One of the projects that is occupying most of my waking hours involves studying charity. Yes, you read that right, charity as in giving, philanthropy, Zakat, Tzedakah – call it what you want. In particular, I am focused on studying Islamic philanthropy, globally. The reason for studying charity among Muslims: the staggering potential that it holds. Here is a recent article that argues that the global giving among Muslims ( individuals alone) around the world is between $ 200 bn and $ 1 trillion dollars. This is more than 15 times the global humanitarian aid by all countries, put together. Given that world-over, we are faced with economic crises and uncertainty and growing disparities in wealth, this may offer us a way out of the morass and also perhaps empower donors and recipients, in a way that we don’t fully realized. As you may have realized, every huge potential usually has some huge problems associated with it. Understandably, there are some problems in this field, as well. At the heart of the various debates is how people conceptualize charity. This may seem simple, but it is not. For example, consider that many Muslims in the U.S (and arguably around the world) consider overheads that non-profits incur as part of their operations a ‘wasteful expenditure.’ Something as simple as that complicates how they donate and to whom they do it.
In a recent interview with the VP of Fund Raising of the largest Islamic charity in
the U.S, he confessed to running into this problem. This seems to be a pattern, as I heard the same sentiment repeated in several interviews. There is a debate going on in the Muslim world about how and when should charity be deployed and where does the role of state end and that of civil society begin. This can also be understood as being at the heart of the debate about modernity and traditionalism, in a sense. To borrow a term from Anthony Giddens, there may be a process of ‘ reflexivity’ that is occurring in the field of Islamic philanthropy. Reflexivity refers to the continual and organized use of knowledge about social life in order to re-order and transform it. It is also the “constant monitoring and revision of beliefs and practices in the light of changing circumstances.” This is an active project in the Muslim world, in which social justice stands as the central motif in most social reform projects, be they government run or managed by the individual. Given that equality and social justice are so central to the belief (and practice) of Islam, this is a recurring theme, in most Muslim societies and groups. Indeed, one can argue that this reflexivity is at the heart of the process of interpreting and re-interpreting texts, laws and social norms in the Islamic tradition, which is represented in the term ‘ Ijtihad.’ While the institution of giving is as old as Islam itself, it is continuously being revised, remodified as well as reinterpreted by each successive generation and society. Questions pertaining to calculation of the amount of Zakat, who is eligible to receive it and what forms it can be given in, are all discussed and debated, on a continual basis. Several Ulema or religious scholars throughout the world tackle these questions, depending on their school of jurisprudence (Islam has four major schools of jurisprudence, in the Sunni system) and the Shia interpretation of Zakat is unique and follows their historical development as a group. Several organizations such as Islamic Relief, Hidaya (a California based organization) offer services such as the Zakat Calculator, to estimate how much one owes in terms of Zakat, each year. While charity is not mandated by Muslim nation states, they are collected in Pakistan, Oman and a few other countries. For the most part, charity among Muslims around the world is an individual act, one which is influenced by religious, cultural norms. Though the regulation of charity has become subject to “governmentality” in the recent past, post 9/11, it is still largely an individual act. Why this all of this important, one may ask? What does studying Islamic charity in the 21st century have to do with understanding philanthropy in the broader context? Amy Singer offers an interesting perspective when she says that this re-reading of history of Islamic societies through the lens of charity offers us insights on the role of government and governors, the nature of individual social responsibility, the force of religious precept, the structure and function of family and extended households, the links between neighbors, strangers and relatives and also the attitudes towards the proper uses of wealth. Finally, I believe that charitable giving has an effect of empowering both the donor and the recipient. The donor feels a sense of agency, by contributing to someone’s welfare, while the recipient obviously benefits through help. This field is at a crucial intersection of religion, U.S popular culture, security studies and also cultural studies. While being at the heart of several debates in our society, such as social justice, welfare, economic justice; philanthropy also can help us reimagine the kind of society we want to build.