Trust and giving for the sake of God: The rise of the bureaucratic non-profit in American Muslim charity

Katherine Merriman, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

This introduction is part of POMEPS Studies 32, The Politics of Islam in Europe and North America. Download the full PDF here.

Muslims in what is now the United States have engaged in explicitly religious giving for over four centuries. From enslaved West African women offering saraka or devotional rice cakes on Georgia Sea Islands to a turn-of-the-century Bosnian benevolent society in Chicago, charitable giving has been a cornerstone to build religious community and forward social and political causes inspired by Islamic values.

The ritualized collection and distribution of charity by American Muslims in the form of zakat and sadaqah (obligatory and voluntary charity) create moral dispositions towards justice and care –what Chris Taylor calls an Islamic virtue ethics of “obligatory voluntarism” (2016). Over the twentieth century, tangible manifestations of these collective acts built American mosques and schools; funded relief efforts for Muslim majority regions affected by war or natural disaster; and sustained resource redistribution programs by economically marginalized Muslims. However, despite its ubiquity and impact as a religious practice, the terrain of charitable activity only came into public and scholarly visibility briefly after post-9/11 raids of several charity organizations accused of assisting terrorism (Siddiqui 2010).

Perhaps one reason why American Muslim practices of charity – as giving and service – exists below the radar is that historically it has not been organized under a centralized beit al-mal (treasury that distributed charity for public works) or dominated by a singular form, such as waqf (charitable endowment) as it was in Muslim majority regions. However, in the last three decades I argue that the 501(c)(3), faith-based nonprofit relief and development organization has become a dominant form to institutionalize Muslims’ collective obligations of care. While personal, private giving continues to support an ailing neighbor and mosques are built one sadaqah envelope at a time, Muslim nonprofits have positioned themselves as the central institution – as both a set of practices and space – to fulfill a pious duty and the ethical commitment to socio-economic stewardship in Islam.

Muslim non-profit charities promote a normative discursive model for American Muslims to construct and enact charitable activity, which adapts Euro-American humanitarian rights-based logic and neoliberal development practices into religious ethics. Muslims are simultaneously directed to purify their wealth and assist the needy for the sake of God while also called to protect the human rights of beneficiaries, maintain political neutrality, and fund neoliberal development projects tied to individual “empowerment” and economic growth (Mittermaier 2014). The commitment to humanitarianism is bolstered by mainstream American beliefs in self-reliance and capitalist free enterprise—enhanced by tax write-offs—where the structural nature of indigence is acknowledged but second to individual-focused assistance and assessment.

And yet, adoption is not necessarily imitation. While Muslim charities’ use of humanitarian logics and optics can be a means to find acceptance and reinforce dominant American values, they also often challenge its semiotic limits to what constitutes human suffering or moral truth. Organizations serving abroad subversively insist on the value of Muslim life in a global order where they are not grievable – existing only as “potential combatants” or collateral damage—and also proclaim Muslim values as worthy and admirable in the service of all people, regardless of race, citizen status, or creed (Butler 2004). In the United States, Muslim charities have quietly brought attention to poverty, including the greater burden poor Muslims bear of surveillance and criminalization as “potential extremists” (Beydoun 2016). Moreover, they declare a belief in the right to healthcare, food, and shelter under a government that outright privatizes services or does not guarantee them beyond bare subsistence.

These charity organizations express interpretive control and regulate apt performance of Islamic mandated charity, through their social media, publications, and facilitation of charitable activity through fundraisers, programming, and volunteer opportunities amid less powerful but competing religious reasoning and action. Despite incredible similarities in official publications and programming, staff, volunteers, and donors across organizations engage in a far wider debate regarding the deserving and undeserving; obligations of the privileged; responsibilities of the structurally marginalized; and the necessity or danger of political mobilization.

This underlying diversity of thought makes clear that charities are not the teleological end to US Muslim charitable practice. They emerged from conjunctural historical developments including but not limited to wealth aggregation, professionalization of preexistent practices in a context of what Nancy Khalil describes as “authority without people who authorize it,” and the need for bureaucratic structures in response to state surveillance (Subrahmanyam 1998). Moreover, Muslim non-profit humanitarian charities exist in a larger multi-scalar ecosystem of informal and local small-scale Muslim community service and social justice organizations on one end as well as the larger fields of American faith-based humanitarian charities and global Muslim charitable activity on the other.

The driving question then is why has this particular form—the humanitarian non-profit—come into dominance as a key administrative institution and ritual space for American Muslim charity?

