Book Review: Thomas Jefferson’s Qur’an by Denise A. Spellberg

Spellberg

If the only thing you learn from this book is that the founding fathers had the wisdom to use Islam as a test case, to set the limits of tolerance in America, then that’d be sufficient. Spellberg’s Thomas Jefferson’s Qur’an is a well-researched book, that locates the debates during the time (and before) Jefferson about Islam and its role in America and she draws out the implications of the same for our times. It shows Jefferson as a practical man, who had the vision and foresight to argue for the religious rights of (then) non-existent Muslims (free men). In this, she portrays Jefferson as a liberal hero and a visionary. In time such as these when Islam has come to denote everything that is negative, illiberal and not desirable, she shows, rather well that despite the reservations that Jefferson had about some of the practices of the religion, he thought it to be integral part of America. And this is an important reminder for all of us.

For those familiar with the Islamophobia prevalent in eighteenth and nineteenth century Europe and America, there is not much new material in this book. But she does do a good job of offering the context in which these debates occurred. Right from Dante’s inferno, which doomed the Prophet Muhammad to the bottom of Hell, to Voltaire’s play Mahomet, that fictionalized much of his life; there is a lot of material that Spellberg points to, that was used by those opposed to Islam in general and full integration of Muslim ideas in Europe in particular. This book also reminded me of Carl Ernest’s Following Muhammad, a brilliant book that charts the history of how Islam was perceived in the past and the contemporary understandings of the religion in Western societies. Similar to the treatment in Ernest’s book, Spellberg offers the challenges that Islam faces today, as it did in the earlier stages of its founding and propagation.

She points out that much of the prejudice against Islam came from Continental Europe and it was adopted by those who had not read or researched Islam much. Islam was positioned as the anti-Christ faith and was defined in direct opposition to Christianity. “Islam was thus for Christians of all denominations a weapon with which to vilify fellow believers, and it would prove effective, eventually to be appropriated for additional political and personal attacks on both sides of the Atlantic” (pg.17). While it was not all bad, and there were champions of pluralism and tolerance, they were few and far in between. She names Royall Tyler as another person who wrote a positive account of Muslim experience, allowing the subjects to speak forcefully for themselves and explain their beliefs. The Algerian Captive is an example of such work (pg.27).

In an effort to locate the debates surrounding American Muslim civil rights with our times, she points out that Jefferson was called among other things “a Mohammedan, an atheist,” pejoratively, because of his support of religious freedoms for all. This was a slur used against him, in his campaign of 1800. It is surprising that not much has changed since then and our current President, who has been called the same thing by birthers and those who deny that President Obama is an American born citizen. Further, one must remember that the debates about Islam and Muslims occurred in the context of the religious liberties that were to be given to minorities, among them Jews, Catholics and Muslims. Spellberg points out that while Catholics and Jews were real and were seen in somewhat of a negative light, Muslims were an unknown quantity. Questions of race became prominent in the context of citizenship as Jefferson and others thought of Muslims in terms of Turks and Arabs and not the Muslim slaves who were already present in the country (Pg. 168).

She also reminds readers that the suspicion that Muslims faced, because of their ‘foreign’ origins was not just limited to them. Catholics, Jews and other Protestants also faced discrimination and hatred. James Madison, like Leland, argued that “religious liberty is a right and not a favor.” It was not something the government could infringe or limit to select believers. (Pg. 241). She points out that Leland vocally championed the rights of Muslims and Catholics and Jews at a time when such inclusiveness was unusual and unpopular. And unlike Jefferson and Madison, the two famed Virginian political leaders whom he supported, Leland had himself had suffered persecution because of his faith. This persecution opened their eyes to the majoritarianism that could force the minorities into a position of weakness and suffering and this is exactly what they wanted to avoid.

As she makes her case, rather forcefully that American Muslims should be considered full and active citizens of this country and not as ‘outsiders.’ “Now, as in the 18th century, American Muslims symbolize the universality of religious inclusion and equality promised in the nation’s founding by Jefferson, Washington, Madison, Leland and others, an ideal still in the course of being fully realized more than two centuries later. Any attack upon the rights of Muslim citizens should be recognized for what it remains: an assault upon the universal,” she adds. And going by the reasoning of her arguments, the fact that full legal participation and acceptance has occurred for both Jews and Catholics is a sure sign that Muslims can expect this too. Although challenges to this are evident, given the efforts by certain groups to challenge the legitimacy of this notion of plurality, the fact that it is ingrained in the American constitution is a guarantee of its success, she seems to be saying.

