Beyond compassion: Islamic voluntarism in Egypt

by Amira Mittermaier

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By Amira MittermaierFull Article: onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/amet.12092/abstract


(image:
http://americanethnologist.org/wp-content/uploads/sites/2/2014/07/mittermaier-14aug-600px-300x225.jpg alt: Resala volunteers. Cairo, September 2011. Photo by Amira Mittermaier.

Resala volunteers. Cairo, September 2011. Photo by Amira Mittermaier.

) Resala volunteers. Cairo, September 2011. Photo: Amira MittermaierResala, Egypt’s largest volunteer-driven charity organization, engages in a range of activities, from distributing food in slums to visiting orphanages. Although its volunteers may appear to participate in a global moral economy of compassion, many of them articulate an Islamic voluntarism that contrasts with what they see as a Christian approach to suffering and with the more secular motivations of so much civic and humanitarian work today. Focusing on three Resala volunteers, I look at how Islam is imagined and mobilized to compel, make sense of, and justify giving in particular contexts and in practice. The volunteers’ stories reveal the multilayeredness of their ethics and trouble the link between compassion and voluntarism. By foregrounding religious duty, the volunteers offer insight into a nonliberal, nonhumanist ethics of voluntarism and question the centrality of compassion as a mobilizing force in the world and as an explanatory force in anthropology.