Food Security Bill in India: Debating welfare in a Neoliberal India

The Food Security Bill 2013 passed the lower rung of India’s parliament – the Lok Sabha recently and is on its way to becoming law, once it is authorized by the Upper House and the President. While the opposition sees this as yet another tactic by the ruling Congress party to garner popular support, reminiscent of Indira Gandhi’s “Garibi Hatao,” campaign, there is more to this debate than meets the eye. I will discuss the implications of the negative discourse surrounding this bill on India’s tradition of deliberative democracy. Also, I will briefly look at the notions of social welfare in India and what it means for its democratic norms.

Photo courtesy: NY Times website
Photo courtesy: NY Times website

            To be clear, India is a democracy that has struggled to provide even the basic minimum welfare to its more vulnerable citizens. There is almost no safety net (in practical terms, apart from a barebones Public distribution system) for the poorest of the poor in India and societal norms dictate that family and wider networks support those who are in desperate need of help. While the state has failed to provide any form of welfare for the poor, there are a few schemes that aspire to provide this. One of them is the Food Security Bill that the UPA government promised to pass in their election campaign of 2009. While it has taken a long time and much deliberation to pass, the struggles before the country to feed its most vulnerable sections remains.

            While debate and discussion are supposed to be enshrined in our democratic ethos, the bill seems to have brought out quite the opposite. The opposition parties boycotted the parliamentary session that sought to debate this bill and in effect tried to dismiss it. Murli Manhor Joshi, BJP’s senior leader called it a “Vote security bill,” referring it to the upcoming national elections, in 2014. Social media is awash with conspiracy theories, implicating corruption, nepotism and a thousand other ill (that surely exist) but not debating an issue and taking a dogmatic stance against a measure that will hurt the country as a whole is not very democratic, either.

            The Hindu reported Amartya Sen, India’s eminent Economist as saying: ““You can have a different view, but not having a debate goes against the tradition of democracy. Allow arguments, rather than kill arguments, and not allowing Parliament to meet is killing arguments.” The media should “take an intelligent interest” in what was happening. “The media should, for instance, put out the cost of the Bill not being discussed and passed.”

            As Jene Dreze points out in this insightful piece, there is nothing in the bill that is out of the ordinary. There are various benefits to the poor already in place and this bill merely takes it a step forward, to making access to food a “right.” Given the poverty levels in India and impact of inflation on food prices, this should not be a controversial move, as it is being made out to be. Dreze points out : “The bill is a modest initiative. It consolidates various food-related programs and entitlements that have made gradual headway during the last decade. Provisions of the bill dealing with food grain entitlements under the public distribution system have grabbed most of the attention. Children’s entitlements, however, are possibly more important. These include cooked midday meals for all school-going children and nutritious food (either a cooked meal or a take-home ration) for all children below the age of 6. These child nutrition programs are already in place; they are mandatory under Supreme Court orders. Permanent legal entitlements could strengthen and energize these initiatives.”

            Dreze goes on to point out that the measures in the current bill are much smaller than what were originally planned. Ironically, the opposition party BJP has adopted parts of these provisions in Chattisgarh, a state that it rules and the Chattisgarh Food Security Bill seems to be quite robust, he adds. This bill includes provisions such as mid-day meal scheme in schools, a measure that has demonstrated benefits to children, not only in terms of educational outcomes, but also health outcomes. In terms of provisions, Dreze adds: “Under the bill, 75 percent of the rural population and 50 percent of the urban population will be entitled five kilograms of grains (rice, wheat or millets) per person per month at a nominal price. This means that about half of the recipients’ grain requirements will be taken care of by the Public Distribution System. Further, the roadmap for system reforms that has emerged from recent experience is partly included in the bill.”

 What does the state owe its poor?

