Amira Mittermaier, Giving to God: Islamic Charity in Revolutionary Times (University of California Press, 2019).

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?

Amira Mittermaier (AM): The central question of the book—what it means to give to God by way of giving to the poor—goes back to my longstanding fascination with all things invisible. More concretely, my earlier work on dreams and visions in Egypt had led to my interest in Islamic charity. I was intrigued by dream exchanges with the Prophet Muhammad, the dead, and ahl al-bayt and spent much time at saint shrines where people often distribute food in response to the saint having appeared to them in a dream. But, ultimately, the world of dreams could not shield me from the harsh material realities many Egyptians face. Among those receiving food at the saint shrines were homeless people, street children, and others struggling with material hardship. The very nexus between the invisible-imaginary and material-economic is what animated my book, Giving to God. The giving here is li-llāh, to and for God, meaning that it is directed at the most crucial invisible Other; but, at the same time, the gifts are received by people struggling to get by. The hands of the poor quite literally stand in for the hand of God. I wanted to understand and unpack what that means.

That part was of my own making and grew out of my earlier work. But there were also other factors that shaped the book that had nothing to do with me. When I planned my fieldwork, I did not know that the Egyptian uprising would happen and that it would completely change the playing field. The book ultimately was also shaped by that convergence. My fieldwork happened against the backdrop of the tumultuous events of the revolution and its aftermath. I became interested in what mundane religious practices (that seem entirely unpolitical) might have to say to this moment and its big ideals, especially the call for social justice. The book tries to stage what I think of as an unlikely conversation between quiet acts of giving and the loud revolutionary moment.

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?

AM: My thinking about Islamic charity builds on different critical literatures around the question of compassion and humanitarianism. Many pious givers in Egypt do not prioritize compassion. They rather foreground God. Because their giving does not ride on compassion, I argue, it gets us around some of the crueler and more wounding aspects of charity, as well as problems such as “compassion fatigue” or the undermining of rights through what Didier Fassin calls “humanitarian reason.” Central to the giving I describe is a duty to God and, related to it, the “rights of the poor” (haqq al-faqīr). In this sense, my interlocutors’ lived Islamic ethics resonate with critiques of compassion that have been formulated by Lauren Berlant or Miriam Ticktin, for instance, and it expands the Maussian paradigm of gift exchange. For my interlocutors, giving is triadic, not dyadic. When God is in the picture, the rules of obligation and reciprocity change.

Most of the giving in my book revolves around the giving of food. I chose this focus not only because the giving of food (it‘ām in Arabic) is a central Sufi practice, but also because it is the kind of giving that many progressive and future-oriented observers dismiss as pointless, shortsighted, and a “drop in the ocean.” My hope is that the book disrupts such quick dismissals of practices of giving that attend to immediate need. Here, my work is in conversation with other critiques of development and of what James Ferguson calls the “productionist paradigm.”

Related to this, and in light of the revolution-as-backdrop, the book is also an extended meditation on the question of an Otherwise. Throughout I grapple with my own temptation to read some of the spaces of giving that I describe—especially Sufi khidmas—as utopian. Such spaces welcome anyone who shows up with no expectations attached. They feed those who walk in. James Ferguson’s wonderful book on basic income programs, Give a Man a Fish, was instrumental in crystallizing my thoughts about the radical potentials of these spaces: no performances of suffering are required and no thank-yous. Ferguson asks us to think of distribution as one of the most pressing problems today, and so do khidmas in their very own way. The book reflects on the Otherwise that is performed in such spaces. But it also maintains a tension throughout; it is me, the outside observer, searching for utopian potentials. The people immersed in the giving are not after things like “social justice.” They are simply giving to God. My desire to read their practices as radical does not sit well with their own orientation to (and beyond) this world. In this sense, the book probes our own attachments to the political and tries to open up a space for thinking about religious practices differently—with an eye to God, the afterlife, and other invisible matters that cannot fully be subsumed under a this-worldly frame of politics.

