Questions & Answers A Conversation With Amy Singer

The Tel Aviv University professor who's just published a book on charity in the Muslim world.

The philanthropic tradition is as old as Islam itself. This is one of the principal messages of Prof. Amy Singer's sweeping survey of the subject, "Charity in Islamic Societies" (Cambridge University Press, 246 pages, $33). Singer, a Princeton-educated professor of Ottoman history at Tel Aviv University, says in the book's introduction that she was in part motivated to write it because, since September 11, 2001, "Muslim charity has... received some very bad press, with analysts and observers frequently emphasizing the links between charity and extremist violence." But charity is an integral part of every Muslim's life, with one of several types of charitable giving in the faith, zakat (the obligatory alms tax), belonging to the five pillars of Islamic practice. As the book demonstrates with copious examples from the 1,400-year history of the Muslim world, acts of philanthropy turn up at every level of society - from relations between neighbors to the relationship between the sovereign and his subjects - with the role played by the recipient no less important than that played by the giver.

Weaving many anecdotes and personal experiences into her narrative, in addition to careful textual readings, Singer captures the psychological subtleties that characterize nearly all aspects of charitable giving, and demonstrates how these have manifested themselves throughout history. As a consequence, her book has a freshness and relevancy that is not always found in scholarly works. Haaretz spoke with Amy Singer by phone from her home in Tel Aviv.

Q: Your CV includes several books either edited or written by you on charity in Islam. How did you come to this area of study?

A: It's been an interesting historical journey. My doctoral dissertation was about relations between peasants and government in the Jerusalem area in the 16th century. While I was working on that, many villages I was studying became part of the revenue-producing properties of an Ottoman Waqf (that is, a charitable endowment) in Jerusalem. The endowment was for a large public kitchen and was set up in the Old City by the wife of the Sultan Suleiman, Hurrem Sultan. It was still operating as late as the 1950s as a public kitchen, where a few older Jerusalemites told me they remember stopping as children on the way to school. The endowment still exists, though today I think it's a vocational school for boys.

Once I started researching this, I became interested in the whole subject of endowments and philanthropy, and that led me to the general subject of charity and philanthropy in Islam. I realized that nothing had really been written on the subject, nothing that could serve as a one-stop-shopping kind of book. My book tries to introduce people who are interested in Islam to the subject of charity in Islamic societies, as well as to issues that would interest people involved in charity in general, such as the hierarchies created between givers and receivers, general questions about giving, about transparency, about the destination and origin of funds - all of these are part of an older discussion that has gone on for centuries in Judaism, Christianity and Islam, as well as in other ideological traditions.

Q: How much of this conversation is taking place within the Muslim world?

A: Well, I just came back from the second World Conference of Muslim Philanthropists, in Abu Dhabi. The WCMP was founded by Muslims in the U.S. as a forum for donors to discuss and promote effective and sustainable ideas and practices of philanthropic giving as part of the international community of humanitarians. But these sorts of discussions are going on worldwide. ... Just as we assume that tzedakah is a fundamental part of Jewish identity, faith and practice, this is true in equal measure for Muslims. And so they're having the same discussions that are taking place elsewhere. There are big transnational Muslim philanthropies, like Islamic Relief or the Aga Khan Development Network, working on a global scale, just like CARE or Doctors Without Borders.

Q: How were you, an Israeli and a Jew, received in Abu Dhabi?

A: This was a conference of practitioners, rather than academics, principally. But people were interested in and accepting of my work, and in some instances told me they were grateful that there's a book that talks about all this in one place. I'm not a scholar of Islamic law and not a Muslim, but the book brings together 14 centuries of historical examples, and is not based solely in the Middle East or even the Arabic-speaking world. Even Muslims who know the Koranic traditions and the hadith [oral traditions about the Prophet] on the subject, aren't necessarily familiar with many of these historical examples.

Q: You describe the centrality of assistance to the weak in Muslim society. It made me wonder if there is any tradition in Islam similar to the Protestant ethic, of holding the individual responsible for his or her own fate?