For those wanting to hear an interview with the author, check out this link on NPR.

 

 

 


[i] Full Citation: Spellberg. Denise A. Thomas Jefferson’s Qur’an: Islam and the Founders. Alfred A. Knopf. NY. 2013

 

What is the role of religion in philanthropic giving?

Source: churchandstate.org.uk
Source: churchandstate.org.uk

A report I read recently claimed that British Muslims are more generous than all other faith communities in the U.K. The report said: “Followers of Islam gave an average of $567 compared to Jewish givers who donated around $412, according to the survey of just over 4,000 people in the U.K. Christians gave considerably less. Protestants donated an average of $308, while Roman Catholics gave around $272, the poll found. Atheists averaged just $177.” It is available here and makes some interesting observations and points to data that is compelling. While the findings are interesting and definitely worth debating, I think the question is somewhat misplaced, and a better framework to use to analyze this is through looking at the role of religious discernment in giving and what motivations people have, to give. It may be worthwhile to focus on whether there is a greater religious consciousness among Muslims about giving and whether they are they better informed, or is this because Zakat is mandated in the religion and people are “Returning to religion,” as Jonathan Benthall famously argued.

Paul Schervish, in his essay Religious Discernment of Philanthropic Decisions[i] has pointed out, the following two questions have become important for our generation, to consider:

  1. How can wealth become  a tool to achieve the deeper purposes of life, including charitable giving, when acquiring more wealth or augmenting one’s standard of living have ceased to be of high importance?
  2. How can religious discernment help individuals choose and carry out those deeper purposes for the use of their resources?

While I am not contesting the results of this finding, and actually feel good about these results, my thesis is that the questions being asked and those being investigated do not capture the complexity of the phenomenon of giving and while useful as a Public Relations exercise, do not illuminate the complexity of giving within the Muslim community, nor the religious motivations that go into making those charitable donations.

The bigger question for me, as a researcher is also methodological, to the extent that whether this captures the trends in society, overall and to what extent is this representative of the population, as a whole. As any statistician will tell you, statistics hide more than what they reveal. Here are some problems that I have with purely data-driven, survey based studies.

  1. While the report points out that: “ In total 4,036 people answered the question: “How much, if at all, would you say you generally donated to charities last year?” it does not point to more nuanced ways of looking at what they donated to, why and with what intention in mind? These are all very important questions, as they are at the core of trying to understanding philanthropic motivations and the intended results that philanthropy is expected to have. The “moral biography,” of giving, as Schervish points out is as critical to understanding giving behavior as is the dollar amount. I would argue that this is more significant, in terms of understanding how the wealthy conceptualize their role in their societies.

As he further points out: “Thus far I have used the term moral biography to refer to how individuals implement their unique combination of capacities and purposes. My use follows that of Emilie Durkheim, for whom it means a normative orientation or direction by a full range of formal and informal mores – the horizon of laws, customs and conscience that direct daily practice. What Durkheim does not recognize is the reality of genuine spiritual or religious life in the way today’s believers would understand that reality.” (pp.129)

  1. Who is a Muslim? – This seems like a simple question, but is not. While in many Arab and Asian societies, the question of who is a Muslim is determined by the state or the community, in the West, anyone who is self-declared to be a Muslim is one. This includes even those sects such as Nation of Islam or others, who are not considered ‘mainstream’ by other Muslims, and do not generally have many associations or interactions with the greater Muslim population.
  1. What about anonymous giving? – This is the third problem with data driven giving, and one that does not look at the motivations or other aspects of giving. Looking at the largest data of Million dollar gifts given, on the Million Dollar List, you can see several ‘anonymous donors.’ This, in my opinion is a common occurrence, not only in high networth giving but also giving among common people.
  2. How do we capture Muslims giving to secular causes? – This is an aspect of the issue that is not discussed often. One can argue that Muslims give a good amount of money to secular causes and there are many non-Muslims who give to Muslim causes. Surveys such as these do not do a very thorough job of capturing this data, which is key to telling the story of Muslim Philanthropy.

