Waqf, or the religious endowment, has been a central part of Islam since the times of the Prophet Muhammed. Believers affirm that this practice has brought extraordinary progress and improvements to Islamic societies throughout history, especially for lower socio-economic classes.
In this article, we will explore the Islamic Waqf and the use of religious endowment in the Muslim world.
What Is Waqf?
The Islamic Waqf is a donation in money or assets. Muslims donate a Waqf, such as a building, land, or money with no intention of reaping any reward or return from the donation. The Waqf is usually donated to relatives, the poor, or public institutions.
While a Waqf is not necessarily required in the Islamic religion, it is highly encouraged, as Muslims are promised rewards for their charitable donations in the afterlife.
Waqf has been a central component of Islamic societies for centuries, as people from all backgrounds participated in the donation of religious endowments. Both the wealthy elite and poor took part in the Waqf institution, which contributed to the prosperity of communities across the Islamic world.
– The Waqf in the Muslim World
Religious endowment specifically aided many Muslims living in poverty, and also contributed to the growth of Islamic institutions and public services such as hospitals and schools. Historians point out that this widespread practice of religious endowment helped Muslim civilizations rise above many other civilizations of the time.
While many religious endowments have been made throughout the Muslim world with wholeheartedly charitable motives, Waqf has been widely used by Muslim leaders to increase political power and win the hearts of a region’s population.
Interestingly, Hamas — an Islamic Palestinian nationalist movement — considers all of the historic region of Palestine as an Islamic Waqf.
– Waqf Definition
A Muslim Waqf is a legally binding contract that involves a founder and the beneficiaries of the donation. However, the Waqf must be legal by Islamic standards, so the provider of the Waqf must be an adult that is sound of mind, who has a proven capability of handling financial affairs, and who is not undergoing bankruptcy.
A founder doesn’t necessarily have to be Muslim to create a Waqf, so that dhimmis (Non-Muslims with legal protection living in Muslim countries) are also allowed to establish a Waqf. If a founder succumbs to a fatal illness, the Waqf is subjected to the Islamic laws that regulate inheritance.
The establishment of Waqfs are not just restricted to Muslim men, as many of the Ottoman Empire’s Waqfs were created by women. Over 2,300 Waqfs documented by the General Directorate of Pious Foundation in Ankara belonged to women, out of a total of 30,000. Of the 491 public fountains in the city of Istanbul that managed to survive into the 1930s, almost 30 percent of them were built as Waqfs of Ottoman women.
– What Can Be Donated as Waqf?
When founding a Waqf, the objects that are being donated cannot be haram — such as wine or pork — and must be objects of a valid contract in the Islamic religion. A Waqf cannot be something that is already in use in the public domain, as public property cannot be used. The founder of a Waqf also cannot have promised to give the objects or property to someone else previously.
What can constitute a Waqf has been up for debate amongst Islamic jurists. Generally, property that is given as Waqf is immovable, though some moveable property can be used as well. Some Islamic jurists have also argued that currencies like gold and silver can be used as religious donation as well. Currency was widely used as Waqf throughout the Ottoman Empire.
– The Beneficiaries of the Waqf
There is a wide array of beneficiaries a founder can designate the Waqf to. Modern Islamic law designates the beneficiaries as either the public or exclusively the poor of a community, or the family and relatives of the founder.
The founder can also give the Waqf to multiple beneficiaries. A founder could give part of the property to their family and half to the public. The public utilities of communities, such as mosques, schools, bridges, or drinking fountains can act as beneficiaries to a Waqf.
A beneficiary must be identifiable and exist at the time of Waqf, although there are some exceptions, such as an unborn child. The beneficiary cannot be at war with Muslims. Non-Muslim citizens can be beneficiaries, as long as they are in peace with Muslims.
The beneficiary cannot use the donation in a way that contradicts Islamic principles and law. While there are some exceptions, most Waqfs cannot be taken back once they are founded.
– The Rules of the Religious Endowment
The Waqf is usually declared in the form of a written document or a verbal declaration, though this isn’t always required. Most Islamic scholars don’t consider the Waqf binding until it is explicitly delivered to the beneficiaries.
When the Waqf has many beneficiaries, the founder appoints an administrator of the Waqf and also sets the rules for appointing successive administrators. The founder also may also act as an administrator during their lifetime. In cases where there are very few beneficiaries there may be no administrators and the Waqf would be handled by the founder and beneficiaries themselves.
– Causes of Termination of the Waqf
The Waqf, in principle, is designed to last forever, but Islamic allows the Waqf to be terminated under some conditions. If the Waqf’s property is destroyed, damaged, or being used in an inappropriate way not intended by the founder, it may be taken back. Under these conditions the remainder of the Waqf would return to the founder or their heirs.
Many Islamic scholars try to avoid this termination, as they believe in exhausting all of the Waqf’s use before termination. To many of these scholars, a Waqf of land often cannot be terminated because it will always be of some value.
