Embracing The World: Part 3

Embracing The World: Part 3


All over the vast Islamic world, from the Atlantic to the Pacific, various services that are fundamentally important to society have been financed and maintained through charitable trusts.

Godliness and virtue is not that you turn your faces towards east or west; but godliness and virtue is to believe in God and the Last Day, the angels, the Book, and the Prophets; to spend of your substance out of love for Him for your kin, for orphans, for the needy, for the wayfarer, for those who ask, and for the liberation of slaves; to be steadfast in prayer and practice regular charity; to fulfill the contracts you have made; and to be persevering and patient in hardship and disease, and throughout all periods of stress. Such are the people who are true (in their faith), and those are they who achieved righteousness, piety, and due reverence for God. (Qur’an 2:177)

All cultures and religions instruct their followers to help the poor and leave behind an everlasting source of good deeds (Dallal 2004, 13-43). Originating from a desire to improve others’ well-being, charity is an altruistic behavior (Becker 1974, 1063-1091) of gift exchanges between individuals that encourages social order and stability (Mauss 1950). This essential principle comprises two main categories in Islam: Zakat, obligatory alms for Muslims with a certain level of wealth, and sadaqa, highly recommended voluntary donations, one of the most popular forms of which are philanthropic foundations.

Moroccan traveler Ibn Battuta (d.1369) was struck by the dedication of the inhabitants of Damascus to all forms of countless foundations, such as legacies devoted by people who could not travel to Mecca to pay others’ pilgrimage; foundations providing girls from poor backgrounds with all the requirements for their marriage; foundations devoted to purchasing the freedom of Muslim prisoners; others for paying the maintenance of roads, and many more (Ibn Battutah 2006). Once, he saw a young boy drop a porcelain plate, which broke. The passer-bys told the boy to take the pieces to the foundation for utensils. Consequently, the boy got a refund, equal to the value of a new plate. The residents, in their great numbers, also provided endowments for schools, hospitals, and mosques. It was a city, Ibn Battuta tells us, where the social spirit was at its optimum.

The word waqf (plural awqaf), means to cause a thing to stop and stand still, to withhold, or to prevent; and the word applies “to endow the property rights of a good [while dedicating its benefits] to the public service perpetually, and to prevent others from obtaining its property rights”. Awqaf are considered an expression of piety, not because their activities are inherently religious, but because they are governed by a law considered sacred. In Islamic terminology, waqf is described as the detention of an entity from ownership forever, by considering it as the property of God, while devoting all its possible gifts of income to some charitable purpose for the community.

However defined, waqf institutions stand out as one of the greatest achievements of Islamic civilization. Although this was not a new concept introduced by Islam, the system to allocate, administer, and dispense the usufruct was unique. All over the vast Islamic world, from the Atlantic to the Pacific, various services that are fundamentally important to society have been financed and maintained through awqaf, some of which have even survived for more than a millennium, providing the needy with basic needs such as food, education, and shelter, and improvements like lighthouses, cemeteries, public baths, drinking fountains, mosques, bridges, roads, aqueducts and so on, enhancing peace and harmony.

Once established, the public aims of a waqf become binding, cannot be altered or revoked, even by the founder, and everyone, even the head of state, has to obey these deeds. Eliminating the waqf character of property entails a complicated process, and is restricted to an exchange of another property of equivalent value and equivalent service to the community, in addition to a local court’s approval. Diverting waqf revenues to other purposes is not within the authority of the waqf administration or a supervisory court. Should a waqf purpose becomes unfeasible, its revenue is spent on the closest purpose available, both conceptually and geographically; and if this is not workable, the benefits go to the needy, which is assumed as the default intent (Kahf).

Some examples:
Historical data suggest that foundations were first observed as religious establishments where people worshipped together, followed by other applications in society; some believe that some awqaf were founded by Prophet Abraham, peace be upon him, about 1860 BCE. The first waqf in Islam is the Mosque of Quba in Medina, built in 622 AD, upon arrival of God’s Messenger, peace and blessings be upon him, who demonstrated the primary examples of awqaf in Islam. He had first donated seven orchards in Mukhairiq, then his share from date gardens in Fadak and Khaibar, all for charitable purposes.