A: I haven't seen that aspect emphasized. In general terms, Islam is much more akin to Catholicism than to Protestantism, stressing compassion and the efficacy of beneficence. In giving, Muslims are in part trying to make amends, to restore the balance for misdeeds. However, there is also a hadith that says, "It is better for one of you to take a rope and cut wood and sell it than to beg from someone who might or might not give."

There are two points here. One is to encourage people to take up even menial labor to sustain themselves. The other is actually a caution against testing the beneficence of others. However, in other texts, scholars maintain that people of means who have lost their wealth should not be shamed by their poverty. This is one of many examples of the dynamic discussions ongoing among Muslim jurists.

To the extent that there has been a meaningful change in attitudes toward the poor, it took place largely in the 19th century, and was part of the discourse in the Muslim world on modernization. It's hard to disentangle that discussion from the impact of foreign Western ideas, advisors, occupiers or colonial powers. It's more of an import. Which doesn't mean that there aren't real discussions about which people are more or less deserving of help. Gypsies, for example, are sometimes explicitly excluded, as were criminals or prostitutes. ... Sultan's wives and sisters had funds to help orphan girls get married. This was all part of an ethic of beneficence. Of course, the social context of this was that this was a way to help these women be provided for, so they would not become a social problem - just as helping a man get a job is based on a social logic. Perhaps in that sense, charitable practices had an element of the Protestant ethic, but it wasn't accompanied by the kind of censure that went along with that ethic.

Q: The book also made me think of the vast network of self-help organizations that exist within ultra-Orthodox society, the gemach system.

A: Yes, the Orthodox community provides an important parallel. In history, it's hard to get a look below the top echelons of society, hard to learn about those who live on the edge of survival. But the Orthodox communities offer an example of how even people who we would call poor also act as donors, and how this is an important part of their lives. One finds this today, but it is conceivably what was going on historically. You have tiny stories of people giving in small amounts. This might be part of what makes it possible for people to accept the giving as a part of what the community is about. Perhaps it takes the sting out of being on the receiving end: Now I'm getting something, but maybe tomorrow I'll be in a position to give. It gives you a much greater sense of humility about what the trajectory of life is going to dish up.

Q: I read that you head the Women's Studies Forum at Tel Aviv University. How does your interest in charity connect with that?

A: I'm not actually involved in women's studies as a discipline. The NCJW [National Council of Jewish Women] Program in Women and Gender Studies is a degree-granting program at the university today, but the forum predated that by 15 or 20 years and actually gave birth to it. It was a place where people interested in women and gender studies collected and worked together. What I can say is that I think the impact of feminist theory has contributed to creating new avenues of research that look below or beyond politics and diplomacy and intellectual history, to people who don't seem obviously empowered, and asks how our understanding of history changes when you write those people back into it. You look at war and say, what are the roles of women during war? For example, if you don't understand the way women are being affected by today's downturn, you won't understand more general trends in society.

Q: How has your work on this book affected your own charitable giving?

A: It has made me much more careful in investigating to whom I'm giving money. I find myself thinking much more about not just the structure of a particular philanthropy, but also about what seems to work. Honestly, I think I'm more worried about where I invest my charitable funds than I am in the returns I'm getting on my financial investments, to the extent that I have any.

It's complicated to balance all the considerations. What is it you want your money to achieve? What's important to you, what matters most - this is something that takes a while to figure out. I find the whole idea of micro-finance, for example, to be incredibly compelling. It creates capacity and independence among people who are otherwise condemned to be poor. You see examples of this in South Asia, where it was first introduced by Nobel Prize-winner Muhammad Yunus of Bangladesh, but also in Africa.

More and more, I'm persuaded that capacity building is the most persuasive way to go. But there are also questions like: Is it right to give money overseas if there are people in south Tel Aviv who are hungry? That's a fair question. You don't necessarily have to answer it, but at least you should ask it of yourself. My research has raised these and many more questions, which ultimately affect the way I consider the reality of the world I live in. That's what's so persuasive about the study of history and societies seemingly unlike your own: It enlarges your world.