Giving to God

Islamic Charity in Revolutionary Time

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Amira Mittermaier
  • Oakland, CA: 
    University of California Press
    , February
     2019.
     248 pages.
     $29.95.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780520300835.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Once again, in Giving to God: Islamic Charity in Revolutionary Times, Amira Mittermaier has written a book that challenges scholars of Islam in Egypt to think beyond accepted categories of analysis. In her first book, Dreams that Matter: Egyptian Landscapes and the Imagination (University of California Press, 2010), Mittermaier explored Muslim practices of dream interpretation at the intersection of Islamic reformism, Western psychology, and mass mediation. In this book, she pushes us to think critically about how we understand piety, religious practice, and the significance of politics.

Mittermaier opens with a confounding image: Madame Salwa, a supporter of Egypt’s authoritarian ruler ʿAbd al-Fattah al-Sisi, explains her commitment to charity: “I don’t care about the poor . . . I do all this for God [li-llāh]” (3). Mittermaier uses Salwa’s example to challenge us to consider a model of charity that does not depend on either a “liberal conceit of compassion . . . [or] the neo-liberal imperative of self-help.” (4). Instead, for Mittermaier, charity is a triadic relationship among God, the giver, and the recipient—one in which God is an “active player” (8). In the remainder of the book, we are challenged to explore alternatives to a “human-centered understanding of ethics and politics” (16).

Giving to God is bookended by the 2011 Egyptian revolution (chapter 1) and ʿAbd al-Fattah al-Sisi’s post-Revolutionary rise to power (chapter 6). The first chapter centers on the utopian imaginary of Tahrir Square and the radically egalitarian ethos that suffused it. Just as important for Mittermaier, however, is an overlooked aspect of the Tahrir Square dynamic: its embrace of an ethical vision in which “all humans are fundamentally dependent, not only the poor” (45).

The heart of the book, however, is chapters 2 through 5, in which Mittermaier guides us through Cairo’s world of charitable giving. In the second chapter, the author introduces the reader to Sheikh Salah, a retired army engineer who runs a Sufi space of food distribution (known as a khidma), near the Sayyida Zaynab mosque as he works seven days a week to provide a “divine minimum wage” (54). Sheikh Salah’s activities, however, also reveal the coexistence of multiple understandings of charity: he is at once deeply invested in the idea of “civilizing the poor,” while at the same time his charitable acts “give a man a fish” instead of “teaching him how to fish” (73).

Chapter 3, by complement, examines Resala, one of the fastest-growing charities in Egypt. She probes the intersection of charity and piety by working with female volunteers in an upper middle class neighborhood of Cairo who tend to support either the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party or its Salafi allies. Mittermaier shows that this charitable work exposes them to the “material reality of poverty . . . The way up to paradise leads through the slums” (101).

The next two chapters explore what it means to receive charity. Chapter 4 is an examination of the performance of poverty, centering on a Resala volunteer, Amal, who is a frequent recipient but occasional giver. Through analysis of Amal’s sometimes exaggerated performances of her impoverished state, Mittermaier probes the distinction between performance and falseness and the ways in which this performance reflects a recognition that “ordinary, actual everyday suffering” is not sufficient to receive help from charitable organizations (121). Chapter 5 moves from Amal to Shaykh Mahmood, a dervish who glorifies asceticism and rejects “etiquettes of gratitude” (133). For Shaykh Mahmood, it is donors who need recipients, not vice versa.

Mittermaier concludes Giving to God by contrasting ʿAbd al-Fattah al-Sisi’s justification of short-term sacrifice based on the promise of long-term gain with the khidma’s ethic of charity. The power of the khidmas in al-Sisi’s Egypt, in turn, lays in the fact that they meet the immediate needs of the population while “disrupt[ing] the very logic of an emancipatory (neo)liberal politics and its built-in individualism, emphasis on work, and promise of a better tomorrow” (156). With the perspective of half a decade since al-Sisi’s rise and the successful repression of the Muslim Brotherhood, the author explains the continued power of khidmas through their appeal to a “different register” (180), on the one hand, and their informality, on the other (184).

What are the implications of Mittermaier’s approach for the study of Islamic movements and practices more broadly? Drawing on an existing literature on the anthropology of Islam, Mittermaier’s study drives home both the significance of daily practice and the structural incompleteness of piety. Put differently, she shows us how the pious state of “giving to God” is both a material practice and a never satisfied goal. In doing so, she emphasizes the challenge that this structural tension poses for adherents. Just as importantly, Mittermaier probes the coexistence of multiple models of charity as those who give rarely exist solely within one framework. Instead, she shows that Egyptian Muslims balance among multiple conceptions and considerations. This observation, far from limited to charitable giving, can be extended to the study of piety more broadly.

Most provocative is Mittermaier’s challenge for us to take more seriously projects that, while worldly, are not defined by their world-making capacity. This account confronts historians and anthropologists alike with a challenge of qualitatively analyzing internal processes. Like in Charles Hirschkind’s account of cassette tape listening practices (The Ethical Soundscape, 2006), we are challenged to think beyond observable measures of influence. Mitttermaier’s contribution is to show that such charitable practices are not merely embodied but also relational. By stressing a triadic relationship among givers, receivers, and God, the author offers new pathways for studying Islamic piety in both past and present.

Amira Mittermaier has written a marvelous book. Giving to God will be of considerable value not only to anthropologists of Islam and charitable giving, but also to historians and political scientists who seek to understand the persistence of a longstanding model of Islamic charity in the face of political, economic, and social upheaval.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Aaron Rock-Singer is an Assistant Professor, History, at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Date of Review: 
August 15, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Amira Mittermaier is Associate Professor of Religion and Anthropology at the University of Toronto. She is the author of Dreams That Matter: Egyptian Landscapes of the Imagination.

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