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.







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

  1. Hi Sabith,

    An interesting read, indeed. Just one bit: “… 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…”

    ‘Pioneered’. Correct me if I am wrong. Were there not other ancient universities? I have not researched them all, but Nalanda for one, did thrive on grants, had dorms and international residents. Britannica dates the university to the 5th century CE. It was destroyed in 1193 by Khilji raids. Interestingly, it is being revived currently.

    What do you think?

    1. Hi Amisha,
      You raise an interesting point. While you are right in a rather limited sense, overall, your argument misses the point. Classifying these endowements by kings,does not meet the criterion of philanthropic endowments as understood in a classical western tradition i.e, endowments from civil society members i.e, regular folks who are not kings. I am referring to a specific system of giving from civil society members towards building institutions. And in this sense, many scholars argue that Al-Azhar was the first “university” in the world, though some argue that it was Uni of Karueeni in Morocco. http://www.guinnessworldrecords.com/world-records/3000/oldest-university

      Perhaps all this depends on what we are talking about – in this case, I am specifically referring to endowments by individuals. And to this extent, Al-Azhar turns out to be the oldest!

      Hope this helps.

  2. Also, I am referring to use of endowments as public policy, not just out of individual piety or inclination to support institutions (that has gone on from the time of Buddha, as I understand). Waqfs were pioneering in the sense that they became public policy and were implemented en masse, sometimes to build entire cities, something that didn’t happen until then, on that scale.

  3. Ah! Thanks for clearing this! I did read about Al Karaouine and Al Azhar the other day! Very interesting reads! Thanks for sharing, Sabith.

    Hope you are well!

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