            Anecdotally, the most vehement opposition to the bill is coming from the Middle classes- the ones who aren’t recipients of this system, as much as the poor. It is good to be reminded that individual development is correlated with societal development, as Sen has pointed out in his seminal work, Development as Freedom. To paraphrase Sen’s argument: There is a deep complementarity between individual agency and social arrangements in society. We must recognize both the individual freedom and the social forces that prevent it. To counter the problems that we face, we have to see individual freedom as a social commitment. He further points out that: “This book concentrates particularly on the roles and interconnections between certain crucial instrumental freedoms, including economic opportunities, political freedoms, social facilities, transparency guarantees, and protective security.”

                While those who are opposed to the bill are opposed to it not for how it is implemented, but in its totality – as an idea of a “handout” to the poor. This seems to be against the very ethos of what a democracy is. While the idea of “freedom,” does not make any sense if a significant number of the citizens are starving, critics of social welfare policies point out that this leaves the country impoverished and is a burden on tax payers.

The Food Security Bill 2013 is a step in the right direction and makes up for some of the obligations that the state owes its poorest citizens. Attacking it purely on ideological or political grounds goes against democratic ethos and basic understanding of the social contract in a democracy. This debate, is also, in effect, about the role that the state will play in social welfare provision in a Neoliberal context. While the ghosts of India’s socialist past hang over this debate, and analysts conflate basic social welfare with ‘handouts’ to ‘appease’ the poor. 

Interfaith work and Philanthropy – a faith-based revolution or a pragmatic innovation?

“ We did not hear the term “Abrahamic faiths,” until about ten years ago. This term is not only a great leap forward in terms of interfaith work, but also a radical shift in how people are looking at each other’s faith,” said William Enright, the Director of Lake Institute for Faith and Giving, Indianapolis. He said this when we were discussing the state of interfaith work in the U.S and the implications on philanthropy, a few weeks ago, when I was at the Lilly School of Philanthropy, IUPUI. While the interfaith movement has a long history in this country and has seen many ups and downs, I will briefly discuss how religious diversity in the U.S is impacting it. I will briefly look at the opportunities it presents in the field of philanthropy.

Source: Case Western Reserve University.
Source: Case Western Reserve University.

My first significant exposure to the interfaith movement in Washington D.C was when I attended a Jum’ah (Friday)prayer conducted in an Episcopal church in downtown D.C, about two years ago. Ever since, each time I visit the city on a Friday, this is where I attend Friday prayers. While the notion of praying in a church may seem anathema to many Muslims across the world, this seems like the most normal thing in the U.S, where space constraints and financial restrictions are forcing small Muslim congregations to creatively reach out to other faith based groups and create spaces where they can pray, conduct meetings etc. This is not the only instance where prayers are held in a Church. I personally know of two other venues in the greater D.C area where this is the norm. What this points out is also the growing recognition and accommodation of Muslims by Christian and Jewish groups, who see the need to accommodate Muslims and their needs. This is also a good illustration of the concept of “Abrahamic faiths,” that Mr.Enright pointed out. While not new radically new as a concept (the notion of Abrahamic faiths is centuries old) but its usage and acceptance is rather new.

In “America and the Challenges of Religious Diversity”, Robert Wuthnow, Princeton University professor of Religion takes a close, hard look at the changing religious landscape in the U.S, and analyzes its impact on the American population. Using in-depth interviews with religious leaders, lay-men and also people from the “new religions” in the American landscape i.e., Hindus, Muslims and Buddhists, the book provides a compelling argument for greater inter-faith dialogue and also a call for Christians to be more pro-active in learning and accommodating these religious groups. The key argument in the book is that the increasing religious diversity is presenting challenges to the American social fabric and we must pay close attention to this issue. There is a call for greater interaction and also work between religious groups, though a stronger focus has been put on Christian groups to do more, in terms of inter-faith work.

He calls for reflective pluralism, one in which there is adequate thinking and consideration given to what one believes in, and where one’s beliefs are coming from. He points out rightly, that for exclusivists to ignore all other religions and to continue to live in a bubble will be hard in the future, as the country becomes increasingly diverse.

