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Charitable Trusts in Medieval Islam
Jan 1, 2014

All over the vast Islamic world, from the Atlantic to the Pacific, various services that are fundamentally important to society have been financed and maintained through charitable trusts.

Godliness and virtue is not that you turn your faces towards east or west; but godliness and virtue is to believe in God and the Last Day, the angels, the Book, and the Prophets; to spend of your substance out of love for Him for your kin, for orphans, for the needy, for the wayfarer, for those who ask, and for the liberation of slaves; to be steadfast in prayer and practice regular charity; to fulfill the contracts you have made; and to be persevering and patient in hardship and disease, and throughout all periods of stress. Such are the people who are true (in their faith), and those are they who achieved righteousness, piety, and due reverence for God. (Qur'an 2:177)

All cultures and religions instruct their followers to help the poor and leave behind an everlasting source of good deeds (Dallal 2004, 13-43). Originating from a desire to improve others' well-being, charity is an altruistic behavior (Becker 1974, 1063-1091) of gift exchanges between individuals that encourages social order and stability (Mauss 1950). This essential principle comprises two main categories in Islam: Zakat, obligatory alms for Muslims with a certain level of wealth, and sadaqa, highly recommended voluntary donations, one of the most popular forms of which are philanthropic foundations.

A philanthropic foundation is "a nongovernmental, nonprofit organization, with assets provided by donors and managed by its own officials, and with income expended for socially useful purposes. Foundation, endowment, and charitable trust are terms used interchangeably to designate these organizations, which can be traced far back in history. They existed in the ancient civilizations of the Middle East, Greece, and Rome. Plato's Academy (c. 387 BC), for example, was established with an endowment that helped to sustain its existence for some 900 years" (Britannica Online Encyclopedia). Considering that the first shrine on Earth, the Ka'bah, was built by Adam, peace be upon him, and was named the House of God (Qur'an 3:96), the earliest example of such foundations was given by the very first person (Akpinar 2004).

Moroccan traveler Ibn Battuta (d.1369) was struck by the dedication of the inhabitants of Damascus to all forms of countless foundations, such as legacies devoted by people who could not travel to Mecca to pay others' pilgrimage; foundations providing girls from poor backgrounds with all the requirements for their marriage; foundations devoted to purchasing the freedom of Muslim prisoners; others for paying the maintenance of roads, and many more (Ibn Battutah 2006). Once, he saw a young boy drop a porcelain plate, which broke. The passer-bys told the boy to take the pieces to the foundation for utensils. Consequently, the boy got a refund, equal to the value of a new plate. The residents, in their great numbers, also provided endowments for schools, hospitals and mosques. It was a city, Ibn Battuta tells us, where the social spirit was at its optimum.

The word waqf (plural awqaf), means to cause a thing to stop and stand still, to withhold, or to prevent; and the word applies "to endow the property rights of a good [while dedicating its benefits] to the public service perpetually, and to prevent others from obtaining its property rights" (Akgunduz 1996, 77). Awqaf are considered an expression of piety, not because their activities are inherently religious, but because they are governed by a law considered sacred (Kuran 2001, 841-897). In Islamic terminology, waqf is described as the detention of an entity from ownership forever, by considering it as the property of God, while devoting all its possible gifts of income to some charitable purpose for the community (Bilmen 1969, 294).

However defined, waqf institutions stand out as one of the greatest achievements of Islamic civilization. Although this was not a new concept introduced by Islam, the system to allocate, administer, and dispense the usufruct was unique. All over the vast Islamic world, from the Atlantic to the Pacific, various services that are fundamentally important to society have been financed and maintained through awqaf, some of which have even survived for more than a millennium (Cizakca 2000), providing the needy with basic needs such as food, education, and shelter, and improvements like lighthouses, cemeteries, public baths, drinking fountains, mosques, bridges, roads, aqueducts and so on, enhancing peace and harmony (Yalawae and Izah).

The first component of waqf is hayrat, the establishments under waqf property, dedicated to the public; the second is akarat, the revenue resources allocated to facilitate perpetuity (Yediyildiz 1996); the third, waqfiya, is the court-ratified and preserved deeds that specify the uses of income, the beneficiaries, the priorities of expenditure, the people authorized for administration and their powers. The last is the mutawalli (board of directors), responsible for the foundation functioning in accordance with the donors' intentions, and in charge of maintenance, treasury, administration, and supervision (Baskan 2002). Local characteristics of mutawalli allowed for competition and control, which were keys to efficiency (Kahf).

