Rethinking Giving and Receiving in a Pious Economy: Giving to God

In his famous essay The Gift, Marcel Mauss touches upon the concept of reciprocity in gift-giving and contends that no gift is disinterested. By drawing on ethnographic observations, such as those on potlatch, a ceremonial gift-giving feast practiced in some places in North West America, he argues that potlatch is a competition for prestige that maintained the internal cohesion of the group and their relations with one another and presents how unreciprocated gifts put the receiver in a position of inferiority. He identifies three obligations during these festivals: the obligation to give, receive, and repay. The essence of potlatch relies on giving as a chief must give a potlatch for himself or for his family in order to keep his authority in his tribe, village, and family and maintain his position with the chiefs inside and outside their territories. The only way to demonstrate his fortune is by expending it to the humiliation of other leading figures and putting them in the shadow of his name. Thus, the potlatch becomes the fundamental act of public recognition in all spheres. When it comes to the receiving end, one does not have the right to refuse a gift or a potlatch. Doing so would show fear of having to reply. In principle, gifts are always accepted and praised. By accepting the food as an invited guest chief, you also take up the challenge and prove that you are not unworthy. And so the obligation to repay becomes another essence of potlatch as one’s face would be lost forever if one does not return an equivalent or more value.

In the foreword of the book, Mary Douglas writes “Though we laud charity as a Christian virtue we know that it wounds” (1990, ix). The condescending aspect of charity is shared fundamentally by what is referred to as compassion politics which various scholars have problematized. Hannah Arendt (1963) identifies certain features of what she refers to as ‘politics of pity’. Firstly, she makes a distinction between those who suffer and those who do not. And secondly, she brings up the idea of spectacle of suffering. This spectacle is based not on action of the strong over the weak but consists of observation of the unfortunate by the fortunate/lucky. Didier Fassin (2012) argues that humanitarianism has become the central value animating world politics and broadly defines humanitarianism as actions driven by emotion and moral sentiment which are aimed at saving lives and are carried out in the temporality of emergency and looks into the complexity inherent in this phenomenon which may bear forms of authoritarianism, violence, and inequality. Miriam Ticktin, in her ethnographic study on the contemporary politics of humanitarianism in France (2011), writes about how the state produces illegal migrants by enforcing laws that make their residence illegal. She finds out that those who can prove to be affected by a certain illness that prevents them from returning home country are more easily provided with documents under humanitarian clauses than those who are economic migrants. Since their work/stay permit politics centers on their biological bodies the biological body is seen as the repository of an indisputable truth, and represents the ultimate source of legitimacy—thus making the right to life not a political but rather a humanitarian motive. She calls this an “antipolitics of care” and writes a critique of it.

In her ethnographic work Giving to God: Islamic Charity in Revolutionary Times (2019), Amira Mittermaier, an anthropologist, looks into the everyday practices of Islamic giving in post-revolutionary Egypt. In this writing, I will be focusing on some of her encounters in her work in which the actions of her interlocutors completely disrupt the mechanism of ‘gift/charity giving’ or the ‘need to reciprocate’ produced as they bring God to the foreground and claim their giving to be done for God or see the receiving hand to be that of God. In other words, giving to God is neither about building toward a better future where poverty is extinguished nor about attending to the suffering Other. “It is something different, a third way, and this third way collapses common critiques of charity—precisely because it is neither ‘charity’ nor ‘charitable’. Rather, it is dutiful and directed at God. Placing God in the foreground, and the suffering Other in the background, disrupts both the liberal conceit of compassion and the neoliberal imperative of self-help. And in so doing, it protects the recipients from charity’s condescending dimensions. […] It protects the recipients from having to be grateful and from having to reciprocate”. So, some of her interlocutors, like Madame Salwa who may not necessarily sympathize with the poor, give precisely because God orders them to do so, because they want to make it into paradise, “and because a share in their wealth is the divinely ordained ‘right of the poor’ (haqq al-faqir)”. So, while their practices may resemble charity, they also enact a profound critique of charity. “Put differently, they invite a rethinking of rahma, or compassion, by reminding us that there is rahma in not pitying the poor”. Thus, such charitable efforts seem absurd “from the perspectives of humanitarian reason, neoliberal models of development, and the revolutionary desire to overthrow the socioeconomic order. But it also make her (Madame Salwa’s) giving persistent and provocative. Because she gives to God, she addresses immediate needs and responds to hunger and poverty.” Yet, her giving is not centered around the poor’s suffering, the donor’s compassion, or the hope for a better tomorrow. “[…] in Egypt one finds both immanence and transcendence. At times God is far removed, an abstract lawgiver and judge. Other times God is intimately present. […] God can be very present in people’s lives, precisely in His absence and remoteness. God, moreover, is continuously made present through rituals, such as prayer, sacrifice, and almsgiving […]”. And God is not only rhetorically present as He interferes in, and directs the lives of believers. Mittermaier writes about how she was time and time again told that a khidma, a Sufi space of hospitality, was opened as a result of a dream or other divine signs. With her work, Mittermaier challenges Mauss’ The Gift in which he argues that the reasons why the exchange is crucial in cultures around the world is that it establishes social relations and binds people together. A dyadic relation is described: I give to you, and you will give back to me. Yet, she writes, “When we keep God in the picture, we must think of the gift as triadic. God is not made and sustained through gift exchange—parallel to ‘society’—but rather is an active player who transforms the relationship between giver and recipient. It is because of God that Madame Salwa is both utterly concerned with and utterly disinterested in the poor”. In other words, “In a pious economy, the poor rely neither on compassion nor on solidarity. They come first by coming last”.