J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?

AM: My earlier book was about dreams in Egypt. At its core was an interest in people’s interactions with spaces and figures that are generally invisible, such as the Prophet Muhammad and the dead. The Islamic tradition distinguishes between different kinds of dreams. The most important kind, the ru’yā or divinely inspired dream, is not projected outward by the dreamer’s unconscious but rather comes to her. This opens up a vibrant space for interactions, dialogues, and encounters. Conceptually, I thought of this earlier work as an anthropology of the imagination that takes seriously other understandings and practices of the imagination and that examines the life-worlds they enable. As I mentioned earlier, my book on charity builds on this interest in the invisible and the imagination. In line with my earlier work, it also tries to capture a broad landscape of Muslim religiosities that co-exist in Egypt—from Sufi to Salafi. At the same time the second book departs from my earlier work by bringing economic and political contexts more to the foreground. After all, charity responds to real material needs, especially at times when there are hardly any state-provided social services. Most of the giving I describe happened in the immediate aftermath of the 2011 uprising—a time when many people felt let down by the state and when people were actively imagining and crafting life-worlds outside of the state framework.

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

AM: I hope the book will be read by scholars and students who are interested in the Middle East, Islam, charity and humanitarianism, and the aftermath of revolutions. I tried to write the book in an accessible way and very much hope it will be of use to undergraduate students and a broader public. The main impact I would like it to have is to make us rethink the quick dismissal of the kind of charity that is “giving a man a fish.” I try to show that attending to need in the here and now is in fact a critical alternative to the constant promise of a “better tomorrow.” In this sense I hope the book lays the ground for a more nuanced understanding and appreciation of what these various religious actors are up to, and what their giving does in this word—and beyond.

As always, I also hope that those I write about will read my work and that it means something to them, that it allows them to reflect on their own work in a new light and that my own appreciation comes through. I have given copies to a number of my key interlocutors already and would like to eventually pursue a translation into Arabic.

J: What other projects are you working on now?

AM: God turned out to be key to the giving I studied and to my earlier work on dreams. This led to my ambition to write a third book on Egypt that makes God even more central. I call this new project an “ethnography of God.” I have started fieldwork, for now primarily focusing on the many young people who have joined Sufi orders since the 2011 uprising. In the long run, the project will also include people in other religious (and irreligious) communities, as well as anti-atheism campaigns in Egypt. My ambition is to write an account in which God is more present than is usually the case in the anthropology of Islam. Part of my inspiration comes from the rich literature in the anthropology of Christianity that deals with divine presence and absence. Another part comes from the strikingly vibrant “God-talk” in Egypt since the uprising.


Excerpt from the book

From the opening of the book

“I don’t care about the poor.” Madame Salwa talks bluntly as we rush through the unpaved alleys of Islamic Cairo.

In a sentence, she disrupts my illusion of goodness and compassion.

It is August 2011. This year, Ramadan has fallen on one of the most difficult times of the year. The sun rises a little after 5 a.m. and sets close to 7 p.m., making for almost fourteen hours of fasting. The days are long, and it is hot. But this does not stop us.

Three days a week, Madame Salwa and I meet early in the morning, take a bus to the Sayyida Nafisa mosque, head into a small alley, and take a narrow staircase up to a roof. Here, in a room on this roof, lives Abir, along with her husband and their four children. Abir has assisted Madame Salwa for several years, buying vegetables and meat for her at a local market and offering her kitchen, basic as it is, as well as her labor.

This day, like so many others, we spend hours with Abir and her children in their small home on the roof. We cook vast amounts of rice and kufta—meatballs in tomato sauce—which, about an hour before the sun sets, we will distribute downstairs in the alley. The people in the neighborhood are expecting us; they line up with empty bowls and plates. They take the food home, often after having collected more food from other donors. For many of them, ironically, the month of fasting is the only month when they have enough to eat, when they get to eat meat on a regular basis, and when they can save some money. Abir’s family receives food from us too, and each day Madame Salwa gives them 20 Egyptian pounds (around $3) for helping us.

