The Many Forms of Muslim Charity: A Brief History of Islamic Almsgiving

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From the verses of the Quran and the deeds of the Prophet Muhammad, charity has taken on many different forms over the fourteen centuries of Muslim history. The terms for obligatory and voluntary charity – zakat and sadaqa – are mentioned nearly sixty times in the Quran, while Sunni Muslims consider zakat to be one of the Five Pillars of the faith. Yet since the early centuries of Islam, such ethical ideals have prompted practical and legal considerations of how individual donations can be most effectively organized, and institutionalized, without surrendering the moral value of voluntary acts of conscience. In this episode of Akbar’s Chamber, we’ll follow this interplay between ethical ideals and practical realities from legal debates to booming medieval cities like Damascus and Cairo, where the rising problem of urban poverty led to large-scale complexes that comprise some of the most abundant remains of classical Islamic architecture. We’ll also examine how such traditional forms of charity changed, and survived, in the modern era. Nile Green talks to Adam Sabra, the author of Poverty and Charity in Medieval Islam: Mamluk Egypt, 1250-1517 (Cambridge University Press, 2000).

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