Poverty and Charity in Middle Eastern Contexts By Michael Bonner, Mine Ener, and Amy Singer, eds. (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2003. 345 pages.)

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Egbert Harmsen



This volume, written by scholars in Middle Eastern history, addresses the
history of charity in the Middle East, including its meanings, conceptions, practical patterns, motivations, and the ways of institutionalization and
identifying its “deserving” beneficiaries throughout the last 14 centuries. It
is addressed to academic readers interested in Middle Eastern history or in
charity in a universal sense.
One aspect of charity dealt with throughout the book is that of motivation.
It turns out that besides adhering to general Islamic principles, motivations
of enhancing one’s prestige and social clout have played an important
role as well. Michael Bonner points out in his chapter, “Poverty and Charity
in the Rise of Islam,” that generosity in pre-Islamic and early Islamic
Arabia was clearly linked to competition for political and social prestige
among tribal leaders. However, he does not adequately clarify these practices’
role in the emergence of the Islamic charitable tradition. In “Charity
and Hospitality,” Miri Shefer describes how prominent individuals in the
Ottoman Empire enhanced their own prestige by founding hospitals
through the establishment of awqaf. Likewise, Ottoman sultan Abdülhamid
II sponsored numerous charitable projects in order to enhance his own public
image as a caring and fatherly benefactor toward his subjects, as Nadir
Özbek describes in “Imperial Gifts and Sultanic Legitimation during the
Late Ottoman Empire, 1876-1909.”
Beth Baron and Kathryn Libal, authors of “Islam, Philanthropy, and
Political Culture in interwar Egypt,” and of “The Child Question,” respectively,
shed light on the emergence in Egypt and Turkey, during the first half
of the twentieth century, of motivations informed by various philanthropists’
(either Islamist or secular) ideological commitment to the well-being of the
nation as a whole. They also describe how this commitment translated itself
into civil society activism and public debates in both countries.
Another relevant aspect is institutionalization. Possibly, the earliest form
of institutionalized charity in Islamic history is the collection and distribution
of zakat. Timur Kuran distinguishes, in his “Islamic Redistribution
through Zakat” (see the section “Instrument of Modern Redistribution?”) the
“proceduralist” from the “situationist” approach toward this basic Islamic
duty. The former approach denotes a strict application of specific rules from
the Islamic sources, regardless of the concrete situation at hand, while the
second refers to a flexible implementation of general religious principles
based on the current situation ...

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