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November 2008
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Muslims & Society

Wakf: Origin, Concept and Practice
By S. Tahsin Ahmed
There is need to protect and develop potential wakf properties and enhance their resources.


Wakf is a concept unique to Islam. There are many passages in the holy Qur’an exhorting the believers to spend their wealth in charity for the benefit of the poor and needy. Prophet Muhammad (Pbuh) translated this doctrine into practice and created the institution of wakf. Hazrath Omar had sought the advice of the Prophet to dedicate a piece of land in Khybar he owned, for pious purposes. The Prophet replied: “tie up the property (asl or corpus) and devote the usufruct to human beings, and it is not to be sold or made the subject of gift or inheritance: devote its produce to your children, your kindred, and the poor in the way of God” This succinct description of wakf continues to be accepted all over the world as the most authentic definition of wakf. The Prophet’s Mosque at Madinah is considered as the first wakf in Madinah.

The concept of wakf influenced the western world too. The English Trusts were derived from wakf. While wakfs were developed during the 7th and 8th century AD, Trusts and Uses first came up in England during the 13th century AD by Franciscan Friars. Franciscan Friars picked up the concept from the Islamic system of wakf during their pilgrimages to Arabian lands and also during the Crusades. Thus the institution of Wakf clearly predates the Trust or Uses by 400 to 500 years. The muthawalli (custodian) i.e. one who administers the wakf is not the owner of the property. Ownership of wakf property vests with God and the muthawalli is only required to fulfill the objectives of the dedication as set out by the dedicator (who is called Wakif).

Wakfs in India
Several Indian rulers gave much importance to the management of wakfs. Sultan Mohammed bin Tughlaq appointed Ibn Batuta, the famous traveller, as the muthawalli of the tomb of Sultan Qutb Uddin Mubarik Shah. Mughal emperor Shahjahan was himself the muthawalli of certain wakfs made in favour of the Taj Mahal. However, this institution suffered a setback during the colonial rule. After India’s independence, education minister Moulana Abul Kalam Azad and others made relentless efforts for streamlining the administration of wakfs. Most recent of them is the Wakf Act 1995 which is a Central Act enacted on November 22, 1995.

Types of Wakfs
What is a wakf? Intricacies apart, the Muslim religious and charitable institutions are commonly called wakf institutions covering mosques, dargahs, burial grounds, eidgahs, orphanages, takia and ashoorkhanas. Other wakfs could include hostels, shops, hospitals, residential houses, urban land, agriculture land etc.

In recent years, some novel concepts too have been introduced. The forem-ost among these is the creation of wakf of intellectual prop-erty, consis-ting of copyright of books. The Khairun Prok-ashani Wakf is created by Moulana Abdur Rahim, a renowned Islamic scholar of Bangladesh for the copyright of his religious books. Another such wakf has been set up by scholar Moulana Mohammed Abdul Khaleq for the copyright of his 20 published books in Bangladesh itself.

Another innovative wakf has also originated from Bangladesh. Some affluent persons in Bangladesh got together and created a ‘Cash Wakf’ (endowment in cash) as a new product to collect funds required for their educational, social and charitable projects. The ‘Cash Wakf’ has also helped create the Social Science Institute (SSI) and Social Investment Bank (SIB) which not only fulfills some Islamic objectives, but they also help the poor students. Bank Muamalat and other Islamic banks in Indonesia have also adopted this system.

Women and Wakf
Over the years, not just men but women have also made wakf of their properties. For instance, a woman by name Bibi Sughra created a wakf estate in Bihar about a century ago by dedicating properties then valuing around Rs. 1.5 crore. Sughra Bibi built a college, a school and separate Islamic seminaries for boys and girls.

A woman can create a wakf and while dedicating the wakf, she can appoint herself as the first muthavalli or even some other women as muthavalli. Jewelry designer Saba Ali Khan, daughter of cricketer Mansoor Ali Khan Pataudi, the Nawab of Pataudi was appointed as mutha-valli of the Shahi Wakf of Bhopal. A woman can also become a member or even the Chairperson of the Board of Wakf. This is the reason why the person heading the Board is called as Chairperson in the Wakf Act and not as Chairman. In recent times, a woman, Mrs. Bader Sayeed was the Chairperson of the Tamil Nadu Wakf Board.

The Future of Wakfs
A common misbelief is that if wakf properties are properly managed, the Government can operate a parallel budget from their income. One should not be misled by the astronomical value of landed property of the wakfs which is disclosed in various surveys. In reality, many wakf lands have a mosque, dargah or orphanage constructed on them or they are used as burial grounds. Since most of these are in the heart of cities or towns, their asset value will indeed be extremely high. But will anybody sell, lease or mortgage a mosque or a dargah, regardless of its prime location or value? Of course, not. They are not commercial properties. Only the properties which do not house a religious institution can be reckoned as a property fit for commercial exploitation. But many of such potential properties are under adverse occupation or have been encroached or are involved in endless litigation. There is a need therefore to free them from these hassles.

Wakfs also face problems of misuse of their funds, mal-administration etc. What is apparent is that a healthy wakf can contribute in mitigating the suffering of the poor and the needy since the institution of wakf is closely inter-woven with the entire fabric of social, economic and religious life of the Muslim community. This can be best understood with the example of the Dargah of Hazrath Moinuddin Chisti at Ajmer. The offerings made to the Dargah are believed to exceed Rs. 3 crore annually, but how much of it is spent for worthwhile causes is anybody’s guess. In contrast, Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanam endowment at Tirupati is not only providing good amenities to the pilgrims from the offerings but is also running many schools, colleges, technical institutes and inns.
There is need to protect and develop potential wakf properties and enhance their resources. They should not be just content to maintain themselves, but should also strive to grapple with the socio-economic problems of the community.

The writer is Secretary, Karnataka State Minorities Commission and was thrice CEO of Karnataka State Board of Wakfs earlier.