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Islamic Charity in Egypt: On Ethics and its Limits

Centre for Ethnography Seminar Series, Fall 2012

Drawing on fieldwork at one of Cairo’s largest charity
organizations, this
paper offers a critical engagement with the anthropology of ethics and

Over the past ten years, and even more so since the uprising in January 2011, thousands of young Egyptians have become involved in charitable activities. In this paper I reflect on the volunteers’ own understandings of their charitable work. Whereas some describe charitable giving as inherently ethical (as responding to need and suffering), others insist that their actions are not for “the poor” but for God.

Their goal is not being ethical but following God’s commands. By cultivating a radical orientedness toward God, they explicitly reject the language of ‘amal al-khayr, the “doing of good deeds,” and offer a critique of “empathy” and “compassion.” I suggest that this “anti-ethical” stand invites not only an expansion but also a critical rethinking of the ethical turn in anthropology.


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