The Charitable Crescent: Politics of Aid in the Muslim World

In Islam there are two kinds of structures, mosque and charitable organizations. Charities provide education or direct financial aid to the poor. However, Islamic governments—Jordan, Syria, Palestine and the Arab Gulf countries, for example—operate their own “government sponsored” aid agencies, in order to deny voluntary agencies from registering and collecting money. This is because Muslim rulers suspect their enemies will establish voluntary agencies in order to buy weapons and prepare to undermine a ruler’s hold over the population.

The Muslim Brotherhood is a Social Welfare Association. The Muslim Brotherhood or Society of Muslim Brothers (Ikhwan Muslimin), was founded in Egypt in 1928. It is both a political organization and a charity. The Muslim Brotherhood is illegal in Egypt but continues to enjoy success and popularity there. Its dual goal: socio-economic development and political influence.[1] In their book, The Charitable Crescent, Jonathan Benthall and Jerome Bellion-Jourdan (hereafter known as Benthall) write,

Few of the Western relief and development agencies working in Muslim countries show any inclination to try to work with Islamist associations as sub-contractors or partners, partly because these associations are usually at odds with their governments and partly because of suspicion of their political or religious aims. But these associations’ success in responding to grass-roots needs can only be seen as an admonition to centralized regimes that have failed to earn popular trust.[2]

The Muslim Brotherhood does not believe in nations or heads of state; only religious leaders–imams and mullahs–should make the law. This is why members of the Muslim Brotherhood are in prison in Egypt and other Muslim countries. Hizbullah, funded by Iran, aim at political objective of establishing an Islamic order. But as important, if not more so, the Muslim Brotherhood or any similar associations make their appeal to the Muslim poor and disenfranchised. It is hard for Americans to realize how many, many poor and hopeless Muslims want to overthrow the elite rulers or leave altogether for Europe and the West. Look at the boatloads of Muslims from Nigeria or Pakistan who want out. I have seen this up close and personally in Baghdad. If you are not a family member of one the godfathers who run the city, you will never get a seat at the table. The Muslim Brotherhood or other social welfare associations promise a better tomorrow for thousands of marginalized Muslims. The governments know this, and ban the associations, which then go underground. Benthall writes, that Islamism “is characteristically paternalistic, supported by marginalized professionals as much as by the poor, and with a strong emphasis on service provision rather than galvanizing disadvantaged communities.”[3] The Lebanese Hizbullah provides handouts in order to win the loyalty of disaffected citizens.[4]

Waqf  = charitable endowment. The approved office of welfare in Islam is the system of waqf.  A waqf (Turkish vakıf) is a religious endowment in Islam, typically a building or piece of land that generates income for a religious or purposes. Their incomes support the upkeep of many mosques. In past times, charitable services such as hospitals and orphanages were often maintained by awqaf. The practice of declaring property as waqf gained considerable currency due to the practice in many Muslim states of expropriating the properties of important persons, especially officials, when they died or were disgraced. By declaring his estate as waqf and his descendants as trustees, a rich man could provide an income for his surviving family.

Origins of Waqf. The institution of waqf, the Islamic equivalent of the charitable trust or foundation, known alternatively as hubs (Arabic plural ahbas, French habous) in North Africa, dates back virtually to the founding of Islam. Neither waqf or nohubs are mentioned in the Quran, but many other references to almsgiving and the ‘way of God’ (sabil Allah) are held to prefigure and authorize it.[5]

With its legal status consolidated in the 8th century, the awkaf spread over almost the whole of the Islamic world, so that, for example, between a half and two thirds of the lands of the huge Ottoman Empire were waqf at the start of the nineteenth century.[6] Waqfs became focuses of conflict between religious hierarchs and administrators, a way for the ambitious to move upward by gaining control of assets. In Egypt, Syria and Algeria all waqfs have been nationalized as state assets.

