When a human being dies, good deeds come to an end except for three: ongoing charity (sadaqah jariya), knowledge which benefits others, and a righteous child who prays for him or her. (Sahih Muslim Hadith)

 

Endowment (Waqf)

A waqf is an Arabic term which refers to assets that are donated, bequeathed, or purchased to be held in perpetuity as a source for ongoing charity (sadaqah jariya) for a specific cause that is socially beneficial. Endowments or awqaf (the plural of waqf) resemble common law trusts, with the trustee being the institution or individual in charge of the waqf and the beneficiary usually being the whole community.

Common examples of endowments include a trust fund, land, building, or anything else that benefits the community. Traditional uses of the proceeds from the endowments include:

• provision for society at large,
• provision of religious services, or
• provision and relief for the poor and needy,

There are two essential characteristics of an endowment: firstly, it is held in perpetuity–once an endowment is dedicated it remains an endowment forever; and secondly, the conditions and goals specified by the founder must be fulfilled.

For some Muslims, an endowment is more than simply a financial arrangement; it is an act of piety. In fact, one could say that creating and maintaining endowments is a Muslim spiritual practice. As noted in the hadith (prophetic saying) quoted at the head of this page, endowments bring spiritual benefits to those who fund them even beyond the grave.

Endowments in Islamic History

The concept of an endowment can be traced to the time of the prophet Muhammad (pbuh).  According to a hadith, Ibn Umar reported: “Umar received some land in Khyber, so he came to the prophet Muhammad (pbuh) and asked him to advise him about it. The prophet said, ‘If you like, make the property inalienable and give the profit from it to charity.’ Umar gave the profit away as alms, but said that the land itself would not be sold, inherited or donated. He gave the proceeds away to the poor and the needy…. ‘”

Specific laws relating to endowments developed between the 7th and 9th centuries; one of the earliest known endowments was founded by a financial official named Abū Bakr Muhammad b. ʿAlī al-Mād̲h̲arāʾī in 919, during the Abbāsid period. It is a pond called Birkat Ḥabas̲h̲ together with its surrounding orchards, whose revenue was to be used to operate a hydraulic complex and feed the poor.

One of the earliest endowments was the land donated for the first mosque built in Egypt by ‘Amr ibn al-‘As. In the medieval Islamic world, endowments were particularly used to support hospitals and schools, to provide relief for the poor, to maintain mosques and other religious institutions, and even to endow astronomical observatories and other facilities for scientific research.

Under Ottoman rule, funding for areas such as health, education, and welfare was taken care of entirely through the endowment system to the extent that a person could be born, eat and drink, and study, all from endowment-financed institutions.

Endowments also helped public utilities provide clean drinking water. Underground canal-based water systems were built in major cities such as Damascus, Qayrawan, Fez, and Cordoba, and some cities such as Damascus and Fez also had underground sewage systems built as an endowment for the city’s inhabitants.

Philanthropists:

Among the many philanthropists in Islamic history are a number of famous Muslim women who used their wealth to create mosque endowments, build educational institutions, and fund other charitable trusts. The following are some well-known examples:

  • Queen Zubaydah (d. 831), the wife of Harun al-Rashid, built a series of wells and guest houses between Baghdad and Mecca for pilgrims traveling to Hajj, which became known as the “Route of Zubaydah” in her honor. She also built an underground aqueduct from a spring running into Mecca to supply the pilgrims with a constant source of water.
  • Fatima al-Fihriyah (d. 880), known as the “Saint of Fez,” built a school and mosque in Kairouyine (Qarawiyiin), Morocco; the school has been a center of Islamic learning in Morocco for over 1000 years and is the oldest university in Morocco. Fatima’s sister built the Al-Andalus mosque in Fez.
  • Banafshaa’ ar-Rumiyah (d. 1008) helped renovate Baghdad by restoring schools, bridges, and public housing for homeless women. She established her own school and endowment on the banks of the Tigris River.
  • Three women in Yemen, Maryam bint ash-Shams (d. 1313), Barakah bint ‘Abd-Allah (d. 1372), and Al-Udar al-Karimah (d. 1360) were famous for building schools and mosques there.

 

Endowments Today in Muslim communities:

Today there are ministries of endowments in many Muslim-populated countries, such as Egypt, Jordan, and Palestine, which oversee mosques and other endowment properties and help preserve certain lands and even churches. Here in the United States, very few American Muslim organizations have endowments, the most famous among them being the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), which in 1973 established The North American Islamic Trust (NAIT) as a means not only for supporting ISNA’s work but also for preserving and stewarding mosque ownership in the U.S. Another example is the endowment of the Indian Muslim Relief Committee, which helps India’s poor.

ING’s endowment for increasing Islamic literacy among all Americans, and interreligious engagement towards greater understanding and peace would be one of the first Muslim endowments in the United States.