Why Study Philanthropy? – conversations in philanthropy #6

 Many people are asking me this question these days. While it may seem rhetorical, the answer is as plan at the question :  because it matters. Private philanthropy in the U.S is in the range of around $ 316.23 billion from individuals, corporations and foundations. This is more than the combined GDP of Nepal, Sri Lanka, Vietnam, Costa Rica and a few other countries in Latin America.

Image source: Restorechurch.net
Image source: Restorechurch.net

Charitable giving and Philanthropy are as much a sociological phenomenon in the U.S as they are economic ones. Philanthropy also lies at the intersection of social policy, economics, religion, and politics and not to forget entertainment (with all those celebrities lining up to start foundations). For the cynic, all I have to say is: Start believing in the power of philanthropy, lest you be left behind!

There are four key reasons why this field needs careful attention:

  1. Growing importance of philanthropy in society
  2. Decreasing role of the state
  3. Development goals: both local and international
  4. Increasing role of religion in the public sphere

1.      Growing importance of Philanthropy in Society

Given that I live and study in the U.S, I will talk a bit about American giving behavior. The country has been shaped by influences from various countries, cultures and religions. In this sense, it is truly a “melting pot” of philanthropy. One can see Native American influences, African American, Jewish, Protestant, Catholic and Muslim influences all around the country – if only one observes carefully. The spirit of generosity is quite high in the country, and this is in fact encouraged by the government, which gives tax incentives to formation of non-profits and also charitable giving – one of the more controversial aspects of this act.

With billions of dollars coming into the sector, with the world’s richest billionaires such as Warren Buffet, Bill Gates having pledged half of their wealth in philanthropy during their lifetime, this sector is all set to grow in the years to come.

2.      Decreasing role of the state

This is related to the point above. There is a ­­growing realization on part of those in power that resources are getting constrained and someone has to provide for the needs of the vulnerable. Since the Reagan era in the U.S and Thatcher in the U.K, social welfare policies have generally gone South. This has put enormous pressure on religious groups, nonprofits and others whose job it is to “care” for the less fortunate.

In a stinging critique of this phenomenon, Peter Buffet recently wrote an Op-Ed in the New York Times, that calls it the “Charity-Industrial complex,” an indictment of the corporate world and also the government. No matter what one’s position on this issue, politically or ideologically; everyone agrees that there has been a dramatic reduction in the role of the state and the social contract is undergoing a change. This calls for new actors to step up and take charge. Mr.Buffet here argues (has quite rightly, in my opinion) that the private sector (including philanthropists) simply don’t have the resources that the state apparatus has, at its disposal.

3.      Development goals, both local and international

Increasingly, development goals are being articulated in terms of private actors’ agency. An increase in charitable giving to further overseas development would help fund the attainment of the Millennium Development Goals, to which the world’s nations are committed.

Initiatives such as the Millennium Challenge Corporation, led by the U.S government have sprung up to help developing countries fight poverty. Corporations have also put their hat into the game. As a recent CECP report points out:

  • Median total giving in CECP’s sample was $21.02 million
  • 60% of companies gave more in 2011 than in 2009
  • 83% of companies offered at least one matching gift program
  • 85% of companies had a formal domestic employee volunteer program; 47% had a formal international volunteer program
  • 82% of companies reported having a corporate foundation
  • Health, education, and community and economic development were top priorities for the typical company
  • 46% of total giving was through direct cash

Increasingly, private foundations are doing what governments of countries are supposed to be doing – eradicating polio, handing out food packets in disaster zones or vaccinating against Malaria

4.      Growing role of religion in our society – Whether we like it or not, religion is making a come-back in the public sphere. This “de-secularization” of religion, as many scholars have called is being seen in the realm of faith-based nonprofits, increased interest in religious discourse (not among all segments of society) and there is a growing realization among both academics and policy makers that perhaps the rigid dichotomies that we hold about the religious and secular are not so rigid, after all. As John Rundell points out in his short essay : “It can be argued that the Durkheimian problem of the sacred is a way of suggesting that no society can “live” without a sense of its sacredness irrespective of whether this is couched in either ‘religious’ or ‘secular’ terms.” Indeed, one can argue that many of “secular” non-profits operating in our midst have a very religious orientation to their work, if one pays close attention to their work. This is reflected in the realm of philanthropy too, with Americans giving about 1/3 of their charitable giving to religious Institutions ( Giving USA 2013).