Since the word means literally ‘stopping’ or ‘tying up’ (from the root wqf), it was tempting for Western observers to blame waqf for the alleged immobilism of Islamic economies—and indeed, there is evidence of its abuses have been locally satirized. A waqf is in Western legal terms a ‘perpetuity’, which came to be opposed by English courts after money (rather than land) became the basis of a market economy.[7]

Since the 1960s the institution has been given new life in some countries, partly as an Islamic response to the worldwide upsurge of voluntary organizations, but sometimes with a strong admixture of political motivation. For instance, Hamas’ claim that the whole of Palestine is waqf is an extended, figurative use of the term that would have been unintelligible before the conflict with Zionism.[8] The claim of irrevertibility requires that any piece of property that is once assigned as an Islamic holy place must be so designated for all times. The Church of St. John the Baptist, now the Umayyad Mosque, in Damascus, is one such place. And then, of course, there is Mt. Moriah (the Temple Mount) in Jerusalem which is now the site of the al-Aqsa Mosque as well as the nearby Haram ash-Shareef. Only as non-Muslims understand what Muslims know—that the claim of waqf is a cause for jihad in Spain and Sardinia, in Budapest and Bulgaria, Jerusalem and on US military personnel stationed on bases in Saudi Arabia as well as n church property in Iraq—do the events of our time make sense.[9]

The Edhi Foundation in Pakistan. One of the most remarkable instances today of Muslim charity, even though it is idiosyncratic and has excited some controversy, is the Edhi foundation, built up from nothing by Abdul Sarter Edhi. The Edhi Foundation in Pakistan[11] was established in 1951. It is now a prominent national and international agency specializing in emergency relief, medical care and refugee aid, with branches in New York, London, Tokyo, Sydney and Scarborough (Ontario). By the early 1990s its property and investments were claimed by the founder to be valued at 1,000 million rupees. A glance at its website informs the reader that selling properties for the fabulously wealthy is how they want to portray themselves.[12] Remarkably, the Edhi Foundation is listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as having the largest volunteer ambulances in the world; its Field Ambulance Service retains 700 ambulances.

The Red Crescent. There is no International Red Crescent equivalent of the International Red Cross. An Islamic ruler or, in the case of Turkey and Iran, an Islamic government, may establish a national Red Crescent society. The Sultanate of Oman prohibits the forming of a Red Crescent society, probably to deny agitators a cover for their intrigues. The Palestinian Red Crescent has lost come credibility—most importantly with the American Government—after explosives were found in one ambulance.[13]

Islamic NGOs. There are Muslim NGOs in Asian countries. There are thousands of NGOs in Bangladesh, implementing most of that country’s development work, a phenomenon without equal anywhere else in the world. Most of them were established in the past twenty-five years.[14] There are NGOs in India. There are hundreds in Indonesia and Malaysia (search yayasan on the internet); they are small and have sprung up from the grass roots. There are no NGOs in Turkey. After the invasion of Afghanistan by the Soviet Union in 1979, the Afghan was the object of considerable mobilization in the Muslim world: different agencies worked to make this war an “Islamic cause” (qadiya islamiya). In different parts of the Muslim world, and among Muslim minorities in Western countries, appeals for support for the Afghan resistance against the Soviets created an atmosphere for NGOs to begin work specifically in Afghanistan.[15] With the coming of US funding in Iraq and European funding in Afghanistan many local NGOs (bonyad) have been created to implement development programs. I directed a USAID program, partnering with the Kurdish Veterinary Society to vaccinate sheep and goats in northern Iraq from 1994-1996.