Paul Schervish, points out that religious discernment and the positive cultural context are important, as people may become more charitable, in the future. In the case of Muslims, around the world, one can argue that perhaps they are becoming more charitable, given that there are more avenues to give – with online platforms, newer NGOs’ starting operations, greater awareness of both national and international crises and situations where humanitarian relief is required. Schervish argues that this discernment is occurring among the newly wealthy, either through conversations with their pastors, spouses or financial consultants. He further pushes the boundaries of what is “religious,” by including any activity that is well thought out and conducted with reflection. This, he occurs when people are attuned to a philosophy of giving and care.

In conclusion, while I do not disagree that Muslims are the among the most generous faith based group in the U.K. and also, arguably in other western societies; the data that is gathered needs to be examined in context of the discussion above.


[i] Schervish Paul. Religious Discernment of Philanthropic Decisions. Indiana Uni Press. 2010

Interfaith work and Philanthropy – a faith-based revolution or a pragmatic innovation?

“ We did not hear the term “Abrahamic faiths,” until about ten years ago. This term is not only a great leap forward in terms of interfaith work, but also a radical shift in how people are looking at each other’s faith,” said William Enright, the Director of Lake Institute for Faith and Giving, Indianapolis. He said this when we were discussing the state of interfaith work in the U.S and the implications on philanthropy, a few weeks ago, when I was at the Lilly School of Philanthropy, IUPUI. While the interfaith movement has a long history in this country and has seen many ups and downs, I will briefly discuss how religious diversity in the U.S is impacting it. I will briefly look at the opportunities it presents in the field of philanthropy.

Source: Case Western Reserve University.
Source: Case Western Reserve University.

My first significant exposure to the interfaith movement in Washington D.C was when I attended a Jum’ah (Friday)prayer conducted in an Episcopal church in downtown D.C, about two years ago. Ever since, each time I visit the city on a Friday, this is where I attend Friday prayers. While the notion of praying in a church may seem anathema to many Muslims across the world, this seems like the most normal thing in the U.S, where space constraints and financial restrictions are forcing small Muslim congregations to creatively reach out to other faith based groups and create spaces where they can pray, conduct meetings etc. This is not the only instance where prayers are held in a Church. I personally know of two other venues in the greater D.C area where this is the norm. What this points out is also the growing recognition and accommodation of Muslims by Christian and Jewish groups, who see the need to accommodate Muslims and their needs. This is also a good illustration of the concept of “Abrahamic faiths,” that Mr.Enright pointed out. While not new radically new as a concept (the notion of Abrahamic faiths is centuries old) but its usage and acceptance is rather new.

In “America and the Challenges of Religious Diversity”, Robert Wuthnow, Princeton University professor of Religion takes a close, hard look at the changing religious landscape in the U.S, and analyzes its impact on the American population. Using in-depth interviews with religious leaders, lay-men and also people from the “new religions” in the American landscape i.e., Hindus, Muslims and Buddhists, the book provides a compelling argument for greater inter-faith dialogue and also a call for Christians to be more pro-active in learning and accommodating these religious groups. The key argument in the book is that the increasing religious diversity is presenting challenges to the American social fabric and we must pay close attention to this issue. There is a call for greater interaction and also work between religious groups, though a stronger focus has been put on Christian groups to do more, in terms of inter-faith work.

He calls for reflective pluralism, one in which there is adequate thinking and consideration given to what one believes in, and where one’s beliefs are coming from. He points out rightly, that for exclusivists to ignore all other religions and to continue to live in a bubble will be hard in the future, as the country becomes increasingly diverse.

Shoulder to Shoulder and Interfaith Youth Core

Two organizations that seem to be at the cutting edge of interfaith work in the U.S are Shoulder to Shoulder, an interfaith alliance of over 20 national organizations, across the country from Jewish, Muslim, Christian and other faithbased groups that have come together to defend each other’s rights. This is exemplified in their stance against Islamophobia, and other racially motivated campaigns by radical groups in the country. Their mission is: “Sharing ideas for starting community initiatives to address anti-Muslim sentiment by maintaining an archive of past events. Offering resources materials in a comprehensive online library that includes worship materials, educational curricula, videos, and more.”

 

Interfaith Youth Core is another group that is redefining how interfaith work is being carried out. It is reaching out to Millennials across college campuses to form a coalition of groups that educate each other and also organize along faith lines to transform the religious context of the country. Eboo Patel, the founder of the group exemplifies this struggle, and he illustrates that in his autobiographical book Acts of Faith.

