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Significance of Philanthropic Institutions in Ottoman Social Life
Jul 1, 2012

"Waqf 1 is a social, legal and religious institution which played an important role in social, cultural and economic life of the Islamic world, especially the Turkic world of the Seljuk and Ottoman period."2 A key function of Islamic waqf (endowment) practice was to cover some of the public expenses and to perform many of the services that are the responsibility of the public sector in a modern state.3 Waqf is the only known perpetuity in Islam, which protects dedicated revenue-bearing assets by avoiding their becoming the property of someone.4 Income from awqaf is first applied to the upkeep of the corpus, and the surplus goes to the beneficiaries specified in deeds.

It is also important to comprehend benefits brought by perpetuation of this institution, since the waqf system could successfully survive for centuries. Some preventive measures to ensure longevity were finding new sources of income, establishing new auxiliary endowments, deploying tax exemptions, protection of property from natural deterioration, and establishing a skillful management.3 Even when the governments suffered from crisis, these critical installments have served to lighten fiscal burden on the government and operated without an interruption in their service to community, as a result of being funded by endowments. For example, since the beginning of Islam, the madrasahs functioned depending on the income of the estates assigned, and hence the central government hardly spared any budget for education.5 More outstandingly, as an independent source of finance, waqf provided a class of religious notables and scholars with an economic base independent of political authorities, enabling them to take positions unreservedly.3

Agricultural revenues were channeled into urban services through awqaf which also played a role in activating economic growth, expansion, diversification, and development. For instance, housing units, service facilities and/or shops bequeathed onto a school, a hospital or a comprehensive mosque around which they were established; the core project progressively became a nucleus for a commercial center, even gradually growing into a town center. Added to all these kinds of direct participation, there are other indirect kinds of contributions of awqaf in the economic growth6 as they have helped reduce government expenditure and consequently paving the way for growth.7

"As an institutionalization of Islamic values, waqf system presents good lessons in dealing with poverty and income inequality."8 Having taken the Prophetic saying "One who sleeps while his/her neighbor is hungry is not one of us" and many other hadith in the similar context as a reference point, Ottoman society presented exemplary behavior in interpersonal relationships.9 In addition to the strong family bonds, this compassionate approach is among one of the main factors that prevented homelessness, a major contemporary social problem in the West, to appear in Ottoman society. Without any personal interest, people founded thousands of institutions allocating some or all of their private properties such as farms, houses, enterprises, and savings as revenue sources to these institutions to ensure their continuity in the service of public.10

According to Islam, everything besides God is transitory and perishable.11 Stemming from the belief that any charitable action does not expire, awqaf have functioned as nongovernmental institutions throughout the Islamic world in various fields. In the 11th century, every Islamic city had at least several hospitals funded by awqaf for various expenses, including the wages of doctors, ophthalmologists, surgeons, chemists, pharmacists, domestics and all other staff; the purchase of foods and medicines; hospital equipment such as beds, mattresses, bowls and perfumes; and repairs to buildings. Awqaf funded medical schools and their libraries as well, and their revenues covered various expenses such as maintenance, wages of teachers, and stipends of students.12 In the Bayezid complex in Edirne, for instance, there were 21 doctors and other officers to look after only 50 patients who were cured through performances of 10 musicians, carried out three days a week.13

Estimates show existence of some 26 thousand awqaf in the Ottoman State.14 In 1527, 12% of the whole Ottoman state revenues were controlled by waqf administrations, while at the end of the eighteenth century the combined income of the Ottoman awqaf reached to one-third of the state's total revenue, including the yield from tax farms in the Balkans, Turkey, and the Arab world. Although these estimates rest on arguable assumptions, there is no disagreement over the orders of magnitude. As a measure of their rights and status in the society, nearly 40% of awqaf were established by women by means of their own wealth.10 Founded in 1552 by the wife of Suleyman the Magnificent, Jerusalem's Haseki Hurrem Sultan charitable complex possessed 26 entire villages, several shops, a covered bazaar, 2 soap plants, 11 flour mills, and 2 bathhouses, all in Palestine and Lebanon. For centuries, the revenues produced by these assets were used to operate a huge soup kitchen, along with a mosque and two hostels for pilgrims and wayfarers.15

There is abundant evidence to show the massive economic significance of the waqf system that even a single waqf could carry great economic value. Another waqf established in Halep (Aleppo) in the eighteenth century included 10 houses, 67 shops, 4 inns, 2 storerooms, several dyeing plants and baths, 3 bakeries, 8 orchards, and 3 gardens, among various other assets, including agricultural land. By the end of the eighteenth century, in Istanbul, whose estimated population of 700,000 made it the largest city in Europe, up to 30,000 people a day were being fed by charitable complexes established under the waqf system. At the founding of the Republic of Turkey in 1923, three-quarters of the country's arable land belonged to awqaf.10

