Follow Us

Follow on Twitter    Follow on Facebook    YouTube Channel    Vimeo Channel    Tumblr    SoundCloud Channel    iPhone App    iPhone App

New Texts Out Now: Pascale Ghazaleh, Held in Trust: Waqf in the Islamic World

[Cover of [Cover of "Held in Trust: Waqf in the Islamic World."]

Pascale Ghazaleh, editor, Held in Trust: Waqf in the Islamic World. Cairo and New York: American University of Cairo Press, 2011.

Jadaliyya (J): What made you put together this book?

Pascale Ghazaleh (PG): This book brings together articles written by scholars from different countries, working on different aspects of waqf during different periods. These articles were originally papers submitted to the annual seminar organized by Dr. Nelly Hanna of the American University in Cairo's Arab and Islamic Civilizations Department. In 2005, I helped set up the seminar, and the theme we chose was waqf. One of Dr. Hanna's priorities has been to facilitate contacts between young scholars who write in Arabic and those who write in other languages (mainly English), and the waqf theme seemed like a great way of doing that. 

At the same time, I had just finished writing my dissertation, and had worked on waqf as one of the ways in which people disposed of their wealth outside the inheritance circuit. I was very curious about variations in waqf-related practices over space and time—for instance, the question of whether people established waqf on use-rights before the seventeenth century or in places outside the Ottoman Empire. So what compelled me to put the book together, to choose and edit the articles, and to write the introduction, was my interest in waqf as a very enduring practice, one that displayed considerable variation according to place and time, but at the same time showed certain continuities—if only those determined by the legal requirements for a valid waqf.

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does it address?

PG: Several common themes run through the contributions to this work. These are articulated primarily by the definition of a waqf as comprising, first, a source of revenue (for example, land that generated taxes or commercial buildings that generated rent), and, second, a beneficiary designated as the perpetual recipient of that revenue. The chapters thus address the ways in which founders, property, and beneficiaries interacted. More broadly, the book may be situated within the debate about property in the Islamic world: it can be read as an assertion that there was nothing exceptional about property ownership in areas that were regulated by Islamic jurisprudence, and that investigating concrete practice is the best way of understanding how institutions worked. As such, it counters assertions that Islamic inheritance fragmented property, or that waqf as an institution was a hindrance to the development of a capitalist mode of production (because the validity of a waqf required that the properties constituting it be alienated by their owner, and thereby removed from the market). One recent iteration of this argument about waqf hampering economic development is Timur Kuran's book, The Long Divergence, but similar criticisms were leveled at waqf holdings in early twentieth-century Egyptian parliamentary debates.

Held in Trust was not specifically conceived as a rebuttal to such Orientalist assertions (historians have long known of legal conventions that allowed waqf property to enter and exit the real estate market repeatedly), but happily the book as a whole does provide compelling empirical evidence that waqf did not immobilize property permanently, thereby removing it from the market. Some contributions also investigate novel applications of the idea of waqf, and show how adaptable this institution could be to its users' needs. So the ideas raised by Held in Trust are congruent with recent scholarship on property rights that looks at property as the nexus of various interactions, practices, and uses, rather than as an ideal-type or a departure from that supposed ideal.

J: How does this work connect to and/or depart from your previous research and writing?

PG: This work is closely connected to the research I have been doing for the past several years, published as Fortunes urbaines et strategies sociales. Généalogies patrimoniales au Caire, 1780-1830 [Urban Wealth and Social Strategies. Patrimonial Genealogies in Cairo, 1780-1830]. Focusing on merchants’ inheritance strategies, methods of property accumulation, and responses to an increasingly interventionist state after 1805, I found that the shari’a, rather than being a static legal code or set of rulings implemented from above, allowed for a wide variety of uses by social actors. For example, wealthy individuals commonly used legal mechanisms to channel assets to individuals, institutions, and groups of their choosing, thereby depriving their heirs of an inheritance. The concerns that informed my research and also shaped Held in Trust involved looking at legal practice from the inside with the aim of finding out what people did and how practices were constituted historically—not in order to contrast what they did with what they were supposed to do. 

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

PG: Since the contributions cover an extensive historical period and a vast geographical area (from the Balkans in the thirteenth century to the Maghrib in the twentieth), I hope the book will appeal to a wide audience of academics and practitioners. Students of comparative history, Ottoman studies, and Islamic history might find it particularly useful. Its thematic coherence makes it an ideal textbook for use in courses on waqf, kinship, and family in the Middle East, Islamic law and institutions, or urban studies, while the diversity of the individual articles makes them good supplementary readings. I am delighted to see that people outside academia are reading this book as well: an investment banker contacted me to ask how his bank might go about setting up a waqf department. I could not advise him, but I am happy that the book is helping people think about the contemporary relevance of waqf, since this raises the question of its historical value as a strategic asset. 