 

Challenges: One exclusive path or many ways to reach truth?

Exceptionalism is one of the biggest challenges facing America in the realm of interfaith dialogue. While some denominations tend to be exclusive, others take a more ecumenical perspective when it comes to reaching ultimate reality, or religious truth. Wuthnow points this out by saying : ““ Among the thorniest questions that religious diversity poses for all the major religious traditions is whether or not they can sustain their historic claims to being uniquely true or at least better than other traditions in relating people to the sacred. Much of the reason for believers taking an active part in particular denominations or congregations has been the conviction that God could be found best in one theological location rather than in the other”.

What this calls for, then, is not only willingness to dialogue and to be open to ideas, but also to be secure enough in one’s faith that this first step becomes possible. Most often, insecurity and lack of initiative hampers most efforts. A theme that Wuthnow brings up more than once is that of the majority community accommodating the minorities. This is not only a pragmatic position, but one that resonates with the ethos of building a civil society. And if the interfaith projects mentioned above are any indication, this seems to be happening, as we speak.

There is reason to be positive, though more efforts need to be made in this direction, Wuthnow adds. One of the most eclectic experiences I have had in Washington D.C (when I lived there) was attending Jum’ah at a church in downtown, walking out a few blocks and eating Matzo Ball soup at a Jewish restaurant. It was my little pilgrimage to honor all three faiths, though arguably the Matzo Ball soup is only culturally a Jewish delicacy. The diehard fundamentalists may cringe at this thought, but this is the reality of Islam in the U.S and also reflects the pragmatism that followers of each religion demonstrate. This, I believe will define the future of interfaith work in the U.S.

If you are university educated, be sure to thank the 11th century Iranians! – Conversations in philanthropy #7

If you are college educated, have attended a traditional university, as we know it; anywhere in the world – then inadvertently you have benefited from a system that was pioneered in Iran in the 10th and 11th century, as part of the system of  Islamic Philanthropy, i.e., the Waqf, or endowment (Arjomand 114). While it is widely recognized that the world’s first university is the Al-Azhar university in Cairo, Egypt, built almost 1000 years ago ( also as a Waqf institution), not many people know that the concept of endowments was put into practice as a public policy in the Muslim empires of the medieval ages. This is a short article that delves into the development of Waqfs and how they have impacted the field of education. While contemporary Waqfs in Muslim majority countries are not as wealthy as they were in the past, their role remains significant and key to serving social needs as well as preserving art, culture and human dignity.

photo courtesy: Wikimedia commons
photo courtesy: Wikimedia commons

Historical growth of Waqfs as institutions of public policy

While Waqfs are private endowments and were meant as a measure of private initiative of the wealthy, they inadvertently became entwined with the public policy of the era. As Singer points out, in its basic form, a Waqf consisted of specific endowed properties, the revenues of which were designated in perpetuity to maintain and sustain a particular project or initiative- a soup kitchen or an educational institution. This is particularly noticeable in the field of education (Arjomand 125) which I will examine briefly.

There is value in his argument that that it was the non-qur’anic Waqf and not the Qur’anic Sadaqa or Zakat that became legal policy in the Islamic empires – and provided the basis for philanthropy in Islam. The jurists developed zakat into a poor-rate incumbent on all believers to be collected by the state, but given its difficult collection, it fell into disuse and also due to corruption; fell into disuse. The Waqfs that were developed in this era were mosque-educational complexes that housed both a place of worship and a learning center, where scholarship and teaching could occur. This eventually turned into a full-fledged residential facility that was the precursor to what we call a “college.”

Students at Al-Azhar University
Students at Al-Azhar University

Maksidi argues that the college was then imported into Europe in the 12th century first by the Knights Templar of the Levant whose headquarters was in England and who founded the Inns of court in London, who must have seen madrasas in or on the way to Jerusalem, and endowed the college des Dix-Huit in Paris for 18 poor students in 1180. In the mid-13th century, the first three colleges of Oxford were founded as charitable trusts. (Maksidi 19).