A closer look at the Ottoman practice

Throughout the Ottoman realms, the waqf was without any doubt, the primary philanthropic institution which had long served as a major instrument for delivering public goods. For six centuries, the Ottomans largely succeeded to eradicate poverty through awqaf via a voluntary transfer of wealth from the rich to the poor and the latter were fed and taken care of in a decentralized manner. More importantly, health and educational services, essential conditions for the development of human capital, were provided via this institution.16 Waqf was instrumental to the spread of the Ottomans whose policy of settlement relied heavily on the establishment of awqaf in support of Sufi centers that were planted along the frontiers of the expanding state, on its strategic trade routes and traffic arteries, amidst its political rivals and enemies, or in other strategic locations, thus contributing to the spread of Islam as well.3

Alternatively, waqf was extensively used for the development of public and commercial institutions leading to the economic revitalization of major cities, and also as perhaps the major tool to bring about cultural integration for conveying Ottoman culture and services to the regions being settled. The participation of centrally appointed officials and local notables in awqaf helped bridge gaps between these two groups and produced a homogeneous urban elite throughout the vast empire.3

The Ottoman state contributed to awqaf in two ways. First, either by directly establishing waqf17 or by granting land to those who wanted to found a waqf. In this way, the vacant lands had been brought into cultivation, creating extra revenues for the state. Second, the state contributed by supervising, controlling, and recording the revenues and expenditures in order to secure their well-functioning. The control and the supervision of the waqf system can be attributed to the importance of the land in Ottoman politics.8

Granting these privileges, the state sacrificed from large amounts of tax revenue, yet also kept an eye on the activities of awqaf to ensure quality of service.18 The revenues and expenditures of the awqaf had been recorded very carefully. In terms of production of statistical records, systematization in record-keeping, there are not too many states in history to rival the Ottomans.19 Many of these records have been carefully archived,20 and are still available as primary sources to researchers. 21

Awqaf in daily life

The Ottoman state was mainly responsible for security, justice, and border protection. Almost all other social tasks were being performed individuals. The belief that "Charity pleases God and brings God's blessings" determined Muslim behavior in many fundamental acts of economic importance and the Ottomans were particularly zealous in that regard.22 People set up and administered awqaf for benevolent purposes, which followed the principle, "there always is a necessity to service wherever living things exist."23

The beneficiaries were not limited to the poor and needy. Awqaf have served the public for a variety of purposes that outline an endless list: protecting the unfortunate, meeting the need of wayfarers and pilgrims, raising orphans, providing scholarships to students, employing the unemployed, educating apprentice artisans toward mastery, helping the bankrupt or those with excessive debt, covering marriage expenses for needy couples, sheltering animals, taking care of widows, hungry and the destitute, sick and the disabled, running health care, sports and educational programs, producing candles for mosques, taking care of the environment, paving roads, enlightening streets, paying a neighborhood's taxes, supporting retired sailors, organizing picnics for a designated guild, subsidizing the cultivation of rare roses, operating commuter ships, lending to small businesses, helping prisoners, and providing toys to children of poor families. These were among hundreds of other purposes of varying social significance. Also, there have been many applications to launch, construct, manage, and preserve public institutions and infrastructure like military establishments, pavements, lighthouses, malls, cemeteries, hospitals, public baths, drinking fountains, mosques, schools, dormitories, inns, caravanserais, dervish hospices, bridges, roads, aqueducts, libraries and so on.

Some basic ethics of charity in Islam are anonymity, avoiding pretension, preserving purity of intention, and protecting assisted people from any possible psychological effects.24 A thoughtful application of these principles came into life in the "Charity Stones." In this Ottoman practice, charitable people would leave some money (generally in the dark of the night) to these two-meter-high marble columns with a hole on top, which were commonly located at the unobserved corners of mosques, madrasahs, cemeteries, mausoleums, and neighborhoods. Needy people, later on, would take money from there, astonishingly, no more than they needed. The rest would be left back with decency for someone else, which shows the achieved level of the brotherhood and solidarity in the society.25 These stones were used to prevent a form of mendicancy in the society and at the same time, not to offend needy people.

