Waqf and the State

Throughout our inquiries, we have been impressed by the incredible universality and resilience of this institution. No less impressive also was the fact that notwithstanding the vast distances and different schools of thought prevailing in the Islamic world, the institution of waqf was governed everywhere by basically the same principles. The differences were decidedly of minor importance. The problems were also basically the same: agency problem, a major area of research in modern micro-economics, was observed in all the waqf systems throughout history.

Another constant in the history of the waqfs appears to have been the complexity of the relationship between this institution and the state. While, on the one hand, the rulers founded the greatest waqfs in nearly all the countries and often utilised them as public policy instruments, on the other, many of them exhibited a relentless hostility towards this institution. The reasons behind this hostility may have assumed different forms over time and space but the hostility, itself, has remained a constant. It is therefore all the more remarkable that this institution has managed to survive.

The hostility of the state towards the waqfs assumed a new dimension with the advent of colonialism. Both the British and French colonial powers were hostile to the waqfs. While, due to the space and time restrictions we have concentrated on the British influence, it has been shown that the French were even more hostile than the British. Moreover, this hostility was based on the same principles and took in practice very much the same forms (Powers, 1989: 535-571). The arguments that the European powers were jealous of the Islamic waqf system and simply wanted to destroy an institution that they could not control, which prevented them from acquiring land etc., should be taken with a grain of salt. Europe had its own foundations borrowed from the Islamic world during the Crusades and chose to destroy them during the age of enlightenment. Thus the European powers were not applying double standards, they were simply trying to project their own ideology on to the Islamic world.

The colonial hostility that sought an outright prohibition of the waqfs, was supported by the indigenous modernists persuaded by the former. The combination of these two forces was formidable and, thanks to the modernists, the hostility continued and was even enhanced, after the colonial epoch.

It is ironical that although European states have gradually abandoned their hostility towards the foundations since the beginning of the twentieth century and recently, after the failure of the welfare state, have even begun to provide substantial support to the so-called non-profit sector, modernists in the Islamic world cling to the eighteenth century European views and continue to undermine the waqfs. Thus by a curious twist of fate, in the Islamic world, modernists have become conservatives. This conservatism is most unfortunate and the modernists urgently need to re-examine their positions.

Both the magnificent Islamic tradition and the latest developments in the West point out the need for a thorough waqf reform. The conditio sine qua non for such a reform, however, is knowledge. That is, knowledge about the evolution of this institution in Islamic world, as well as in the West, plus a thorough understanding of the latest developments in both civilisations. It is hoped that this book has contributed towards the former. As for the latter, that is, an assessment of the historical evolution as well as the latest developments in the West, this will constitute the subject of a future volume.


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

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