If the founder of the Waqf converts out of Islam into another religion, the Waqf becomes void. It can also be voided by an Islamic religious judge, or ḳāḍī, if it goes against the laws of Islam in any way.
In the Mālikī school of Islam, the Waqf’s termination is often explicitly specified in the Waqf’s founding declaration. The Waqf expires whenever the conditions of the termination are fulfilled, after which the property would be given back to the founder or their heirs.
History of the Waqf
There is no direct mention of the Waqf in the Qur’an, but Muslims have integrated the practice as a prominent component of Islam, as it has been derived from many hadiths. It is said throughout the religion that during the life of the Prophet Muhammed the first Waqf was a religious endowment of 600 date palms that were meant to feed the region’s poor.
The rules of Waqf are thought to have been created in Islamic society throughout the 8th and 9th centuries. The Byzantine piae causae, some ancient Arab customs, and pre-Islamic Iranian law might have been the main influences on the Waqf’s legal characteristics.
The two oldest documented Waqfs date back to the 9th century, and a third dates back to the 10th century. The oldest Waqf that is explicitly dated goes back to 876 AD, when a multi-volume edition of the Qur’an — currently to be found in the Turkish and Islamic Arts Museum in Istanbul — was given as donation.
The Eretz Israel Museum in Tel Aviv also has on display a marble tablet, dating back to 913 AD, that reports of the donation of an inn.
The Spread of the Waqf
During the 16th century, the wife of Suleyman the Magnificent founded the so-called Haseki Sultan charitable complex in the form of a Waqf. The complex contained numerous types of infrastructure that could support several villages scattered through Lebanon and Palestine: from a bazaar to soap plants, flour mills, bath houses and shops.
In Egypt, the first Waqf dates back to 919 AD and consisted of a pond called Birkat Habash, given by financial official Abū Bakr Muḥammad bin Ali al-Madhara’i. The pond and its surrounding orchards’ revenue were used to feed the region’s poor and operate a nearby hydraulic complex.
However, even the passing of time was not sufficient to popularize the Waqf everywhere in the Muslim world. In West Africa, for example, Muslim communities never commonly practiced the religious endowment. The very few examples of Waqf were limited to the area around Timbuktu and a few other cities in the Massina Empire. Throughout West Africa, Muslims placed more emphasis on non-permanent acts of charity.
The Management of the Waqf
By the 10th century, however, in the Arab world the Islamic Waqf law was already a custom. This could be inferred by the growing number of hospitals that spurred everywhere, in cities and villages alike. Many Muslim cities had several hospitals by the 11th century, with many being funded by Waqf trust institutions.
These Waqf institutions funded many hospital expenses including wages of staff, foods and medicine, hospital equipment, and building repairs. The institutions also funded medical schools throughout the Islamic world.
During the 19th century, the Ottoman Empire and Egypt began to experiment with managing religious endowment officially through the government. Under government mandate, Waqf fell under more strict laws that focused on improving the management of properties.
As the modern Middle East began to form during the mid-2oth century, the Waqf institution severely weakened throughout the region, as it often clashed with economic and political goals of the newly independent nations. In some countries, property given as endowment was nationalized and dispersed out to the public, while in others the Waqf institution was dissolved altogether.
The Waqf and the English Trust Funds
At a closer look, the Waqf in Islamic law has many common characteristics with English trust law. Both require a founder, trustee, judge, and beneficiaries. They also share many similarities in their core purposes.
Some historians have pointed out that personal trust law developed in England during the 12th and 13th centuries. As the custom of the Waqf was antecedent by several centuries, it has been speculated that Middle Eastern Waqf institutions may have had influence on Crusaders returning to England.
Jerusalem Islamic Waqf
The Jerusalem Islamic Waqf currently controls the Islamic edifices in and around the Temple Mount, in Jerusalem’s Old City. The Waqf in its various forms has managed the access to the Temple Mount since the Muslim reconquest of Jerusalem in 1187 AD.
The latest version was created by the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan after its occupation of East Jerusalem and the West Bank during 1948. After the June 1967 6 Day War — when Israel captured the Old City of Jerusalem — the Waqf was allowed to keep its authority over the Temple Mount by the Israeli government after hostilities ended.
The Waqf currently acts as the civil administration of the Islamic holy sites and is funded by the King of Jordan. A director heads the Waqf’s administration and runs the civil administration of the holy sites, while the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem presides over the holy site’s religious affairs.
We have explored many parts of the Waqf religious endowment institution. Let’s go over the central components:
- A Waqf is a religious endowment of charity that is given by a Muslim to a specific person, to the public, or to the poor.
- A Waqf can not be taken back once it is given, unless its usage goes against Islam or is used in a way not originally intended.
- A Waqf is often land, buildings, or public infrastructure; however most anything can be given as an endowment.
The Waqf has been a central part of Islam since the very beginning of the spread of this religion. The use of religious endowment has brought vast improvements to Muslim societies throughout history, and especially helped poor Muslims. The Waqf is today still alive and well in the Muslim world, serving an important role in Muslim families and communities.