From A Word To A Civilization The Waqf

March 2014


Bir Kelimeden Bir Medeniyete Vakıf
Bir Kelimeden Bir Medeniyete Vakıf

Khairât is the plural of khayr, a Quranic concept meaning charity. “Every tribe and every people has their own way and method of doing things.” God commands, “Be zealous in doing good things; surpass each other in doing good.” (Quran, II/148) The Turks made that command the basic principle of their civilization, perceiving as charity every act and idea that fosters tranquility and contentment. Every virtuous and benevolent act was considered a good deed, from greeting people with a smile to establishing the virtuous institutions that were conceived and partially realized by al-Farabî (ca. 872-951) and raised to a pinnacle by the Ottomans. Such acts, which I term systematic good works, include all the structures that surrounded a great mosque, such as schools, and dervish lodges, hospitals, soup kitchens, fountains and drinking fountains, caravanserais, tombs, graveyards and the like, in other words, organizations of civil society that served people gratis from the cradle to the grave. To complete the picture, the founders had shops, inns, baths, markets, bazaars and houses erected. Flower gardens, truck gardens and fields, even whole villages, were donated, thus constituting the second component of the waqf concept. The term waqf refers to the act of regulating by law the relations between good deeds and the properties donated. Good deeds constitute its philosophy and objective at both the intellectual and the phenomenal level, donations constitute the means by which that objective is perpetuated, and the waqf forms the legal underpinning and conditions. The written document in which all these things are recorded is the endowment deed. During the Islamic period of Turkish history, cities were developed by adding green areas to the sites of these good deeds based on a balance between faith, thought and action in harmony with their surroundings and without harm to the natural environment. The appearance of hundreds of Muslim Turkish cities from Kashgar to Sarajevo was a concrete expression of the way Turks conceived the relationship between nature, man and God through good works. Given that civilizations are made up of the spiritual and material integrity of their cities, and that Islamic period Turkish cities were also characterized by systematic spiritual and material good works, it would not be far from the truth to claim that our civilization arose and evolved out of a single word.


The waqf, found its place in Islamic civilization through a Hadith, of the Prophet Mohammad (S.A.W.), consisted of three significant services.

Waqfs traditionally serve at three important respects. First, they included a small mosque or larger Friday mosque and were a place of worship; second, in the case of the larger waqfs, they had a madrasa and contributed to the training of young people by imparting useful knowledge; thirdly and lastly, they dispensed alms and charity, such as distributing food to the poor. It was believed that a person who provided such services by founding a waqf had performed a good deed that would earn him favor with God even in death.

Spread Not Limited To The Islamic World
At the time of the Crusades, the English in particular during the reign of Richard the Lion-hearted came to the Syrian region, where they became familiar with Islamic culture and acquainted with the institution of the waqf. When the treasury secretary of the delegation returned to England, he set up Merton College in 1264, the first of Oxford University’s colleges. An institution founded based on Islamic law, this college is a waqf and even has a waqfiya or endowment deed. Peterhouse College at Cambridge was inspired by Merton, as were the Ivy League universities, the leading institutions of higher education in the U.S., which were also established in waqf style.

Waqf Means Hospital, Madrasa
The institution of the waqf is directly linked with Ottoman urbanization, Bursa and Istanbul being the most outstanding examples. Also, the institution of the waqf was also the basis for the spread of the Ottomans in Europe as a Muslim power. The money waqfs in particular they established not only ensured that even people of modest means contributed to the waqf but they also erected buildings of benefit to society such as schools, hospitals and soup kitchens in the newly conquered regions. An important point here: waqfs served Muslims and non-Muslims alike without any distinction, as evidenced by the mosque, synagogue and church that stand together in the garden of the Istanbul Darülaceze (Almshouse) today.

The Importance Of The Waqf For The Ottomans
The institution of the waqf prospered for as long as the Ottoman state was powerful. When it began to wane, Western support was asked against the Russians on the eve of the 1854 Crimean War. In return for financial aid, France and England wanted the waqf system destroyed. Among the reasons for this was the French Enlightenment. The French Revolution of 1788 hated the Church and wanted all institutions between the Emperor and the people erased. Since the waqf was an institution of the Church, they wanted to destroy it as well, and demanded that the Ottoman waqfs be dissolved. During the reign of Mahmud II, the Ministry of Waqfs was set up and the Ottoman waqfs were centralized and gradually whittled away. Following the amendments during the Republican period, the institution and culture of the waqf in Turkey acquired its current status and the system gained fresh dynamism.

“Külliye” means a collective waqf, similar to a campus, including within it a mosque, a soup kitchen, a madrasa and a hospital as well as a market since it was thanks to the rent collected from the shops in the market that the waqf stayed afloat. From Harran to Baghdad, very large madrases were established throughout the Iraq and Syria region. The Islamic learning that developed here led the world, until these institutions were destroyed and burned to the ground during the Mongol invasions of the 13th century and supremacy passed to the West.


