Ottoman Cash Waqfs Revisited: The Case of Bursa (1555- 1823)

Cash endowments contributed to Ottoman society, without any cost to the State, by organizing and financing expenditures on education, health, welfare and a host of other activities. The aim of this article is to discover how these endowments functioned and contributed to the society over the long term. For this purpose the Cash Waqf Census Registers of the city of Bursa covering the period 1555-1823 were analysed in this article. Thus, although limited to one Ottoman city, a long-term analysis covering almost three hundred years has been attempted for the first time. This article analyses the way these endowments functioned and contributed to the society over a long period of time covering almost three hundred years.

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Professor Murat Cizakca*

Table of contents

1. Introduction
2. The Legal Background
2.1. Position of the Classical Jurists
2.2. Establishment of a Cash Waqf
2.3. The Perpetuity Debate
3. Cash Waqfs in Historical Reality
3.1. Survival of the Cash Waqfs
3.2. Icareteyn Vakiflari
3.3. The Management of the Cash Waqfs
4. Injection of Capital into the Economy
4.1. The Trustees as Borrowers
4.2. Capital Injection
4.3. The Decline of the Cash Waqfs
5. Conclusion
6. Bibliography
6.1. Primary Sources
6.2. Secondary Sources

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Note of the editor

This article was summarised and updated from the author's extensive book A History of Philanthropic Foundations The Islamic World From The Seventh Century to the Present (Istanbul: Bogazici University Press, 2000). It is also a shortened and updated version of the author's original article published as Murat Cizakca, "Cash Waqfs of Bursa: 1555- 1823", Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient (E. J. Brill, Leiden), vol. 38, n° 3, 1995, pp. 313-354. A previous version of the article was published on in June 2004. The present version was converted to HTML with new illustrations.

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Cash endowments contributed to Ottoman society, without any cost to the State, by organizing and financing expenditures on education, health, welfare and a host of other activities. The aim of this article is to discover how these endowments functioned and contributed to the society over the long term. For this purpose the Cash Waqf Census Registers of the city of Bursa covering the period 1555-1823 were analysed. Thus, although limited to one Ottoman city, a long-term analysis covering almost three hundred years has been attempted for the first time.

1. Introduction

The cash waqf (plural awqaf) was a Trust Fund established with money to support services to mankind in the name of God. The Ottoman courts approved these endowments as early as the beginning of the 15th century, and by the end of the 16th century they had reportedly become extremely popular all over Anatolia and the European provinces of the Empire.

Figure 1: General view of Bursa, Turkey. Color photochrome print created between 1890 and 1900. (Source).

The exact extent of the geographical diffusion of these waqfs and, specifically, in the Arab provinces is subject to discussion. The gifted capital of the waqf was "transferred" to borrowers who after a certain period, usually a year, returned to the waqf the principal, plus a certain "extra" amount, which was then spent for all sorts of pious and social purposes. These vague terms, "transferred" and "extra", have been used here deliberately. Whether the capital of the endowment was lent as credit to the borrowers and the return was in fact nothing but the ordinary interest constitutes another debate. In a society where health, education and welfare were entirely financed by gifts and endowments, the cash waqfs carried serious implications for the very survival of the Ottoman social fabric.

2. The Legal Background

2.1. Position of the Classical Jurists

The Ottomans, being devoted Hanefis, conducted their business and social affairs within the general guidelines established by this school of thought. It is, therefore, imperative that this analysis should start with a summary of the classical Hanefi position pertaining to cash waqfs. Let us first consider the thorny issue of the endowment of moveable assets. The essence of this problem pertains to the perpetuity of the endowment, the sine qua non condition for any waqf. Real estate was thought to be the best asset to ensure the perpetuity of an endowment. There were, however, three recognized exceptions to this general principle among the Hanefi scholars:

  • the endowment of moveable assets belonging to an endowed real estate, such as oxen or sheep from a farm, was permitted;
  • second, if there was a pertinent hadith, and
  • third, if the endowment of the moveable asset was the customary practice, ta'amul, in a particular region.