There are some other thought-provoking paradoxes that such actions bear. For instance, “the foregrounding of God never fully lifts people out of the material and social worlds they inhabit; in fact, the practice of giving to God embeds the giver all the more firmly within this world”—which Mittermaier describes as having a radical potential. This sort of ethics of giving is not radical or progressive as some activists may use the term in the sense of pointing to a different future. “It is radical precisely because it disrupts a future-orientedness and instead stubbornly addresses need in the here and now. Yet their acts, are at the same time future-oriented too as the giver is motivated by a place in paradise in the afterlife. Mittermaier wonderfully captures such contrasts by writing “People […] attend to the most basic bodily needs of humans by distributing food in Cairo’s most densely populated neighborhoods. At the same time they orient themselves away from humans and toward God. Put differently, they attend to the human while decentering the human. They attend to need in this world while thinking of this world as temporary and fleeting. By not taking ‘the human’ too seriously, they evade what Hannah Arendt calls a ‘politics of pity’, and they do not get caught up in programmatic visions of how to overthrow the current order of things. They simply give.” One reason that some of her interlocutors do not aim for a world free of poverty and engage in the sort of charity work that would perpetuate poverty by keeping the system as it is, is because they justify suffering in this world through the prospect of an otherworldly reward for the poor. Their aim is not to eradicate poverty as they see hierarchy as part of existence and as God’s will to create people in classes to provide a ground for the aforementioned triadic relationship. “From this vantage point, the things we own are ultimately meaningless, and what is actually valuable is our ability to keep the wealth of the world moving, from our hands to the hands of those who need it a little bit more than we do. As in other places in the world, the central moral problem here is not inequality but rather what one does from one’s position within a given hierarchy”

Mittermaier, of course, pays close attention to not overly simplifying and instead tries to portray the multilayeredness of their ethics and the link between compassion and voluntarism. She also acknowledges how there are different understandings and discourses within the Islamic tradition itself, despite how most of her interlocutors leaned towards a certain way. Yet the crucial point to take of her book is, perhaps, to re-think notions of charity, giving, intentions, God, and reciprocity. Nevertheless, we are provided and faced again with an existential re-questioning of human relationships and dynamics since having an omnipresent transcendent God involved and present in every seemingly dyadic relationship completely alters taken-for-granted understandings of relationships or social solidarities in the social sciences. Ethics of being or moral motivations that tie itself to God, or rely its ontology on God’s word/command, perhaps, can only be understood by bringing God to the fore in research as well—as Mittermaier has “taken God seriously” and held the visible and the invisible in the same frame, complicating Mauss’ classical story line, in which almsgiving secularized the sacrificial act and brought it down to earth, replacing ‘God’ with ‘the poor’.

Image: Receiving by Dana Jensen


Fassin, Didier. Humanitarian Reason. University of California Press, 2011.
Mauss, Marcel. The Gift: The Form and Reason for Exchange in Archaic Societies. Routledge, 1990.
Mittermaier, Amira. Giving to God: Islamic Charity in Revolutionary Times. University of California Press, 2019.
Ticktin, Miriam I. Casualties of Care. University of California Press, 2011.

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