Following these exemplary actions, his Companions, (may Allah be pleased with them all) and followers have continuously given to many various, worthy causes. For instance, many wells were bought from individuals and were designated for public service. As Uthman ibn ‘Affan reports, “The Prophet, peace be upon him, arrived in Madinah and realized that the city had very little drinking water, except the water of Bi’r Ruma (Ruma Well). He asked, ‘Who will purchase Bi’r Ruma to equally share the water drawn therefrom with his fellow Muslims and shall be rewarded with a better well in the Garden (of Eden)?’ Then I bought it from my own money.”

Another circulated tradition in Bukhari and Muslim, the two most authenticated collections of hadith, refers to what is considered the first Islamic land waqf. Upon his request, Umar ibn al-Khattab is advised by the Prophet, to retain the corpus [of the land] but dedicate its fruits [in the way] of God. Consequently, he dedicated the land, indicating that it should not be sold, given away as a gift, or inherited; and the revenue from the land should be used as the charity for the poor, for emancipating slaves, for wanderers, and for other social needs. Later, during Umar’s caliphate, Bilal suggested to divide the conquered villages and take the fifth for the treasury. Umar, however, refused and decided to make them waqf for the sustenance of warriors and for all Muslims.

Having been advised about its benefits, the Prophet’s Companions never stopped putting their wealth in bequests; they did this to such a degree that Jabir, another Companion, said, “Any of the Prophet’s Companions who could afford it made endowments”. It is remarkable that the Prophet advised one of his Companions, Abu Zarr, who did not have any belongings at all, to ‘add some more water in [his] soup, and offer’” (Muslim, Birr, 142).

Since then, awqaf have been one of the pillars of Islamic society. The establishment of different kinds of awqaf that serve as institutions of social cooperation and solidarity were utilized, which supported an array of activities from scientific movements to the protection of inlets, and they became a financial source for many socioeconomic sectors and for the beneficence of the needy. They were a model for the contemporary nonprofit sector.

To elaborate an illustration of the services offered, awqaf ensured that diverse services were supplied for free. Awqaf also allowed for huge innovations, such as mobile hospitals, which moved from village to village, as well as emergency teams. The revenue of certain bequests, which could include shops, mills, caravanserais, or even entire villages, would pay for the maintenance and operating costs, and sometimes would supply a small stipend to the patient upon dismissal. An example deed states that “The hospital shall keep all patients until they completely recover. All costs are to be borne by the hospital, whether the people are residents or foreigners, rich or poor, employed or unemployed, physically or mentally ill… There are no conditions of consideration and payment: none is objected to or even indirectly hinted at for non-payment. The entire service is through the magnificence of Allah, the generous one”.

Motivations behind awqaf
Though the word waqf is not used in the Qur’an, there are many verses that constitute a foundation for its actions, such as “to lend willingly,” “to spend in the cause of God,” “to spend of your substance out of love for Him for your kin, for orphans, for the needy,” “to feed the poor,” “to give for charity,” and especially, “to compete in building hayrat (charitable acts).” Due to the extreme emphasis upon charity within Islam, as an act of devotion to God, foundations have flourished, displaying an exceptional development and performing comprehensive services to society.

It is stated in a heartening saying of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) that, “The most auspicious person is the one who is of the assistance of others.” Hence, a contribution to the welfare of the community is considered an act that brings a person closer to God. Another hadith declares that launching an establishment for social gain would be beneficial for the founder, even after death: “Once a son of Adam dies, none of his deeds will be of him except an ongoing charity, a useful knowledge, or a pious child who prays for him.” The ongoing charity here is interpreted as waqf.

The waqf body is intended to prevent the temporary possessions of this world from vanishing, by withholding them in the name, and for the sake of, God as a continuous charity. There is no obligation of any kind behind this action stemming from altruistic behavior, but a sense of responsibility towards humanity, a conscientious sense of serving others, and competing in charity; in other words, such values as compassion, mutual assistance, solidarity, the pleasure of comforting a living thing both materially and spiritually, and the free will of a person embracing these values as principles, have been an element of Islamic culture, motivating a person to transform some or all of his or her personal assets into pious foundations to serve society.

Seeking proximity to God has been the main rationale of awqaf. In some cases, the founders named awqaf after themselves in the hope of being remembered by (and thus receiving prayers from) upcoming generations – though in general, anonymity is preferred. For instance, it was a common practice for the rich, especially during Ramadan, to pay debts of people in need, without revealing who they were, asking local shopkeepers to calculate the total balance on randomly picked pages of their records of receivable accounts. The overall purpose has been altruism rather than fame since it is believed that impurity of intention might spoil the dedication of the gift, whose sole purpose is to please God.

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