Final thoughts

The biggest contribution that a closer study of philanthropy can offer is by helping identify how both individuals and groups of individuals (organizations, societies) conceptualize, use and (sometimes abuse) charity. These insights can form the core learning process for articulating social policies, development paradigms and also social movements.

It is a fact that charity and philanthropy offers those involved in it a meaningful way to engage in society, and a sense of agency and empowerment. But the tensions between who is responsible for others welfare and whether charity is a right or an obligation (as scholars such as Abdullahi An’ Naim have pointed out) are not fully resolved.

Are we any wiser or better off with the involvement of the nonprofit sector in the development/social welfare debate? These are hard questions that have no right or wrong answers. As Mr. Buffet points out, (in the NY Times Op-Ed cited above): “Inside any important philanthropy meeting, you witness heads of state meeting with investment managers and corporate leaders. All are searching for answers with their right hand to problems that others in the room have created with their left. There are plenty of statistics that tell us that inequality is continually rising. At the same time, according to the Urban Institute, the nonprofit sector has been steadily growing. Between 2001 and 2011, the number of nonprofits increased 25 percent.”  This is the irony of the situation that we are facing.

Does it mean we should throw up our hands and start calling for just “market-led” solutions and ignore the power of goodwill, religious giving and good old-fashioned philanthropy or even questioning the role of the state in this mix? I think that will be unproductive, as well.

The solution, in my opinion is to identify creative projects, people and solutions that work. Not just in theory, but also in practice and build multiple networks of actors, across the board to solve these problems, because as Mr.Buffet and other thoughtful leaders have pointed out, the problem is us – and we need to solve it ourselves!

We are part of the problem and also the solution, and the ideas for solving these problems can come from our deepest held beliefs and convictions in working for a better world. I believe a deeper study of charity and philanthropy can offer us just that.


Is diversity bad for fund-raising? – Conversations in Philanthropy #5

Is diversity bad for fund-raising? Conventional wisdom says so. This is because of the difficulty in getting diverse group of people to agree on what is a “common good” and also the high transaction costs involved, in terms of time spent due to language and cultural barriers[i]. Anft quotes federal income tax data to point out that Hispanics and Blacks give more of their proportion of wealth, as compared to the general population (qtd. In Achieving Excellence in Fundraising 185).

IMG_2157 fundraising_21

Growing trends in fund-raising : Arab Americans and South Asian Americans

Given my research focus and experience with Arab-Americans and American Muslims, I will talk a bit about these two groups. A few things stand out in regards to these two groups

  1. Informality and emotion – Much of giving and philanthropy by Arab Americans and South Asian Americans can be considered informal and driven largely by emotions. This was shared by Maha Freij, the Deputy Executive Director of ACCESS, the largest Arab American NGO in the U.S in a recent conversation with her. While the younger generation may be become more organized about their giving practices, certainly the emotional appeal of a relative or friend in need gets a faster response than an appeal from an organization.
  2. Giving to civil society institutions is low[ii] – Given that many countries in the MENA and South Asia are not democracies (or where they are, civil society does not fully function as it does in other countries), the trust that people have in these institutions is rather low. Hence, Arab Americans and South Asian Americans tend to give lesser amounts of money to civil society institutions such as non-profits, think-tanks etc.
  3. Individual giving, rather than to institutions – Related to the point above, this is again a generalization, but something that holds true in almost all cases. There is greater recognition of individual needs rather than those of institutions. One can even argue that institution building is somewhat new phenomenon and one that is not fully appreciated by many people. This is not to generalize among all Arab Americans or South Asians but a trend that stands up to scrutiny, if one were to do some research.


What should fund-raisers do?

Approach each one distinctively, knowing their cultural norms and being mindful of what is acceptable behavior, in terms of asking behavior.  Recognizing that most ethnic giving is informal is important, and a few factors such as increased wealth, growing recognition of social needs and those of individuals in particular is growing. There is also much emotional giving in this space, in contrast to planned giving, which is done with the expectation of tax-benefits etc.

While most traditional fundraising principles still hold true, it may help to have people in the fundraising team who are sensitive to these issues and make appropriate strategic choices. There is also a need to craft a needs assessment that clarifies the organization’s perspectives on diversity.


[i]  Osili Una. Achieving Excellence in Fundraising. Josey Bass. 2011. Print.


[ii] This is based on my own research, anecdotal evidence and also some literature I have read in this space.

