Waqfs During The Turkish Republic

The republic simply continued the process, which had been started by the Ottomans themselves during the Tanzimat era. This may appear strange, for nearly all the reasons that prompted the hostility of the Ottoman governments, i.e., provisionism, the diminishing miri lands due to the constant expansion of waqf lands and intensification of nationalism, had lost their meaning in this new era. But leaders of the republic continued to be hostile to the waqfs. This hostility was primarily directed against Islamic brotherhoods but waqfs too came under the republican fire since the former, it was claimed, were financed by the latter.

The greatest republican destruction appears to have lasted for about a quarter of a century: from the middle of the 1920s to the 50s. Apparently the idea of destruction was becoming a popular issue as well, for it is known that during the 1931 general elections many parliamentary candidates put the abolition of the waqfs at the top of their list of promises. It is conceivable that those who stood to gain from the sale of waqf properties applauded the situation. All of this, moreover, was in conformity with the party ideology. It was stated in a report dated 1939 that this extensive sale of waqf properties was in conformity with the “for the people” slogan of the Peoples’ Party (Öztürk, 1995: 430), as if what was being sold off had not been endowed “for the people” in the first place.

The process of destruction gained new impetus in 1937 with the establishment of the Committee for the Abolishment of the Waqfs. Remarkable as it may seem, this “committee” was actually established within the CWA. Thus, the CWA aimed at self-destruction! A selling spree followed and extended to all over the country. Moreover, what could be described best as a haphazard selling activity appears to have been transformed into a much more systematic policy pursued by the Prime Ministry through the offices of the provincial governors, general inspectors and the CWA itself.

Once it became clear that bulk of the property of the waqfs was for the taking, the ministries began to compete for this property. The first claimant, armed with the Law of the Unity of Education (Tevhid-i Tedrisat Kanunu) dated 1924, was the Ministry of Education. Meanwhile the Ministry of Interior also demanded these buildings and their plots for its own needs. The CWA objected to both claims on the grounds that only those waqf buildings specifically built for schools should be subjected to this Law of Unity, the schools attached to mosques were primarily religious establishments. The result was total confusion, which led to contradictory applications.

The confusion is exemplified by the decision taken by the Prime Ministry that only schools and libraries were to be handed over, tekkes, zawiyas and rent-yielding waqf assets were to be exempted from the law. Those establishments to be handed over were to be registered by the Office of Deeds, tapu, under their new owners. Since the Law of the Unity of Education has rendered all education a primary responsibility of the Ministry of Education, all the waqf revenues earmarked for educational purposes were to be registered by the pertinent waqfs and transferred to the Ministry of Education.

These regulations were followed by an even more remarkable one: educational establishments attached to the mosques, could be claimed by the government offices and if the waqfs wanted to enjoy the rent revenue of these real estates, they could do so by paying the government offices the market value of them as determined by the local authorities. This is a unique decree, which allowed the confiscation of the waqf property without any compensation in the first place, and then permitted the discriminated- against owner to buy back at market price what it had owned for centuries. It would be difficult, indeed, to find a better demonstration of the degree to which the waqf system was subjected to deliberate destruction.

A very interesting example of how the above law was applied in the provinces is revealed by the situation in Kastamonu. In 1925 the mufti of Kastamonu officially complained and informed his superiors that although the law states clearly that medreses attached to the mosques were not to be sold off, a committee established by the governor of the city had decided to go ahead with such sales and initiated public auctions. Apparently the sales were completed notwithstanding his protests. Öztürk has found out in 1989 about the fate of the Kastamonu waqf properties thus sold. The land adjacent to the Nasrullah mosque was given away to the local Chambers of Commerce; the Abdülbaki Numaniye medrese was taken over by the Drivers’ Club; the Nurullah Kadı medrese was converted into a parking lot, the Sıddıkiye and Ziyaiye medreses were converted into coffee shops, etc., etc., the list gets longer and longer.

In short, the medreses, the centuries old educational establishments, were sold off and were, in fact, lost to the cause of education in a massive process of destruction. The Awqaf Administration initially tried to challenge this process but in the end resigned and accepted the defeat. Waqf properties were usurped and sold off. In these sales, originally, the status of the waqf was taken into consideration. But eventually, this situation was contested by the Ministry of Education, which demanded the right to control all the waqf properties without regard to the status of the waqf in question, i.e., whether it was mülhak and managed by its own trustee, or mazbut i.e., managed by the Awqaf Administration (Öztürk, 1995: 389, 398).

To summarise, the process of destruction in Turkey followed these steps:

  1. The crucial step was the abolition of the financial autonomy of the waqfs through the declaration that the collection of waqf revenues would be realised by the Ministry of Finance. This step taken during the Tanzimat era (1830s) left the waqfs completely at the financial mercy of the Ministry of Finance.

  2. The central authority began to usurp increasing proportions of this waqf revenue and the repayment of the thus collected revenue to the waqfs was delayed as well as curtailed. The outstanding debt of the state to the waqf administration was constantly on the rise. Complaints by the Minister of Awqaf to the Ministry of Finance produced no results.

  3. While on the one hand its revenues were thus usurped, on the other, the CWA was made responsible for some of the loss-making state economic enterprises. It was forced to invest in and manage these enterprises, which were totally unrelated to the waqf system. Furthermore, the CWA was forced to purchase the shares of some of these enterprises and then resell these with a drastic discount to the municipalities. Thus, waqf funds originally endowed by private persons were channelled to state enterprises and to municipal authorities.

  4. The revenues and assets of all the education related waqfs were transferred to the Ministry of Education.

  5. The destruction of the waqf system gained further legitimacy through the étatiste and populist ideology of the republic.

  6. Through the so-called icareteyn system, former tenants were made co-owners of the waqf property and were strongly induced by the state to purchase the rest of the waqf ’s assets.

  7. When former tenants failed to buy the waqf assets notwithstanding these inducements, auctions were organised and the assets (including even some mosques) were simply sold off to the highest bidder.

  8. The CWA was made directly responsible for its own dismantlement

  9. The most dramatic republican violation of the legal personality of the waqfs, however, occurred in 1954 when all the cash waqfs were abolished and with their confiscated capital, the Bank of the Awqaf (Vakıflar Bankası) was financed.

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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