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Egyptian Waqfs Under the Mamluks

The Egyptian awqaf under the Mamluks constituted 2/7th of the total cultivable land in the country (Yediyıldız, 1986: 159). These waqf lands have been categorised into three groups.

  1. Ahbas al-mebrure: These were the great endowments of Egypt and were controlled by the devadar. A huge amount of land was assigned for these awqaf, which amounted to 130,000 feddan in the year 740 A.H.. Makrizi informs us with regret how these waqfs had stagnated due to the corruption of the officials. Many parasitical individuals were given high salaries for doing pious work in mosques some of which did not even have a community. Half of the revenue was also claimed and collected by the Sultan’s treasury.

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  2. Awqaf al-Hukmiye: The revenue of these waqfs was assigned to the holy cities, haremeyn, and to the freeing (purchasing) of Muslim slaves from Christians. Makrizi had reported enormous corruption related to these awqaf. Accordingly, since the beginning of the ninth century (A.H.) these waqfs were in a terrible state. Istibdal was applied extensively and could easily be concluded with a few witnesses.

  3. Awqaf al-ahli: These were the family waqfs. In Egypt and Syria they controlled vast lands, which were originally owned by the state, i.e., these lands were usurped by the emirs who endowed them subsequently as if they had always been private property. As will be recalled from above, such waqfs are called awqaf al-gayri sahiha. Sultan Barkuk wanted to take over these, but faced by strong opposition from the ulema, had to give up. Beginning with Barkuk, many subsequent rulers took over these awqaf by paying one-tenth of the revenue to the descendants of the founders. Another method of usurpation applied by Barkuk was to have his officials lease such waqf properties at less than market rates and then rent them to third persons at realistic prices with the difference accruing to the ruler (Abuzahra, 1972: 11). From the middle of the seventh century to the Ottoman era, there were at least six attempts by various rulers to usurp and nationalize waqf revenues. Such attempts were mostly unsuccessful as they were always opposed by the ulema and fiercely resisted (Yediyıldız, 1986: 161).

In the Mamluk state another unfair treatment against the waqfs occurred by imposing upon them not only the kharaj and ushr taxes which were essentially shar’i taxes, but also subjecting them to all sorts of urfi taxes. Such irregularities, however, were by no means limited to Egypt and were observed in huge areas of the Muslim world: Egypt, Iran, Iraq and Anatolia. Another very common sort of corruption practised by the trustees was to keep part of the revenue and not to pay it to the descendants of the founder, or even worse, to commit istibdal without getting anything in return.

Although frequent warfare among the various Islamic states, and change of dynasties within one state, naturally, led to a considerable deterioration in the position of the awqaf, it can be argued that, in the long run, the general well-being of the waqf system did not change much. The traditionalism of the medieval Muslim states saw to it that after the initial impact of the conquest faded away, the old order was re-established and the waqfs were restored. In this context land ownership, the relative position of the social classes, tax system, and the administrative machinery remained very much the same and the old laws and customs continued. Thus the waqf administration and inspection system remained within the same general framework originally designed by the Abbasids and the Samanids (Köprülü, 1942: 19).


Source: Murat Cizakca, A History of Philanthropic Foundations: The Islamic World From the Seventh Century to the Present. Republished with permission.