahir or battin money. Imam Ahmed said: I prefer for him to distribute it by himself, but if it is permissible to pay it to the Sultan." (al-Mughni, Vol. 2, pp. 641-644)
It was also narrated (by as-Sha'bi and Abi Ja'far) that Ahmed said it is recommended to pay the dhahir money to the Sultan (al-Madani, Aejaz al-Masalik ala Muwatta' Malik, Vol. 10, p. 304).

All scholars across the various schools of law permit the owner to give all of his zakat, whether hidden or apparent, to the Imam. They generally agree the Imam is allowed to ask people to pay him their zakat whether battin or dhahir. There is a broad consensus over this issue. (Sharh al-Azhar, Vol. 1. p. 529)

How can we give Zakat in our time?

When there is no Imam or when he does not collect the zakat, there is no disagreement amongst the jurists that people must (wajib) distribute their zakat because it is a kind of worship. (Qaraddawi, Fiqh az-Zakah, p. 766)

The zakat is distributed in eight forms as Allah says:

إِنَّمَا الصَّدَقَاتُ لِلْفُقَرَاءِ وَالْمَسَاكِينِ وَالْعَامِلِينَ عَلَيْهَا وَالْمُؤَلَّفَةِ قُلُوبُهُمْ وَفِي الرِّقَابِ وَالْغَارِمِينَ وَفِي سَبِيلِ اللَّهِ وَاِبْنِ السَّبِيلِ فَرِيضَةً مِنَ اللَّهِ وَاللَّهُ عَلِيمٌ حَكِيمٌ
"The alms (zakat) are only for the poor and the needy, and for those employed in connections therewith, and for those whose hearts are to be reconciled, and for the freeing of slaves, and for those in debt, and for the cause of ALLAH, and for the wayfarer - an ordinance from ALLAH. And ALLAH is All-Knowing, Wise." (Qur'an 9:60)
So such categories can't be fully acknowledged by individuals, so it is better to have a form of collective work. Thus classical scholars have consensus on the permission of having a representative to pay the zakat whether to the Imam or (disagreeable) directly to the poor. This representative could be an individual or a collective entity. This entity is to be trustworthy, non-fictional (e.g., not a limited liability company) and an identifiable entity.

Muslims, however, are expected to hold the Imam to account for his failure, or if he has been removed, reappoint him. The duty of zakat cannot be fulfilled fully without this institution, categories like the military, travellers, political dissidents and state employees are ignored.

The Shafi'i jurist Imam Nawawi (Ra) said:

ِلَهُ أَنْ يُوَكِلَ فِي صَرْفِ الزَكَاةِ الّتِي لَهُ تَفْرِيقُهَا بِنَفْسِه
"He is allowed to have a representative (wakil) in distributing the zakat that he is allowed to personally distribute (i.e. battin money)." (al-Majmu', Vol. 6, p. 138)
The Hanbali jurist Ibn Qudamah (ra) said:

وأَمَّا العِبَادَاتِ، فَمَا كَانَ مِنْهَا لَهُ تَعَلُقٌ بِالمَالِ، كَالزَكَاةِ والصَدَقَاتِ والمَنْذُورَاتِ والكَفْارَاتِ، جَازَ التَوْكِيلُ فِي قَبْضِهَا وتَفْرِيقِهَا
"As for the rituals, such as zakat, alms, vows in dedication to Allah and Atonements, he is allowed to have a representative to receive and distribute it." (al-Mughni, Vol. 5, p. 206)
Imam Shirazi (ra) said:

ْوأَمَّا حُقُوق اللهِ عزَّ وَجَلْ فَمَا كَانَ مِنْهَا عِبَادَةً لَا يَجُوزُ التَوْكِيلَ فِيهَا اِلَا فِي الزَكَاةِ والحَج
"In terms of the rights of Almighty Allah, representation (wikalah) is not allowed in ibadah (rituals) except in zakat and hajj." (at-Tanbih fi al-Fiqh ash-Shafi'i, p. 108)
Whilst some scholars of madhahib (Hanbali) stipulated that the entity must be a Muslim one, others (Hanafi, Shafi'i and some Hanbalis) said it is allowed to have a non-Muslim representative only to deliver it to the determined poor and this not Muslim is not allowed to choose the poor himself. The former is more obvious and prior.

Imam Mawardi (ra) said:



يَجُوزُ التَوْكِيلَ فِي دَفْعِ الزَكَاةِ وَهُوَ صَحِيحٌ لَكِنْ يُشْتَرَطُ فِيهِ أَنْ يَكُونَ ثِقَةً، نَّصَ عَلَيِهِ [يَعْنِي الإِمَامُ أَحْمَد] , وأَنْ يَكُونَ مُسْلِمًا.
"Representation of zakat is permitted, but the representative must be trustworthy and Muslim, as Imam Ahmed said." (Marudi, al-Insaf, Vol. 3, p. 197)
Burhanburi, a Hanafi jurist, said in al-Fatawa al-Hindiyah:

َوَلَوْ دَفَعَهَا إِلَى الذِمِي لِيَدْفَعَهَا إِلَى الفُقَرَاءِ جَاز

"If he gave it to a dhimmi (a non-Muslim citizen in a Muslim country) in order to deliver it to the poor is permitted." (Barnahaburi, al-Fatawa al-Hindiyah, Vol. 1, p. 188)
Baghawi, a Shafi'i scholar, said:  

ِويَجُوزُ أَنْ يُوَكِلَ عَبْدًا أَوْ كَافِرًا فِي إِخْرَاجِ الزَكَاة.
"It is permitted (ja'iz) to have a non-Muslim or a slave representative of distributing zakat." (Nawawi, al-Majmu', Vol. 6, p. 138)

Conclusion

An Imam or Caliph is required to collect and distribute zakat. In his absence, Muslims are required to pay their zakat. They can distribute it themselves to the eight mentioned categories and it is also permissible to have an individual or collective representative who must be trustworthy, identified and non-fictional entity to do it for them. However they are required to collectively ensure the institution is corrected or reestablished so it fulfils this function.

References

Nawawi, al-Majmu
Nawawi, ar-Rawddah
Barnahaburi, al-Fatawa al-Hindiyah
Marudi, al-Insaf
Shirazi, Al-Tanbih fi al-Fiqh ash-Shafi'i
Ibn Qudamah, al-Mughni
al-Madani, Aejaz al-Masalik ala Muwatta Malik
Qurtubi, al-jami' li Ahkam al-Qur'an
Ibn Abdin, al-Hashyah
Ibn Hajar, Fath al-Bari
Shawkani, Nayl al-Awttar
Yusuf Qardawi, Fiqh al-Zakah
Abdullah al-Ghufili, Nawazil al-Zakah

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