Late Ottoman Beiruti Waqfs: Closeness to God (Qurba) and Charity for the Family

By Nada Moumtaz

In my book, God’s Property: Islam, Charity, and the Modern State, I seek to explain the contours of the contemporary waqf revival in Beirut against a longue durée of waqf reform since the mid-nineteenth century, starting with the Ottoman foundation of a Waqf Ministry in 1826 through French Mandatory (1920-1943) and postcolonial legislation. I center the waqf as ṣadaqa (an act of charity), which brings founders closer to God (qurba), in addition to providing a host of worldly benefits. In this post, I illustrate what charity and godliness entailed and what form they took through the waqfs of Muslim Beirutis in the nineteenth century, while also noting that qurba is an essential part of non-Muslim waqfs.

When studying the waqfs of sultans, notables, and members of the ruling class, with their complexes and large amounts of land and even villages, it is easy to think of waqfs first and foremost as political, economic, and symbolic projects.

But the qāḍī court registers of a small city like Beirut in the nineteenth century are filled with smaller waqfs, where charity and closeness to God take concrete forms: one third of a shop to support the bread basket waqf (quffat al-khubz), distributed every Friday by the congregational mosque;[1] a shop for the shrine of Sayyid Badawi in Tanta, Egypt;[2] two shops from whose rents ten qurush are spent to pay a reciter for prayers on the soul of the founder and her husband, and the rest on the poor;[3] a garden dedicated to the founder’s daughter then her boys and girls, and their descendants, according to the laws of inheritance (ʿalā al-farīḍa al-sharʿiyya);[4] a piece of land with two houses and trees dedicated to the founder, then his spouse, then their descendants (ʿalā al-farīḍa al-sharʿiyya), and after the extinction of his lineage to the Haramayn, with 180 qurush for a reciter to recite daily a juzʾ of the Qurʾān in the house, with the blessings going to the Prophet, his family, al-Imām al-Awzāʿī, and the founder and his descendants.[5]

Of course, not all waqfs were founded by Muslims. Beirut’s qāḍī court records of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries are also filled with waqfs founded by Christians (mostly Orthodox, Catholic, and Maronite).[6] What does that do to the notion of qurba, or closeness to God? One might assume that the waqf foundation by non-Muslims indicates that the waqf is essentially a property transaction, with the qurba as an “add-on.” However, the qurba purpose remains an essential element for these transactions by dhimmis too. Ḥanafī jurists[7] require the waqf of a dhimmī to be a “qurba for us and for them” (sharṭ waqf al-dhimmī an yakūn qurba ʿindanā wa ʿinadahum).[8] Such purposes would, for example, include the poor and the Mosque of Jerusalem/ Temple Mount (masjid al-quds) since both Muslims and Jews consider these pious purposes, but not “their” places of worship (since that is not a pious purpose for Muslims) or a mosque or the hajj (since that is not a pious purpose for non-Muslims).

These small acts of charity perpetuated certain kinds of relations between one’s self and God, family, and community. In the Ḥanafī madhhab’s dominant opinion, when subjects make waqf, they transfer the ownership of objects to God, while dedicating its revenues to (legally valid) beneficiaries of their choice.[9] God was very present in the practices that these waqfs sustained, like the weekly, monthly, or yearly practices of Qurʾānic recitation. Godliness and worship of God were also supported by an important group of these waqfs’ beneficiaries, the city’s mosques and many Sūfī zāwiyas, which in addition provided public space, community, and food (the zāwiyas fed passers-by).[10]

Furthermore, waqfs perpetuated family connections, whether the family created through these waqfs included or excluded women, or was nuclear or extended.[11] In one of the family waqfs, founded in 1854 and still extant, which I had followed in Beirut in the last 15 years, discussions of the fate of the waqf, its possible uses, and its administration, brought the family together through phone calls and conversations. It had also lead to some bitterness as different economic conditions pulled different members of the family in different directions, with some wanting to end the waqf as the mandatory and postcolonial waqf law allows (discussed in next blog post). As an interlocutor of Lebanese historian Khalid Ziyada notes while pondering the waqfs of Tripoli, “Waqf is the foundation for the formation of families and the belonging of each of their generations to earlier generations. How many families broke up and disappeared because they were not built around a waqf that would bring them together.”[12]

The importance of family beneficiaries in Beirut’s waqfs is a reminder that the Ḥanafī jurists considered charity to the family one of the utmost acts of beneficence.[13] Both the Qurʾān and ḥadīth enjoin privileging family members as the primary recipients of charity. In the Qurʾān, for instance, a key verse describ­ing the principles of piety places spending on one’s family immediately after the basic beliefs in God, Judgment Day, the angels, revelation, and the prophets. “Truly pious [al-birr] is he who spends his substance upon his near of kin” (Qurʾān 2:177). Many ḥadīths echo the Qurʾān regarding the piety of spending on one’s family: for instance, “when a Muslim spends on his fam­ily [ahlih] seeking reward for it from Allah, it counts for him as ṣadaqa.[14] As waqf scholars have noted, jurists did not distinguish between waqfs dedicated to families and those dedicated to public goods; the same waqf law applied to both.[15]

In the next post, I suggest that these relations to God and one’s family, perpetuated by waqfs, stood in the way of different relations advanced by the modern state. They necessitated modern state reforms to consolidate an institution as complex as the waqf in the modern state’s categories, like personal status law. These legal reforms eradicated some waqf practices and made contemporary waqf practices very different from the earlier forms of waqf I described here.


