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The Origins of Waqf

It is well known that philanthropic endowments have a history considerably older than Islam and it is also very likely that Islam may have been influenced by earlier civilisations. Ancient Mesopotamia, Greece, Rome as well as the pre-Islamic Arabs certainly knew of such endowments (Laum, 1914; Rockwell, 1909; Rostowzew; Othman, 1982; Duncan-Jones, 1982). The extent to which Islamic waqfs were influenced by these ancient institutions and the extent to which they were the product of the genius of Islam, is a question that is still not resolved. Roman, Byzantine, but also Mesopotamian, Sasanid, Jewish and Buddhist influences have been accepted as plausible (Köprülü, 1942: 10-11; Coing, 1981: 272-274). Latest research is more decisive and points to the Sasanid law as the most likely source (Arjomand, 1998: 110-111). Thus, we have a fairly clear situation: Muslims were urged strongly to endow their assets in the service of mankind and they knew how to do it from the earlier civilisations, which had dominated the region in which they had found themselves (Crecelius, 1995: 249).

At this point the reader may be impressed by the ability of Islam to borrow from other civilisations. This ability may well have originated with a tradition attributed to Prophet Muhammad:

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“Abu Hurairah reported Allah’s messenger as saying: A word of wisdom is the lost property of a believer, he can take it wherever he finds it, because he is more entitled to it.” (al-Tirmidhi, 1992: 2687)

Although waqf is not specifically mentioned therein, the concept of wealth re-distribution is strongly emphasised in the Qur’an (2:215, 264, 270, 280). Moreover, there is definitive evidence that many great personalities of Islam had endowed their properties for charitable purposes. A hadith narrated again by Abu Hurairah most probably accounts for the origin of this institution in the world of Islam:

“Abu Hurairah reported Allah’s messenger as saying: When a man dies, all his acts come to an end, but three: recurring charity, or knowledge (by which people benefit), or a pious offspring, who prays for him” (Muslim, 1992: bab3, hadith 14).

Although the classical sources have, traditionally, taken into consideration each one of these good deeds, sawabs, separately, we prefer to combine them. For it will be argued here that such a combination constitutes the very essence of the Islamic waqfs. Thus, Muslims needed an institution that would enable them to perform all three of these good deeds. The waqf fitted the criteria. It indeed, assures ongoing, recurring charity for many years, even centuries, after the death of the founder; it can finance scholars whose lasting works will benefit mankind for a long period and the sawabs, good deeds, that accrue to them would be shared by the waqf ’s founder who had provided for their sustenance in the first place. Finally the management of the waqf can be entrusted to the offspring of the founder so that while, on the one hand, careful and loyal management is assured, on the other, the offspring would pray for the deceased since, thanks to his waqf, he or she is not destitute.

Although Muslims may have been encouraged to borrow ideas from other civilisations without any hesitation, as the aforementioned hadith suggests, the actual process of borrowing was not simple. For, whatever institution was borrowed, it had to be moulded and re-shaped to conform to the basic teachings of Islam. There were substantial differences in the opinions of the early great jurists concerning the structure and judicial framework of the waqf. While Imam Shafi’i had objections to certain aspects of the institution, among the Hanafis, Imam Abu Yusuf differed from his mentors. Without going into details, it can be argued, in general, that Imams Shafi`i and Abu Yusuf wanted to expand the waqfs and therefore facilitated their foundation, but others preferred to restrict this institution.

The basic problem pertained to the Islamic law of inheritance: since a founder could entrust the management of his waqf to any one of his offspring and thus initiate a de facto primogeniture, this could violate the basic principles of Islamic law, which promulgates a distribution of property among all the inheritors. Consequently, most of the jurists found it very difficult to sanction the waqfs.

But for reasons that will be explained below, the Muslim society needed this institution. So the great jurists ended up tolerating it. The turning point came when Abu Yusuf observed how important these institutions had become during his pilgrimage and introduced new legislature, which facilitated the establishment of foundations. The institution of waqf thus emerged after the death of the Prophet and its legal structure was firmly established during the second half of the second century (Köprülü, 1942: 4).

At this point we need to explain how a system, which did not originate in Islam, not specifically mentioned in the Qur’an and objected to initially by many of the eminent jurists, was embraced so enthusiastically and developed to such a phenomenal dimension. There can be two explanations, historical and economic. Let us first consider the former: the great Islamic conquests had enriched the Muslim world beyond any imagination achieving the economic preconditions for the emergence of this institution. We have to remember, moreover, the emphasis attached in the prophetic traditions on the importance of doing good and charitable deeds. Since wealth in Islam is considered an important source of trial, the natural tendency among the Muslim rich to do good deeds as a preparation for the hereafter can be easily understood. Thus, it is for these historical reasons that although not mentioned in the Qur’an specifically, and objected to initially, the waqf has been embraced so enthusiastically.

But this is not all; economic theory also has its own explanation of why the waqf system was needed. Indeed, according to the theory there were compelling reasons for the waqf system to emerge. We have seen above that under the conditions of rational behaviour, public goods would tend to be under produced. This dilemma pertaining to the creation of public goods promotes a demand for the creation of non-market institutions.

This “demand for the creation of non-market institutions” may also explain why the waqf became so popular and widespread in most of the Muslim world. The theory explains, furthermore, the universality of the waqfs or waqf-like non-market institutions. After all, as briefly mentioned above, endowments are known not only in the Muslim world but also in the West and other great civilisations (Salamon and Anheier, 1997; Geremek 1994; Coing, 1981, Crecelius, 1995). In the remainder of this section, evidence for this argument pertaining to three cases: England, Spain and South Africa, will be provided.


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