 A strategic logic to adopt humanitarianism

Humanitarianism, born in the 19th century from European philosophy and Christian ethos, took earlier forms of communal care and transformed them into organized non-partial service to human need on a global scale (Barnett 2011). Foundational organizations, like the Red Cross, in the United States and Europe were nonetheless grounded in Eurocentric conceptions of social order and morality, including a racialized ontology of the human (Weheliye 2014).  Over the course of the twentieth century, Euro-American humanitarianism became increasingly entwined with nation-states, international organizations, and corporations in their respective drives for security, development, and profit at the expense of the Global South as well as marginalized populations within their borders.

Even with these critiques of humanitarianism’s ties to state violence or (neo)imperial projects of control, the humanitarian nonprofit is the most acceptable way to collect and distribute charitable funds, in-kind donations, and services. When American Muslims began to form benevolent associations in the first decades of the twentieth century and increasingly faith-based non-profits to send funds abroad to assist Muslim majority regions, they adopted the humanitarian framework in part to avoid what Julien Talpin calls the “less dramatic and non-violent forms of repression” of symbolic attacks against Muslim transnational financial activity as inherently seditious. Like marginalized religious groups in the United States before or alongside them, Muslims’ use of seemingly secular humanitarian language and the concomitant formation of service organizations was a means to enjoy conditional acceptance and express religious positions on society within the confines of cultural alienation and political suppression (Nichols 1988, Corbett 2016).

In this genealogy of humanitarianism, Muslim populations have historically been raced as less human and then subjected to domination and violence by Euro-Americans, all while being treated as the aggressors. As part of this dehumanization, suspicion around American Muslim financial and political activity began far before the “War on Terror” or even the Iranian Revolution with covert government efforts to dismantle the Nation of Islam in the 1960s because they stood against racial capitalism (Felber 2017). Therefore Islamophobia was and continues to be a dominant external force that makes the outwardly neutral moral language of humanitarianism attractive, as a means to express a sincere belief in a universal aim towards the elimination of human suffering.

Turning to internal community discourses, mostly non-black American Muslim communities in the late 20th century already gave of their labor and money to construct mosques and schools, oversaw strong national fraternal organizations, continued to build wealth, and were looking to formalize religious charity beyond bundled remittances abroad. Those who pioneered these first modern humanitarian charities found the legal category of the 501(c)(3) expedient to their goals and adopted this format beginning in the late 1980s. At this time, programs of privatized development in place of state welfare was on the rise, and Muslims followed other US faith-based charities in adopting the economic values of what Mona Atia calls “pious neoliberalism” (2013).

African American Muslim communities are part of this story, even as they are often segregated out, but also hold longer trajectories of community-based organizations for resource building, collective relief mechanisms, and entrepreneurial black capitalism to “do for self”. The Nation of Islam (NOI) was the largest of these groups and commanded millions in revenue in the mid-twentieth century at the height of their business and institution-building—despite covert, illegal sabotage efforts by the federal government. Once W.D. Muhammad took the mantle of NOI leadership in 1975 and dissolved the Nation’s holdings, his new organization, the Mosque Cares, preaches pious neoliberalism coupled with nationalist rhetoric but retains its message of African American communal uplift.

Contemporary landscape

By the early 21st century, the incorporation of collective acts of religious charity into Muslim nonprofits became so widespread and commonplace that large-scale charities began to be seen as discrete institutions to regulate and offer means for proper Islamic giving and service. From the late 1980s to the early 2000s, national Muslim humanitarian charities such as Islamic Relief USA, ICNA Relief, Mercy-USA for Aid and Development, Life for Relief and Development, and the Zakat Foundation of America became household names and now collectively command over two hundred million USD in donations each year.

They emerged as a ritual service provider, an administrative site for religious giving facilitating zakat transactions and sadaqah jariyya (continuous charity) for e.g. a school in Haiti or prosthesis production in Pakistan. But in their presence at national organizations’ annual meetings, ads in Muslim publications, and in the opportunities they provided for employment and volunteering, they also became a dedicated physical and discursive space specific to charity, making them not third spaces but a new institution altogether.

Therefore, while making no definitive claim to be sources of religious knowledge, presenting instead as humble servants to God, American Muslim nonprofits are nonetheless sites where authoritative religious discourses, affective orientation, and ritualized practices are produced regarding charity and the establishment of justice in human society (Hirschkind 2006). By reading and interacting with online and print media; sending donations; attending fundraising events; and participating in direct service work as staff or volunteers, American Muslims’ moral subjectivities are shaped by their relationship to these dominant charities.

And even for those who do not donate or interact with said charities, national Muslim nonprofit charities’ growth and financial power has allowed them to develop strong brand recognition at major conferences, in pamphlets at mosques, or as sponsors at local charitable events. Their narratives and methods have a thick theological presence not as an inevitable but a powerful normative force without direct engagement with an individual.

