This chapter was published as a guest editorial in Anthropology Today, 29: 4, August 2013, under the title "Foregrounding the Muslim tribal periphery". This book is arguably the finest of Professor Akbar Ahmed’s many publications, blending a literary and religious sensibility with political and historical analysis – a model for engaged anthropology. It can be read on two levels. It is a political indictment of the disproportionate victimization of Muslim tribespeople by remotely controlled military weapons – a policy which risks leading to a cycle of revenge. But the drone is also a metaphor for the current age of globalization, "something which comes from nowhere, destroys your life and goes away", while the prickly, tenacious "thistle" is an image that captures the essence of tribal societies (an image borrowed from Tolstoy’s posthumous novel Hadji Murad).
Adducing some insights from cultural anthropology, this Chapter compares and contrasts the histories of the Christian and the Islamic traditions of religious toleration, considering in particular the blurring of the distinction between "People of the Book" and "pagans" or "polytheists". It argues that each tradition has strengths and weaknesses if we consider them as contributions to a humanism acceptable to people today who subscribe to various religious beliefs or to none. Christendom was guilty historically of worse religious intolerance than Islam, yet it also engendered a humanistic respect for "primitive" belief systems. Islam institutionalized the concept of People of the Book, which gave a qualified recognition to its "confessional cousins", but it excluded "pagan" cultures unless they agreed to convert. Yet Islam was also capable of flexibility when a small Muslim court in India ruled over a vast non-Muslim population. An extended prefatory note reviews the progress of scholarship since the first publication of this text in Anthropology Today in 2005, and asks whether it is necessary to modify the suggestion that Muslim social scientists are inhibited from choosing to study non-monotheistic cultures. The conclusion reached ten years later is that there are at least some major exceptions.
This chapter considers the question of "cultural proximity", i.e. the proposition that a Faith Based Organization can have a privileged access to beneficiaries who share the same religious culture. It was based on a visit in 2007 to Aceh province in Indonesia, to observe the contribution of Islamic charities to reconstruction after the Indian Ocean tsunami of December 2004. Special attention was given to the rebuilding of houses and schools, in which several other international NGOs experienced serious local difficulties. The conclusion was that a common religion can be an advantage, but not so much as to outweigh the importance of technical proficiency, especially in the heated political climate that prevailed during this period. As well as describing the mainly successful work of Islamic Relief Worldwide, Muslim Aid, and the Turkish Red Crescent, the chapter also notes that official international evaluations of the huge aid flows after the tsunami gave little credit to local organizations, notably the Muhammadiyah.
The Introduction summarizes the book’s content under the following headings. Since all the chapters have been previously published elsewhere, it also adds some complementary material to bring the book up to date on some important topics:
Part One: Chapters 1 to 9: Islamic charities, Summary of the Chapters, Some recurrent themes, Faith Based Organizations and "cultural sensitivity", Islamic Relief Worldwide, The West Bank zakat committees, Banking problems, Towards a more complete description, Pakistan, Turkey, Domestic Islamic charity in the United Kingdom, A zakat movement?, Towards a more comparative approach,
Part Two: Chapters 10 to 17: Islamic humanism
This chapter is the result of a visit in 2006 to observe the work of Islamic Relief Worldwide (IRW) in the Timbuktu region of Northern Mali, whose struggling economy was at that time benefiting from a short period of peace in the "Tuareg rebellions". IRW’s local headquarters was based in the remote town of Gourma Rharous. The chapter describes its remarkable integration with the local community, and its commitment to staying there rather than moving on like some other aid agencies have done. Since Islam is deeply embedded in Malian life, this chapter provides a positive example of "cultural proximity", i.e. the proposition that a Faith Based Organization can have a privileged access to beneficiaries who share the same religious culture.
This book is the fruit of twenty years’ reflection on Islamic charities, both in practical terms and as a key to understand the crisis in contemporary Islam. On the one hand Islam is undervalued as a global moral and political force whose admirable qualities are exemplified in its strong tradition of charitable giving. On the other hand, it suffers from a crisis of authority that cannot be blamed entirely on the history of colonialism and stigmatization to which Muslims have undoubtedly been subjected – most recently, as a result of the "war on terror". The book consists of seventeen previously published chapters, with a general Introduction and new prefatory material for each chapter. The first nine chapters review the current situation of Islamic charities from many different viewpoints – theological, historical, diplomatic, legal, sociological and ethnographic – with first-hand data from the United States, Britain, Israel–Palestine, Mali and Indonesia. Chapters 10 to 17 expand the coverage to explore the potential for a twenty-first century "Islamic humanism" that would be devised by Muslims in the light of the human sciences and institutionalized throughout the Muslim world. This means addressing contentious topics such as religious toleration and the meaning of jihad. The intended readership includes academics and students at all levels, professionals concerned with aid and development, and all who have an interest in the future of Islam.
This chapter outlines the historical background of the growth of Islamic charities over the last few decades, and of Faith Based Organizations in general. It also discusses the humanitarian consequences of the clampdown on Islamic charities post 9/11, and questions the academic standard of some counter-terrorist studies that have authorized this clampdown. It calls for sympathetic steps to ease the way for those Islamic charities that accept the principles of regulation and monitoring. It argues that high values and ideals are better expressed by actions than by mere dialogue. Islamic Relief Worldwide showed what can be done when it was appointed to represent all the major British relief agencies on television to launch a joint appeal for the Kashmir earthquake in 2005. Failure to recognize the potential of Islamic charities means losing a significant opportunity to defuse the purported "clash of civilizations".
This is a personal account of a mediation or conflict resolution project (2005–2013), funded by the Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs (Political Division IV) in which the author took part as an adviser. The aim of this exercise in "track two diplomacy" was to help remove unjustified obstacles from Islamic charities. It did not succeed in surmounting all the challenges it faced, partly as a result of political turbulence in the post 9/11 years. In particular, not enough trust was generated between the US Treasury and the charities of the Gulf states to facilitate mediation. The chapter concludes, however, by forecasting that future efforts of a similar kind will be made to bring Islamic charities fully into the international aid system. Materially well-off Muslims have the resources to alleviate poverty and suffering, while the overseas aid budgets of the major Western nations are under pressure. Moreover, a "humanitarian vacuum" is created in complex zones of conflict such as Syria, when bona fide Islamic charities are absent for political reasons and the field is left open for extremist groups. The growth of research on Islamic charities will help give substance and credibility to future interventions.
This chapter republishes a review of Amelia Fauzia’s book Faith and the State: Islamic philanthropy in Indonesia, originally published in the Asian Journal of Social Science in 2014. Most research published in English since 2000 on Islamic philanthropy and humanitarianism has concentrated on the Middle East, South and Central Asia, and Europe and the USA. Fauzia’s impressive monograph on Indonesia bears comparison with any of this research. She explores how zakat (the Islamic tithe) and sadaqa (optional charity) have been implemented in various ways in Indonesia. Her guiding theme is the tension between the private or personal imperatives of the Islamic revelation and public conduct where persuasion or coercion can be effective, including that exerted by the modern state. She gives special attention to the "modernist" Muhammadiyah, founded in 1912. The Chapter proposes an angle for historical research: to what extent did Christian institutions introduced by colonial powers affect the development of Islamic charities in Indonesia and elsewhere?