Shoulder to Shoulder and Interfaith Youth Core

Two organizations that seem to be at the cutting edge of interfaith work in the U.S are Shoulder to Shoulder, an interfaith alliance of over 20 national organizations, across the country from Jewish, Muslim, Christian and other faithbased groups that have come together to defend each other’s rights. This is exemplified in their stance against Islamophobia, and other racially motivated campaigns by radical groups in the country. Their mission is: “Sharing ideas for starting community initiatives to address anti-Muslim sentiment by maintaining an archive of past events. Offering resources materials in a comprehensive online library that includes worship materials, educational curricula, videos, and more.”


Interfaith Youth Core is another group that is redefining how interfaith work is being carried out. It is reaching out to Millennials across college campuses to form a coalition of groups that educate each other and also organize along faith lines to transform the religious context of the country. Eboo Patel, the founder of the group exemplifies this struggle, and he illustrates that in his autobiographical book Acts of Faith.


Challenges: One exclusive path or many ways to reach truth?

Exceptionalism is one of the biggest challenges facing America in the realm of interfaith dialogue. While some denominations tend to be exclusive, others take a more ecumenical perspective when it comes to reaching ultimate reality, or religious truth. Wuthnow points this out by saying : ““ Among the thorniest questions that religious diversity poses for all the major religious traditions is whether or not they can sustain their historic claims to being uniquely true or at least better than other traditions in relating people to the sacred. Much of the reason for believers taking an active part in particular denominations or congregations has been the conviction that God could be found best in one theological location rather than in the other”.

What this calls for, then, is not only willingness to dialogue and to be open to ideas, but also to be secure enough in one’s faith that this first step becomes possible. Most often, insecurity and lack of initiative hampers most efforts. A theme that Wuthnow brings up more than once is that of the majority community accommodating the minorities. This is not only a pragmatic position, but one that resonates with the ethos of building a civil society. And if the interfaith projects mentioned above are any indication, this seems to be happening, as we speak.

There is reason to be positive, though more efforts need to be made in this direction, Wuthnow adds. One of the most eclectic experiences I have had in Washington D.C (when I lived there) was attending Jum’ah at a church in downtown, walking out a few blocks and eating Matzo Ball soup at a Jewish restaurant. It was my little pilgrimage to honor all three faiths, though arguably the Matzo Ball soup is only culturally a Jewish delicacy. The diehard fundamentalists may cringe at this thought, but this is the reality of Islam in the U.S and also reflects the pragmatism that followers of each religion demonstrate. This, I believe will define the future of interfaith work in the U.S.

What is High Net worth Giving and why does it matter?

While the Warren Buffetts and Bill Gates of the world pledge billions to solve  problems that face our world, media outlets write about their foundations, and possibly do a few follow up stories. Often, these High Net worth Gifts are either squarely criticized or lauded as the best thing that the super-rich can do. But how well do most of us understand the “Million dollar giving,” phenomenon? With wealth being increasingly concentrated in a few hands, and the rapid rise of millionaires and billionaires around the world, the Million dollar question is : How do these high net worth donors decide to donate, or not donate? What are the motivators and drivers for their philanthropy and what impact does their philanthropy have on our society?

There are a few well-known initiatives that look at the phenomenon of High Net worth Giving in the U.S, the most prominent of them being the Million Dollar List, maintained by the Lilly School of Philanthropy, Indianapolis, where I conducted research this summer. Based on all publicly announced gifts over a Million dollars, this list is one of the most comprehensive ones in the country and captures some key insights into how and where these large gifts are given. As the MDL website points out,

“We see that the million dollar giving of individuals (primarily men, women, couples, and families) tends to be greater on a gift-to-gift basis than that of foundations and corporations. In fact, the average gift value for individuals is nearly five times higher than that of the other types of donors. We also find that gifts to higher education institutions dominate the number of gifts received, but these gifts tend to be relatively small as a fraction of total dollars given on the MDL. There are significant differences in per capita giving and receiving by state, due in large part to the geographic dispersion of large foundations and nonprofits. There are numerous opportunities for future studies using the MDL data, including detailed investigations into donor networks, gift dispersion based on source of donor wealth, and a study of institutional characteristics that attract million dollar plus gifts.”