[1] Archive of the Beirut Sunni Shariʿa Court (abbreviated as MSSB): MBSS.S2/149, 3 L 1264 [September 2, 1848].

[2] MBSS.S3/157, 29 L 1233 [September 1, 1818]. On Sayyid Badawi (d.675/1276), Egypt’s “most popular saint,” as EI2 puts it, see Catherine Mayeur-Jaouen, Al-Sayyid Aḥmad al-Badawī: Un Grand Saint de l’islam Égyptien (Le Caire: Institut français d’archéologie orientale, 1994), 32.

[3] MBSS.S4/141, 19 N 1273 [May 13, 1857].

[4] Qabbani personal collection, 23 C 1270 [March 23, 1854].

[5] MBSS.S25/287-288.539, 1 B 1292 [August 3, 1875]. Al-Imām al-Awzāʿī (d.157/773-4) was a prominent Syrian jurist and founder of a now defunct legal school. He was buried fifteen kilometers outside the then-walled city of Beirut, but the tomb and shrine are now in what has become Beirut’s Southern suburb in an eponymous area. On al-Awzāʿī in the context of early Islamic Beirut, see Rana Mohamad Said Mikati, “The Creation of Early Islamic Beirut: The Sea, Scholars, Jihad and the Sacred” (PhD diss., University of Chicago, 2013).

[6] More than half of the waqf-foundations are by non-Muslims. See Aurore Adada, “Réseaux Socioculturels et Économiques à Beyrouth Ottoman (1843-1909) à Travers Les Waqfs” (PhD diss., Marseille, Université de Provence, 2009), 138–40.

[7] Ḥanafism was the official school of law in the Ottoman Empire (see for some of the recent scholarship on the matter Guy Burak, The Second Formation of Islamic Law: The Hanafi School in the Early Modern Ottoman Empire (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015); and Samy Ayoub, Law, Empire, and the Sultan: Ottoman Imperial Authority and Late Ḥanafī Jurisprudence, Oxford Islamic Legal Studies (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2020). Waqf foundations in Beirut’s court followed that school.

[8] Muḥammad Amīn ibn ʿUmar Ibn ʿĀbidīn, Ḥāshiyat Radd Al-Muḥtār ʿalā al-Durr al-Mukhtār (Būlāq, Egypt: s.n., 1272), vol. 3, 360,

[9] This is the opinion of Abū Ḥanīfa’s students, Abū Yusuf and Muḥammad al-Shaybānī: “the confinement of the corpus [of a specific property] (ʿayn) to the ownership of God and the gift of its manfaʿa [yield or usufruct] to some charitable purpose,” in Badr al-Dīn Maḥmūd ibn Aḥmad ʻAynī, Sharḥ Al-Kanz (Būlāq Cairo: Dār al-Ṭibāʻah al-ʻĀmirah, 1285), vol. 1, 343, Also noted by Robert D. McChesney, Waqf in Central Asia : Four Hundred Years in the History of a Muslim Shrine, 1480-1889 (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1991), 6–7.

[10] The waqf foundations of Beirut supported the Ḥaramayn (23%), mosques (19%), zāwiyas (19%), the poor (29%) and schools (10%), in Adada, “Réseaux Socioculturels et Économiques à Beyrouth Ottoman (1843-1909) à Travers Les Waqfs,” 179.

[11] For a great debunking of the idea of the “Muslim family” by showing that waqfs supported different family structures depending on the political economy of the town they are in, see Beshara Doumani, Family Life in the Ottoman Mediterranean: A Social History (Cambridge ; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2017).

[12] Khālid Ziyāda, Bawwābāt Al-Madīna Wa al-Sūr al-Wahmī (Bayrūt: Dār al-Nahār li’l-Nashr, 1997), 143.

[13] Seventy percent of waqfs founded in the nineteenth century included a family beneficiary, Adada, “Réseaux Socioculturels et Économiques à Beyrouth Ottoman (1843-1909) à Travers Les Waqfs,” 141.

[14] Muslim ibn al-Ḥajjāj al-Qushayrī, Ṣaḥīḥ Muslim: the authentic hadiths of Muslim with full Arabic text, trans. Muḥammad Mahdī Sharīf (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-ʿIlmiyya, 2005).

[15] Noted early on by J.N.D. Anderson, “The Religious Elements in Waqf Endowments,” Royal Central Asian Journal XXXVIII, no. 4 (1951): 292–99, and usually always noted by waqf scholars.

(Suggested Bluebook citation: Nada Moumtaz, Late Ottoman Beiruti Waqfs: Closeness to God (Qurba) and Charity for the Family, Islamic Law Blog (Apr. 15, 2021),

(Suggested Chicago citation: Nada Moumtaz, “Late Ottoman Beiruti Waqfs: Closeness to God (Qurba) and Charity for the Family,” Islamic Law Blog, April 15, 2021,

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