Waqf - Overview

Philanthropic foundations are known in the Islamic world as waqf or habs. Whereas the latter term is used primarily in North Africa, the former is known, with slight variations, in the rest of the Islamic world. The word waqf and its plural form awqaf are derived from the Arabic root verb waqafa, which means to cause a thing to stop and stand still. A second meaning is simply philanthropic foundations.

However defined, this institution, whereby a privately owned property, corpus, is endowed for a charitable purpose in perpetuity and the revenue generated is spent for this purpose, stands out as one of the greatest achievements of Islamic civilization. All over the vast Islamic world, from the Atlantic to the Pacific, magnificent works of architecture as well as a wealth of services vitally important to the society have been financed and maintained for centuries through this system. It has even been argued that many waqfs had survived for considerably longer than half a millennium and some even for more than a millennium (Crecelius, 1995: 260).

Despite these overwhelming achievements, the history of waqfs is a turbulent one. For centuries the fate of these institutions was closely linked to the fates of the states under which they functioned. Consequently, they experienced dramatic ups and downs: the period of establishment and growth was often followed by one of decline and neglect until with a new state emerging, renewal and prosperity once again prevailed.

Nowhere in this long history of fluctuations, however, did the waqfs experience the universal and deliberate destruction that was inflicted upon them during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, a fact which pinpoints, of course, to western imperialism as the culprit. Yet, the greatest destruction took place not in a region colonised by the great powers, but in Turkey, one of the rare countries in the Islamic world, which was not colonised. This paradox, among other things, will be explored in the following lessons.


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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