Islamic Endowments in Jerusalem under British Mandate

By Busch, Briton C. | The Middle East Journal, Spring 1998 | Go to article overview
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Islamic Endowments in Jerusalem under British Mandate


Busch, Briton C., The Middle East Journal


Islamic Endowments in Jerusalem under British Mandate, by Yitzhak Reiter. London and Portland, OR: Frank Cass, 1996. xviii + 233 pages. Bibl. to p. 242. Index to p. 251. $49.50 cloth; $24 paper.

Reviewed by Briton C. Busch

Waqf (plural, awqa), the permanent endowment of land or other property to Islamic religious institutions, has long been a feature of Muslim societies. Such endowments come in various forms, but all are subject to shari'a (Islamic law) and certain requirements, such as the appointment of an administrator or executive director (mutawalli). Over time awqaf served not only to perpetuate worthy charitable aims but have had specific legal purposes, for example the exclusion of in-laws from inheritance or the provision of a legacy to family members not otherwise so entitled. In general, however, awqaf have not fared well in the modern world, being regarded as an archaic means of perpetuating the position of traditional elites while at the same time stifling economic modernization. Where they have not been abolished, they have been under severe pressure and often have experienced radical reforms.

Yitzhak Reiter of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem has used the vast corpus of Jerusalem shari'a court records to answer the question of just how the waqf institution functioned in the era of British control of Palestine (1917-47). Since the qadi (shari'a judge) exercises general supervision over awqaf and their administrators, he receives complaints and petitions of various kinds. Seldom, however, as Reiter admits, do records of such petitions provide useful financial information; while accounts are kept in detail by administrators, access to these is most rare. Nor, apparently, do the extensive but disorganized records of the Supreme Muslim Council (SMC), which held substantial control over the whole institution, or those of the Chief Secretariat of the Mandatory Government (now in the Israel State Archives) offer much assistance in this regard.

What the records do show, however, as Reiter outlines in detail, is that the waqf was alive and well under the Mandate. Though the rate may have fallen off when compared to Ottoman times, new aqwaf were regularly created, principally but not exclusively of the type associated with family concerns. Reiter believes that the number of documents permitting exchanges of property or other changes facilitating economic development demonstrates that, in general in the context of Mandatory Jerusalem (his work really focuses upon this one city), the waqf was not an obstacle to modernization.

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