Waqf Centralization: Ottoman Empire & Turkey

As we had seen during the earlier lessons, vast lands had been transformed into waqf status in the Ottoman Empire and much of this transformation had occurred despite the state policy of declaring about 90% of its arable land as state domain. Such transformation had long been noticed by Ottoman statesmen and indicted as the primary culprit for the poor performance of the Ottoman armies in the battlefields of Europe.

Koçi Bey, a keen observer of the situation at the beginning of the seventeenth century, argued that certain individuals somehow, acquired state lands as their private property. These lands had been conquered centuries ago and ought to have remained as Public Treasury of the Muslims, bayt al-mal. These people were close to the Sultan and benefiting from their privileged position, had these lands converted into family, ahli waqfs.27 Koçi Bey wondered in his report about the legitimacy of such waqfs and suggested to the sultan that an inspection of all the waqfs founded during the last 200 years be made, the legitimate ones be maintained while those found to be canonically unsound, be reallocated as fief, tımar (Öztürk, 1995: 248).

Koçi Bey’s report is one of the earliest examples of formal complaints about the waqf system or more precisely about the abundance of the waqfs. It is noteworthy that only 150 years prior to this report another Ottoman intellectual, A ıkPashazade, had bitterly criticised the attempts to abolish some of the waqfs. This difference in the attitudes of the Ottoman statesmen reflects the universal tendency of the waqf system to expand and any system, which over expands, invites reaction. This expansion occurred at the expense of the fiefs, tımar system, with serious military consequences.

Expansion of the waqf lands at the expense of the military fiefs was not the only reason for the Ottoman state’s hostility towards the waqfs. We have already mentioned above the fundamental transformation in the nature of the Ottoman state. Another vitally important factor emerged with the advent of nationalism. The multitude of nationalities living in the empire had traditionally been organised into the so-called millet system, with each nation, millet, enjoying full religious freedom. With European nationalism beginning to make inroads into the Empire and nationalism beginning to supersede the notion of the Ottoman commonwealth, the waqf system emerged as an adjunct to the millet system thus perpetuating the same confessional and national divisions. Consequently, the state began to feel that in order to restore the integrity of the Empire, the power of the religious authorities, whether Muslim or Christian, had to be curbed and the Empire by some measures secularised. The situation was rendered even more serious by the fact that the power of the non-Muslim religious authorities was enhanced by the support they received from the co-religionist external powers, with the French supporting the Ottoman Catholics and the Russians the Ottoman Orthodoxs, etc. Thus emerged what Blaisdell calls the “religious protectorate” (1929: ch.9/fn.13). This “religious protectorate” was soon followed by the “financial protectorate” which emerged as the direct result of external borrowing following the Crimean War. It was the latter which allowed the external powers to meddle directly and dramatically in waqf affairs. This pressure, strongly felt during the treaties of Paris, London and Berlin, was expressed bluntly already in 1860 in response to the Ottoman government’s request for a loan after the Crimean War. Among the conditions imposed by the British government were the following:

  1. Foreign citizens should be granted the right to possess state owned lands under the same conditions as Ottoman subjects.

  2. The waqf system should be abolished (Öztürk, 1995: 192; Khayat, 1962: 68).

This demand was renewed as a combined Anglo-French position in 1867. The pressure of the “financial protectorate” reached new heights when in 1881 the Ottoman government declared its bankruptcy, which led to the establishment of the Public Debt Administration, Duyûn-u Umumiye. To the Ottoman state that was being crushed under financial pressure as well as by the Western powers, the huge revenue potential, which the waqfs represented, must have seemed irresistible. The revenue potential was, indeed, huge: it represented 1/4 to ½ of the state budget during the 18th century (Yediyildiz, 1986: 160).

In 1909 with the dethronement of Sultan Abdulhamid, the policy of balance between the Western and traditional institutions was abandoned and the scales were tilt in favour of the former. Under these influences the Ottoman reformers demanded the complete abolition of the waqfs on the grounds that their wide diffusion crippled the public economy in favour of family perpetuities. Banners were raised against the waqfs with the slogans of the French Revolution as if these assets were similar to the position of the wealth of the pre-revolutionary Catholic Church (Hatemi, 1996).

