Academic journal article Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

Financial Worship: The Quranic Injunction to Almsgiving

Academic journal article Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

Financial Worship: The Quranic Injunction to Almsgiving

Article excerpt

'Those who interpret the Quran without knowledge will have their place prepared for them in the fire of hell'; so runs a statement attributed to the Prophet Muhammad.(1) My excuse for taking the risk is that little has been published in Western scholarship on Islamic traditions of almsgiving (zakat) and philanthropy(2) and virtually nothing by cultural anthropologists. They have indeed neglected the wider issue of philanthropy in general, though one bygone anthropologist shrewdly observed: 'Real progress is progress in charity, all other advance being secondary thereto' (Marett 1935: 40). It seems that for a comparative study of charity we have to go back to as early an anthropologist as Westermarck (1908).(3) Some cultural anthropologists with close links to the world of non-governmental organizations - most trenchantly, de Waal (1997) - have subjected contemporary Western organized charity to an 'immanent critique', but much remains to be done to establish a fully comparative perspective. Within economic anthropology, a significant literature inspired by Sahlins (1958) sought to identify redistribution as an essential function of chiefdoms. It was this style of insight which may have inhibited anthropologists from following up Westermarck's interest in comparing different traditions of charity as ethical systems. However, a long-standing theoretical anthropological interest in voluntary associations, dating back to Lowie and Warner (Caulkins 1996), has recently been rekindled, with the growing salience of the voluntary sector and a new, currently influential political attachment to 'civil society' as a counter-balance to nation-states.

A more specific reason for studying Islamic organized charity is that, as is well known, the Islamist movements of the Middle East and North Africa have achieved their salience and popular support through blends of religious, political and welfarist activism. Studies of the voluntary sector in Egypt (ben Nefissa 1995; Ibrahim 1988; Rugh 1993; Sullivan 1992) and Arab Israeli villages (Israeli 1993a) testify that, relatively speaking, Islamist voluntary associations are capable of delivering effective welfare and relief services in certain contexts where the state has been unable or unwilling to provide them. To take but one example, when Egypt was hit by serious floods in November 1994, the government's response was slow and ineffective and it was the Muslim Brothers and similar organizations which gave refuge in the mosques to families who had lost their roofs.(4) This is not to deny that in some Muslim states such as Iran there is almost certainly massive corruption in the philanthropic sector owing to accumulations of capital in its hands (Waldman 1992); but at the Islamic grass-roots in a number of countries an analogy may be drawn with the South American Christian 'base communities', that is to say, groups of marginalized people who start by coping with small local issues and seek to work their way slowly up to larger ones (Sullivan 1992: 8, 157-8).

There seems to be quite a widespread view that, to quote a French sociologist, the founding Muslim Brothers were 'more inspired by the methods of Leninism than by Muslim tradition' (Badie 1992: 171), and I have heard this said of present-day Islamists by U.S. State Department spokesmen.(5) A historical analogy with Methodism in England or the Democratic Party in the United States would be nearer the mark. Granted, Islamist organizations are sometimes taken over by demagogues and men of violence, but so are popular movements of all descriptions. Should the ethical injunction to give aid to others be regarded as an independent determinant of Islamist movements?

Supporting evidence might be adduced from the strength of the waqfs or religious foundations in Islamic history, or from the early history of the Muslim Brothers (Mitchell 1969). However, the Quran itself and its interpretations also provide important evidence for that contention. …

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