With the linkage between High Net worth Giving and certain sectors such as Higher Education and Healthcare having been somewhat established, grant seekers and others who are in this field can use this information for their fund-raising campaigns as well as for other insights. More findings and methodology used to gather data in the MDL can be found here.


Why do high impact donors give?

There are several motives for people to give. Some give for trigger reasons, as Ms.Rosqueta points out. For example, Imran Khan, the Pakistani political leader started his cancer hospital since his mother died. Political philanthropy is perhaps the least popular among the types of philanthropy and George Soros stands out among the handful of billionaires who has stuck his neck out to support transition of post-Soviet countries to become healthy democracies, through his Open Society Foundation.


Speaking of the impediments to giving, “I am not Rockefeller” study, conducted at the Center on High Impact Philanthropy pointed out that lack of confidence that they are able to make a difference is one factor that stops many wealthy donors from giving. Linked to this is the lack of data that they can use to make informed decisions.

Bank of American Study (BoA) at the Lilly School of Philanthropy, that found out the reasons why High Net Worth donors give. Some of the key findings, as stated in the report are:

  • Last year, the vast majority (95 percent) of high net worth households donated to at least one charity. This high rate of giving among the wealthy is consistent with the previous studies in the series, and compares with 65 percent of the general population of U.S. households who donate to charity1.
  • In 2011, 89 percent of wealthy individuals volunteered their time and talent to nonprofit organizations – up 10 percentage points from 2009.
  • For the first time, this study asked wealthy donors to forecast their giving for the next several years – an area of concern for nonprofits operating amid economic uncertainty. The findings offer an optimistic outlook, with 76 percent of wealthy donors planning to give as much as or more during the next three to five years (through 2016) than they have in the past; just 9 percent plan to give less.
  • To put the importance of giving by wealthy donors into context, of the nearly $300 billion donated last year more than 70 percent was given by individuals, of which roughly half was given by the wealthiest 3 percent of American households.


While critics of High Net worth Giving point out that this is all about publicity or boosting one’s ego, those who give anonymously are the best refutation of this thesis. IN a conversation a few weeks ago, a senior officer at the Fund Raising Institute, IUPUI pointed out that this is not the case. “The truth is that it is a mix of both factors, both ego as well as altruism that motivate very wealthy people to give. To stress one over the other is to be reductionist in our thinking, he added.

While uncertain economic conditions, cut back in government spending in certain social services puts additional focus on individual donations, knowing how Foundations and the High Net worth donors donate is helpful in many ways. While their dollars may not entirely supplement the need or replace what has been lost in terms of government support, we do know that they can make an impact, if directed and channeled properly and with the right intentions. A closer study of this phenomenon, I argue is indispensable, if we are to be smart about philanthropy.

Dinner with an M.B. supporter- Democracy in the Middle East (DIME) #1

As everyone was preparing for the end of Ramadhan in the U.S, I was busy moving into a new apartment, close to the mosque on North Main Street in Blacksburg. Among other things, this new location gives me access to the mosque and also a grocery store. I am thankful for this, and to test out how long it would take me to walk to the mosque, I headed over to the mosque to pray, the day I moved to the new place. Not only did I end up eating a sumptuous meal with a total stranger, who turned out to be a Muslim brotherhood (M.B) supporter, but I also got a close look into the mind of someone who captures the complexity of emotions and thoughts that many M.B supporters are going through, given the current political and social instability in Egypt.

The conversation went something like this:

Me: “Salaam brother,” what time is the Taraweeh prayer today?

Stranger: Not for another hour brother. Have you broken fast today?

