Origins of waqf
It is well known that charitable endowments have a much older history than Islam, and it is also very likely that earlier civilizations influenced Islam. Ancient Mesopotamia, Greece, Rome as well as the pre-Islamic Arabs were certainly familiar with charitable endowments. The extent to which the Islamic awqaf were influenced by these ancient institutions and the extent to which they were the product of Islam’s genius is a question that remains unresolved: whether the Roman origins were rejected, mainly Byzantine. But also Mesopotamian, Sassanid, Jewish, and Buddhist influences were accepted as plausible. So, we have a pretty clear situation: Muslims were strongly encouraged to put their goods at the service of humanity, and they knew how to do it from the earlier civilizations, which had dominated the geography in which they found themselves. Although the waqf is not specifically mentioned there, the concept of redistribution of wealth is strongly emphasized in the Holy Quran. Moreover, there is definitive evidence from the sunnah that many great figures of Islam endowed their properties for charitable purposes. A hadith narrated by Abu Huraira was most likely the origin of this institution in the world of Islam:
“Abu Huraira (may Allah be pleased with him) related that the Messenger of Allah (Prayers and blessings be upon him) said:“ When a man dies, all his deeds end except three: recurring charity (sadaqa jariya ), an acquaintance (of which people benefit), or a pious descent, who prays for him ”.
Although classical sources have traditionally considered each of these good deeds separately, we prefer to combine them. Such a combination constitutes the essence of waqf. So Muslims needed an institution that would allow them to perform these three good deeds. The waqf can, in fact, ensure a continuous and recurring charity for many years, even centuries, after the death of the founder. It can fund scholars whose lasting works would benefit humanity for a long period of time, and the sawab that would accrue to them would be shared by the founder of the waqf, who provided their livelihood in the first place. Finally, the management of the waqf can be entrusted to the descendants of the founder so that if, on the one hand, prudent and loyal management is ensured, on the other hand, the descendants would pray for the deceased because, thanks to their waqf, he or she is not helpless.
HOW DID WAQF DEVELOP?
How a system that is not native to Islam, not specifically mentioned in the Qur’an and initially contested by many eminent jurists, was adopted with such enthusiasm and developed to such a phenomenal dimension. There can be two explanations: historical and economic.
Historically, the great conquests have enriched the Muslim world beyond all imagination and prepared the economic conditions for this institution’s emergence. We must also remember the emphasis in prophetic traditions on the importance of doing good deeds and beneficence. Since wealth is viewed in Islam as a source of hardship, wealthy Muslims’ natural tendency to do good deeds as a preparation for the hereafter can be easily understood.
Economically, the waqf system was universally necessary. The dilemma related to creating public goods has fostered a demand for the creation of non-market institutions. This “universal demand for the establishment of non-market institutions” may also explain why, although waqf is not specifically mentioned in the Holy Quran, this institution has become so popular and widespread throughout the most Muslim world.
Moreover, once accepted and firmly established by Muslims, the spread of waqf established itself in the west during the Crusades. Indeed, at least in England’s case, it has been definitively established that the famous University of Oxford was built on the Islamic model of the waqf.