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Egyptian Waqfs Under the Ottomans

Incorporation of Egypt into the Ottoman Empire in the year 922/1517 also did not change this overall picture in a radical way. The Ottoman conquest was not the first encounter between the Turks and Egyptians, for the Egyptians had been accustomed to the presence of Turks or Turkish-speaking people since the ninth century, when Egypt was ruled by the dynasty of Ibn Tulun, who was a Turk. Therefore the Ottoman conquest would not have involved much of a cultural shock. Moreover, the document of appointment, berat, issued to the newly appointed Ottoman governor, Beylerbeyi, of Egypt ordered him to govern in accordance to the prevailing system of law, the Shari’ah. It has been argued that 85% of the body of law prevailing in Ottoman Egypt was constituted by the Shari’ah and only the other 15% pertained to administrative and military matters as well as to the local custom (Akgündüz, 1993, vols. VI-VII: 63). This is another factor, which explains the continuity mentioned above. The following points concerning waqf matters were included in the Kanunname issued by Ibrahim Pasha who had left Istanbul for Egypt in the month of Zilhicce, 930/1524:

  1. Assistants to the new governor are to visit the trustee of each waqf and demand from him the endowment deed.

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  2. They are to inspect the revenue and expenditure of each waqf and identify the beneficiaries. They will pay particular attention if these expenses are made in conformity with the original document of endowment.

  3. Those trustees found to have managed their waqfs according to the original document of endowment, vakıfname, are to be re- authorised and be allowed to continue managing their waqfs. Those who fail these inspections are to be fired from their positions.

  4. They will also observe the state of the waqf property. If these properties are found to be in need of repairs, they shall try to have them repaired. If the waqf is found to generate more revenue than its expenditure, such repairs are to be carried out immediately. Where expenditure exceeds revenues, repairs should be carried through by cutting down a certain percentage of the expenditure. If repairs cannot be financed by such partial remedies, then with the exception of the absolute necessities, all other expenditure should be minimised and all the resources of the waqf should be mobilised for repairs.

  5. After the inspection, a ledger is to be prepared and bound. This ledger is to contain detailed and summary information about all the revenues and expenditure as well as the number of employees and beneficiaries. Two copies of this ledger shall be made, the first one is to be kept in the divan of Egypt and the other one in the Dergâh-ı mu’allâ, the palace of the Ottoman Sultan.

  6. From now on, all waqfs are to be inspected annually and their accounts are to be submitted to the governor. If these accounts are approved, they will be stamped and a copy thereof shall be kept by the Palace.

  7. From now on, all the hospital and cemetery waqfs whose management had been entrusted to the former Mamluk notables, shall be managed by trustees chosen by the nâzır-ı evkaf and they shall be considered as part of the hassa-i hümayûn, Sultan’s domain.

  8. Many waqfs in Egypt have been subjected to ibdal/istibdal on the grounds that the waqf property is in ruins. Such transactions are now prohibited by the order of the Sultan. If, despite this warning, a waqf property is sold, both the seller and the purchaser shall be severely punished.

  9. If after an inspection it is determined that embezzlement has indeed taken place, the culprit shall first compensate the waqf and then shall be punished (Akgündüz, 1993: VI/II).

It should be noted that this kanunname was issued during the reign not of Selim, the conqueror of Egypt, but of his son, Süleyman the Magnificent. In general it is an impressive legal document demonstrating how seriously the new rulers took the waqf affairs of Egypt.

Item “c” makes it clear that the trustee could keep his position subject to the fulfilment of the original conditions stipulated by the founder. Item “d” is the direct application of one of the ten conditions of the Hanafi law regarding waqfs, the so-called i’ta-hirman, or pay/freeze. This pertains to the ability of a founder to freeze payment to a particular beneficiary so that he is able to pay larger amounts to another one who has priority. It is interesting that with this kanunname this right to determine priorities is also granted to the ruler or his agents as well.

Finally, items “h” and “i” are serious warnings for those who may be involved in istibdal transactions. The language of the law is such that capital punishment cannot be excluded and, indeed, it was because of an istibdal controversy that Tarabulsi, the first Hanafi Chief Kadi of Egypt after the conquest, was condemned to death by Ottoman authorities (Behrens-Abouseif, 1994: 30). This is not only a dramatic but also a highly interesting case. For here we observe a possible conflict between the Hanafi and state laws. Whereas, as we have seen above, the former would allow istibdal, under certain stringent conditions, apparently, the latter prevailed, as Tarabulsi learned at the cost of his life. Since, being the very first Hanafi judge of Egypt he must have known that his decisions would be closely watched, we may safely assume that he gave his permission to this istibdal after very careful consideration. It is therefore possible that Tarabulsi may have been made an example of, i.e., this execution of a Hanafi judge, must have given the new rulers an opportunity to demonstrate their seriousness in waqf affairs. Thus, a very clear message was given: the new regime was as devotedly Muslim as the previous one and it was not going to tolerate embezzlement.

Stressing common religious identity during his stay in Egypt, Sultan Selim made donations to shrines and mosques, including foundations and mausoleums of Mamluk sultans. Although, during the initial establishment of the Ottoman authority Sultan Selim had a large number of Mamluk soldiers massacred, in time as the turmoil waned, he granted amnesty to the survivors, respected their property rights and gave them the opportunity to join the Ottoman army of Egypt. Even Sultan al-Ghuri’s endowments were confirmed through a decree Selim issued in 1517 (Behrens-Abouseif, 1994: 148).

According to Ishaqi, Egypt was saturated with waqfs by the end of the Mamluk period with 10 of its 24 qirats turned into waqfs by the Circassian Mamluks alone. Almost every aspect of urban life had become in some way entangled in the web of pious foundations. The entire religious establishment lived on waqf posts, and for the Ottomans, who had to govern Egypt from a distance, it was a matter of vital interest to satisfy this most critical sector of society.

