Why study charitable giving? : Challenges and opportunities in the field of Islamic Philanthropic studies.

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

Source: Islamic relief website
Source: Islamic relief website

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[1]. 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[2]. 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.

[1]  Mellor Philip, Reflexive Traditions : Anthony Giddens, High modernity and the contours of contemporary religiosity, Religious Studies, Vol 29, No. 1 1993
[2] Zakat Calculator on Hidaya Website see – http://www.hidaya.org/zakat-calculator

Why you don’t need so much “breaking news”


 I read an interesting article on Guardian critiquing novelist Rolf Dobelli’s ideas that reading news can be dangerous for you. The kind of “breaking,” “live,” news that characterizes much of our experience these days is not very helpful and at worst, actually can be harmful to your well-being   His argument is that real insight and understanding is never instant. “ It takes time to piece together complex causality, and the global news machine of bite-sized nuggets doesn’t do complexity,” he adds. In this day and age of global violence, financial crisis, natural disasters; even the smallest incident can (usually) be blown out of proportion and become part of our consciousness like never before.

In his article, he makes a few claims that are worth examining. I use some of his claims and also add a few, that I think are relevant:

Firstly, that news media misleads. Often confusing correlation with causation. Pick any big issue, and chances are that many journalists are making this mistake. He says:” Take the following event (borrowed from Nassim Taleb). A car drives over a bridge, and the bridge collapses. What does the news media focus on? The car. The person in the car. Where he came from. Where he planned to go. How he experienced the crash (if he survived). But that is all irrelevant. What’s relevant? The structural stability of the bridge. That’s the underlying risk that has been lurking, and could lurk in other bridges. But the car is flashy, it’s dramatic, it’s a person (non-abstract), and it’s news that’s cheap to produce. News leads us to walk around with the completely wrong risk map in our heads. So terrorism is over-rated. Chronic stress is under-rated. The collapse of Lehman Brothers is overrated. Fiscal irresponsibility is under-rated. Astronauts are over-rated. Nurses are under-rated.” This is a compelling argument and one that one sees occurring, all the time.

Media exaggerates: Just to put this argument in context, here is an interview with a Terrorism expert, David Schanzer, from Duke University. Here is the article about the recent Boston Marathon bombings and his reaction: “ Q: What is the trend today? Is terrorism being used less now than it was a few years ago, or are we just not hearing so much about it?

David Schanzer: The decade since 9/11 has seen less terrorism (of all ideologies) than other recent decades. There were 168 attacks in the ten years after 9/11, but in the 1970s, there were 1357 attacks.” But given the massive coverage that these events receive these days, one is inclined to believe that violence related to terrorist attacks is on the RISE, whereas it is not so.


Media is part of the mass consumption ethic: If one were to critique media, perhaps the most honest critique comes not from the capitalist or libertarian framework; but the Marxist framework. Here is Theodore Adorno, pointing this out in Minima Moralia. He says:” To speak immediately of what is immediate, is to behave no differently from that novelist, who adorns their marionettes with the imitations of the passions of the yesteryear like cheap jewelry, and who sets persons in motion, who are nothing other than inventory-pieces of machinery, as if they could still act as subjects, and as if something really depended on their actions. The gaze at life has passed over into ideology, which conceals the fact that it no longer exists.” This observation points to an ethic, where reality is manufactured, produced and sold, with happy consumers sitting by and waiting for their problems to be produced, analyzed and often solved – all in “real time” TV. This is the ethic that makes slacktivism possible, and also one where often “analysis,” and even “thinking,” is outsourced to the “experts,” because it is more efficient and easy to do.

The problem of spreading ignorance and rumor: This is all too evident at the outbreak of every “major” disaster. Be it a hurricane, fire or a “terrorist” attack, rumors are aplenty immediately following the disaster. While more than 90% of the material just following most incidents is chaff and useless, this is precisely what captures the imagination of most of us. It is this voyeuristic, dark side of our personalities that media aims to feed, with the constant, live updates and rumor mongering and (often) half-assed assessments by “experts.” While those who understand communications and crisis management know that this is where “framing” of events is occurring, and it is where “truth” is defined, often the media outlets behave with callousness.

So, am I advocating a return to the stone-age? No twitter, Facebook, live CNN coverage? The short answer is no, while the longer answer is ‘may be.’ While media has become a part of our consciousness and is critical in shaping our understanding of who we are, I believe it is in some ways even impeding our thinking, unless we are able to carefully discern the wheat from the chaff. As a regular user of media outlets (print, online and social) and having been a news junkie for most of my formative years, I realize the value of careful, thoughtful analysis and also somewhat skeptical of instant news or reports that claim to explain the world in 10 minutes. As researchers, journalists need to be more careful, methodical and also aware of the issues they are reporting on. Barring a small fraction, I would hazard a guess and say that most do not know what they are talking about. As a parting thought, and further proof that journalistic knee-jerk reactions often do more harm than good, here is Bill Maher trying very hard to prove to an expert that his knowledge of Islam and history is far superior; since he gets to be on TV and is considered a “star”. This is nothing but polemics, hatred and bigotry, passing off as “analysis.” And nowadays, you don’t have to watch the right-wing media for this kind of shallow reactions, unfortunately ; this is becoming all too mainstream.