Me: No. I am not fasting today. Please go ahead and break your fast.

Stranger: Sure, but why don’t you join me. I have a lot of food her, and can’t finish it myself. Let’s eat together. Please join me.

Me: Sure, thank you. Be with you in a minute.

I joined the stranger, who we shall called Mohammed, perhaps the most common first name in Egypt. Turns out he is a PhD student in the Engineering school at Virginia Tech. After the preliminary courtesies, he enquired about my background and what I was doing in Blacksburg. I told him that I am a PhD student myself and studying Philanthropy in the U.S

Mohammed: That’s interesting. We have a lot of charity and giving in our society. There is a saying that no one dies of hunger in Egypt.

Me: That is interesting as well. I do know that Egyptians are generous people, but what about the current situation and unemployment in Egypt? What do you make of it?

Mohammed: Well it is bad, but not as bad as the media make it out to be. All my friends have jobs, the educated ones at least and may be they don’t have exactly the job they want, but they are not starving. The current political turmoil has everyone anxious, but trust me, it is not as bad.

Me: That is an interesting perspective, you seem to be an optimist.

Mohammed: Well, yes I am an optimist but also a realist. I don’t think media are portraying what is going on in Egypt clearly. There is a lot of misleading information and half-truths out there.

Me: Such as?

Mohammed: The fact that the second “revolution” was in fact real. I think it was orchestrated entirely, to get the Morsi government out of power. While I used to support Morsi and even voted for him, I think he was unfit to rule. I am happy that he is out of power, since he could have destroyed the country, but his ouster certainly not democratic.

Me: Do you still support M.B?

Mohammed: As a party, it stands for solidarity and social justice, but I think under Morsi, it went to extremes, and I don’t support that. Extremism was their undoing. I think there is a possibility of compromise and I would like to see that happen. Ultimately, we are talking about our country, and not political parties or the Army

Me: But isn’t that paradoxical? A party that took away the rights of their opposition and forced their way through, with little regard for the minorities’ viewpoint?

Mohammed: Yes, precisely, the M.B has been persecuted for decades and once they came to power, they did not know how to govern. This, in my opinion is the issue. A mediated settlement with all parties involved, is something we should aim for. Fighting over ideological issues is not going to help anyone.

Me: So would you consider yourself a M.B supporter now?

Mohammed: I would consider myself a reformed supporter. I think we have seen how badly they have governed, so need to chastise them and also keep checks on their power. But to keep them out of the public sphere would be foolish. They were banned during the Mubarak regime, had to organize and operate clandestinely and only with the Morsi victory did they get a chance to rule. But the fact that they went over-board and let nepotism be the state policy was damaging.

“The M.B supporters put the party above their nation, and that was their downfall,” he pointed out, rather poignantly.

Mohammed represents a side of the story that of often not told, in the narratives of Egypt or M.B, that of a self-critical loyalist, one who is willing to criticize and often pull back his support from a party that he believes represents the aspirations of the average Egyptian. While it is best not to quote numbers and statistics, that no one is sure of, such anecdotal narratives to provide a window, although in a limited manner, into the minds of M.B loyalists. If this is how even if a small minority of them are thinking – then I am optimistic for Egypt. This line of thinking represents a reform movement, one that challenges traditional authority and can be the seeds of change, in the long-term. The fact that this is emerging internally, within the supporters of M.B is another positive sign.

” Jamsetji Tata established his philanthropic foundation in India before even that of Carnegie,” – John Godfrey.

John Godfrey is a PhD Candidate at the Swinburne University of Technology, Australia, exploring High Net Worth Philanthropy in India. In this short interview, he explains how he got interested in studying Philanthropy in India, its dimensions – social, cultural and religions and how, if at all, it differs from Western notions of giving.


John Godfrey. Photo provided by Mr.Godfrey.
John Godfrey. Photo provided by Mr.Godfrey.