J: What other projects are you working on now?

PG: I've been inching my way towards formulating a new research project, but I find that I am still preoccupied with the questions of property relations and their impact on the constitution and transformation of social groups, as well as the role that law and legal reform played in that process. I am about to start looking at the published archives of the Egyptian Mixed Courts, and I hope to gain access to the archives of the Civil Courts. One of my goals will be to try and understand how late-nineteenth-century legal reform in Egypt was connected to social and economic change.

Excerpts from Held in Trust: Waqf in the Islamic World

... a plot of land in the heart of al-Qahira could belong to one person or institution (say, a waqf established during the Mamluk period); that land might then be rented out to an individual, who in turn transformed the rent contract into a waqf; buildings might be constructed on the endowed land, and then made into an additional separate waqf; and so on. In the same way, once stipends and salaries became commodities that could be bought and sold on the market, an individual who was entitled to a stipend (say, in the form of grain rations) could then establish that right as an independent waqf. The availability on the market of such use rights must have meant that new categories of relatively affordable goods began to appear in the seventeenth century and that new classes of individuals began to find creating a waqf to be within their means. At the same time, the fact that the Ottoman state grew more decentralized in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, relinquishing more power to local actors, meant that there was more space for the assertion of multiple political, social, and economic interests.

Looking at specific waqf deeds, it is immediately clear that general statements about Qur’anic inheritance rules imposing a certain division of wealth upon individuals, restricting their free will, fragmenting wealth, and preventing accumulation, are utterly unfounded: the deeds represent a trace of individuals’ concrete, deliberate strategies for the preservation or transmission of wealth. In this new perspective, waqfs may be examined not in order to measure how far they adhered to or departed from some Qur’anic ideal, but to determine which social groups and individuals used them, and how and why these uses changed over time. I would situate the contributions to the present work firmly within this problematic, as all of them seek to offer insight into the questions of human agency and social dynamics, taking the creation and use of waqfs as their empirical material. All of them also illustrate the flexibility and diversity of waqf.

…the possibility of securing property from future transactions and directing revenues toward chosen beneficiaries may have been one of the most important motives for those who established waqfs. This must have been especially pressing in times of economic insecurity brought about by inflation, war, or natural causes such as drought. A second incentive was linked more closely to political circumstances: some waqf founders may have seen endowments as a defensive response to a state that did not hesitate to manipulate the law to its advantage. The Maliki school of Sunni law, for instance, gave the central treasury priority if a Muslim left no heirs, or if the Qur’anic shares distributed among existing heirs did not exhaust an inheritance in its entirety. In such cases, a property holder had the option of putting part of what she owned aside while she was still alive and assigning revenues from it to beneficiaries who would not be able to inherit from her after her death—a wet nurse, a cousin, a fellow freedman, or a cherished slave, for example. Waqf could then serve as a means of avoiding inheritance taxes and of providing a livelihood to beneficiaries the founder could choose freely.

Recourse to such dispositions, however, was not standard practice throughout the Ottoman world, or in the pre-Ottoman Islamic lands. In Ottoman Manisa, for example, historians have noted “an inexplicable failure to utilize the option of making a bequest, even when this meant that nearly the whole of the estate would be turned over to the state.” Because this option did not occur automatically and was not universally chosen, it seems likely that it was the expression of a specific material culture whose various manifestations must be analyzed as the products of deliberate choice and conscious human agency rather than the default setting of a general construct we might call Islamic civilization.

The contributors to the present volume cover a wide chronological and geographical spectrum, ranging from the fourteenth to the twentieth century and from Morocco to Jordan, and illustrate the diversity that characterized waqf as an institution. In all the cases examined here, however, the authors have sought to shed light on the uses that historical actors made of waqfs as they endeavored to shape urban space, configure trade patterns, influence political power, and organize social relations. The first chapter, by Rıza Yıldırım, is a case study of waqf as a vector and anchor of expansion in the early years of the Ottoman Empire. By investigating the example of one dervish, and the waqf with which he was associated, Yıldırım shows how closely military and religious imperatives were intertwined during a crucial period of dynamism and change for the fledgling Ottoman dynasty.