The funds from pious endowments represented a very important share of Egypt’s urban and agricultural resources. Almost no building was erected in Ottoman Cairo without the involvement of a waqf estate because virtually all of Cairo’s land and buildings had already been made waqf by the end of the Mamluk period. With such a large share of the country’s resources being controlled by the waqfs, the system had to be reckoned with as a dominant buyer in the market. Actually, the possible impact of the waqf system on the economy as an oligopsony has not yet been studied by economic historians.

The only major change effected in the Egyptian waqf system with the coming of the Ottomans was the fact that the waqfs in Ottoman Egypt were removed from the supervision of the Shafi’i and put under Hanafi judges. But this did not mean that the other schools were not respected. On the contrary, by maintaining the validity of the 4 legal rites in Egypt, the Ottomans gave the jurists the ability to apply the rite, which was most favourable under individual circumstances, and this increased their flexibility in dealing with waqf estates. Pious endowments were a delicate matter, and the Ottoman rulers stipulated that the pious endowments of the Mamluks should not be violated as long as their legality could be confirmed, a principle that was also stated in the Kanunname of Egypt.

Between their desire to respect Islamic law and the need to provide the treasury with revenue, the Ottomans were in a difficult position that made new regulations necessary. The Ottomans did not exempt pious endowments from taxes. Taxes that belonged to the treasury did not cease when landed property was made waqf. It seems that the collection of taxes on estates that had been alienated for a charitable purpose was also observed elsewhere in the Muslim world, as McChesney shows for Central Asia.

Thus sultanic orders were issued to collect taxes on waqf land. This law, however, did not remain undisputed and the Egyptian Hanafi scholar Ibn Nujaym wrote a treatise in which he tried to defend the interests of the Egyptians and their waqfs against Ottoman fiscal policy. The stratagems formerly used by the Mamluks to escape confiscation as well as inheritance taxes by turning their iqta estates into waqfs, were thus counteracted. Moreover, tax-farmers had to ask for permission before endowing a pious foundation with land. In cases of very large religious endowments, the pious foundation, itself, was subject to taxation. Sometimes a duty called mal himaya was paid for the protection of waqf estates.

Returning to the istibdal transactions, again, it should be noted that notwithstanding the severity of punishment mentioned above, these transactions did not cease. Although istibdal was prohibited by the Kanunname, and notwithstanding the dramatic affair mentioned above, it continued to be used, especially if the endower permitted it or if the kadi saw no alternative way of rescuing an estate alienated as waqf.

The following case should illustrate the point: to build his madrasa in the Qusun quarter, Süleyman Pasha made use of istibdal in 949/1543, less than a decade after the promulgation of the Kanunname! The protocol of this transaction exists, and it is a most valuable source for showing how the Ottomans dealt with Mamluk waqfs. The agreement was made before the Chief Kadi, who luckily was also the supervisor of the waqf of Süleyman Pasha and followed the pasha’s stipulations. After stating the duty of all Muslims to erect religious foundations, the protocol described the buildings belonging to the waqf of Qurqumas in the Qusun quarter, as being in a dilapidated state. A commission of experts and architects inspected the estate and came to the conclusion that, left unattended, the buildings would fall further into ruin and would be of no use. The chief kadi therefore gave his consent to an istibdal, and Süleyman Pasha acquired, for the foundation of his future madrasa, the dilapidated buildings and the land on which they stood for the sum of 317 gold dinars. This amount was paid to the supervisor of the waqf of Qurqumas, to enable him to purchase another estate for the religious endowment (Behrens-Abouseif, 1994: 154).

Because Egypt was a major supplier of sugar, grain and other food commodities to the Ottomans, it was necessary to secure the infrastructure needed for transporting these products. Moreover, Egypt was the connection between Abyssinia, the Hejaz, Yemen, North Africa and the rest of the Empire. Pilgrimage to the holy cities would simply have been impossible without the regular supplies of grain from Egypt (Çizakça, 1996: 86-88). The Ottomans financed their pious deeds with commercial projects that had to be lucrative and at the same time serve more global interests, as for example, the development of the ports. The waqfs of the pashas were significant in that enterprise. The sea route between Istanbul and the Egyptian province was a vital connection and more advantageous than the longer land route via Syria and Anatolia. Egypt’s ports of Bulaq, Rosetta, Alexandria, Suez, and Damietta were prosperous because they benefited from expanded trade relations between Anatolia and Egypt. After the Ottoman conquest, Egypt gained access to the Empire’s large market and made great profits from the coffee trade, which compensated for the decline of the spice trade in the early sixteenth century. The Ottoman kanunname includes a section on the ports as centres of foreign trade (Akgündüz, 1991: 121-123). The ports of Rosetta, Damietta, and Alexandria were also distribution centres for the local market.

Unlike the Mamluk sultans, the Ottoman pashas did not involve themselves in prestigious architectural projects. The buildings they erected were generally unpretentious. Except for Sinan Pasha’s buildings in Bulaq, the pashas did not initiate large urban projects, but rather directed their attention towards maintenance operations that might not look prestigious but nonetheless fulfilled practical ends. This demonstrates that the main concern of the pashas was not urban development as had been the case in fifteenth and sixteenth century Istanbul and other Ottoman cities, but urban maintenance. One may therefore say that the waqf policy of the Ottomans in Egypt, during the classical era, did not follow a centrally regulated strict scheme; rather, the waqf was used as a flexible instrument for the application of a public policy that was defined in broad terms. Actually, utilizing the waqf as an instrument of public policy was not an Ottoman invention. Earlier examples have been observed under the Selçuks in Iran to which we will refer below.


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