We asked Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of State for Foundations Bülent Arınç, who stated that "Waqf culture is a state of mind. The more people give and share, the happier they are. To keep this culture alive, we need to increase our support to our foundations, which represent both the classical and the modern period of our civilization", about the recent policies of the waqfs.

What are your starting point when it comes to waqfs?
This institution, which has social solidarity and assistance at its essence, provides social and economic services with spiritual and religious sensibilities. The Seljuk and Ottoman civilizations used the term in this sense and guaranteed that people at every level of society would benefit from the services provided. While services like education, health, public works and urban planning were provided by waqfs during that period, the state too supported them as part of its vision for civilization. Taking that as our starting point, we, too, strive to support the services of the waqfs. The state has made peace with the waqfs. Our target is to boost waqf revenues, and to foster the spread of waqf culture once again in society.

What can you tell us about recent efforts?
The state is the custodian of the waqfs. Consequently, waqf revenues have increased 15-fold in the last 10 years, and upwards of 3,500 waqf monuments have been restored. Waqfs that are on the records and whose operations are followed are managed with special sensitivity in a way befitting our custodianship. In other words, not only is the waqf spirit of centuries ago being kept alive today, but the health and educational activities of the waqs are also being passed on to present and future generations through waqf institutions by hospitals and universities.

01-Istanbul, a Waqf City
Istanbul was founded on the philosophy of, and belief in, good works. In other words, Istanbul rose as a city when individuals eager to found waqfs exercised their freedom of will and donated property. Sultan Mehmed the Conqueror was the first ruler to rebuild Istanbul in a new and original way of his own free will.

The Hand Of The Conqueror
The Conqueror inaugurated the comprehensive reconstruction of Istanbul after conquering the city in 1453, virtually rebuilding it. 93 years after the conquest, 2,515 waqfs are known to have been set up in the part of Istanbul inside the defense walls. This means a total of 27 new waqfs added each year and a minimum of two per month. To comprehend the Conqueror’s good works and reconstruction activities in Istanbul, it is essential to first understand the Ottoman waqf system.

02-Revenue Waqfs
Economically profitable investments were sometimes registered as investment or revenue waqfs in Seljuk cities. Revenues generated from rooms in inns that had been donated as such waqfs were used, for example, to cover the expenditures of the city’s madrasas.

03-Soup Kitchen Waqfs
In the Anatolian Seljuk cities, waqf founders often donated property in the form of buildings, which they allocated for charitable institutions known as imarat (soup kitchen) to serve the entire population. They also donated a portion of their wealth to create an annuity trust whose revenue was used to keep the soup kitchen going by covering its expenses.

04-Posterity Waqfs
Posterity waqfs were established on land allotted to dervishes - the most important agents in the Turkification of Anatolia - starting in the marches or border regions. These small dervish lodges constituted new centers of Turkish settlement as well as financing the expenditures of such settlements.

05-The Haremeyn Waqfs
The Hijaz was ruled for centuries with love and respect under the Ottoman administration. It was traditional Ottoman practice to develop and secure the Hajj pilgrimage routes, to maintain and repair the water ways, to supply the needs of the poor in the Holy Cities of Mecca and Medina, and to remember the the local notables every year with expensive gifts dispatched in Imperial Processions.

06-Social Security Waqfs
Operating as the Ottoman social security institution, these waqfs helped people in distress and need.  Used as a hospital in Ottoman times, the Bayezid II Complex in Edirne was awarded the Council of Europe Museum Prize in 2004.

07-Women’s Waqfs
Women’s waqfs also occupy an important place among Ottoman institutions. According to 16th century records, 916 of the 2,515 waqfs established in Istanbul between 1493 and 1546 were founded by women. These figures are very significant for showing women’s contribution to social and economic life. Ayasofya Hürrem Sultan Hamam (Bath), commissioned to Mimar Sinan in the 16th century is an active waqf of today.

08-Waqf Libraries
Another aim of waqfs was to promote public education. To this end, public libraries were built as part of the complexes commissioned by the sultans. Sultan Mahmud I is noteworthy for having had three such libraries built: Hagia Sophia Library (1740), Fatih Mosque Library (1742) and Galatasaray Library (1754).

09-Dervish Lodge Waqs
Waqfs set up by benefactors to meet the needs of the dervish lodges and ensure they could provide their full line of services are called dervish lodge waqfs.  These waqs could be founded either by the original owner of the lodge or by its officials

10-Waqf Waters
Public service was the Ottoman state’s raison d’être. Providing water for public use and drinking was therefore a key waqf objective, and weirs, wells and fountains were common all over the city.