Research into Muslim philanthropy faces entrenched hurdles but has potential to illuminate the sector.
Despite the increasing interest in Muslims and philanthropy in general, there has to date been a distinct lack of sustained scholarly literature that fits neatly within the realm of ‘Muslim philanthropy’. Notable exceptions include important works from Amy Singer on charity in Islamic society, which provides a comprehensive historical view, and Amelia Fauzia, who gives an important account of the role of public policy and philanthropy in Indonesia. There has also been some significant material on zakat, the traditional Muslim practice of giving a proportion of one’s wealth to charity. Much of this, however, is either descriptive in form, theological or a legal review or translation of classical scholarly work. There has been little contextualization of zakat in the 21st century.
Research on Muslim philanthropy faces a number of challenges. First, while in modern western scholarship philanthropy has been defined as being distinct from charity, within Muslim scripture and traditions the word ‘charity’ is used to describe behaviour which scholars would deem both philanthropy and charity. Second, attempts to examine Muslim (or Islamic) philanthropy have sought to examine scripture, tradition or practice from the western definition of ‘voluntary action for public good’.
However, that definition excludes religious duty to give which is involuntary, and would exclude zakat which is required as one of the five pillars of the faith. It would also exclude generosity that is primarily inspired by obligation to God rather than the public good. Third, Muslim philanthropy is interpreted as a theological practice rather than as actions by people who happen to be Muslims. Finally, philanthropic action by Muslims is hard to measure. Many Muslims believe that revealing how much they have donated (or that they have donated at all) reduces the spiritual benefits of their generosity. This is further complicated by public policy in many Muslim majority countries, and results in limited population survey research and census data which measure religious giving.
Notwithstanding these challenges, there is some substantial research being done on what would be broadly defined as Muslim philanthropy. This includes measuring the level of giving by specific Muslims; research on religious giving and mosque giving in the United States; corporate giving in Pakistan; individual giving in Turkey; and research on Muslim social movements. Research on organizations that serve, or are funded by, Muslim populations, have also helped our understanding of Muslim philanthropy.
If addressed fully, three key issues would further enhance the Muslim philanthropy research landscape. First, there needs to be a general understanding of Muslim philanthropy that doesn’t rely upon a western definition; second, an increased supply of case studies is vital to help us understand how philanthropy is practised by diverse Muslim populations; and third, it is critical to be able to measure the level of giving and volunteering by Muslims in different geographic contexts. If these issues are efficiently resolved, at least to a significant degree, the beliefs and practice of Muslim philanthropy can be illuminated as never before.