Challenges to Studying Muslim Philanthropy in America – Conversations in Philanthropy # 4

As a student of philanthropy and specifically, Muslim/ Arab American giving, I am constantly struck by how little information there is, on the various aspects of giving. Despite a formidable 1400 years of history, there are not even 14 books that deal with the social, cultural, economic aspects of giving among Muslims, in a scholarly manner. This is shocking, but also offers an unparalleled opportunity to understand not only Muslim societies, but also the changes undergoing in some of the norms of giving, the aesthetic as well as pragmatic dimensions when it comes to giving and philanthropy. I also point out that in Western societies in particular, giving behavior among Muslims/ Arabs can help us understand  some of the tensions, trends in reformation in giving behavior, civic-engagement that are taking place, albeit slowly. 

Pic from: http://insideislam.wisc.edu/tag/ramadan/
Pic from: http://insideislam.wisc.edu/tag/ramadan/

                There are a few challenges to studying this phenomenon. The key ones being:

  1. Lack of baseline data
  2. Competing theories about giving, with very little data to back it up
  3. Adverse policy/ media environment
  4. Mis-information campaign by quasi-academics
  5. Lack of credible scholarship

Let’s look at each one, in brief to understand what is going on:

  1. Lack of baseline data: There is very little actual data, on which analysis can be done. By this I mean either quantitative studies that are conducted to document the giving patterns, priorities of concerns of American Muslims/ Arab Americans. The only nationally representative dataset that exists is at the Lilly School of Philanthropy, where I am interning this summer. This Center on philanthropy Panel Study data (COPPS) dataset is derived from a larger Panel Study on Income Data, maintained by the University of Michigan since the late 1950s. However, the biggest challenge with this data is the small sample size of Muslim families. Nevertheless, this is longitudinal data and has its uses!
  2. Competing theories about giving, with very little data to back it up – Given this context, there are several competing explanations about how, why and to what American Muslims/Arab Americans give money to. This is also a sensitive issue, that people are not comfortable talking about, given both the aesthetic and other concerns that this brings up.
  3. Adverse policy/ media environment – Especially post 9/11, several charities came under investigation and about six Muslim charities were shut down, in a campaign that has been denounced by civil liberty groups such as ACLU etc. This has had a profound impact on the giving patterns, some scholars and practitioners claim.

Looking at the giving data of the three largest Muslim charities in the U.S points to the opposite fact that in fact, giving to them increased several times, post these measures by the Department of Treasury. Also, media has not been very thorough in reporting/ writing about issues. Ignorance, bias against Muslims and Muslim charities reflects in much of the media coverage that occurs and there is a constant “othering” of NGOs’ and individuals that are engaged in this field.

4. Mis-information campaign by quasi-academics – There has been a concerted campaign by right-wing and extremely ideological groups such as the Clarion Project, which have gone on a rampage producing reports, quasi-academic publications that have linked every known Muslim organization with the Muslim brotherhood. While many serious academics do not accept this, this trend has unfortunately become part of the popular discourse in America. The Center for American Progress has highlighted this in their report Fear Inc. that came out about a year ago

5.Lack of credible scholarship – This is linked to all the points above. Unfortunately, not much scholarly attention has been paid to understanding how institutional building, humanitarian development and innovations in the field of giving, philanthropy is occurring in the Arab American/American Muslim groups.fundraisers for Syria scavenger hunt

While Zakat and Sadaqa remain one of the core tenets of the faith, not much attention has been paid to these aspects by academics or policy professionals. It is high time this happens, in a non-ideological and objective manner as the practices of American Muslims have the potential to impact development both domestically in the U.S and internationally as well. With increased awareness of disasters, growing cutbacks on federal and domestic agencies of social service, it is falling upon faith-based groups to do their part. And unless some of the negative stereotypes about Muslim charities are dispelled, their equal and full participation may not be possible. Don’t believe me? Just look at this article by IRIN, the United Nations newswire that points out to the roughly $ 200 billion to $ 1 trillion that are spent in Zakat money globally.

ACCESS – A model for Arab American Philanthropy? – Conversations in Philanthropy # 3

I first heard of the Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services (ACCESS) through someone I know in Washington D.C. She introduced me to Maha Freij, their Deputy Executive Director a few weeks ago, as I was researching for a paper on ethnic giving and community based philanthropy. A short visit to Dearborn, MI just yesterday opened my eyes to the tremendous amount of work the organization has put in, over the last 41 years in assisting the local community and also transforming the narrative of Arab American giving.

