Charity, Endowments, and Charitable Institutions in Medieval Islam

By Miller, Timothy S. | The Catholic Historical Review, January 2007 | Go to article overview

Charity, Endowments, and Charitable Institutions in Medieval Islam


Miller, Timothy S., The Catholic Historical Review


Charity, Endowments, and Charitable Institutions in Medieval Islam. By Yaacov Lev. (Gainsville: University Press of Florida. 2005. Pp. x, 215. $59.95.)

Charitable institutions-hospitals for the sick, homes for orphans, asylums for the aged-did not exist in Classical Greco-Roman civilization nor in Germanic or Celtic cultures of northern Europe. Christianity created these institutions in the fourth century in cities such as Antioch, Alexandria, Caesarea (Cappadocia), and Constantinople in the Eastern Mediterranean.The rapid development of these philanthropic institutions into specialized facilities for needy people was no doubt linked to the conversion of Emperor Constantine to Christianity and the process of Christianizing the Roman state. Historians have traced the subsequent evolution of Christian philanthropic institutions in the Eastern Christian society of Byzantium and their slower development in the Western Latin provinces. Scholars of European civilization, however, have largely ignored the history of charity and charitable institutions in the Islamic world, although medieval Muslim hospitals, orphanages, poor houses, and free schools represent an important element in a continuous history of charity which began with the fourth-century Christian foundations.

Yaacov Lev's monograph is the first attempt in English to fill this lacuna by summarizing the history of Islamic charity from its origins in the Koran to the rise of the Ottoman Empire.

Lev begins by discussing the basis of Muslim charity found in the Koran, zakat and sadaqa. Zakat was an obligatory payment to benefit the poor paid by believers; sadaqa a voluntary contribution for the needy, offered by Arab tribes allied with Mohammed. In the wake of the Muslim conquests and the formation of the caliphate, zakat evolved into a tax paid to the government, not given directly to the poor. By 1171, the government of Saladin in Egypt collected zakat as a port tax in Alexandria, and used its proceeds not for the needy, but for holy war against crusaders.

The concept of sadaqa (voluntary aid to the needy) proved more effective in helping the poor, the sick, and others in need of society's support. Like Christianity, Islam emphasized that voluntary deeds of charity atoned for sins. Thus, in 972 the Fatimid Calif al-Muizz expiated his cruel execution of rebels by conspicuous acts of charity. Personal acts of charity also helped to legitimize a new ruler's authority. Nur al-Din, the Turkish beg who seized power in Syria and Egypt (1100's), justified his de facto independence of the Caliphate through his impressive charitable foundations.

Sadaqa proved to be an effective concept for supporting charitable institutions because early on it was supported by a flexible legal institution called a waqf. …

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