The Turkish waqf spirit which cares for all living beings has extended its reach to birds as well, when from the fifteenth century on, kiosks for birds were started to be built. Some of these "bird houses," also called "bird palaces," resembled mosques with their minarets, high-hopped towers and signs in the form of a crescent, and displayed an extraordinary workmanship. Having observed such bird houses with great interest, the Austrian ambassador Busbecq wrote in 1550s that "in Turkey everything has become humanized and every rigid thing has been softened; even the animals."10 Many examples of awqaf have served for protection and enhancement of the environment as well.26 In "Ottoman land," Comte de Bonneval stated, "it is possible to see Turks passionate enough to dedicate money for men to water unfruitful trees, in order to protect them from drought due to hot weather."27 According to D'Ohsson, this caring motivation is rooted in Islam: "Qur'an has transformed Turks into the best philanthropists of the world."28

There were awqaf established for each aspect of life. One can talk about the excess supply of public goods rather than their scarcity thanks to extensive waqf services, so much so that Ottoman cities did not need to implement actual municipality organizations to deliver urban services in a centralized and coordinated manner before 1856.29 "Thanks to the awqaf flourished during the Ottoman Empire, a person would have borne into a waqf house, slept in a waqf cradle, ate and drunk from waqf properties, read waqf books, taught in a waqf school, received his salary from a waqf administration, and when he died, put into a waqf coffin and buried in a waqf cemetery."30 Had the awqaf gained corporate powers, "they would have acquired the ability to transform themselves into organizations akin to municipalities."31

By means of the awqaf founded in different spheres of social life, privately accumulated capital was voluntarily endowed to finance all sorts of social, cultural, religious, and economical services alongside with health and transportation, all of which were free of charge and open to everyone, without discrimination. As a result, the awqaf played a very eminent role in setting up a sound integration, cooperation, and mutual confidence between the society and the state. Aqwaf, in other words, became the medium for financing Islam as a society,32 and have served as the primary mechanism for a better distribution of income.

Awqaf's services were provided through decentralized decision-making, i.e., not by a central authority but by philanthropists determined to address social and economic issues in their neighborhood.17 The multiplicity of waqf founders, together with the generally uncoordinated character of their choices, furnished abundant opportunities for learning from failures and successes. Such associations that individuals create, operate, and transform essentially on their own, without direct guidance from the state, also contributed to a strong civil society.31

The notion that wasting or misusing properties of awqaf, the state, or orphans is a severe violation of the rights of others, thus will be punished in the Hereafter, provided an extreme sense of self-discipline in individuals and immunity to those properties. Traditionally, waqf deeds even contained imprecations to discourage any possible abuse and orisons to encourage compliance with the deed.33

The centralization policy, promoted partly by the Western powers and partly by the Ottoman reformers in the late nineteenth century, undermined the role of awqaf and transformed these traditional institutions to European-inspired municipalities for providing public services with a central manner.34 Most countries now directly or indirectly administer waqf lands in separate Ministries, leading to the demise of its nongovernmental identity. Moreover, as a usual practice in the Europe, North America, and Australia, Muslim communities establish nonprofit organizations which in turn own the waqf property. Despite the reduction in its influence in the social spheres, and despite the considerable cutback in the size of its properties and revenues due to the colonial experience and the emergence of modern nation states, waqf remains as an institution of substantial wealth and potential, and it still holds some of the historical flexibility that qualifies it to play a major role in contemporary societies.35

Senkaya has a Master's Degree in Nonprofit Leadership. He can be contacted at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..


1The word waqf, and its plural form awqaf, were derived from the Arabic root verb waqafa, which means "to cause a thing to stop and stand still." Heffening defines waqf as: a pious endowment established when an owner of a property surrenders her/his disposal rights, without transferring them to some other party (Heffening, W. "Waqf." Vol. 4. In Encyclopedia of Islam, 1096-1103. 1934).

2 Toraman, Cengiz. "Cash Awqaf in the Ottomans as Philanthropic Foundations and Their Accounting Practices" Paper presented at the fifth Accounting History International Conference. Canada: Edward School of Business, University of Saskatchewan, August 9-12, 2007.

3 Dallal, Ahmad. "The Islamic Institution of Waqf: A Historical Overview." In Islam and Social Policy, Stephen P. Heyneman, 13-43. Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 2004.

4 Othman, Muhammad Z. "Institution of Waqf." Islamic Culture 58, no. 1 (1984): 55-62.

5 Canan, ?brahim. Kütüb-i Sitte Tercüme ve ?erhi. Vol. 16, 275-281. Ankara: Akça? Yay?nlar?, 2004.

6 Islamic Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. "Islamic Waqf Endowment."

7 Çizakça, Murat. A History of Philanthropic Foundations: The Islamic World from the Seventh Century to the Present. Istanbul: Bogazici University Press, 2000.