Photo: By Sabith Khan
Photo: By Sabith Khan

I believe that ACCESS is effectively positioning themselves in ways that will impact not only how Arab Americans are perceived, but also offer a model for civic engagement and advocacy to all other minority groups across the country. This short piece is an attempt at looking at how they are using philanthropy and community mobilization towards civic engagement- across the spectrum, from the most basic needs i.e., social services to empowerment, locally to advocacy for change at the policy level, nationally.

Through a creative use of philanthropy, community mobilization, partnering with local government and non-government organizations and acting as an organizing hub, the organization has become the “largest Arab American human services organization in the country.” In its 2012 Annual report, the organization points out that it has raised $ 30 million for endowment and various projects, including the first ever Arab American National Museum.meant to portray the contributions of Arab Americans in the U.S. “ACCESS was founded 41 years ago, and was run as a volunteer effort by the founders and volunteers, who believed that people in the community needed help with basic services and the government agencies and others could not provide them the kind of service they wanted, given the language and cultural barriers,” pointed out Jamie Kim, Director, Center for Arab American Philanthropy. It comprises the National Network of Arab American Communities (NNAAC), Center for Arab American Philanthropy (CAAP) and the Arab American National Museum.

CAAP, Museum and NNACC are all national projects and are branded differently. CAAP is lead by Maha Freij and is modelled after a community foundation. There is a grant making arm at CAAP, both generally and in specific areas, such as disaster relief. ACCESS also runs a Community Health and Research center that takes care of the health needs of the local community, with the underlying philosophy of health promotion and disease prevention. Social services form another critical component of the services available, as senior citizens, those on welfare and jobless people with very low or no English language skills come for support and help, to reach out to government agencies for help or to upgrade their skills, to make themselves job-ready.


Photo : By Sabith Khan
Photo : By Sabith Khan

Strategic philanthropy and the Arab Americans

While the challenges to Arab American civic engagement have always been present, they have become acute since 9/11, given that many Arabs immigrated in the early 1960s and have faced an uphill challenge integrating in the U.S due to language, cultural and other barriers. While there are several organizations that have worked locally, to provide social services, there aren’t many nationally representative projects that have addressed issues such as advocacy, training and leadership development. Also, one can argue that the understanding of strategic philanthropy among Arab Americans is not as developed as some other communities.

Speaking of their priorities in fund-raising, Maha Freij[i] pointed out: “Endowment, unrestricted funding that allows the organization to be strong and sustainable for important projects to the needs of the development of the organization,” are our priorities in fund-raising. “The Museum is a safe project that people can relate to, and is national in scope,” she added. Her job is also to educate people about the need to build institutions across the country, as social change occurs through them, she pointed out.

There is also a concerted effort to teach skills of philanthropy to the younger generation. Teens Grant-making Initiative (TGI) is an initiative launched by CAAP to teach the next generation of leaders basics of grant-making. Founded in 2006, the initiative brings together about 10 high school students, who work with a mentor and are guided through a process of how grant-making occurs. They are also given about $5000 to grant to a local organization involved in youth issues. “This not only teaches them a lot about grant making, but also gives them confidence, builds their skills,” pointed out Kim.

Overall, the objective of philanthropy is also in part to tell the story of Arab American empowerment and involvement in the daily struggles, as Americans. Often, there is an attempt at “othering,” of Arab Americans and ACCESS, through its various projects seems to be engaged in dispelling this myth, as it works with all its stake-holders to solve problems that face the city and the nation, at large.


Strategy: Address real problems, partner with the right people

Reading between the lines and observing the beneficiaries (many of whom seem to be non-Arabs), one gets the sense that the organization has targeted real problems and focused very hard on providing solutions to solving them, irrespective of who approaches them for help. The fact that they have had tremendous success, much leverage with the local government and their formidable reputation, all go to prove that their strategy has worked.

IMG_2150 IMG_2151 IMG_2152 IMG_2153 IMG_2155

While taking me on a tour of their East side building, Mariam Ismail, health educator at ACCESS. spoke with pride about the program on quitting Hookah, which they are running, quite successfully. “Most people don’t know how harmful the smoke is. I have put together a simple curriculum that we present to those who come here for checkups etc. and we encourage them to quit. Those who do get a$ 10 gift card from the quit line, making for some incentives too.” She pointed out. There was obvious pride in the manner she spoke.

