Wednesday, November 30, 2022

Was the Waqf Beneficial for Muslim Society?

By Arshad Alam, New Age Islam 29 November 2022 Possibly It Hindered the Economic Development Of The Muslim World Main Points: 1. Waqf is sacred endowment created for a specific purpose 2. Although not Islamic in its origins, its use was widespread in the Muslim world 3. Due to its very nature, the institution was rigid and hence could not adapt to the demands changing times 4. It hindered the amalgamation of large capital which was essential for kick-starting the industrial age ------- The Sachar Committee, way back in 2006, told us that the total value of all Waqf properties in India was around 60 billion Indian rupees. In today’s value, it would have only gone north. Many Muslims have argued that if this money was put to better use, like funding of health and education, then the situation of Indian Muslims would materially change for the better. But this is better said than done, largely because the nature and function of Waqf is not fully understood by Muslims themselves. There was a time when the Waqf functioned as charitable institutions which also provided for some public works, but since the 16th century at least, these Waqfs have ceased to perform those functions and became one of the many reasons why Muslim societies could not progress. The origins of this institution is obscure; but one thing is certain is that it did not have an Islamic root. Waqf like institutions were present in the Roman Empire as well as amongst the Sassanians. And it appears most likely that the early Islamic society borrowed this institution from the Sassanids. Although it was later theologically justified as devoting a property to Allah, there is no record of earliest Muslims instituting any such grant. The earliest Waqf in Muslim societies therefore date after the establishment of the empire, rather than during the period of the Rashidun Caliphate. But once Muslims adopted it, they made wide use of it. Through this institution, they funded hospitals, madrasas, caravan Sarais, etc. Instituting a Waqf was simple: the property was bequeathed in perpetuity to God and a manager was appointed for overseeing the property. This property could generate income which was to be spent for welfare purposes; part of the income thus generated went to the family of the founder of the Waqf. Thus, apart from serving an important function, Waqf was also a means to provide for the financial fortunes of the future generation. Over the years, the latter function dominated the former. Thus, in many cities of the Muslim world, like Algiers and Istanbul, Waqf properties formed nearly 30-50% of all real estate. Since all Waqfs were exempt from taxation, this only meant that the state had less and less revenue to operate with. The presence of this institution, which served the important purpose of social service, therefore also had its downside: that of limiting the value of state revenue. Although a huge empire, but the Ottomans were forced to take loans from other countries and foreign banking consortiums. Becoming a mechanism of tax evasion was one of the many malfunctions of the Waqfs. The very nature of the institution made it rigid and hence unsuited to the changing economic realities. Once a Waqf was instituted, its purpose could not be changed or altered. Many Muslims, for example, established caravan Sarais throughout the silk route during the middle-ages. These Sarais served traders and their animals for a fee, the proceeds of which went to the upkeep of the building and to the children of the founder. However, as the silk route changed over time, these Sarais felt into disuse and could no longer be financially viable. But, owing to the fact that the Waqf was created for the specific purpose of serving traders and merchants in perpetuity, there was no legal way to change the nature, function or the purpose of these Waqfs. Similar is the case in India. It is all very good to feel proud about the value of Waqfs and to what better uses it can be put. But the reality is that the very nature of these properties will not allow Muslims to put them to a different use. Certainly, there are issues like government encroachment of Waqf properties. Huge number of them are also lying unused due to litigation which takes decades to solve. But even without these factors, the very nature of Waqf would make it extremely difficult to liquidate the property or to change its use. If someone instituted a madrasa as a Waqf, then it has to perform that function in perpetuity. God forbid if the founder also mentioned some books that he thinks should be taught in that madrasa, then those books also cannot be removed from the curriculum even after hundreds of years. It is this rigidity that makes Waqfs unsuitable for our times. However, Muslims of the time cannot be faulted for not planning ahead hundreds of years. The fault lies with us, the present-day Muslims, for rooting for the revival of Waqfs without realizing its negative effects. The late middle-ages was the time when banking consortiums were coming up throughout the Western world. Merchants and traders were coming together, pooling resources and establishing banks with huge capital which gave impetus to the upcoming industrial revolution. Something very opposite was going on in the Muslim world. They had the resources but these were increasingly getting locked up in immovable assets through the creation of Waqfs. The financial resources were therefore locked up and its very nature made it obligatory that it could not be used for any other purpose. Moreover, different Waqfs could not be merged together unless the founder had left explicit instructions to do so; which was very rare. Even when some Muslims realized their folly, it was too late and many did not speak up fearing the clergy who had by now declared these Waqfs as sacred institutions. Moreover, since Waqfs could only be created by the wealthy, this only meant that the elite of Muslim world bound itself within a rule which was no longer beneficial. Also, this institution was not beneficial for the children of the rich as the latter got dependent on the largesse provided by the Waqf and hence did not do anything meritorious in the lives. Today in India when we talk about the potential value of Waqf properties and how it can change the fate of Muslims, we must take into consideration its historical nature into account. The only way in which all the money that is locked up in various Waqfs can be put to better use it by a willingness to change the ‘sacred’ character of these institutions. But are there enough Muslims willing to take this call? ----- A regular contributor to, Arshad Alam is a New Delhi based independent researcher and writer on Islam and Muslims in South Asia. URL: New Age Islam, Islam Online, Islamic Website, African Muslim News, Arab World News, South Asia News, Indian Muslim News, World Muslim News, Women in Islam, Islamic Feminism, Arab Women, Women In Arab, Islamophobia in America, Muslim Women in West, Islam Women and Feminism

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