1. Please tell us a bit about how you got interested in High-net worth giving in India? 

 Like many Protestants I knew very little about traditions of giving other than the one in which I grew up – church collections on Sundays, occasional street day appeals and organized charity appeals for the likes of Oxfam, Red Cross and Save the Children.  Somehow I formed the impression that it was the West alone that provided relief and succour to the developing world.  I never read or heard discussions about indigenous traditions of charity or philanthropy other than my own – even in my early days as a professional fundraiser.

Around 2005 I was working for a firm of international fundraising consultants and through them met Major General Surat Sandhu, who had recently retired from Help Age India to become a fundraising consultant. Sometime later, knowing that I was visiting India, he invited me to give a workshop to some Indian fundraisers. For the first time I began to understand a little bit about NGOs and philanthropy in India. As time went on I became more a more struck by the scale and prevalence of philanthropy in India.

More recently when I was considering the focus of my research for the Ph.D. I wanted to do.  I was reading the extensive press coverage generated by Bill Gates and Warren Buffett’s first visit to India to promote the Giving Pledge. There was a great deal of discussion by Indian HNWIs themselves about their practice of philanthropy. I had never seen that in the West!  It seemed to me here was a fruitful area for further research.  Especially, of course,  because Ph.D. research is supposed to cover topics that haven’t been researched before. The sad fact is there has been almost no academic research on any aspect of Indian philanthropy.

 2. What is your background and experience ?

 As I mentioned briefly above, I am a fundraising consultant. I also train fundraisers. I began my career as an actor, then an arts administrator, then I became a fundraiser first in the arts and then in higher education – universities.

3. What have you uncovered so far about giving behaviors in the subcontinent?

 It’s hard to give a simple answer. The subcontinent is a complex mix of religions, castes, ethnic traditions, geographies, histories, politics and social class. All of these are reflected in one way or another in giving behaviors. However once again I would like to reiterate that there is, or are, strong traditions of giving.

4. Any surprises?

 No surprises other than the initial surprise that philanthropy and giving are so much a part of Indian culture.

 5. What is unique about Indian philanthropy, as compared to western notions of giving?

 I wouldn’t necessary claim that there is anything unique about Indian philanthropy, in comparison to Western philanthropy. One thing to remember is that Western philanthropy grew from traditions that were introduced from the East. The first endowed universities and hospitals in Europe were the result of Medieval Knights returning from the Islamic territories of the Middle East where they had been introduced to the tradition of Islamic philanthropy and waqf.

US philanthropy is an infant in comparison to the traditions of the Middle East and Asia having been imported from Europe in the 19th century.

Jamsetji Tata established his philanthropic foundation in India before even that of Carnegie.


6. Noam Chomsky said recently in an interview that most Indians are indifferent to others’ suffering? Do you agree with this, purely from a philanthropic perspective

I have great respect for Noam Chomsky as an intellectual and a great liberal. I don’t think the reported comment was particularly profound. He made an interesting observation about the reaction of someone else – Aruna Roy. And he tried to generalize it through his own sensibilities. I think he missed the mark and I hope that it isn’t held against him.

 7. What is the role of philanthropy in a society such as India? How does this intersect with the state’s responsibility? 

 There is much debate about the role of philanthropy in societies around the world. The philanthropic sector is sometimes called the third sector to distinguish it from the state sector and the business sector. There are some things that can be achieved by philanthropy which cannot be achieved either through the state or by business. There are also some things that can be done in partnerships of all three – the state, business and philanthropy. Of these, I suppose it would be fair to say, philanthropy has the most freedom to innovate and take risks. Certainly this appears to be a growing trend both in the West and in India.


8. How do you foresee the understanding of philanthropy growing in India, going beyond Corporate Social Responsibility? The field is pretty nascent in India, is that right? 