While real challenges such as Poverty, joblessness, lack of insurance remain, the will to addressing and solving them can create solutions that may have been unthinkable earlier on. This is as much a move towards self-empowerment and agency creation, as it is about organizing. With over 58% of annual revenues coming from government contracts, the remaining stream comes from individual donors, corporate foundations. The focus on local issues and in particular on immigrant community gives ACCESS an edge, with deep cultural knowledge of the clientele. ACCESS’s job training program is a success with the local businesses and the government has also recognized their modules to help young people enter or re-enter the work-force.

With several women in leadership positions, the organization is also making a statement, although not intentionally about women’s involvement in philanthropy and community development. ACCESS seems to have perfected this process, navigating the various challenges that confront the organization and society, at large.

As I heard more about ACCESS, toured their facilities, reflected on the impact they are making and read their literature, I was reminded of a talk I heard by Pam McMichael, Executive Director of Highlander Center, one of the finest and most well-known NGO for organizing in the U.S. High-lander center was instrumental in the civil rights movement and is still regarded as one of the finest places to learn organizing.

ACCESS is to the Arab American Community what the high-lander center is for the organizing and grass-roots community in the U.S: A power-house of ideas and concerted action.

[i] Interview in April 2013, for a paper I wrote then.

Rambam’s reminder during Ramadhan – Conversations in Philanthropy # 2

Rabbi Maimonides, or Rambam as he is popularly known was one of the foremost Jewish scholar, who lived in Islamic Spain in the 13th century. He was born in Cordoba, present day Spain, during the Almoravid Empire in 11135 AD and died in Egypt in December 1204. He was a Rabbi, preacher, physician. Rambam is best known for his “Guide of the perplexed,” a classic in Jewish jurisprudence and ethics. His scholarship and vision for an ethical life continue to inspire millions and represents a boundary-crossing venture, across cultures, religions and value systems. He may be considered a “liminal figure,” one who went beyond his own narrow religious realm and contributed to the broader mosaic of scholarship in Philanthropy, ethics and law.

In this brief article, I will try to trace how his “levels of giving,” can be applied in our daily lives and what parallels that has with the Islamic notion of giving. Given that the holy month of Ramadhan has just begun and most Muslims become very conscious of giving charity during this time, this may be a good reminder for us to revisit some of these ideas.


Islamic theology, Judaic norms: the background of Maimonide’s work

While scholars today expect scrupulous footnoting and acknowledgement of other’s works, this was not the case earlier, as Sarah Strouma in her book “Maimonides in his world: Portrait of a Mediterranean thinker,” pointing to the fact that much borrowing occurred in this period, often without acknowledgement. She points out that the title of Rambam’s most famous book “Guide of the perplexed,” is perhaps inspired by Al-Ghazali’s phrase in his Ihya Ul Ulum, where he mentions god as the “guide of the perplexed.” There is also no possibility of him not being familiar with Ghazali’s work, considering how important he was, during that era. Many scholars have made this argument and there is considerable proof that the Judaic and Islamic traditions meet, often rather closely in their interpretation of various values and norms. This is not to assert that one borrowed from the other, but rather that there has been a lot of influence of one on the other.

Source: maimonides.net
Source: maimonides.net


     Conceptions of social justice in Judaism and Islam

Zakat is the one of the five pillars of Islam and is an obligatory capital tax that is to be given each year by a Muslim. It is calculated as roughly 2.5 % of the surplus capital that one has. It is seen as a commandment to give, mandated in the Qur’an and mentioned in various Hadith ( sayings of the Prophet Muhammad). One of the several verses in the Quran about charity is: “Worship none save Allah and be good to parents and to kindred and to the orphans and the needy and speak kindly to mankind, and establish worship and pay the poor –due” (Quran – 2: 83). The notion of purification of wealth is inherent in the idea of Zakat. As Jonathan Benthall, points out : “In this respect, the Quranic principle of purity is similar to what Douglas finds in Leviticus and Numbers, that is to say, contagion comes from the body or from moral failure, not from contact with foreigners or the lower classes as in many societies studied by Anthropologists[i].

Tzedakah is an obligation incumbent on all in Judaism and is seen broadly as “righteousness”, though there is no set limit on the amount of the amount of money/resources to be given away. In Jewish history too, Tzedakah served as a mechanism of taxation – to establish four forms of funds: daily food distribution program, clothing fund, burial fund and communal money fund. (Legge, 1995). Several studies have pointed out that Jews in America view social justice as an integral part of their religion. Judaism can be seen as a religion of action and deeds as opposed to beliefs. Charitable actions toward fellow citizens are just as much mitzvot as more formal worship (Legge, 1995). Sklare and Greenblum (1979) have done extensive work in this area and have demonstrated the notion of a “good Jew”, as one who practices social justice. One can see that the concept of giving in both religious traditions has been one of giving for the poor, widowed and the orphans. Both religious traditions have a similar concept of man being the custodian of wealth, which belongs to god.

