Waqfs as Moral Persons and Other Stories of Waqf Today

By Nada Moumtaz

A few weeks ago, I was at a conference about Muslim philanthropy in Canada, which, gathered academics with practitioners working in the nonprofit/charitable sector, along with some who play both roles together. In a panel on waqf in Canada, the leader of a prominent organization lamented that their attempt to revive the waqf institution and to encourage Muslims to donate has not resonated with the community. He explained: “Knowledge, understanding, and appreciation of what an endowment is has been lost from the Muslim consciousness and from the religious discourse in our institutions.” Practitioners and even imams and authorities would ask if that practice was Islamic. Waqf he continued, poignantly, “does not have the emotional support and backing that zakat does.”

At first blush, one might read this struggle and the challenges Muslim organizations in Canada face in efforts to revive the waqf as two issues that are rather particular to the North American setting. After all, waqf was never an institution dominant in Canada so Muslims here do not live with waqfs (and traces thereof) around them. But, in this post, I would like to suggest that the waqf in Canada and in Muslim-majority countries does not resonate as it once did before today because of the changes in the notions of charity, religion, and economy that have become dominant worldwide.

One of the effects of the separation of religion and economy and the focusing of religion on worship has been the rise in waqf foundations of mosques and Islamic centers. Charity for the family, while previously the dominant mode, has during the same time almost disappeared as a practice. When over 70% of the waqfs founded in Ottoman Beirut in the 19th century included family beneficiaries at first, either alone or with another charitable purpose, less then 5% of the new waqfs founded in Beirut between 1990 and 2009 include family beneficiaries. Most of the waqfs I encountered in Beirut’s sharīʿa court today were the many new mosques that punctuate Beirut’s soundscape, a reminder of the Islamic Revival underway since the 1990s.[1] And there were also waqfs like Bayt al-Daʿwa wa-l-Duʿāt, Waqf al-Sīra an-Nabawiyya, or Markaz al-Nūr al-Islāmī, which act as Islamic centers.[2] In both mosques and in such institutions, charitable giving takes a particular form: prayer, teaching the Qurʿān and the religious sciences, or daʿwa.

Given this restriction, which I had witnessed in Beirut, of what founders funded through waqfs, I was not surprised when the Canadian community leader noted that people seem to have forgotten that, in the Islamic tradition, “to act justly between two people is charity, smiling is charity, saying a good word is charity, all these are looked upon as devotional acts (ʿibāda).” He was noting the restriction of what counted as charity and worship today.

Yet, on my research in Beirut, I had also encountered some forms of waqf that did not confine waqf purposes to worship and the perpetuation of the tradition. For instance, in 2005, two men had “waqf-ed $200 for the benefit of the Global Anti-Aggression Campaign, and this waqf was founded under the name of ‘The Waqf of the Global Anti-Aggression Campaign’ with the purpose of spending the revenues of this waqf, and of developing and growing the revenue, for the benefit of the aforementioned waqf.”[3] Cash waqfs were common in the Ottoman period, even if they were exceptional in Ottoman Beirut (I had only encountered one of them).[4] But $200 was too little seed capital or principal to be grown to cover the expenses of a campaign; it would most probably need to collect donations and fundraise.

But, of further interest as well, the waqf created here was mostly a moral person, like a nonprofit, or non-governmental organization (NGO) as they are known in Lebanon, but registered at the sharīʿa court.[5] It did not need permission to operate from and was not under the supervision of the Cabinet, like a foreign organization would. And It did not need to produce a public notice and to be under the supervision of the Ministry of Interior, as a local one would.[6]

And it is tempting to think of such NGO-waqfs as pragmatic solutions to worldly problems, where qurba (closeness to God) was not at the forefront of founders’ minds—contrary to its centrality in nineteenth-century Ottoman waqfs in Beirut, as I suggested in an earlier post. When I chatted with founders about these new waqfs, they seemed very matter-of-fact and pragmatic about the decision to create waqfs. It was about the legal advantages that the waqf designation provided: a fast and cheap way to create an NGO, supervised by an organ of the state that they perceived as sympathetic to their religious orientation (the sharīʿa courts). But to leave it there would be too hurried a conclusion. Such a framing assumes that the presence of external goods (here, practical advan­tages of the waqf) cast a shadow on the internal goods and the pious purpose of the waqf. It likewise presumes that a charitable donation is to be completely disinter­ested, and in this reading, it parallels an ideology whose rise Jonathan Parry traces in relation to the emergence of the “ideology of a purely interested exchange”—that is, commodity exchange in a capitalist market.[7] However, here, the internal goods of the practice were not jeopardized by its legal advantages. As an interlocutor exclaimed when I asked about the qurba purpose of such waqfs, “can’t you see who we are?” And they were often visible Muslims, committed Muslims, often seeking to “defend Islam” and Muslims, or to live a lifestyle under states not hospitable to them.

While the purpose of a waqf like the Global Anti-Aggression Campaign was not restricted to worship and daʿwa, it shared with it the separation of the funding and revenue-producing activities from waqf. Gone were the numerous shops, rooms, houses, lands, and parts thereof, whose revenues supported these institutions. During my ethnographic research, mosque board members complained that worshippers as well as men and women of wealth were very fast to donate to build a new mosque, but did not provide for a continuous source of income for the upkeep and running of the mosques. They had to rely on weekly collections, “shḥādeh” (beggary). Such practices reflect the separation of economy and religion that accompanies the modern state’s regulation of religion as well as its delineation and growing of the economy.

