Islamic brothers in alms

The Charitable Crescent
August 6, 2004

The events of September 11, 2001 have turned a spotlight on the hitherto misunderstood and little-represented world of Islamic charity and humanitarian aid. Attention in the past had been generally hostile, with the innate suspicion, particularly in the US, that humanitarian aid arising from Muslim sources cannot be divorced from political interests. That, in turn, links it to religious fundamentalism and terrorism.

The link between aid and politics is something the authors of this book want to tackle head on, so it is central to their study that we understand the religious and historical intricacies that lie behind these links. Jonathan Benthall and Jerome Bellion-Jourdan give clear examples of charitable funds directed at social services and for military purposes, thus entrenching the thinking of Western governments. One example is that more than $100 million (£55 million) a year is raised as financial support for the Hamas movement (outlawed by the US), at least 10 per cent of which goes to the military arm. Similar amounts are raised for other organisations, including al-Qaeda.

The Charitable Crescent is an important and timely part of the debate surrounding Islamic charities, since attitudes towards them have been thrown into striking confusion by their combined humanitarian and political agendas. This book is the first time anyone has attempted to look at the issue of charity in the Muslim world and put it in the context of contemporary global politics. It is an enormous and challenging task tackled in an objective and scholarly manner.

In the first part of the book, the authors look at the complex way in which charity fits into Islam as a religious duty, both obligatory and voluntary.

This grounding in the traditions behind institutions such as zakat (an alms tax paid as a religious duty), waqf (religious endowment) and sadaka (voluntary alms-giving, or charity), and sections elaborating how Islamic finance and banking work alongside them, acts as a useful and essential foundation from which to examine how such alms-giving works in practice, both in the Muslim world and in the context of charity based on the Judaeo-Christian tradition.

The authors then look at how aid has worked in different political and geographical arenas. Detailed case studies - from Jordan, Algeria, the Sudan and Bosnia to the pressure points of Palestine, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iraq - clarify just how differently Western and Islamic charitable work operates.

Although the traditions of the academic world often militate against scholarship that crosses disciplinary boundaries, such conservatism is in decline, and it is a relief that a book such as this may be of value to today's students in disciplines as varied as Islamic studies, politics, anthropology, international law, sociology, religion, history and economics. It is precisely because it crosses those boundaries that it is so important.

The Charitable Crescent should also be on the bedside table of every Muslim and non-Muslim administrator and politician dealing with the complexities of nations and societies with a Muslim population. It will not direct them how to address their specific tasks, but it will enlighten them about the commonality and differences between Judaeo-Christian and Muslim practices.

Most important, this study will help them to put the stereotypes of abuse by Islamic charities into a context of similar mispractice in the Western charitable world, and thus make these abuses more understandable. This is not by way of justification but as sensible and accurate scholarship.

The authors' final words provide the balance: "Humanitarians seek aid without politics, a universal ideal. But for the foreseeable future, the worldwide reality is the politics of aid."

Andre Singer is an anthropologist, author and film-maker.

The Charitable Crescent: Politics of Aid in the Muslim World

Author - Jonathan Benthall and Jêrôme Bellion-Jourdan
Publisher - Tauris
Pages - 196
Price - £42.00
ISBN - 1 86064 901 7

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