At the same time, some scholars have contested this and sought to differentiate the notion of giving and charity in Muslim societies. Jonathan Benthall and Jerome-Jourdan have argued that the humanitarian work carried out by Muslim NGOs’ as being framed in a “social justice” perspective rather than just a normative “charitable” or “spiritual love” context, which he says can be seen as a very Judeo-Christian notion (Benthall, 2003).


Rambam’s ladder of giving – The eight levels

Considering that there are many similarities between how both the religions conceptualize social justice and charity, here is a quick look at what Rambam’s ladder is. In the decreasing order of importance, here is his “levels of giving.”  The goal is always to give at the highest level, when possible, but also to recognize that various “levels” can occur, in ourselves and in others.

1. Helping someone find employment or forming partnerships, so they don’t need your help again

2. Giving to the poor, knowing that no one gives to them

3. Below this, the giver knows to whom he gives and the poor person does not know fro whom he takes

4. Below this, the poor person knows from whom he takes, and the giver does not know.

5. Below this, one puts into another’s hand before the latter asks

6. Below this one gives another after the latter asks

7. Below this, one gives another less than is appropriate, in a pleasant manner

8. Below this, one gives begrudgingly

            While these steps are self-explanatory, the spirit behind them is important, as people conceptualize their own giving and give, either openly or anonymously. Ramadhan is also a good time to reiterate the shared values, norms and ethics of self-restraint, justice and social reform that both religions seek to instil in their followers. Perhaps Rambam is a scholar more of us should seek to read and understand.

References :


  1. Benthall Jonathan, The Charitable Crescent- Politics of Aid in the Muslim World, I.B Tauris, 2003
  1. Sklare and Greenblum. Jewish identity on the suburban frontier: A study of group survival in the open society. Uni. Of Chicago Press. 1979.


“ I am a devoted follower of Jesus, the man. Not Jesus, the Son of God” – Reza Aslan.

Reza Aslan, Ph.D. is the well-known author of No god but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam, which has been translated into thirteen languages, and named one of the 100 most important books of the last decade. He is on the faculty at the University of California, Riverside, and is a contributing editor for The Daily Beast. He is also editor of Tablet & Pen: Literary Landscapes from the Modern Middle East, published by W. W. Norton, and co-editor with Aaron Hahn-Tapper of Muslims and Jews in America: Commonalities, Contentions, and Complexities, published by Palgrave Macmillan.


In this candid interview, he talks about his new book Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, to be  launched on July 16, 2013.

How did you come about writing this book?

I became a fundamentalist Christian at the age of 15 and intensely read about Jesus and Christianity. This is what led me to become a scholar of religion, early on. What happened is that after I began my academic studies, I left the church altogether and went to the faith of my forefathers, continuing my academic study of the New Testament. I wanted to find out the historical Jesus, the historical context of his actions and the forces that shaped them. The more I did this, the more I became devoted to Jesus, the man and not Jesus, the son of God. And over the next 20 yrs, I researched the historical Jesus, the man, as he was and what his actions mean. The result is the book you see.

What are the sources  you used?

Outside of the gospels, there is no historical source of Jesus. The only mention outside of the Gospel is this throw-away phrase by a Jewish historian, who mentions Jesus, but is not interested in him, but rather his brother – James. He tells about the death of James, at the hands of a high-priest. And you must remember that back in the day, people did not have last names, and you were referred to you from your fathers’ name or village. And he refers to Jesus here as James’ brother. That is how we know that he is referring specifically to Jesus.

My book is unique in that it doesn’t use Gospels as the primary source material. I do rely on Gospels in filling a loose outline of Jesus’s life, but my first source is the history of first century Palestine, an age we know a lot about, thanks to the Roman occupation. The few facts we know about him – that he was a Jew and he started a Jewish movement, whose focus was in establishing a kingdom of God. We also know that he was convicted of crime of sedition and crucified.

My argument is that, if that’s all you know, it is enough to create a biography about a person. Anyone with those characteristics would be a radical, political revolutionary in those times. I draw on the gospels and investigate the context of Jesus’s actions. I make sure to investigate the claims of the gospels, given the context.