Indeed, exercising judicial preference, istihsan, Imam Muhammad al-Shaybani had ruled that even in the absence of a pertinent hadith, the endowment of a moveable asset was permissible if this was customary practice in a particular location. Apparently, even custom was not always a required condition, for according to al-Sarakhsi, Imam Muhammed had, in practice, approved the endowment of a moveable asset even in the absence of custom. Furthermore, both Imams Muhammed al-Shaybani and Abu Yusuf had confirmed, absolutely, the endowment of a moveable asset attached to a piece of real estate. In view of this, it is not surprising that we often see such combined cash/real estate waqfs in the Ottoman records.

Figure 2: Endowment charter (waqfiyya) of Haseki Hürrem Sultan Mosque and Madrasa in Jerusalem. The document is dated 964 H / 1556–7, it is held in the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts, Inventory Number 2192, p. 1b. (Source).

Given the acceptability of moveable assets as the basis for creating a waqf, how does one define a moveable asset? More specifically, can money be considered a moveable asset and, therefore, be permitted as the basis for the establishment of a waqf? Imam Zufer answered this question affirmatively and ruled that the endowment of cash was absolutely permissible. Zufer went into detail as to how such an endowment could be organized: he suggested that the endowed cash should form the capital base of a mudaraba partnership and any profit realized be spent in accordance with the general purpose of the waqf as stated in its charter. If the moveable assets endowed were not originally in a liquid cash form, then they should be sold in the marketplace and the cash thus obtained could be utilized as the capital of a mudaraba.

In summary, three principles constituted the basis upon which the later Ottoman jurists built the structure of the cash waqfs: the approval of a moveable asset as the basis of a waqf, acceptance of cash as a moveable asset and, therefore, approval of cash endowments.

2.2. Establishment of a Cash Waqf

An additional debate in the establishment of Ottoman cash waqfs revolved around the question of irrevocability. According to Ebu Hanife, the founder of a waqf or his descendants could revoke the original decision and claim the endowed property back. That is to say, a waqf was revocable. Ebu Hanife added, that for a waqf to become irrevocable and valid, a court's decision was necessary.

Other great jurists of the Hanefi School did not agree with this opinion. Ebu Yusuf, for instance, argued that when Prophet Muhammad endowed his property, his personal property rights became null and void. Moreover, neither the Prophet nor any of the four Caliphs or the followers of the Prophet, ashab, ever reversed their decision to endow their properties. These scholars further argued that the establishment of a waqf was an irrevocable act, based upon the hadith pertaining to 'Umar's endowment.

Figure 3: First pages of the Suleymaniye Kulliye (Complex) of Suleyman I deed (waqfiyya) written in 965/1557. Source: Vakiflar Genel Mudurlugu Arsiv ve Nesriyat Mudurlugu Arsivi, N° 52.

During the Ottoman period, a legal precedent was established which resolved the debate among the great Hanefi scholars, a man wishing to establish a waqf informed the court of his intention thereby creating the waqf. He later revoked his decision and demanded the trustee of the waqf return his capital. When the latter refused to do so, the case was brought before the court where the request was flatly rejected by the judge who declared that a waqf, once established, was irrevocable and definite.

There are many instances of the establishment of cash waqfs noted in the Bursa Court Registers. One particular case dated 1676 should suffice to demonstrate the process described above. A certain Mehmed Ali b. Hasan, resident of the Karaca Muhiddin district of Bursa, had appointed Hasan Celebi b. Mehmed as trustee of a cash waqf which was to be established with a rather modest capital of 50 Esedî Grus. This capital was to be loaned to borrowers having satisfactory collateral and sureties on a "ten to eleven percent per annum" basis.

