Philanthropy and Historical Research

Islamic Charity & the Paradox of ‘Obligated Voluntarism’: A Comparison of Christian and Muslim Charitable Giving

Editors’ Note: Previously published on Maydan, this essay by Christopher B. Taylor compares the Christian view of charitable giving in the United States and Islamic charitable giving in India. Taylor concludes by urging readers to view charity as a blend of both perspectives. 

Ahmed was the clerk of a firearms store on one of the main roads of Lucknow’s Aminabad bazaar. I had a survey question listing multiple possible reasons or motivations to give charity, and asked him to pick:

Ahmed: It’s Allah’s order [hokum]. That’s why! In place of these three reasons you are asking me, you only need one. “Nothing” is the reason! Just follow the order. Who needs a reason?

Ahmed’s belief in charity as obligatory illustrates a distinguishing characteristic of Islamic charity. Islam’s teachings on almsgiving as a mandatory pillar of the faith has been a central preoccupation of my research. What I call Islamic charity’s paradox of obligated voluntarism sets it apart from the world’s other traditions of philanthropy.

Such notions of Islamic almsgiving in India complicate our Western notions of “charity” as given voluntarily, out of love and goodwill. For American society is rife with metaphors of philanthropy as a matter of individual choice and personal emotion. Robert Wuthnow’s study of U.S. giving revealed Americans’ attachment to cultural myths of individual self-interest as the bedrock of social action, paradoxically, even when we act selflessly. Our very word voluntarism signals this ideal of voluntary choice, while charity and philanthropy etymologically link giving to inner motives of love more than outwardly imposed duty. Christian theology has been marshaled to encourage this voluntarist viewpoint, as the New Testament call Christians to give charity freely and out of love. Islam by contrast obligates mandatory alms (zakat) as the duty of every Muslim. Denying the obligation of alms is grounds for apostasy and the word zakat etymologically links giving to the obligatory act of “purifying” the donor’s soul and finances.

In this article, I investigate different portrayals of Islamic giving, as obligated by shariʻa (often termed “Islamic law”), and Christian philanthropy, especially in the U.S., as motivated by choice. Conclusions emphasize that the simultaneously voluntaristic and obligatory nature of charity is best understood through a lens of virtue ethics, in which individuals are seen as having the agency to make ethical decisions but also become habituated to understanding moral teachings as an obligation.

Zakat: The Paradox of “Obligated Voluntarism”

India is home to one of the world’s largest population of Muslims, over 170 million, where in recent years I researched Islamic charitable giving for my doctoral dissertation. Islamic law requires each individual Muslim to give 2.5 percent of their assets in charity (according to the Sunni majority interpretation) as obligatory alms – or zakat. Many scholars, both Muslim and non-Muslim, have argued for a translation of zakat as “alms-tax” to reflect this sense of obligation. All of my interviews illustrated Muslims’ belief in zakat as a religious duty, of the idea of charity as an obligation. While the foundational Islamic belief of zakat frames charity as an obligatory requirement, I caution against a representation of unitary “Islamic law.” Muslims’ understandings of shariʻa represent it as a set of myriad obligations, containing multiple schools of interpretation and debates, rather than one clear-cut legal code.

In the opening quote, Ahmed’s perception of zakat as “Allah’s order” (for which you don’t need a reason, it’s not a matter of personal choice) is one that is common far beyond Lucknow, being what is termed in the philosophy of ethics a “divine command” orientation. In anthropology this notion is quite familiar as well, particularly in the work of Emile Durkheim who took the moral as coterminous with “the obligatory.” Although Muslims understand that charity can be given voluntarily (known as ṣadaqah), zakat specifically refers to obligatory almsgiving and is rooted in Islamic law and scriptures. The Qur’an insists on the right (ḥaqq) of the poor to receive zakat, as a sort of logical corollary to the obligation upon the alms-giver. A saying of the Prophet holds that, “A beggar has the right [to ask] though he may be riding a horse [and thus appearing as a wealthy nobleman].” While the basic teachings on wealth and charity are similar across all three Abrahamic faiths, sharing the idea that “all wealth is God’s” and that charity should be given so as not to shame the recipient, the Qur’an is “most emphatic” on these injunctions, and particularly emphasizes charity as the right of the poor (and the obligation of the wealthy) more than the scriptures of Christianity and Judaism do, as anthropologist Jonathan Benthall has discussed.

However, the obligation of zakat occupies a loftier place in Lucknow Muslims’ ethical imaginary than a mere legal obligation, or “tax.” Charity in Islam, while obligated, involves high degrees of personal choice. While zakat is a required payment, the obligation of zakat-as-worship signifies much more. Many Muslim donors spoke of the zakat obligation as a choice they must make – a choice they wanted to make, out of gratitude for having wealth, while others lived in poverty. A Muslim must decide where, when, and to whom to give, or whether to follow Islamic law at all, and thus zakat must be taught to and learned by individuals as a religious virtue from childhood. According to scholarship studied in Indian madrasas, charity is a form of financial worship and zakat is only the beginning, a doorway, or the “head” of such almsgiving, while sadaqah in the broadest sense of generosity and service is the ultimate virtuous goal. In short, zakat – like charity – is a virtue, habituated through personal choices and actions, even as it is perceived as done only because it is obligatory.

American-Style Charity and Voluntarism: “Self-Interest, Rightly Understood”

This is of course quite different compared to our conventional ideas about charity. American society is rife with metaphors of philanthropy as a matter of individual choice. Our very word voluntarism suggests that service and charity are what we do voluntarily, out of individual choice, rather than compulsion of duty.