Source: Amazon.com
Source: Amazon.com

Who is your audience? Is it a scholarly work or a popular book?

It is definitely a popular book, though there are 100 pages of footnotes and the book is meant to read like a non-scholarly historical biography. It is meant for people who are interested in his era and are aware of the legends and myths. Jesus is an enormously complex and interesting person.  I am aiming to reach mainstream Christians, those who go to church and see him as the son of god. These believers have heard all these stories, but don’t really know the world in which Jesus lived. These people tend to read the Gospels, as if there is no context to his actions- we must remember that he lived in a turbulent period and the recordings of his actions are contextual and in response to those events. If you truly want to know him, you need to know the world he lived in.

Your biggest surprise in researching the book

The biggest surprise is just how un-extraordinary Jesus was. There were a dozen people during his time, at least a dozen, who walked around claiming to be messiahs. They gathered disciples, exorcised demons and all of them were captured and executed by Rome for the crime of sedition. Jesus just happened to be one of them. Many of them were more popular than Jesus, in their lifetimes. But what is fascinating is that only one of those is still called messiah, today. And my question is, why that is? That’s part of what I answer in this book.

Are you expecting any controversy?
For the most part, anyone who thinks of Jesus as God made flesh, is going to be upset with a book that sees him as just human and a historical figure. At the same time, the book is very respectful. I have deep, abiding love for Jesus and I see myself as a follower of Jesus and the very notion of looking at Jesus as a man will find it offensive. Many people won’t read it for this reason. And others will also not read it because I am Muslim, though I have a PhD in religion.

Some will see this as a Muslim attack on Jesus, which it is not. That audience is obviously out. They will be upset regardless. There are some conclusions in the book, some general assumptions that are part of Christian orthodoxy, that are overturned by my analysis. The fact that Jesus was not born in Bethlehem for instance  and did not debate with the learned Rabbis, as he was illiterate. The passion narratives perhaps never occurred. These will be seen as controversial, but based in research of the holy-land.

How long has it taken you to write it?

I have been researching this since my freshman year in college. But in terms of actually researching and writing, it took me four years. That’s about how long it takes me to write a book.

What projects are you currently working on ?

I am working on some film and TV projects and also gearing up for a novel. This is going to be my last non-fiction book.

For more about the book, or to get your copy, see: http://www.amazon.com/Zealot-Life-Times-Jesus-Nazareth/dp/140006922X

Political Institutions and Stability in Egypt: Can the Egyptians pull it off?

Much ink has been spilled since the start of the Arab Spring and the turn towards democratization in the Middle East and North Africa, but it turns out that we are still not too clear about the direction the region is headed towards. Despite all the scholarly insights, punditry and 24/7 news analysis and satire, we are as confused and clueless as we were in 2011. In this short piece, I will try to outlay some of the key arguments made about Political institutions, Modernization and  Democracy in the Middle East. I believe that arguments about Islam and Democracy not being compatible and facile, racist and fail to take into account the seismic changes taking place in these societies.

Source: latitude.blogs.nytimes.com
Source: latitude.blogs.nytimes.com

Political institutions, Modernization and Economic development

One of the key reasons that the Arab Spring began was the dissatisfaction with the status quo. i.e, in particular the economic disparities in countries that were under dictatorships. While the Persian Gulf countries remain awash in Oil money and are relatively immune, there is general agreement among scholars and analysts that the current revolts are a result of economic grievances, linked to lack of political reform and corruption.

            Samuel Huntington analyzed these issues in one of his earliest books, Political Order in Changing Societies[i] (in my opinion, his best and often, most unread book), where one of his key insights is that “Violence and instability are in a large part the product of rapid social change and the rapid mobilization of new groups into politics coupled with the slow development of political institutions (p. 4).” He goes on to point out that in the 1950s and 60s’, in many Asian, African, and Latin American countries “[t]he rates of social mobilization and the expansion of political participation are high; the rates of political organization and institutionalization are low. The result is political instability and disorder. The primary problem is the lag in the development of political institutions behind social and economic change (p. 5). By his own argument, those societies that are reaching towards “modernity,” may be unstable. As he points out : ““[i]t is not the absence of modernity but the efforts to achieve it which produce political disorder (p. 41).”