The return from this investment was to be used to provide a public banquet for the poor Muslims in the "zaviye" of the Baglar district on the evening of every 12th Rebiullevvel. The 50 Esedi Grus was then entrusted to the trustee. Later the endowment's founder demanded the return of his capital on the belief that the three imams did not consider the establishment of a waqf with cash a legal act. The trustee responded that according to Imam-i Ensari quoting Imam-i Zufer, the cash waqf was legal. The two disputants appealed to the court for an opinion. In his application to the court, Mehmed Ali b. Hasan stated that since Abu Hanife did not consider a waqf irrevocable and, therefore, withdrawal from a decision to establish a waqf was permitted, he wished to do so and demanded his capital from the trustee of the waqf. The trustee responded by confirming that, indeed, Abu Hanife had not considered a waqf as definitely irrevocable but Abu Yusuf, the "second imam" and Al- Shaybani, the "third imam" had ruled that a waqf was both definite and irrevocable and therefore he requested the decision of the court upholding the irrevocability of the waqf. The judge ruled that the waqf was definite and irrevocable and that any attempt to abolish the waqf was null and void. Moreover, the judge ruled, this decision was in agreement with the rulings of all the "strong imams". This verdict finalized the procedure for the binding establishment of a cash waqf.

2.3. The Perpetuity Debate

Figure 4: External view of Topkapi Palace Library, established by the Sultan Ahmed III as his own waqf.

The establishment of cash waqfs by the Ottomans during the 15th century appears to have taken place without legal difficulties. But during the next century when these waqfs became so popular that they dominated the awqaf system, the military judge of the European provinces, Civizade, challenged the situation. The Seyhulislam Abussuud Efendi almost immediately countered his view and a fierce debate began. Since the details of this debate have already been published they will not be summarized here. It suffices to say that the debate between these two great jurists and their followers lasted for more than a century and even then remained inconclusive. Supported by the State, cash waqfs continued to exist and flourish. We will now focus our attention on the paradigm of perpetuity, the most vital issue in the debate, and seek answers to the following questions:

  • Since, one of the main points of the debate concerned the problem of perpetuity (proponents arguing that these endowments had as good a chance for survival as any other real estate endowments and the opponents believing that they would collapse within a relatively short time), would it be possible now, during the first decade of the 21th century, to evaluate retroactively which side of the debate was more true?
  • What factors caused their failure or support endowments, indeed, had rapidly disappeared, where they so badly managed? If, in contrast, they succeeded in surviving for any length of time, then what were the reasons for their relative success?
  • In what way did the cash waqfs contribute to the process of capital accumulation? This question has to be approached from two perspectives, i.e., from the point of view of savers as well as users of funds. More specifically, did the savers pool their resources to form joint cash waqfs or did they add their capital to already existing ones? Did the users of capital have access to several cash waqfs so as to enlarge the available pool of capital at their disposal?
  • In the process of transferring funds to entrepreneurs or to the public, to what extent was the Islamic prohibition of riba observed? In other words are the claims that cash waqfs violated Islamic law justified?

Figure 5: Original Ottoman coin (left) and gold-coloured (brass) replica (right), both used as ornaments, dated 1223. (Source).

3. Cash Waqfs in Historical Reality

3.1. Survival of the Cash Waqfs

Since perpetuity is considered to be the conditio sine qua non of any waqf, an analysis of the survival rate of the cash waqfs assumes great importance. Unfortunately, with the exception of the Barkan-Ayverdi study, there is no published source that is relevant for this paradigm. Even this well-known study suffers from two weaknesses. First, it covers a time span of merely 76 years and is therefore unsuitable for an analysis of perpetuity. Next, closely related to the first weakness (since it is based upon an analysis of only three tahrir registers), the fluctuations in the number of waqfs that survived may be misleading. These fluctuations may have resulted from the fact that there may have been more than one tahrir register for a single year and a waqf not observed in one register may simply have been included in the missing register.