However, the fact that these critiques of current practices exist, like the critique of the Canadian organization leader, shows that some of those involved in the waqf revival are very aware of what the waqf had been and its different configuration of religion and economy. Older waqf practices, I show in my book, have survived: in the memory of people like that speaker, of older practitioners, of people who have family waqfs, of buildings that embody this older logic—like mosques surrounded by shops.

One such trace appears in ʿUmar al-Fahl’s waqf, founded in 2003.[8] This was a piece of land endowed for the charitable purposes of creating an Islamic center, which included a mosque and various shops to support the operation of the center. The founder was carrying out the will of his grandfather—and also namesake—whose piety was legendary, to create such a waqf. One can surmise that the elder ʿUmar al-Fahl’s exposure to Ottoman waqfs under the Mandate translated into a new waqf that carried that same logic of a revenue-bearing, self-sustaining project, allowing for the older waqfs as revenue-producing objects to continue to exist in buildings and typologies that embody this logic.

Yet, the al-Fahl waqf and its revenue-bearing assets were not always legible as waqf. One of my interlocutors commented that this waqf was problematic precisely because the founder “wanted something between a waqf and something commercial.” For him, then, the idea of a waqf as a process that could be charitable while seeking the creation of profit was contradictory. This tension or even conflict that my interlocutor identifies between waqf, a charitable endeavor, and a commercial enterprise seeking profit is a very modern one, partly arising from the dominance of the waqf as a moral person, since it dissociated waqf from these revenue-bearing objects, and partly from the legal designation of charitable organizations in opposition to profit.[9]

In the tensions between the waqf-NGOs, the many waqfs of mosques and Islamic centers, and the revenue-bearing waqfs, we see the multiple temporalities at play in the Islamic tradition in the modern world: some ruptures, some new possibilities, and tenacious forms of the same practice.[10]


[1] The Islamic Revival denotes the rise of political Islam and Islamic sensibility and practice among Muslims since the 1970s. There are very few studies of the Revival in Lebanon on the Sunnī side. For a study on the Shīʿī side, see Lara Deeb, An Enchanted Modern: Gender and Public Piety in Shi’i Lebanon (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2006).

[2] Archive of the Beirut Sunni Sharīʿa Court (abbreviated as MSSB): MSSB.H (Ḥujaj) 1990.1258, MSSB.H1991.351, MSSB.H1998.2202

[3] MBSS.H 2005/1249. The Global Anti-Aggression Campaign, Qāwim, is a wide transnational network of Muslim scholars and activists founded in 2005, after the US invasion of Iraq, building on discontent with American presence on Saudi soil during second Gulf War, to resist American dominance and Israeli occupation (https://tinyurl.com/5yxt92tt). It includes the two Saudi founders of al-Ṣaḥwa movement (the Awakening) Salman al-ʿAwda (al-Odah) and Safar al-Ḥawālī (who was elected as its inaugural president in 2005), Khālid Mashʿal of Ḥamās, the Qatari academic and then head of Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies ʿAbd al-Raḥmān al-Nuʿaymī, among hundreds of others. Academic studies of the network are almost non-existent. It appears in some studies of Salafism but not as a main object of investigation and thus much of the information provided is not reliable (for example Zoltan Pall, Lebanese Salafis between the Gulf and Europe: Development, Fractionalization and Transnational Networks of Salafism in Lebanon, Forum Publications (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2013), 69, http://pi.lib.uchicago.edu/1001/cat/bib/11180519, who dates the movement to 2008.

[4] On the Ottoman cash waqf, see for example Jon Mandaville E., “Usurious Piety: The Cash Waqf Controversy in the Ottoman Empire,” International Journal of Middle East Studies 10, no. 3 (1979): 289–308; Tahsin Özcan, Osmanlı Para Vakıfları: Kanunı Dönemi Üsküdar Örneği, Türk Tarih Kurumu Yayınlarından. VII. Dizi, sa. 199 (Ankara: Türk Tarih Kurumu Basımevi, 2003); Tahsin Özcan, “Legitimization Process of Cash Foundations: An Analysis of the Application of Islamic Waqf Law in Ottoman Society,” İstanbul Üniversitesi İlahiyat Fakültesi Dergisi, no. 18 (2008): 235–48; Hasan Karataş, “The Cash Waqfs Debate of 1545-1548: Anatomy of a Legal Debate at the Age of Süleyman the Lawgiver,” İnsan ve Toplum 1, no. 1 (2011).

[5] Both Mona Atia, Building a House in Heaven: Pious Neoliberalism and Islamic Charity in Egypt (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013); and Gizem Zencirci, “From Property to Civil Society: The Historical Transformation of Vakifs in Modern Turkey (1923-2013),” International Journal of Middle East Studies 47, no. 03 (August 2015): 533–54, https://doi.org/10.1017/S0020743815000537 also note the rise of the waqf as NGO.

[6] Ghassan Moukheiber, Al-Jamʿiyyāt fī Lubnān: Dirāsa Qānūniyya [NGOs in Lebanon, a legal study] (Beirut, Lebanon, 2002).

[7] Jonathan Parry, “The Gift, the Indian Gift and the ‘Indian Gift,’” Man, 1986, 458.

[8] MSSB.H2001.1900, and MSSB.H2003.

[9] The purpose of an association in Lebanese law is defined in opposition to profit-sharing (Article 1 of the 1909 Associations Law): it is a group of people who aim to advance purposes other than profit-sharing.

[10] I am grateful to Basit Iqbal for this framing in terms of temporality. My highlighting of different temporalities echoes Sohaira Siddiqui’s recent blogpost about the need to think beyond the dichotomy of rupture vs. continuity in Islamic law in the modern world.

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