Researching the ancient Islamic approach to good works

Since September 2003, York’s Canada Research Chair in Citizenship Studies, Professor Engin Isin (left), has been undertaking archival research in Istanbul on the Ottoman Empire and its citizenship practices.

This research primarily involves investigating Islamic charitable foundations known as awqaf (waqf, singular), which can be seen as civic and urban institutions with legal personalities, similar to the concepts of trust and corporation in Western law.

Waqf is land and property used for religious purposes or the public good. It has meaning only in nations where Muslim law is in effect. Waqf holdings are viewed as deeded gifts that are to remain in service in perpetuity, to be administered by appointed leaders. Mosques, religious schools, hospitals and other such institutions fall into this category.

Awqaf institutions enabled leading citizens of the Ottoman imperial governance system and ordinary citizens to directly influence their quality of life and municipal structure. They could, in essence, cut through the red tape associated with planning and architecture and develop a variety of buildings and infrastructure initiatives that benefited and advanced their society with minimal interference from the centre.

The entrance to Istanbul’s Laleli Complex (1760-1763) with school and mosque (right) is an example of waqf

Mosques, cafes, schools and libraries were all made possible through gifts of land and buildings as awqaf. Social and economic support systems thrived because citizens could identify a need and implement a change using waqf. These changes could be as fundamental as soup kitchens, hospitals, recreation facilities, shops and bazaars. Donors could also create important improvements in the form of fountains, bridges and aqueducts. All of these developments were essential to the growth and prosperity of the Ottoman Empire’s cultural and social structures.

Importantly, both minorities and women were among the prominent founders of buildings and infrastructure improvements under the waqf system. The first page of a waqf deed by the wife of Sultan Abdulhamid I, Naks-i dil Valide Sultan, created in 1812 (left), shows the care and beautiful artwork that went into such documents.

The deeds were the founding documents of the waqf, articulating conditions, administration and income as outlined by the donor. These were approved by local judges.

“I am amazed how deep this institution goes in providing social and cultural institutions in contemporary Turkey,” says Isin. “After a brief period of denial of awqaf between 1923 and 1967 under the Turkish Republic, the waqf system has since 1967 provided enormous investment in civic institutions. In fact, the university that hosts me, Koç University, was founded as a waqf by a prominent business family.” 

Isin is undertaking this research under his larger Canada Research Chair and Social Sciences & Humanities Research Council of Canada projects titled Citizenship After Orientalism. The research is tackling the long-held assumption of a fundamental distinction between the occident and orient arising from lack of civic and urban institutions and citizenship in the latter.