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:
Pic from:

                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.

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.



     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.