Bearing in mind these shortcomings of the Barkan-Ayverdi study, which concentrated on Istanbul waqfs, an attempt has been made in this article to overcome these two weaknesses by a study of the Bursa cash waqfs. To start with, the time span has been expanded to cover the period 1555-1823, i.e. a period of 268 years. Secondly, the analysis has been based upon the individual cash waqf. Thus, it has been possible to trace the performance of a waqf over a much longer period of time and it has been found that a waqf that seemed to have vanished at a certain point in time could be "re-discovered" at a later period.

The main source used for this study is the set of registers that may be called aptly the "vakif tahrir defterleri" or the cash waqf censuses. About seventy volumes of these registers have been identified among the Bursa Court Registers Collection. In order to facilitate the research, a sample had to be made and those registers with approximately 20 years in between were chosen. Having selected our sample sources, we were then in a position to examine thoroughly the debate between the two great jurists of the 16th century, Chivizade and Seyhulislam Abussuud Efendi and attempt to conclude, some four hundred years later, whose perspective was the most accurate. The question that we researched was, "what percentage of registered waqfs were perpetual"? But first, the term "perpetual" must be defined. For all practical purposes, a perpetual waqf is defined here as one which survived for more than a century. Thus, those waqfs that had survived for at least one hundred years were sought.

Figure 6: An Ottoman akça coin dated 1115 hijra (1703 AD), issued during the reign of Sultan Mehmed IV.

In order to find the answer to the problem of perpetuity, a total of 2688 cash waqfs were entered into the computer. This constituted the total population of the research. Within this whole population, however, there were 761 individual waqfs that were repeatedly identified across several different years, hence the much larger total population figure. The main question can thus be re-stated: what percentage of these 761 waqfs were "perpetual"?

In order to answer this question, the entire waqf population was analysed by computer. To help the computer identify distinct individual waqfs, it was decided that the district (mahalle) would be the main research unit. There were usually several waqfs in each mahalle and each of the latter was given a separate code. The computer was ordered to arrange first the entire population according to the mahalles in alphabetical order; and, secondly, to produce a chronological list of the waqfs in each mahalle. With this chronological list of district waqfs in hand, it was then a simple matter to search for an individual waqf and count the number of its occurrences across different registers and different years.

One of the greatest difficulties encountered in this study was the naming of the mahalles. This difficulty became quite serious since the recording clerks often omitted writing the name of the mahalle in which a waqf was established, and so many waqfs could not be included in the research. Thus, the number of perpetual waqfs observed represents a probable minimum of the total reality. This number was 148, that is to say out of 761 individual waqfs, 148 definitely survived for more than a century. This gives us a "perpetuity percentage" of 19%. It is quite clear that had it been possible to incorporate, into the general population, those waqfs that could not be traced to a specific mahalle, this percentage would have exceeded 20%.

Figure 7: Front cover of Inventory of Ottoman Turkish Documents about Waqf Preserved in the Oriental Department at the St. Cyril and Methodius National Library by Evgeni Radushev, Svetlana Ivanova, Rumen Kovachev, Part 1: Registers, Sofia, IMIR, 2003. Click here for the table of contents and here for the preface to the book written by Vera Mutafchieva.

Given this information, can we then pass a judgement about the 16th century debate of perpetuity? In other words, was Abussuud Efendi correct in arguing that cash waqfs had as good a chance as real estate waqfs for long-term survival? Obviously, what has been presented above constitutes only the first part of the answer to this question, i.e. that at least 20% of the cash waqfs survived for more than a century. For a complete answer, it would be necessary to determine the survival rate for real estate waqfs. Such research has never been attempted.

At this point, it may be argued that the real estate waqfs, normally, would have had a far better chance of survival than the cash waqfs and Abussuud Efendi must have been wrong to argue that the latter had as good a chance for survival as the former. But the staying power of the real estate waqfs should not be exaggerated. After all, waqfs were subject to such dangers as frequent fires, earthquakes and the declining fertility of land. Moreover, they suffered from inelastic revenues, the artisans who rented their shops refused to increase their rents and were difficult to evict due to the State support they enjoyed.

3.2. Icareteyn Vakiflari