8 Ba?kan, Birol. Paper presented at 17th Middle East History And Theory Conference, May 10-11. Center for Middle Eastern Studies, University of Chicago. 2002, "Waqf System as a Redistribution Mechanism in Ottoman Empire."

9 Ar?, Saim. "Osmanl? Mahallesinde Sosyal Dayan??ma Örne?i: Avar?z Vak?flar?." Sizinti 24, no. 287 (2002)

10 Yediy?ld?z, Bahaeddin. Place of the Waqf in Turkish Cultural System. Translated by R Acun and M Oz. Istanbul: Second United Nations Conference on Human Settlements (Habitat II), 1996.

11 Qur'an, 55:26-27.


13 Maksudo?lu, Mehmet E. "Osmanl? Vak?f Uygulamas?ndan Baz? Örnekler" Diyanet Ilmi Dergi, 2003

14 According to the findings of Ekrem Hakk? Ayverdi (in The Ottoman Architectural Artifacts in Europe), there were 3339 Turkish waqf buildings in Bulgaria in 1982. Of these 2356 were small and large mosques, 142 universities, 273 bridges, 16 caravanseraies and the rest consisting of baths (hamam), tombs, fortresses, public fountains, libraries etc. (Yediy?ld?z).

15 Peri, Oded. "Waqf and Ottoman Welfare Policy. The Poor Kitchen of Hasseki Sultan in Eighteenth-Century Jerusalem." Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient 35, no. 2 (1992): 167-186.

16 Çizakça, Murat (interviewed by Dr. Shariq Nasir). "Combining Islamic History with Islamic Institutional Economics." Islamic Business and Finance, March 2006

17 Named as state waqf, this type of awqaf are legally different from private charitable awqaf. Because the Sultan established the waqf from the treasury of the State, these awqaf were called, waqfi gayri sahih (Ba?kan).

18 Emino?lu, Kamil. "Osmanl?lar'da Vak?f Anlay???." Sizinti 8, no. 90 (1996)

19 Crecelius, Daniel. "Introduction." Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient 38, no. 3 (1995): 249.


21 For more information regarding superintendence mechanisms readers may consult to Akgunduz. Akgündüz, Ahmet. "?slâm Hukukunda ve Osmanl? Tatbikat?nda Vak?f Müesseseleri", Ankara: Türk Tarih Kurumu Bas?mevi, 1988.

22 ?nalc?k, Halil. "The Economic Mind." In An economic and social history of the Ottoman Empire, 1300-1914, Halil Inalcik and Donald Quataert, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

23 A?manvermez, Ahmet. "Bir Vak?f Medeniyeti Olarak Osmanl?."

24 Qur'an, 2:261-274.

25 Ünver, Süheyl. "Sadaka Ta?lar?." Hayat Tarih 11, 1967.

26 Seker, Mehmet. "Osmanl? Vakfiyelerinde Çevre Bilinci." Ekoloji 1, no.4 (1992): 26-30.

27 Hilal, Ziyaeddin. "Yabancilarin Gözüyle Osmanli'da Vakif Hizmetleri." Sizinti 29, no. 338 (2007)

28 D'Ohsson, Moradjea. Tableau General del Empire Otoman.

29 Bayyigit, Mehmet. "Sosyal Yard?mla?ma ve Dayan??ma Kurumu Olarak Vak?flar." 59-66. 1999.

30 Arsebük, Esat. Medeni Hukuk, Ba?lang?ç ve ?ah?s Hukuku. Vol. 1, 298. 1938.

31 Kuran, Timur. "The provision of public goods under Islamic law: Origins, impact, and limitations of the waqf..." Law & Society Review 35, no. 4 (2001): 841-897.

32 Hoexter, Miriam. "The Waqf and the Public Sphere." In The Public Sphere in Muslim Societies, Miriam Hoexter Shmuel N. Eisenstadt, and Nehemia Levtzion, 119-138. Albany, N.Y.: SUNY Press, 2002.

33 Gözübenli, Be?ir. "?slam Toplumunda Vak?f Kültürünün Do?u?u." Yeni Ümit 15, no.60 (2003)

34 Kilicalp, Sevinc S. "Centralization of the Ottoman State and Modernization of the Waqf System." 4th ed. In Master in International Studies in Philanthropy and Social Entrepreneurship, 1-28. Bologna: University of Bologna, February 2008.

35 (Habitat II)