Filippo Osella, Professor of Anthropology and South Asian Studies, School of Global Studies, University of Sussex

From beggar to deserving poor: the politics of Muslim charity in Colombo, Sri Lanka

In this paper I discuss the politics of charity in Colombo, Sri Lanka, focusing in particular on Muslim practices of giving and receiving zakat and sadaqa. Recent anthropological studies of charity and philanthropy have focused almost exclusively on the practices and perspectives of those who give time, money or goods through modalities of organized giving, which take the shape of a pedagogy directed towards transforming the lives of givers and recipients alike. I will suggest instead that pedagogical interventions directed towards the habituation of givers and recipients of charity to ethics and aesthetics of piety, social responsibility and economic virtuosity are necessarily incomplete, fragmented and contradictory. In particular, I seek to unsettle normative accounts by drawing out the complexity and heterogeneity of orientations and practices, underscoring the all too obvious anthropological insight that acts of charity can be understood very differently depending upon the position of those who participate in the exchange. This, in turn, suggests a degree of caution in attributing hegemonic or near-hegemonic status to processes of subjectivation or habituation engendered by so-called neoliberalism and Islamic reformism alike.

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