Once established, the public aims of a waqf become binding, cannot be altered or revoked, even by the founder, and everyone, even the head of state, has to obey these deeds. Eliminating the waqf character of a property entails a complicated process, and is restricted to an exchange of another property of equivalent value and equivalent service to the community, in addition to a local court's approval. Diverting waqf revenues to other purposes is not within the authority of the waqf administration or a supervisory court. Should a waqf purpose becomes unfeasible, its revenue is spent on the closest purpose available, both conceptually and geographically; and if this is not workable, the benefits go to the needy, which is assumed as the default intent (Kahf).

Some examples

Historical data suggest that foundations were first observed as religious establishments where people worshipped together, followed by other applications in society; some believe that some awqaf were founded by Prophet Abraham, peace be upon him, about 1860 BCE (Dallal 2004, 2). The first waqf in Islam is the Mosque of Quba in Medina, built in 622 AD, upon arrival of God's Messenger, peace and blessings be upon him, who demonstrated the primary examples of awqaf in Islam. He had first donated seven orchards in Mukhairiq, then his share from date gardens in Fadak and Khaibar, all for charitable purposes (Canan 2004, 275-281).

Following these exemplary actions, his Companions, may God be pleased with them all, and followers have continuously given to many various, worthy causes. For instance, many wells were bought from individuals, and were designated for public service. As Uthman ibn 'Affan reports, "The Prophet, peace be upon him, arrived in Medina and realized that the city had very little drinking water, except the water of Bi'r Ruma (Ruma Well). He asked, 'Who will purchase Bi'r Ruma to equally share the water drawn therefrom with his fellow Muslims and shall be rewarded with a better well in the Garden (of Eden)?' Then I bought it from my own money."

Another circulated tradition in Bukhari and Muslim, the two most authenticated collections of hadith, refers to what is considered the first Islamic land waqf. Upon his request, Umar ibn al-Khattab is advised by the Prophet, to retain the corpus [of the land] but dedicate its fruits [in the way] of God. Consequently, he dedicated the land, indicating that it should not be sold, given away as a gift, or inherited; and the revenue from the land should be used as charity for the poor, for emancipating slaves, for wanderers, and for other social needs. Later, during Umar's caliphate, Bilal suggested to divide the conquered villages and take the fifth for the treasury. Umar, however, refused and decided to make them waqf for the sustenance of warriors and for all Muslims (Gil 1998, 125-140).

Having been advised about its benefits, the Prophet's Companions never stopped putting their wealth in bequests; they did this to such a degree that Jabir, another Companion, said, "Any of the Prophet's Companions who could afford it made endowments" ( It is remarkable that the Prophet advised one of his Companions, Abu Zarr, who did not have any belongings at all, to 'add some more water in [his] soup, and offer'" (Muslim, Birr, 142).

Since then, awqaf have been one of the pillars of Islamic society. The establishment of different kinds of awqaf that serve as institutions of social cooperation and solidarity were utilized, which supported an array of activities from scientific movements to the protection of inlets, and they became a financial source for many socioeconomic sectors and for the beneficence of the needy. They were a model for the contemporary nonprofit sector.

To elaborate an illustration of the services offered, awqaf ensured that diverse services were supplied for free (Bakir and Basagaoglu, Awqaf also allowed for huge innovations, such as mobile hospitals, which moved from village to village, as well as emergency teams (Subai 1998). The revenue of certain bequests, which could include shops, mills, caravanserais, or even entire villages, would pay for the maintenance and operating costs, and sometimes would supply a small stipend to the patient upon dismissal (Husain 1992). An example deed states that, "The hospital shall keep all patients until they completely recover. All costs are to be borne by the hospital, whether the people are residents or foreigners, rich or poor, employed or unemployed, physically or mentally ill... There are no conditions of consideration and payment: none is objected to or even indirectly hinted at for non-payment. The entire service is through the magnificence of Allah, the generous one" (Yalawae and Izah).

Motivations behind awqaf

Though the word waqf is not used in the Qur'an, there are many verses that constitute a foundation for its actions, such as "to lend willingly," "to spend in the cause of God," "to spend of your substance out of love for Him for your kin, for orphans, for the needy," "to feed the poor," "to give for charity," and especially, "to compete in building hayrat (charitable acts)." Due to the extreme emphasis upon charity within Islam, as an act of devotion to God, foundations have flourished, displaying an exceptional development and performing comprehensive services to society (Canan 2004, 275).

