“Our platform takes a role in inspirational giving in all spectrums across the globe,” said a campaign coach at the Company of Social Impact (a pseudonym) when I talked to her in early 2019. An initiative of social entrepreneurship, the company is committed to using financial and media technologies to facilitate Muslim giving. This crowdfunding platform is located in the United States and mostly hosts fundraisers from the United States, but it also hosts fundraising campaigns from various parts of the world. While the company seems to have a diverse staff profile, the campaign coaches I interviewed were young women based in the United States and Canada. Their work enables campaigns in a wide range of areas, from humanitarian efforts to alleviate hunger, to initiatives that support education, art, and technology.
The company’s crowdfunding platform reveals how various forms of Muslim giving in the United States are currently embracing the language of entrepreneurship. Social entrepreneurship in this case is a means to perform Islam, and the crowdfunding platform is an arena to organize social relationships. Muslims are invited to maintain traditional values under new conditions that extend their meanings and demand new performances that remap their significance. Yet, discursive tradition becomes much more difficult to follow under the conditions of “broken time,” as Talal Asad has explored. In this case, the company embraces risk as a way of managing the typical challenges faced by startups in corporate America. Beyond this, the company also sees itself as providing a model for how to incorporate “Islamic” ways of life into forms of exchange. As another campaign coach at the Company of Social Impact told me, she considers her work to be iba’dah (ritual) because she thinks that it follows the path of God.
The use of the language of calculation and innovation in the mediation of Muslim giving seems to represent, as Michel Foucault writes on biopolitics, a mentality of growth that particularly focuses on “investment in human capital.” For instance, some of the campaigns the crowdfunding platform hosts support Muslim entrepreneurs in their business ventures. Giving here operates as a means to invest in Islamic entrepreneurship in order to empower Muslim communities. The use of the crowdfunding platform for investment in business ventures, furthermore, provides a way to invest without debt, hearkening back to an economic framework that underlines “equity and investment” as an alternative to the centrality of interest and speculation in conventional finance. That is, the company provides for a particular form of Islamic economy by utilizing Muslim giving in the context of a profit economy.
For the Company of Social Impact, social entrepreneurship is redescribed as the fi sabilillah (“on the path of God”) model. On its own, of course, such redescription is not historically surprising: social custom has long been used as an authority by certain Muslim jurists. In this model, the company seeks to maintain Islamic principles like the distinction between zakat (obligatory giving) and other forms of giving. As the company’s fees are collected for profit purposes and this profit does not count toward the giver’s zakat, givers are advised to deduct the company’s fees from their zakat donation. All these calculations are needed in order to abide by God’s path.
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Historically, Muslims have not limited their giving solely to money. Certain forms of giving, such as saraka and in many cases nadkr, involve the distribution of food. For those who are unable to give, “voluntary inaction” has also been considered a form of giving. However, the crowdfunding platform enables only monetary transactions. That is, giving can be practiced only in the form of money, and this money can only be converted to serve other purposes once the campaign is over. Money here indicates a payment that conveys a set of cultural meanings, practices, and connections. And when giving is funneled into monetary forms, certain forms of connections get foreclosed.
The meeting of money with technology also leads to questions about the automated nature of giving that the crowdfunding platform enables. The giver does not need to actively initiate giving each time; rather, one click is enough to give regularly for an extended period of time. When the practice of giving is automated in this way, the intention of the giver becomes blurred. Within the complex of Islamic moral reasoning, the “intention” of an act refers to an embodied practice, involving both a connection to the divine and publicly accessible principles of learning and ruling. Here, giving becomes a daily practice while a tension between intentionality and automaticity is created.
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This crowdfunding platform also emphasizes the importance of trust and relationships in order to secure funding. Another campaign coach informed me that the crowdfunding platform rests on the idea that “everyone can make an impact” by bringing together creativity and charity. This coach also underlined the crowdfunding platform’s role in “building communities.” In this case, while amr bi’l ma’ruf (which Talal Asad writes, “implies mutual responsibility among friends persuading one another to do what is right and avoid what is wrong”) is practiced over a crowdfunding platform, Muslim giving also finds new pathways under the conditions of late capitalism. The members of the company and the campaign creators invite Muslim subjects to give for the “social good,” and Muslim subjects respond to this invitation through giving money. Furthermore, the invitation is aimed to be done with ihsan (excellence), as the campaign coach informed me that “ihsan helps to provide the quality.”
The power of financial and media technologies also allows this company both to benefit from and remap the contours of global Muslim networks. Although the campaigns are limited to the needs and particularities of certain spaces and times, the power of the platform is that it brings transactions and religious narratives from around the world into a common arena of action. Hence, the crowdfunding strategy allows this company to serve worldwide and to be a part of the global Islamic economy. The company has been widely recognized for this work; they have received awards and recognitions for their role in ethical finance, such as the “Islamic Economy Award,” among others, from the United States, Dubai, Abu Dhabi, and Kuala Lumpur. Islamic social entrepreneurship also exceeds geopolitical boundaries, such that Muslim entrepreneurs are further deterritorializing the notion of ummah (the worldwide Muslim community). As a result, by contesting the modes of socialization within institutions of profit making, Muslim entrepreneurs utilize social relationships beyond the profit economy.
The translation of Muslim giving into Islamic entrepreneurship reflects a conversation among the actors of the online giving platform over proper ways of living. We will have to follow these practices into the half-spaces of contemporary life—at once virtual and offline, intentional and automated—to investigate their novel forms.