            The debate about “Islamism,” and fear of “radical Islam,” has overshadowed the real debate about challenges, or substantial needs of the populace, that those in power have to satisfy. Despite who is in power, the basics of life – jobs, security, opportunities for youth, a functional state and economy have to be provided for. Given that Egypt is a heterogeneous society, the fact that Muslim Brotherhood, ( MB) did not make an effort to reach out to the minorities’ i.e., Coptic Christians and others seems to have contributed to its fall from grace. Let us briefly look at the history of American political institutions, to look for some lessons in governance.

A page from American History: Institution building takes time!

I believe that Abraham Lincoln’s words ring true today, in the case of Egypt, as it did for America in 1838.  In one of the earlier speeches that he gave as a young 28 year old man ( His speech is known as the “Lyceum Address,”) he said: “I hope I am over wary; but if I am not, there is, even now, something of ill-omen, amongst us. I mean the increasing disregard for law which pervades the country; the growing disposition to substitute the wild and furious passions, in lieu of the sober judgment of Courts; and the worse than savage mobs, for the executive ministers of justice. This disposition is awfully fearful in any community; and that it now exists in ours, though grating to our feelings to admit, it would be a violation of truth, and an insult to our intelligence, to deny[ii].”

Lincoln’s Lyceum address in 1838 about the perpetuation of American political institutions. He was immediately concerned about the rash of violent actions, perpetuated by unruly mobs, which was spreading through much of the country But his greater concern was the difficulty of safeguarding the country’s free institutions, now that the burden of preserving had fallen to a generation that did not create them.

He was talking about the need for strong political institutions, rule of law and respect for life and property, so that no tyrant may rise from within the country. The same is true of Egypt’s condition today. The institutions that exist today are a handover of the Post-Mubarak regime and MB with its recent electoral victory was trying to come to grips with the fragile economy and an exuberant populace. While being a social solidarity movement, the MB has had no political experience, having been shunned out of the political sphere for decades. This chance to build institutions, to solidify its political credentials and also earn the respect and loyalty of those who brought them to power has been lost, perhaps by a few rash actions of Mr.Morsi and also greatly by the coup, instated by the Military.


             Despite the best analysis, scholarship and insights, no one can predict what the future of the region will hold. Will the next 50 years in Egypt resemble those under Mubarak? There are indications that this may not be true, but it is too early to say anything. What I would rather predict is that despite all the rhetoric and brouhaha about change, things haven’t really changed much, on the ground. It is not about the “mindset,” as David Brooks has argued.

            Not only is this deeply offensive and inaccurate, but is also hegemonic. While he brushes off America’s involvement in keeping Mubarak in power for decades, all in the name of stability, he goes to great lengths to argue against Muslim Brotherhood’s rule, which lasted just a year or so.

            As a parting thought, I would like to point to Turkey, Indonesia – two countries which are dealing with some of the challenges that a Muslim majority country faces, all the while balancing the needs of its minorities and ensuring there is representation and rule of law – two key ingredients of a democracy. Doesn’t this defeat the Democracy vs. Islam argument? And AKP party in Turkey is an “Islamist one,” to top it all. There are great examples and institutional and cultural norms which favor democracy, participation and upholding the rights of minorities in each of the Muslim countries. While talking of the “Muslim world,” does not help anyone, given the complexity and diversity of cultures, ways of living; it may help to draw upon some of the normative claims and examples from Islamic history, which are replete with democratic institutions and ways of consultation and Ijma, or consensus.

            I do agree with Dr.Juan Cole, when he says: “Egypt’s future stability and prosperity now depends on whether the officer corps and youth are mature enough to return to pluralist principals and cease persecuting the Muslim Brotherhood just because Morsi was high-handed. Their media has to be free and the 300 officials have to be released unless charged with really-existing crimes on the statute books. And it depends on whether the Muslim Brotherhood is wise and mature enough to roll with this punch and to reform itself, giving up its cliquish and cult-like internal solidarity in favor of truly becoming a nation-wide, center-right, democratic opposition party.”

So, a short answer to the question, can Muslim majority countries in the Middle East transition to democracies? In short: Yes. The long answer: It depends on the conditions, internal leadership and also the extent of foreign involvement in the country. There is also a need for greater humility and acknowledgment that no one really knows how things will pan out. And also, one must remember that the American civil war lasted for four years, between 1861-65. That’s about four years and over 750,000 dead in total.

I hope the pundits are listening.

[i] Huntington, Samuel. Political Order in Changing Societies. 1968. Yale Uni. Press.

[ii]  Lincoln, Abraham. The Lyceum Address. July 5, 2013. Accessible at: http://www.abrahamlincolnonline.org/lincoln/speeches/lyceum.htm