Thus, two powerful forces, strangely allied in their hostility to the waqfs, emerged: Western powers acting within the framework of their own ideology described above and the Ottoman state which also wanted to revoke the waqfs because they had started to dominate its lands, tended to intensify the nationalism of its millets and promised a rich source of revenue to relieve the pressure of the “financial protectorate”. Western powers initiated their attack on the waqf system from all fronts: in North Africa and India, as we will see below, they launched a legal debate targeting particularly the family waqfs while at the same time they applied pressure on the Ottoman state.

We are now in a position to look at the way the Ottoman state reacted to external pressures as well as to its own needs. The Ottoman policy can be summarised in one word: centralization. How this process was actually implemented is well known. The difficulty in this case is not lack of detailed information but rather to make trustworthy generalisations from an enormous wealth of data. A brief summary of the basic points will be presented here but readers interested in these details are referred to the basic two sources (Öztürk, 1995; Barnes, 1987).

While the process of centralization is being discussed, it must be remembered that a waqf is an institution, which has legal personality. So, subjugating the waqfs under the jurisdiction of a central authority often involves the violation of this legal personality and an institution which was intended to be autonomous ends up being subjugated.

In general, the autonomy of the waqfs was respected in the Ottoman empire until almost the end of the eighteenth century; the state usually did not interfere in the normal functioning of the waqfs and limited itself to routine inspections through the court system. In this period Ottoman waqfs functioned as decentralised autonomous institutions according to the conditions put forward by their founders.

It has been argued that the first attempt at the centralization of the waqf system took place in the middle of the eighteenth century during Sultan Mustafa III’s reign and reached a turning point during Abdulhamid I’s reign (Barnes, 1987: 68-73). It was indeed Abdulhamid I, who paved the way for the foundation of the Ministry of Awqaf, a ministry which reached to its fullest development under his son Sultan Mahmud II during the nineteenth century. Thus the father and the son, Abdulhamid I and Mahmud II, played a crucial role in the centralization of the waqf system.

The establishment of the Ministry of Awqaf, Nezaret, and the centralization of the waqf management allowed the state to interfere extensively in their affairs. The establishment of the Nezaret was legitimised on the grounds that the awqaf revenues were left in the hands of dubious trustees. But, centralization which was supposed to achieve a much better financial control of the revenues, miserably failed to do so: the Minister of Awqaf, Musa Safveti Pasha, admitted that despite all his efforts he could not even determine the amount of the total revenue of the waqfs. His successor Nafiz Pasha also failed to do so (Öztürk, 1995: 298). This failure was brought to the attention of the urayı Devlet, the Council of State, in the year 1868 when the entire matter of provincial waqf management was critically examined. The conclusion reached by the Council amounted to a general indictment against the administration of the Ministry of Awqaf. But the solution proposed by the Council was as before and entailed simply further centralization (Barnes, 1987: 150).

Another important aspect of the process of centralization concerns the costs associated with this process. When the waqfs were being founded in the classical era, since a centralised management was simply out of the question, no waqf founder had ever considered taking measures for such expenses. With the establishment of the Nezaret, however, hundreds of additional bureaucrats had to be financed by the waqfs for which no resources had been endowed. Moreover, since most awqaf had their own managers, anyway, the establishment of a central apparatus meant a duplication of expenses and functions with the consequence that the resources, which should have been utilised for the provision of services, were spent to finance the salaries of a bureaucratic army.

Furthermore, centralization brought with it a much greater potential for embezzlement. Since, as we shall see below, collecting the taxes due to the waqfs was a significant part of the process of centralization, unscrupulous bureaucrats who collected the waqf funds had all the opportunity to keep these funds for themselves. Indeed, Öztürk has identified 94 such persons in the year 1853. Thus a consequence of the centralization was that the system was being cheated by the very persons who were supposed to protect and manage it. For instance, a report by a trustee of an Erzincan waqf dated 1911 reveals that 88 dönüms of this waqf’s land was confiscated by the Ministry and that some powerful individuals were the ones who exploited this land for their own use while denying the rights of the poor.