Multiple observers trace the roots of American voluntarism in our values of self-interested individualism, even from the earliest years of American history. Alexis de Tocqueville in his famous writings on the nascent American society of the early nineteenth century, observed how, due to frontier life, individuals became keenly aware of their dependence on others, even as they worked to be self-reliant. Helping others meant that others may be more likely to help you in times of need. Tocqueville argued that American voluntarism was actually a case of self-interest – or more precisely, “self-interest rightly understood” as he termed it.

Robert Wuthnow’s study of U.S. giving revealed Americans’ attachment to cultural myths of individual self-interest as the bedrock of our widespread virtues of social service, paradoxically, even when we act selflessly. In-depth interviews with volunteers illustrated a strong commitment to the idea that service is also self-interested. One interviewee, Janet, explained to Wuthnow when asked why she started volunteering at a center for abused women:

It was purely selfish. I moved here in July, two years ago, and I was really lonely. In the neighborhood, there was never anyone around; I felt like I lived in the country and had no neighbors.

Wuthnow’s analysis of national data revealed a slight positive association between “self-oriented values” and “placing importance on charitable activities.” Altruism and individualism strangely seemed to be correlated among Americans, despite the common assumption that individualism and altruism are antagonistic to each other. “Even when individualism provides an explanation for suffering that blames the victim, it does not seem to dampen the importance people place on caring,” Wuthnow explained. This is the paradox of American voluntarism: even as we view individuals as largely responsible for their own predicaments and fate, charitably giving of ourselves to help them out is highly worthwhile. Without any explicit feeling of obligation to give, charity is viewed as a personal choice made freely; however, voluntary action remains pervasive.

But two questions remain: How can selfless service also be self-interested? How do Americans balance the seeming contradiction between values of voluntarism and individualism?

Wuthnow suggested that a deeper look at the distinctly American values of “rugged individualism” can resolve this paradox. By helping others, Americans are often proving (to themselves and others) that they are capable of helping themselves. Wuthnow’s surveys continually found an emphasis on “personal growth” as a motivation for volunteers to engage in public service, especially among liberals. Efforts to help others were also “very important” to their basic self-worth as a person. Ninety-one percent of Americans surveyed, for example, agreed with the statement “When you help someone in need, you get as much from it as they do.” As Tocqueville explained, frontier living required going without many societal institutions for welfare and mutual aid (such as guilds, churches, religious orders, and charitable societies of Old World Europe), and so individuals became keenly aware of their dependence on others, even as they worked to be self-reliant. Helping others means that others may be more likely to help you, in times of need.

American culture here echoes certain Christian teachings. Our intellectual and spiritual heritage in America – especially as a Christian-dominated society – informs our understandings of voluntarism, philanthropy, and service. Christian philosopher Immanuel Kant famously defined love as “an inclination that cannot be commanded.” And while the Old Testament enjoined believers to give a tithe of ten percent of their income, the New Testament emphasizes that charity is not a duty as much as a personal choice. In the Bible, the apostle Paul emphasized that “Each of you should give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.” Required tithing, while rooted in biblical scripture, is today only a minority view among U.S. Christians, held primarily among evangelicals.

Conclusion: Zakat is an Obligation, Charity is a Virtue

The American view of charitable giving and what I have presented here as an Islamic view of charity both contain paradoxes. However, each paradox is quite different, even mirror images of each other. Americans’ rugged individualism is what gives rise to service and societal connectedness. Muslims in India often viewed charity as an obligation arising out of Allah’s “divine command” even as their actions illustrated a wide range of unspoken choices in how, when, and to whom donors could give. On the surface, Americans seem to conflate charity with personal choice, while Muslims seemingly equate it with duty and lack of individual agency.

Yet in a deeper sense, both views are not irreconcilable at all. Voluntarism may be in an individual’s self-interest. However, voluntarism – by virtue of being a wide-spread social norm – also becomes a public obligation through social pressure. A view of charity based in virtue ethics offers the opportunity for a more nuanced analysis of charity-as-a-virtue, which is socially learned (even obligated) but also a matter of individual action to exercise, practice, and become habituated to that virtue. The ritual of zakat, taken literally, is a precise and obligatory calculation. But while zakat is a calculation, in a broader theological sense the zakat calculations induce a virtuous cycle of voluntarism and generosity – virtues that are themselves incalculable. The notion of zakat as “purification” for donors’ souls was a discourse that entangled egoistic interests with societal interests, and merged personal gain with socializing processes of community-identification.

Resolving such paradoxes, I suggest viewing charity through a lens of virtue ethics. The old adage that “charity is a virtue” also invites us to examine the social construction of “the self” in self-interest, a process described by philosophers of virtue ethics such as Alisdair MacIntyre,  Michel Foucault, and Charles Taylor and anthropologists following their work such as Michael Lambek, James Faubion, and James Laidlaw. Through charity, we learn to understand how rewarding it is to help others. Virtues, as habits, may arise from one motivation but perdure for other reasons. Not unlike how kindergarteners’ rewards of stickers for respecting social norms of silence during naptime eventually leads children to later act in the common good, the process of inculcating virtue involves both self-interest and social interest at different moments.

-Christopher B. Taylor

Dr. Christopher B. Taylor is currently a post-doctoral fellow at the Ali Vural Ak Center for Global Islamic Studies and instructor of anthropology at George Mason University.  This research was supported by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the Lily School of Philanthropy at Indiana University. and Dr. Taylor was also a research innovation fellow of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).  He has published on India, philanthropy, international development, and Islamic law. 


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