Madame Salwa lives about ten kilometers to the northeast, in the middle-class neighborhood of Agouza. Her husband is a police officer who had to retire early because of an injury. They have no children. Generally on the conservative side, Madame Salwa was skeptical of the uprising that had exploded seven months earlier, in January 2011, and she was equally suspicious of the Muslim Brotherhood, the longstanding Islamist organization that, by the summer of 2011, was increasingly asserting its political presence and whose candidate Mohamed Morsi would win the presidential election in 2012. Later she would sigh with relief when, following the military coup in 2013, the former minister of defense, Abdelfattah el-Sisi, became president.

While skeptical of Islamist organizations, Madame Salwa is very pious. She fasts during Ramadan and, following the Prophet Muhammad’s example, on most Mondays and Thursdays throughout the year; she prays five times a day; she wears a hijab; and she has long felt drawn to ahl al-bayt, literally the “people of the house,” close descendants of the Prophet Muhammad, many of whom are buried in Cairo. Madame Salwa regularly visits their shrines, where she distributes bean sandwiches or small plastic containers filled with ruzz bi-laban, a sweet, sticky milk pudding that smells of rose water. She believes that giving is central to Islam. “It’s what Islam is all about,” she often explained to me, citing a hadith, a saying ascribed to the Prophet Muhammad, stating that you cannot be a good Muslim if your neighbor goes to bed hungry. “And there are so many people who don’t have enough to eat,” she said in the summer of 2011, “especially now.” Food prices had been on the rise, and many were struggling to get by.

Madame Salwa is aware of the people around her who are going hungry. She seems to feel compassion for the poor, for the homeless who linger around the saint shrines, for the many people lining up with their bowls and plates during Ramadan; occasionally, she also seems to feel compassion for Abir and her children. She seems affected by the needs of other people.

But then, this: Madame Salwa and I are done for the day. We have distributed all the food, said good-bye to Abir, and are walking swiftly toward the bus station, hoping to make it home before the call to prayer announces it is time to break our fast. I’m exhausted, thirsty, and hungry. But at least we have done something good. Indeed, that sense of goodness is more pronounced than my seemingly trivial academic accomplishments. Collecting data always seems a bit overrated on such days. Yes, I will write fieldnotes in the evening, and yes, I spent the day with Madame Salwa because I am researching different manifestations of Islamic giving. And yet as we rush for the bus, it is the fact that we have given food to people—people who would otherwise be hungry—that seems more important. It is almost impossible to resist the self-congratulatory logic of charitable giving. We give because it is the right thing to do but we also give because it feels good. But then, walking by the crowded, decrepit homes of those who collected food from us an hour earlier, Madame Salwa flicks her wrist as if swatting a fly, and says, “I don’t care about the poor.”

This from a woman who gives to the poor throughout the year, and who cooks for them for hours while fasting. Who travels on crowded city buses to the busy outdoor market in {ayn}Attaba because there she gets a good deal from a Christian blanket salesman, and who then distributes the blankets in slums. A woman who has taken me to visit orphanages all over Cairo and who has led me through the hallways of a rundown children’s hospital so that we can pat the backs of sick kids—“to make them smile,” as she says—and so we can ask them and their parents if they need anything. Friends and relatives entrust their alms to Madame Salwa because they know that she will do something good with the money, and she will not waste a single piaster. Having known her for over a decade, I, too, have long been impressed by her tireless commitment to giving and, when I am not in Egypt, I send her money every Ramadan via Western Union.

On the surface, Madame Salwa is the quintessential charitable Muslim. She is all about caring for others, caring for those in need, caring for the poor.

“I don’t care about the poor,” she says. “I do all this for God [li-llāh].”