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Book Review


Amy Singer, Charity in Islamic Societies. Cambridge University Press, Oct 2008. Pp. 264.  $95.00 (paper)


     Charitable giving is part of most religions in some form or another. It plays an important role in the western religions, and is incumbent on Muslim believers to the extent that it is one of the five pillars of faith. Given its important social and religious role, how charity is perceived and interpreted within a given society speaks to the broader context of that society's outlook.

     Charity in Islamic Societies, as the title suggests, explores the role charity has played, and continues to play in the lives of Muslims. The book is not a chronological narrative of how notions of charity developed and evolved in Muslim societies, and is neither a comparative treatment of the subject. The introduction rather states that the book's intent is to serve "as an introduction to the study of charity for scholars and students of Islamic societies and at the same time as an introduction to this aspect of Islamic societies for scholars and students of charity (27)." The specific chapters then "focus more specifically on ideas and examples [on charity] from Islamic history (27)."

     In addition to an introduction and conclusion, the book is divided into five chapters–each engaged in a particular facet of charitable giving. The first chapter looks at zakat (obligatory giving) and sadaqa (voluntary giving). This chapter draws mainly from classical sources, but also includes contemporary sources. Its role seems to be to define terminology, explore the diverse interpretations and practices, and outline the mechanisms of charitable giving and how these mechanisms changed across different geographic and temporal landscapes.

     The second chapter starts by placing the cycle of giving within an annual context within the Muslim calendar. It also looks at life events and other significant events that provoke charitable giving (such as rites of passage and other defining moments). The chapter ends by discussing waqf (endowments in perpetuity) with revenues designated to beneficiaries who could be the poor or the donor's descendents. Endowments took the form of gardens, bathhouses, or buildings that could be donated by any property owner regardless of gender or religious persuasion. Thus waqf provided a vehicle for women and non-Muslims to play a role in the public sphere.

     Chapter three focuses on the donors and links patronage, social power, and charity. The introduction summarizes the intent of chapter three as "[patronage and charity] describe dynamic relationships that create, signal, or reaffirm gradients of power, and ties of patron and client, and imply uneven reciprocity (22)." The chapter also provides biographical accounts of a few prominent personalities in Muslim history known for their charitable contributions. It explores how these donations enhanced their influence in the public sphere, and what these contributions signaled.

     Charity requires both donors and recipients. While there is a good deal of information on the donors, there is generally little on the recipients. As scant as the information is, there are still methods available to gain insights on the beneficiaries. Chapter four profiles these beneficiaries and draws some interesting insights. Patronage networks developed solidarity groups that in turn distinguished between "insiders" and "outsiders."  This distinction was then used as one of the criteria to determine how much charity an individual was to receive. Hence "outsider poor" were either excluded or got less food from Ottoman public kitchens. As charity and patronage were so closely related, an individual could be both a recipient and donor of charity. This insight is not unique to Muslim societies, as it can be found in some eastern societies as well. The text highlights Sufis who renounced all worldly possessions and were completely dependent on the generosity of others for their existence. Not all Sufis renounced worldly possessions, however; some plied their trade, and in some cases were very wealthy or wielded enormous political power.

     As colonial rule started to wane in the Muslim lands (from the nineteenth century onwards), institutions directly controlled by state bureaucracies started to emerge. Charitable organizations--once independent of the state--now fell under their control, or at least under their influence. Chapter five (the last substantive chapter) explores the phenomenon of centralized state controlled charitable institutions. Charitable giving went from one based on individual need or social standing to a set of uniform criteria that did not always consider the beneficiaries' particulars. Giving also became more impersonal, and institutions were not immune from corruptions and alienation. In the post-colonial era, waqf administration came under direct government control. Waqf charities were subjected (sometimes for the first time) to state taxation and sometimes carried out state-sponsored agendas. This discussion would have provided added diversity if it had considered other variations to charitable institutions that occurred in areas outside the Ottoman Empire's influence. The generalizations would perhaps have been broader and more nuanced than implied by this chapter.

     The text at the outset states that it is not intended to be comprehensive either in its historical coverage, or in its exposure of the diversity found in charitable giving in the Muslim lands. Instead it is intended to start a dialogue that would lead to further research into the study of charity. While there is a paucity of historical detail concerning the topic, which would understandably limit research, the narrative does not provide a theoretical framework on which to explore charity academically. Koranic verses are quoted, but the exegetical tradition (and its different interpretations) is under-emphasized. Hence the detailed examples lack a cohesive framework that would tie them all together–especially since they are drawn from several different geographical regions and across different time periods. Students of Muslim cultures realize that interpretations of Islam vary widely across geographical and temporal expanses, and trying to study one aspect of these cultures (such as charity) across all of these geographical and temporal spaces without a framework leaves the reader with a collection of examples. Thus while the research is extensive, the text would have benefitted from a unifying framework.

     What the book does best is to drive home the central role of charity in the social and religious life of Muslims, both past and present. It also decouples the link between charitable giving and acts of terrorism (something that has entered the general public's psyche since the tragedy of 9/11 and its aftermath). Those interested in further study of the role of charity in Islam would benefit from the extensive bibliography. Hence this book would be useful to those who are looking for an introduction to charity within the Islamic context, and to those who wish to compare acts of charity within the Islamic context with those in other contexts.

Muhammed Hassanali is an independent scholar of Muslim cultures and civilizations. He can be reached at


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