- Charity in Islamic Societies
The newest publication by Ottoman historian Amy Singer covers a wide range of charitable giving in one concise introductory volume. Singer is part of a small cohort of scholars who have initiated the study of poverty and philanthropy within Middle Eastern studies, which includes Adam Sabra, Michael Bonner, and the late Mine Ener, to whom this book is dedicated. Most of these scholars seek to examine charitable giving, one of five major tenets in Islam, as it operated in daily practice, examining closely different forms of beneficence and its relationship to recipients, who were the poor and the indigent. Muslim poor included the commonly disadvantaged in any society: widows, refugees, debtors, and orphans. However, particular to Islam may have [End Page 505] been poor Sufi mystics who renounced worldly possessions and were entirely dependent on soup kitchens and other forms of charity.
In Charity in Islamic Societies, Singer examines the role charity has played in Islamic society, including its doctrines and practices, which have resulted in a number of creative interpretations over the centuries. Singer calls for a reorientation of charity-philanthropy studies to broaden its view beyond the Judeo-Christian tradition in hopes of placing Islamic charity into a more global conversation. An example of dominant views of charity in the broader field includes the conception that American philanthropy is exceptional and unique (p. 223). This could be due in part to some of the issues she addresses in the introduction, such as "biases of culture and politics [that] have constructed obstacles for non-Muslims studying Islamic societies," whereby historians are blind to similarities between the Judeo-Christian tradition and Islam or any positive aspects of Islamic society (p. 25). She challenges this approach throughout the text, in which she carefully places Islamic charity side by side with global examples that include American philanthropy, a bold gesture that effectively works to break down the divides that continue to hinder comparative approaches.
The first case of charity that appears in the text is the case of Tariq Fischer, a Muslim-American Swarthmore student who died tragically in a car accident in 2005. His parents made a generous donation based on the Islamic principle of sadaqa (voluntary charity) to the college in his name. Singer uses the Fischer family's donation to demonstrate how forms of giving familiar to the reader are not unique to the Judeo-Christian tradition. This book is broadly comparative, placing the twelfth-century endowment of a hospital, Bimaristan al-Nuri, by Nur al-Din al-Zangi in Damascus next to Andrew Carnegie's construction of Carnegie Hall in New York to demonstrate the universality of endowments that create lasting legacies for donors in the process. This reader wishes that Singer had provided more of the comparisons that she had given the audience a taste of throughout the book, but understandably this was not her goal. Instead, Singer is clear that she does not intend to present a comprehensive picture of Islamic charity, nor a comparative history on the subject. She seeks to place what is known about Islamic charity in one volume, something that had not happened before this publication, in hopes of inspiring future research on the subject.
The book's layout is nonlinear and topical in organization. Singer's broad choice of chronology may disturb purists, as it draws upon examples from the seventh to the nineteenth centuries. However, she is clear that her intention was to initiate a conversation by creating a [End Page 506] primer that would lend itself to more work on the subject and cross-cultural comparisons. The text, therefore, defines terminologies and institutions, the ways in which they change over time, and, importantly, demonstrates the diversity of interpretation that Muslims themselves initiated in different spacial and temporal contexts. Her evidence draws from a wide range of periods but is clearly slanted toward the Ottoman period, her area of expertise; therefore, the Ottomans received greater emphasis, especially where she was able to use original source material in her discussion.