It is stated in a heartening saying of the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, that, "The most auspicious person is the one who is of assistance of others." Hence, a contribution toward the welfare of the community is considered an act that brings a person closer to God. Another hadith declares that launching an establishment for social gain would be beneficial for the founder, even after death: "Once a son of Adam dies, none of his deeds will be of him except an ongoing charity, a useful knowledge, or a pious child who prays for him." The ongoing charity here is interpreted as waqf.

The Islamic law of inheritance tends to fragment property into large numbers of small shares, whereas awqaf tends to preserve large amounts of wealth (Dallal 29). Yet, awqaf, whose benefits were confined to family members, were extremely rare. Notably, only 7% of the foundations registered during the 18th century delivered service to the founders' families. As many as 75% devoted significant resources to serving outside constituencies, and the remaining 18% were strictly charitable awqaf. These figures confirm that sheltering wealth through a waqf was not the normal aim. Philanthropists founding these institutions believed that this world was a temporary residence, and it was necessary to spend one's earnings for the happiness of other people in order to secure the felicity of the eternal life when returned to God (Yediyildiz 1996).

The waqf body is intended to prevent the temporary possessions of this world from vanishing, by withholding them in the name, and for the sake of, God as a continuous charity. There is no obligation of any kind behind this action stemming from altruistic behavior, but a sense of responsibility towards humanity, a conscientious sense of serving others, and competing in charity; in other words, such values as compassion, mutual assistance, solidarity, the pleasure of comforting a living thing both materially and spiritually, and the free will of a person embracing these values as principles, have been an element of Islamic culture, motivating a person to transform some or all of his or her personal assets into pious foundations to serve society (Yediyildiz).

Seeking proximity to God has been the main rationale of awqaf. In some cases, the founders named awqaf after themselves in the hope of being remembered by (and thus receiving prayers from) upcoming generations – though in general, anonymity is preferred. For instance, it was a common practice for the rich, especially during Ramadan, to pay debts of people in need, without revealing who they were, asking local shopkeepers to calculate the total balance on randomly picked pages of their records of receivable accounts. The overall purpose has been altruism rather than fame, since it is believed that impurity of intention might spoil the dedication of the gift, whose sole purpose is to please God.

Further influences

English trusts, the basis of Western nonprofits, remarkably resemble Islamic awqaf. Under both systems, the property is reserved and the usufruct is appropriated for a charitable purpose. The corpus becomes inalienable; estates for life in favor of successive beneficiaries can be created at the will of a founder without regard to the law of inheritance or the rights of the heirs, and continuity is secured by successive appointments of trustees (Cizakca 12). The trust was introduced by Crusaders, and influenced by the waqf institutions they came across. In other words, the Islamic waqf system, whose legal parameters have been developed by jurists through centuries, constitutes the origins of English trusts (Kuran 2001, 841-897).

Awqaf have supported a wide variety of life-oriented actions (Jones 1980, 23-36), playing a major role in establishing social justice and solidarity in society, in funding scientific research and arts, and in creating an ecological conscience to protect the environment (Yuksel 1999, 47-54). Moreover, it was thanks to the awqaf that the magnificent architectural heritage of Islamic civilization was financed and preserved throughout the centuries; urban districts could cope with tax burdens; excessive fragmentation of land could be avoided; old age and disability pensions were provided; in an age when insurance, as an institution, was unknown, rudimentary insurance was provided; infrastructure was built and maintained; almost all the assistance one can expect to have in a civilized society was financed, organized, built, and maintained by this system. The awqaf even aided defense efforts by building and maintaining urban walls and fortresses (Cizakca 2006).

"An origin of all revolutions and corruptions, and the spur and source of all base morals, is the saying, 'So long as I'm full, what is it to me if others die of hunger?' The only remedy for extirpating this approach is the payment of zakat" (Nursi, 22nd Letter). With their significance rooted in the Islamic principle of charity (Waqf and Islamic Philanthropy 2005), and their central function in sociocultural life, awqaf seem to be the most efficient way of dealing with poverty and income disparity. The government expenditure can be substantially reduced through a well functioning waqf system that creates a permanent, cumulative, and ever-increasing capital base and infrastructure for benevolent activities. This reduction leads to a lower government borrowing, and a reduced rate of interest which then initiates higher private investment, thus growth (Cizakca 2006), as demonstrated at the climax of Ottoman times, which needs to be addressed in another article.


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