Another consequence of the centralization was that the waqf system could now be forced to lend money to the state sector. The total amount owed by the state to the waqf system reached to 1,737,602 gru in the year 1909 (Öztürk, 1995: 313).

Meanwhile, establishment of new waqfs was increasingly made difficult. In the classical era to establish a waqf was quite easy: the founder only had to go to a local judge and register his waqf with the court. But in 1863 the state intervened and subjected the establishment of a waqf to new and more stringent conditions. These conditions effectively curbed the establishment of new waqfs and those who wished to do good deeds, sawab, preferred in the nineteenth century to contribute to previously established awqaf.

But the greatest blow to the Ottoman waqf system was dealt in the Tanzimat era, during the 1830s, thus indicating that the state had already begun to act against the system, on its own initiative, well before the external pressures had reached a climax in the 1860s. It was decreed that all the taxes due to the waqfs from the peasantry cultivating waqf lands were to be collected not by the waqf trustees anymore but by the treasury officials. By the year 1847 this rule was expanded to apply to all the waqfs in the empire without exception.

The importance of this decree lies in the fact that the waqfs were now put at the mercy of the central authority. From now on, only a percentage of the total waqf revenue collected would be returned to the waqf system and the magnitude of this was entirely at the discretion of the state. Moreover, one does not need to have an exceptional imagination to envisage that this percentage would decline over time. Indeed, regular payments by the state to the awqaf treasury had already ceased to be paid by 1845 (Öztürk, 1995: 285-286). Twenty years later still the same situation was observed: the instalments to be paid by the Central Treasury were never paid to the Awqaf Treasury either on time or completely. In short, the central treasury practically ignored its debts to the waqfs, which led to a constant struggle between the Awqaf Treasury and the Ministry of Finance, a struggle which the former had obviously no chance of winning.

Not content with confiscating waqf revenues, the state also forced the waqf system to be involved in loss making state economic enterprises. The case was that of a yarn factory established by waqf funds in the same year (1826). The yarn factory was to produce yarn for the uniforms of the new corps as well as the sails of the navy. Since the Ottoman state applied a policy of purchasing its needs at less than competitive equilibrium prices and did not protect its investments by imposing import duties against foreign competition, this factory was doomed to make a loss. It goes without saying that these losses were financed by the Central Waqf Administration (CWA). Very much the same conditions applied in the case of another factory producing woollen cloth in Beykoz near Istanbul.

Moreover, the CWA was ordered to construct, together with the municipality, a tramway line in the Asian side of Istanbul. The CWA ended up supplying both the land for the construction site of the wagons and financing the lines. The municipality paid nothing. Finally, a joint-stock company of tramways was founded and the CWA had to purchase shares worth 468,220 liras. Shares purchased by the public amounted to a mere 22,000 liras. By the year 1941, it was decided to transfer the ownership of this company to the Municipality of Istanbul. The transaction occurred with the municipality purchasing the awqaf shares, worth at least 468,220 liras, by paying only 200,000 liras and even this amount was to be paid in 15 years’ time and without interest (Öztürk, 1995: 294).

Another revealing case of centralization and deliberate destruction of the waqf system occurred in the year 1882, when all the revenues of the education related waqfs were transferred to the Ministry of Education. The transferred revenue was so significant that even some 30 years later, it still financed 80% of the salaries of the primary school teachers.

Thus, in short, the establishment of the Awqaf-ı Hümayûn Nezareti, Ministry of Awqaf, and centralization of the awqaf management allowed the state to extensively interfere in the waqf affairs. The establishment of the Nezaret was legitimised on the grounds that the waqf revenues were left in the hands of dubious trustees. Some of the trustees, indeed, may well have been unscrupulous. However, it must be recognised that the harm an individual trustee may inflict upon a waqf, pales beside what a corrupt high-level official can do to the entire centralised system.


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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