Muslim supporters most often invest authority into a charity not because they read it as a theology-producing institution, but because of its bureaucratic rationality (Maurer 1998). This is bolstered by pithy endorsements from famous male scholars such as Omar Suleiman, colloquially referred to as “celebrity imams,” who are often invited to make an appearance for fundraising events or narrate commercials for the larger charitable organizations (Kapoor 2013).

Ramadan charity fundraisers are a particularly potent example of an expected, ubiquitous, and highly structured ritual activity of charities that demonstrates what Bill Maurer calls, “charisma of form”: the legitimization of religious authority through bureaucratic form in place of theological argument. These events bring together Muslims to reaffirm shared beliefs and commitments as an ethical community that are simultaneously framed by the goals of the charity. Religious values are not inculcated here by mere cerebral activity, but exist in an epistemology of embodiment that demands presence and participation (Ware 2014).

Though not acknowledged in formal material, over the last thirty years national charities also obtained greater legitimacy through local branches and interpersonal networks of staff, their friends, family, and local supporters who share WhatsApp volunteering group texts or enjoy frequent socializing through service to avoid the loneliness of retirement. In this way the charity brand becomes a symbol into which local communities can pour their own religious meaning and aspirations. This might translate into programming specific to local needs or fundraisers run in a heritage language of a large local ethnic community.

Broader complexity: African American Muslim resistant traditions of care

American Muslim perspectives on religious charity, however, do not fall precisely along demographic lines of race and class, which is partially due to matters of faith. Moreover, because Islamic charity is a call to duty and not paternalistic care, Muslims from all socio-economic backgrounds participate in programming and giving. In fact, African American Muslims have shown much higher rates of community service than other racial and ethnic groups regardless of income level (Bagby 2004).

Participants offer diverse explanations for their charitable work that often complicate and sometimes exceed the moral horizon of liberal humanism. For example, some volunteers portray charity as an act to ensure their spiritual wellbeing exclusive to the transformation of society. In other instances, participants do not measure their work according to development metrics but insist on an “ethics of immediacy” where the present moment of human connection is the focus of charitable service (Mittermaier 2014). Nonetheless, the authoritative theological power of charitable organizations dictates the public and dominant explanation for Muslim charity in the United States– for now.

Right outside the spotlight is the aforementioned longstanding, robust, and yet marginalized tradition of collectivist liberatory theology from within African American Muslim communities. It is the strongest and most visible challenge to dominant Islamic charities’ discursive authority even as African American Muslim community service work has had to work against both anti-black economic structures and Islamophobia.

Best known through the programs of the Nation of Islam but present across different African American Muslim communities, black epistemologies and practices to resist racism in American society and Arab and South Asian ethnoreligious normativity are propelled by a “loop” of building self-knowledge, developing ethics, and acting in the service of social justice (Abu Khabeer 2016). While African Americans are present across the larger US Muslim charity landscape, it is this alternative tradition of care and justice that has actively pushed against humanitarian and neoliberal objectives centered in normative American Muslim charities.

This historical alternative points to the future of American Muslim charitable work, in which these African American critiques and collectivist perspectives are finding wider circulation, mainly in three camps. It informs Muslim charity among more recent Muslim majority refugee communities who do not fit the upwardly mobile stereotype of American Muslims and also among Muslim youth who find rights-based language limiting in its critique of American imperialism and violence at home (Maira 2016).

It also has found wider circulation within multiracial Muslim communities at varying levels of the socio-economic ladder who have grown disillusioned with the American promise of universal prosperity and respect under the law. This is the case especially as economic inequality widens, Black Lives Matter opened new conversations on racism, and the War on Terror roars into the late 2010’s. It is a transition from what Bogumila Hall identifies as a politics of recognition to a politics of refusal. This position is best embodied by the Inner City Muslim Action Network (IMAN) in Chicago and the recent Believers Bail Out Initiative of Ramadan 2018 that uses zakat funds to free people from the bondage of bail debt.


Emboldened, the newest stage of American Muslim philanthropy is more horizontal, decentralized, and entrepreneurial. It is also decidedly committed to local issues and does not shy away from public political commitments, protesting unjust wars and policing, or working to change state policy on affordable housing. New modes of collective charity have emerged in the form of crowdfunding, philanthropy foundations, and small-scale donation models. As much as resistance-based charitable work has grown, so have the dreams of entrepreneurial, wealthy American Muslim philanthropists who are inspired by Elon Musk to socially engineer communities out of poverty. Because of the financial power and community trust enjoyed by the Muslim humanitarian charity industry from American Muslims, I argue it is still secure as an institutional space and administrative force amid these shifts in the ways Muslims in the US use their charity to build a society they believe pleases God and serves all.


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