The three chapters that follow also concern the sultanate, but at a later stage, when provincial actors had begun to assert themselves in a power struggle where waqfs served as both tools and prizes. In a study of endowments created in Egypt to benefit Mecca and Medina, Husam ‘Abd al-Mu‘ti shows how the Ottoman sultans relied on these institutions to bolster their legitimacy and therefore found themselves obliged to battle local groups for control of waqf revenue, while taking care not to disrupt relations with Egypt’s increasingly autonomous and fractious military commanders. Examining a foundation created by Salah al-Din (Saladin) in Alexandria, Nasir Ibrahim shows how the Ottoman state continuously sought to interfere in the endowment’s affairs and fought the beneficiaries for a larger share of endowment revenues. In both cases, the state emerges as a social actor in its own right, fraught with conflicting interests and competing agendas, rather than as a monolithic and univocal entity. In both cases, too, the authors show how rising provincial groups were able to assert themselves against the will of the Ottoman sultans using an array of unconventional weapons to obtain the income to which they felt entitled.

The same ambivalence evidenced in state practices toward waqfs, and the state’s limited ability to counter local actors’ bids for control over waqf assets, is evident in Michael Reimer’s analysis of endowments in the newly created state of Transjordan, where the Ottoman government struggled to supplant the wide range of services provided locally by waqfs. By the twentieth century, however, Ottoman officials were aware that a state’s claim to modernity rested at least in part on its ability to offer its citizens a degree of protection. The battle unfolding in al-Salt, then, concerned the state’s sphere of action, its rights and responsibilities vis-à-vis the populations under its purview, as much as it did the revenues generated by the waqfs. A similar process is at work in the case examined by John Shoup, where the Moroccan government’s support for certain shrines and the ability of rural economies to withstand external pressures have meant the difference between survival and extinction for some waqfs. In some ways, Shoup’s chapter shows the reversal of trends noted by ‘Abd al-Mu‘ti and Ibrahim for the eighteenth century, with an increasingly powerful central state asserting its authority over regional religious centers.

Tension between a waning imperial government and increasingly powerful provincial groups, or between a nation-state and local institutions, was accompanied by conflicts over mutual rights and responsibilities. In times of change, furthermore, various groups—including state actors—attempted to put forth competing definitions of waqf, reshaping its meaning to suit their purposes. In the fascinating cases of guild waqfs examined by Nelly Hanna, artisans made use of waqf as an institution that fulfilled their collective need at a particular moment of uncertainty and economic insecurity. The way they administered it corresponded to their specific understanding of what waqf was, but not necessarily to what was in the books. Another example of contending definitions of waqf is offered in Anna Maria Medici’s look at Cyrenaica under Italian colonial rule, where Muslims (particularly notables, appointed and co-opted by the Italians to work on waqf administration boards) initially attributed the legitimacy of waqf to Qur’anic stipulations, hoping in this way to buttress the security of waqf assets and set up a barrier to colonial economic penetration. As for the Italians, they tried to interpret complex regulations pertaining to waqf in such a way as to take full advantage of resources “from within.”

The last two chapters, by Dina Bakhoum and Tuba Akar, examine waqfs as instruments of urban planning, mechanisms for preserving the historical fabric of two cities (Cairo and Adana respectively), and poles of attraction that accommodated spontaneous, organic growth while providing a framework that contained it. The authors approach waqf from an architectural and urbanistic perspective and draw prescriptive as well as analytical conclusions from their research.

Finally, in the conclusion to this work, Engin Isin offers a more philosophical appraisal of waqf as an act of citizenship, suggesting that the institution allowed non-Muslims to govern themselves, their relation to the central authorities, and their ties with other subjects—in other words, it allowed different groups to negotiate their differences and similarities. Isin’s conclusion is faithful to a work that seeks to respect the variety of waqf while portraying the underlying unity of purpose and design that made these endowments recognizable to members of classes, religious groups, and gender categories.

[Excerpted from Held in Trust: Waqf in the Islamic World, edited by Pascale Ghazaleh. Copyright © 2011 by Pascale Ghazaleh. Published by the American University in Cairo Press. For more information, or to purchase this book, please click here.]

If you prefer, email your comments to




Apply for an ASI Internship now!


Political Economy Project

Issues a

Call for Letters of Interest


Jadaliyya Launches its

Political Economy




F O R    T H E    C L A S S R O O M 

Roundtable: Harold Wolpe’s Intellectual Agenda and Writing on Palestine


The 1967 Defeat and the Conditions of the Now: A Roundtable


E N G A G E M E N T