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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.

Jonathan Benthall

This chapter, published by the journal Asian Ethnology, is a theoretical exercise, inspired by Mary Douglas’s classic anthropological text Purity and Danger, that sets out to clarify the wide range of relationships between religions and humanitarian traditions as ideological movements, taking Islam as an instance. It postulates that the concept of the "sacred" is a special case of boundary maintenance or "purism". Metaphorically, "puripetal force" (a neologism) is defined as a tendency common to all ideological systems, a resistance to social entropy or anomie. An explanatory model is proposed that accommodates forms of concentrated purism such as (within Islam) Wahhabi-Salafism and (within humanitarianism) the legacy of Henry Dunant, founder of the International Committee of the Red Cross. Specific Islamic charities and welfare organizations interact differentially with both religious and humanitarian traditions. Meanwhile, US government policy towards charities sometimes seems dominated by an urge to peer into purity of motives. Finally, it is suggested that the model could equally be applied to Christian and other religious traditions, with the concluding thought that the common ground between the institutions of international humanitarianism and religious traditions is currently expanding.

in Islamic charities and Islamic humanism in troubled times
The structure of Islamic toleration
Jonathan Benthall

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.

in Islamic charities and Islamic humanism in troubled times
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Jonathan Benthall
in Islamic charities and Islamic humanism in troubled times
Abstract only
Jonathan Benthall

This review of Tariq Ramadan’s The Arab Awakening: Islam and the new Middle East was published in the Times Literary Supplement, 12 October 2012 – at a time when there were still hopes that the "Arab Awakening" would lead to a new era of progress in the Middle East. It attempts to elucidate Professor Ramadan’s complex intellectual position – where his loyalty to Islamic orthodoxy clashes with the humanities as they are understood in the West – and in particular his relationship to the Muslim Brothers, which is more critical than is often assumed. At the same time it defends Ramadan against unjust criticisms and salutes his personal courage. A prefatory note adds up-to-date information about some of Ramadan’s political interventions since 2012.

in Islamic charities and Islamic humanism in troubled times
Jonathan Benthall

This chapter reflects on the alleged special association between religion in general and violence – an association rebutted by both authors under review, David Martin (in Religion and Power: No logos without mythos) and Karen Armstrong (in Fields of Blood: Religion and the history of violence). It was first published in the Times Literary Supplement on 10 December 2014, under the heading "Poplars in the marsh". These two very different authors also agree that violent resistance is an inevitable response to policies that oppress large populations. The Chapter goes on to consider briefly the exorbitant reworking of Wahhabism that underpins the so-called Islamic State (Isis), and finally the obstacles that beset all attempts to found non-violent movements.

in Islamic charities and Islamic humanism in troubled times
Jonathan Benthall

This chapter first appeared as the lead article in the Times Literary Supplement on 10 September 2014. It is a review of the historian Michael Cook’s Ancient Religions, Modern Politics: The Islamic case in comparative perspective and Akeel Bilgrami’s Secularism, Identity, and Enchantment. According to Cook, Islam has a greater tendency towards politicization than other religions, whereas Akeel Bilgrami is more disposed to find fault with Western policies than with Islam. Bilgrami underlines the need to listen to reformist voices from within Islam rather than the voices of outside critics. This leads the Chapter into a brief consideration of the prospects for large-scale institutional reform instigated by Muslims themselves, as opposed to sporadic reformist initiatives that do not crystallize into organized movements.

in Islamic charities and Islamic humanism in troubled times
Jonathan Benthall

This chapter evaluates the incidence of religious persecution and conflict in our own century, as quantified and tabulated by two social scientists, Brian J. Grim and Roger Finke – with special reference to the plight of Christians and other religious minorities (including Muslim minorities such as the Ahmadiyya) in a number of Muslim-majority countries. It first appeared in the Times Literary Supplement on 1 June 2012, under the heading "Repression by numbers". Reservations are expressed about the value of vast global comparisons such as are presented by Grim and Finke, but it is argued that such an approach is defensible provided that one is alert to possible bias or misjudgements that can warp the whole enterprise. The plight of Christians and other religious minorities in several Muslim-majority countries has become still more urgent since the publication of this book, with the rise of Isis in the Middle East and Boko Haram in Nigeria. This Chapter also mentions the anthropologist Chris Hann’s critique of what he calls "religious humanrightsism", i.e. the claim that all religious traditions deserve to be treated equally.

in Islamic charities and Islamic humanism in troubled times
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Jonathan Benthall

This review of Mona Siddiqui’s Christians, Muslims, and Jesus (Yale University Press) was published in the Times Literary Supplement on 29 January 2014, under the heading "Abraham’s children". As well as being a senior academic in religious studies, Siddiqui is well known to the British public as a frequent contributor to the "Thought for the Day" religious slot in the early morning "Today" programme broadcast by the BBC’s Radio Four. SIddiqui makes an important contribution to comparative theological debate by comparing and contrasting the roles of Jesus (Isa) and Mary (Maryam) in the New Testament and the Qur’an, and more broadly in the two religious traditions as they evolved. She also reflects on the specifically Christian semiotics of the Cross. The Chapter ventures some further reflections on how the two traditions may be compared along broader lines.

in Islamic charities and Islamic humanism in troubled times
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Jonathan Benthall

This chapter was originally the entry in the Oxford Encyclopedia of Islam and Politics (2014). on Yusuf al-Qaradawi, the Egyptian-born Islamic scholar who took up residence in Qatar. It sets out to present a fair and balanced portrait of this contentious figure, regularly voted among the world’s foremost public intellectuals and (when the article was written) the most influential religious authority in the Sunni Muslim world, not least because of the formidable network of institutions that he helped to create, including charities; but also because of his forceful oratory, media skills, and many publications. A prefatory note provides up-to-date information on controversies involving Qaradawi, as the spiritual leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, that have erupted since the article was first published.

in Islamic charities and Islamic humanism in troubled times