He further points out that the Ottomans used Waqfs as state policy for the development of cities such as Edirne and Istanbul (Arjomand 125). Amy Singer, another scholar who has studied  medieval charity in Muslim societies corroborates this view, when she points out: “Waqfs have been extensively researched, probably as much because of the prominence of particular foundations, as because of the relatively large amount of evidence available about them. Foreign visitors and colonial rulers alike carefully scrutinized Waqfs, especially in the 19th and 20th centuries, because the entire institution seemed to interfere with the establishment of modern private property regimes and the reform of landholding for purposes of agricultural modernization and development.” (Singer 92).

While I am not making the claim that the idea of an endowment itself was an innovation by the Muslim rulers (different forms of endowments did exist in Pre-Islamic Iran), the Muslim rulers did popularize and spread the notion and made it mainstream. Arjomand adds: “The law of Waqf developed in the formative years of the Islamic law i.e, 8, 9 centuries. There was influence of pre-Islamic Iranian law that impacted Waqf laws development. the Sasanian law book Maktakdan-I Hazar Dastan ( Book of thousand judgments) has helped us understand the epigraphic evidence on the institutions of private endowment for the soul or “for pious purposes” whose purpose was determined by the founder and set forth in an instrument of endowment (Arjomand 110)

 

Modernization and Education in the Muslim world

One of the most direct impact of the Waqfs in public policy has been in the field of education, research. While entire systems of patronage existed that perpetuated certain types of knowledge (in medieval age, as it does today), the university and madrasa became the centers of not only debate and change but also reform. Speaking of the education system in medieval era, Fazlur Rahman, one of the most prominent American scholar on Islam points out: “Medieval education became very formulaic and original thinking didn’t happen, this can explain the decline of any scientific thinking in the Muslim world, since then. The Muslim scholars also focused more on religious education, versus “worldly” education and this was a wrong focus to have. There were commentaries written on other commentaries and they had very little new things to say.” (Rahman 29).

He further argues that a kind of secularism developed in the Muslim world in pre-modern times, because of stagnation of Islamic thinking in general and because of the failure of Sharia law and institutions to develop themselves to meet the changing needs of society. (Rahman 43). One can make a case for the impact of shift in patronage systems to the schools of learning (through Waqf endowments) that made this change occur. Also, the Waqfs themselves were dealt a death-blow with colonization of Muslim countries. He uses the examples of India and Egypt to discuss how this occurred, with the death of genuine scholarship and also the unfortunate distinction between “this worldly” and “sacred or religious” knowledge, an idea that took genesis in the 13th century and that ultimately brought about the stagnation of original scholarship in the Muslim world.

Rahman points out that there has been a fear of intellectualism in the Muslim world and also this was related to patronage or support. Law brought employment, while medicine, or math did not guarantee the same kind of support. In the last 100 yrs or so, Muslims have shown an increasing awareness of reforming traditional education and integrating the old knowledge with the new (136).

               

Conclusion

Taking a close look at the development of Waqfs and Education system in the Muslim world, historically can give us insights into the current state of Muslim societies and the challenges they face. Through a clear understanding of this, one can evolve a strategy for advancement of fields of knowledge that will better serve the people of the countries and humanity, at large. I believe that Waqfs are a good lens to look at this shift in both systems of patronage and also to understand which form of knowledge was seen as relevant.

As Singer points out, philanthropy is a complete language, with its own codes, lexicon of actions that acquire meaning through a grammar of social order and syntax of significations this then becomes a part of religion, public policy, law and social norms. She further argues that to understand this requires the close study of relationship of what is being invoked and by whom, for what purposes (Singer 221).

There is also the problem of lack of scholarship in the field, as I am discovering, and something that Singer is clear about (Singer 24). She points out it is strange that barring one book by Robert McChesney, there is virtually no book length treatment of the concept of Zakat and Islamic notions charity in English. With more research and scholarly work, one can hope to unravel and unpack the story of how institutions have shaped fields of human endeavor.

 

 

Works Cited

Arjomand Said Amir. Philanthropy, the Law and Public Policy in the Islamic world before the modern era – Philanthropy in the world’s traditions. Ed by Warren F. Ilchman, Stanley N. Katz and Edward L. Queen II. Indiana Uni press, Bloomington and Indianapolis. 1998. Print.

 

Maksidi. Muslim institutions of learning in eleventh century Baghdad. Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies. 24,1. 1961. London. Print.

 

Rahman, Fazlur. Islam and Modernity. Chicago, University of Chicago Press. 1982. Print.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.