 As I have said already philanthropy is far from nascent in India. In fact, in comparison, it is American philanthropy that is nascent! There is much confusion about corporate social responsibility not just in India but all over the world. Corporate social responsibility and corporate philanthropy are not synonymous. In India the debate about corporate social responsibility has been renewed as a result of the government making it mandatory for some companies. However the definition of corporate social responsibility is still far from determined.

You may be alluding to the fact that there is a strong tradition of philanthropy within the business classes and industrial dynasties of India. There is in the public mind some confusion between corporate philanthropy, family philanthropy and CSR because of this. Similar confusion may even exist amongst those business families themselves.


9. Any concluding thoughts.

 A strong motivation for my undertaking this research into philanthropy in India is a belief that the world should recognize that there is much more to philanthropy than there is contained in Western philanthropy. Until now, 90% if not more, of the research that has been published has been published either by American or British scholars about American, British and Western European philanthropy. I was lucky enough to spend some time in the Middle East and was introduced to Islamic philanthropy. That began my curiosity and interest into other traditions of philanthropy.

India is remarkable because within one country there are so many different traditions. I think the world has a lot to learn from India.

If you are university educated, be sure to thank the 11th century Iranians! – Conversations in philanthropy #7

If you are college educated, have attended a traditional university, as we know it; anywhere in the world – then inadvertently you have benefited from a system that was pioneered in Iran in the 10th and 11th century, as part of the system of  Islamic Philanthropy, i.e., the Waqf, or endowment (Arjomand 114). While it is widely recognized that the world’s first university is the Al-Azhar university in Cairo, Egypt, built almost 1000 years ago ( also as a Waqf institution), not many people know that the concept of endowments was put into practice as a public policy in the Muslim empires of the medieval ages. This is a short article that delves into the development of Waqfs and how they have impacted the field of education. While contemporary Waqfs in Muslim majority countries are not as wealthy as they were in the past, their role remains significant and key to serving social needs as well as preserving art, culture and human dignity.

photo courtesy: Wikimedia commons
photo courtesy: Wikimedia commons

Historical growth of Waqfs as institutions of public policy

While Waqfs are private endowments and were meant as a measure of private initiative of the wealthy, they inadvertently became entwined with the public policy of the era. As Singer points out, in its basic form, a Waqf consisted of specific endowed properties, the revenues of which were designated in perpetuity to maintain and sustain a particular project or initiative- a soup kitchen or an educational institution. This is particularly noticeable in the field of education (Arjomand 125) which I will examine briefly.

There is value in his argument that that it was the non-qur’anic Waqf and not the Qur’anic Sadaqa or Zakat that became legal policy in the Islamic empires – and provided the basis for philanthropy in Islam. The jurists developed zakat into a poor-rate incumbent on all believers to be collected by the state, but given its difficult collection, it fell into disuse and also due to corruption; fell into disuse. The Waqfs that were developed in this era were mosque-educational complexes that housed both a place of worship and a learning center, where scholarship and teaching could occur. This eventually turned into a full-fledged residential facility that was the precursor to what we call a “college.”

Students at Al-Azhar University
Students at Al-Azhar University

Maksidi argues that the college was then imported into Europe in the 12th century first by the Knights Templar of the Levant whose headquarters was in England and who founded the Inns of court in London, who must have seen madrasas in or on the way to Jerusalem, and endowed the college des Dix-Huit in Paris for 18 poor students in 1180. In the mid-13th century, the first three colleges of Oxford were founded as charitable trusts. (Maksidi 19).

He further points out that the Ottomans used Waqfs as state policy for the development of cities such as Edirne and Istanbul (Arjomand 125). Amy Singer, another scholar who has studied  medieval charity in Muslim societies corroborates this view, when she points out: “Waqfs have been extensively researched, probably as much because of the prominence of particular foundations, as because of the relatively large amount of evidence available about them. Foreign visitors and colonial rulers alike carefully scrutinized Waqfs, especially in the 19th and 20th centuries, because the entire institution seemed to interfere with the establishment of modern private property regimes and the reform of landholding for purposes of agricultural modernization and development.” (Singer 92).