In southern Lebanon during the 1980s when the state collapsed, Hizbullah stepped in to provide a wide range of social, educational and health services for the Shi’ite community. Studies of Arab Israeli villages and of the voluntary sector in Egypt testify that, relatively speaking, Islamist voluntary associations are capable of delivering effective welfare and relief services in certain contexts where the state has been unable or unwilling to provide them. After a serious earthquake in Cairo in 1992, killing some 500 people, the Muslim Brothers took a leading role. Again, when Egypt was hit by serious floods in November 1994, the government’s response was slow and ineffective. It was the Muslim Brothers and similar organizations which gave refuge in the mosques to families who had lost their roofs. In the late 1990s, at least half of all welfare associations in Egypt were Islamic in character, often based on mosques built and controlled by the people rather than the state, providing services to millions.[16]

The Ismaili Muslims. Their best-known representative is the Aga Khan Foundation, which, though formally a non-denominational development agency, has deep roots in the Ismaili community. Founded in 1967 as a private foundation under Swiss law, it is specially active in Asia and East Africa and is highly regarded by development professionals, with an annual flow of funds of about $100 million.[17]

Jordan is the site of a rich variety of voluntary agencies, new and old, indigenous and international. Over 650 voluntary societies are registered there, serving a population of about 5.25 million.[20] The Christian churches are active. The Circassian Charitable Association has the distinction of being the oldest active association (it was founded in 1932). Writes Benthall,

Many others are ‘royal’ associations, criticized as GONGOs (Government Organized Non-Government Organizations) rather than voluntary associations in the proper sense. It is an open question whether they contribute more in professionalism, influence and éclat [conspicuous publicity] than they take away by smothering grass-roots initiatives with official control.[21]

Problems of Accountability. Muslim charities do not have to submit to an external audit, except in Bahrain and a few other emirates. Benthall writes that this has been disastrous for the reputation of Islamic-charities as a whole.[22] An extreme example of what can go wrong is the case of the charitable foundations (bonyads) set up in Iran under the direction after the Revolution, by the order of Khomeini. Benthall writes,

The biggest is the Foundation for the Oppressed and the Self-Sacrificers, which was created in 1979 with a view to taking over the wealth of the Shah and those connected with the court, including the highly politicized Pahlavi Foundation. It is private but exempted from both taxes and reporting requirements. It is not said to control assets of $12 billion with an estimated 400,000 employees, its interests including manufacturing, importing, hotels, and even real estate in Manhattan. Some published reports about these foundations are damning, drawing parallels with the Philippines under Marcos or to the Community Party under Soviet apparatchiks.[23]

Conclusion. We observe that there are two structures in Islam; everyone gathers in mosques, where there is no membership. The second structure is voluntary, and task-oriented, that task being either educational or charitable. Mosques Charitable organizations (awqaf) are administrated separately.

[1] Jonathan Benthall and Jérôme Bellion-Jourdan, The Charitable Crescent: Politics of Aid in the Muslim World (London ; New York: I.B. Tauris, 2003). 105

[2] Ibid. 2 The author adds, “In Europe and North America great efforts have been made to ring-fence areas of charitable activity as begin distinct from political activity; examples are the Charities Acts in England, the French Law of Associations of 1901, and the development of Geneva Law since the foundation of the Red Cross.” 4

[3] Ibid. 89

[4] Ibid. 6

[5] Ibid. 32

[6] Ibid. 30

[7] Ibid. 31

[8] Ibid. 30

[9] Some Christians and Jews and Hindus also claim exclusive ownership of their holy places and are willing to fight to re-annex them.

[10] Benthall and Bellion-Jourdan, The Charitable Crescent: Politics of Aid in the Muslim World. 29


[12] Benthall and Bellion-Jourdan, The Charitable Crescent: Politics of Aid in the Muslim World. 18 See

[13] Benthall p. 66

[14] David Bornstein, How to Change the World: Social Entrepreneurs and the Power of New Ideas (Oxford University Press, 2004). 4

[15] Benthall and Bellion-Jourdan, The Charitable Crescent: Politics of Aid in the Muslim World. 71

[16] Ibid. 88

[17] Ibid. 89

[18] Ibid. 101

[19] Ibid. 95-96

[20] Ibid. 98

[21] Ibid. 99

[22] Benthall p. 6

[23] Benthall p. 107