Calling All Waqf Haters

By Nada Moumtaz

Waqf (Islamic endowment), and its study, cannot leave a scholar of Islam unmoved, it would seem. For those not working on waqf, its complex legal technicalities instigate dread and “boredom of the heart.” Its accounting documents and the economic history they tell evoke the dryness of “counting beans,” as a colleague once told me. For proponents of an Islamic economic development, waqf arouses hope. Early scholars of waqf were weary of the waqf, because it is, as its Arabic root implies, “stopped” and an obstacle to the free market – a view that is still prevalent in the popular imagination despite its debunking.[1] Yet, Islamicists recognize the waqf’s importance. It is no surprise that Marshall Hodgson famously called it the material foundation of the Islamic world after the fifth/eleventh century.[2]

In this series of posts, I would like to explain why I find thinking with the waqf exciting, even after writing a book about it! In a nutshell, for an anthropologist concerned with the contemporary Islamic tradition, waqf studies have laid the foundation for us to shed light on the peculiar conceptions of charity, economy, and religion dominant in our modern world, and the changes in the grammar of these concepts even in contemporary Islamic practices like the waqf.

In this first post, I will describe some of the main ways historians have analyzed the waqf and their important insights. In future posts, I turn to an aspect of waqf whose importance my ethnographic research brought to the fore: its qurba (getting close to God) purpose, or its “religious” dimension. Waqf allowed for the reproduction of particular relations to God, family, and community. And I suggest that it is in these relations that we can better understand the reasons why modern states have attempted to eradicate the waqf and the particular form the waqf revival has, and has not, taken today.

As Miriam Hoexter described over twenty years ago, waqf studies moved from a first wave of legal studies to a second wave that mined newly available court and state archives.[3] Waqf foundation deeds, accounting registers, appointments of administrators and other employees, lawsuits among beneficiaries and against administrators, exchanges, and many other documents have been an incredibly rich resource for writing various kinds of histories.[4]

These studies have allowed historians to move beyond Orientalist assumptions that take Qurʾanic injunctions and Islamic legal texts as the blueprint of Islamic society. Pascale Ghazaleh notes for example how studies of waqf have shown that “general statements about Qurʾanic inheritance rules imposing a certain division of wealth upon individuals, restricting their free will, fragmenting wealth, and preventing accumulation, are utterly unfounded.”[5] Historians have used this wealth of documents to uncover the variety of waqf founders, objects endowed, and beneficiaries, and begun to answer the question: How do social, economic, and political conditions affect the changes in these subjects, objects, and purposes? The scholarship has shown how waqfs were political, economic, and symbolic projects aimed at public policy,[6] planning property devolution and family relations,[7] diverting state revenues to private pockets,[8] colonizing newly conquered land,[9] establishing political and religious legitimacy,[10] controlling education and law,[11] among many others.

Despite being, by definition, an act of perpetual charity (a ṣadaqa jāriya), the waqf’s charitable aspect has rarely been investigated in depth or centered in many of these historical works.[12] Most studies of waqf acknowledge the importance of pleasing God and closeness to Him in the hereafter for the creation and perpetuation of waqf, but the studies’ focus is elsewhere— on the waqfs’ social, political, economic effects, as I mentioned above. For example, Ghazaleh asks, “when a local merchant established a foundation, what were his intentions, beyond saving his soul?”[13] Ghazaleh does note that she has erred in the opposite direction of Orientalist scholars who explain all actions of Muslims as determined by Islam. The reason behind her emphasis on the “secular purposes of the waqf,” she explains convincingly, is that historical documents tell us much more about the “concrete material effects of waqf” rather than their religious purposes.[14]