While I am not making the claim that the idea of an endowment itself was an innovation by the Muslim rulers (different forms of endowments did exist in Pre-Islamic Iran), the Muslim rulers did popularize and spread the notion and made it mainstream. Arjomand adds: “The law of Waqf developed in the formative years of the Islamic law i.e, 8, 9 centuries. There was influence of pre-Islamic Iranian law that impacted Waqf laws development. the Sasanian law book Maktakdan-I Hazar Dastan ( Book of thousand judgments) has helped us understand the epigraphic evidence on the institutions of private endowment for the soul or “for pious purposes” whose purpose was determined by the founder and set forth in an instrument of endowment (Arjomand 110)


Modernization and Education in the Muslim world

One of the most direct impact of the Waqfs in public policy has been in the field of education, research. While entire systems of patronage existed that perpetuated certain types of knowledge (in medieval age, as it does today), the university and madrasa became the centers of not only debate and change but also reform. Speaking of the education system in medieval era, Fazlur Rahman, one of the most prominent American scholar on Islam points out: “Medieval education became very formulaic and original thinking didn’t happen, this can explain the decline of any scientific thinking in the Muslim world, since then. The Muslim scholars also focused more on religious education, versus “worldly” education and this was a wrong focus to have. There were commentaries written on other commentaries and they had very little new things to say.” (Rahman 29).

He further argues that a kind of secularism developed in the Muslim world in pre-modern times, because of stagnation of Islamic thinking in general and because of the failure of Sharia law and institutions to develop themselves to meet the changing needs of society. (Rahman 43). One can make a case for the impact of shift in patronage systems to the schools of learning (through Waqf endowments) that made this change occur. Also, the Waqfs themselves were dealt a death-blow with colonization of Muslim countries. He uses the examples of India and Egypt to discuss how this occurred, with the death of genuine scholarship and also the unfortunate distinction between “this worldly” and “sacred or religious” knowledge, an idea that took genesis in the 13th century and that ultimately brought about the stagnation of original scholarship in the Muslim world.

Rahman points out that there has been a fear of intellectualism in the Muslim world and also this was related to patronage or support. Law brought employment, while medicine, or math did not guarantee the same kind of support. In the last 100 yrs or so, Muslims have shown an increasing awareness of reforming traditional education and integrating the old knowledge with the new (136).



Taking a close look at the development of Waqfs and Education system in the Muslim world, historically can give us insights into the current state of Muslim societies and the challenges they face. Through a clear understanding of this, one can evolve a strategy for advancement of fields of knowledge that will better serve the people of the countries and humanity, at large. I believe that Waqfs are a good lens to look at this shift in both systems of patronage and also to understand which form of knowledge was seen as relevant.

As Singer points out, philanthropy is a complete language, with its own codes, lexicon of actions that acquire meaning through a grammar of social order and syntax of significations this then becomes a part of religion, public policy, law and social norms. She further argues that to understand this requires the close study of relationship of what is being invoked and by whom, for what purposes (Singer 221).

There is also the problem of lack of scholarship in the field, as I am discovering, and something that Singer is clear about (Singer 24). She points out it is strange that barring one book by Robert McChesney, there is virtually no book length treatment of the concept of Zakat and Islamic notions charity in English. With more research and scholarly work, one can hope to unravel and unpack the story of how institutions have shaped fields of human endeavor.



Works Cited

Arjomand Said Amir. Philanthropy, the Law and Public Policy in the Islamic world before the modern era – Philanthropy in the world’s traditions. Ed by Warren F. Ilchman, Stanley N. Katz and Edward L. Queen II. Indiana Uni press, Bloomington and Indianapolis. 1998. Print.


Maksidi. Muslim institutions of learning in eleventh century Baghdad. Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies. 24,1. 1961. London. Print.


Rahman, Fazlur. Islam and Modernity. Chicago, University of Chicago Press. 1982. Print.