Of course, because these studies rely mainly on existing court and state records, investigating the otherworldly aims of the waqf is not easy. However, this difficulty is also compounded by an approach to religious purposes that are often perceived to be super-structural and underlain by some ‘real’ structural purpose.  For example, in a tour-de-force synthesis on charity in Islamic societies, Amy Singer argues that “we must acknowledge that charitable giving may be the product of sincere religious belief.”[15] Yet, she cautions that “beneficence is not benign, either in its motivations or in its effects… [It] is used for personal gains of power and status … givers manipulate recipients, and, in turn, are themselves manipulated.”[16] She thus sees the historian and the social scientist as responsible for understanding the “social context in which … [charitable practices] exist, how they serve interests associated with class, confession, gender, or national identity.”[17]

Despite the acknowledgement of the importance of Islamic injunctions on charity, we often return to an understanding of the Muslim subject as a self-interested maximizing homo oeconomicus (where even charity for salvation is considered self-interested) and an assumption that acts that are self-interested cannot be truly altruistic. While it is indeed crucial to study the interests waqfs serve, what does such a picture miss? It is to this question that I turn in my next post.


[1] “Far from being static or in ‘mortmain,’ foundation properties were not, in fact, inalienable and often changed hands,” reminds us Randi Deguilhem, “Waḳf: IV. In the Ottoman Empire to 1914,” in Encyclopaedia of Islam, Second Edition (April 24, 2012),

[2] Marshall G. S. Hodgson, The Venture of Islam : Conscience and History in a World Civilization (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1974), 2:124.

[3] Miriam Hoexter, “Waqf Studies in the Twentieth Century: The State of the Art,” Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient 41, no. 4 (1998): 474–95.

[4] The literature is enormous, and Hoexter provides an excellent and exhaustive (even if a bit dated by now) review of waqf studies used to write social, urban, political, and economic histories.

[5] Pascale Ghazaleh, “Introduction: Pious Foundations: From Here to Eternity?,” in Held in Trust: Waqf in the Islamic World, ed. Pascale Ghazaleh (Cairo, Egypt: American University in Cairo Press, 2011), 3.

[6] Amy Singer, Constructing Ottoman Beneficence: An Imperial Soup Kitchen in Jerusalem (Albany: SUNY Press, 2002).

[7] E.g. Beshara Doumani, Family Life in the Ottoman Mediterranean: A Social History (Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2017).

[8] E.g. Carl F. Petry, “Fractionalized Estates in a Centralized Regime: The Holdings of Al-Ashraf Qāytbāy and Qānṣūh Al-Ghawrī According to Their Waqf Deeds,” Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient 41, no. 1 (1998): 96–117,

[9] E.g. Rıza Yıldırım, “Dervishes, Waqfs, and Conquest: Notes on Early Ottoman Expansion in Thrace,” in Held in Trust: Waqf in the Islamic World, ed. Pascale Gazaleh (Cairo, Egypt: American University in Cairo Press, 2011), 23–40.

[10] E.g. Ana María Carballeira Debasa, “The Use of Charity as a Means of Political Legitimation in Umayyad Al-Andalus,” Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient 60, no. 3 (2017): 233–62,

[11] E.g. George Makdisi, The Rise of Colleges. Institutions of Learning in Islam and the West (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1981).

[12] An exception comes from an Islamic legal history of the early waqf. In his dissertation on the formation of the legal institution of the waqf, Peter Hennigan consecrates a chapter on waqf as charity, which, tellingly, is dropped from the book that comes out of the dissertation. “The Birth of a Legal Institution: The Formation of the Waqf in Third Century A.H. Hanafi Legal Discourse” (PhD diss., Cornell University, 1999).

[13] Ghazaleh, “Introduction: Pious Foundations: From Here to Eternity?,” 5.

[14] Ibid. 15, n.7.

[15] Amy Singer, Charity in Islamic Societies (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 223.

[16] Ibid. 8–9.

[17] Ibid. 223.

(Suggested Bluebook citation: Nada Moumtaz, Calling All Waqf Haters, Islamic Law Blog (Apr. 9, 2021),

(Suggested Chicago citation: Nada Moumtaz, “Calling All Waqf Haters,” Islamic Law Blog, April 9, 2021,

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