The Waqf: Where Religion Meets Urbanity

— Elyse Semerdjian

Historians have long studied the institution of pious endowments(waqf, pl. awqaf) as an impactful instrument of urban development in Islamic cities. In the case of the Ottoman Empire, it is estimated that more than 35,000 endowments were established in the imperial capitol (Isin 2011, 222-223). More endowments by persons of means were registered locally in provincial shari‘a courts and can offer small glimpses into everyday giving practices. Together these grand and diminutive land and property bequests maintained and sustained urban life but, importantly, extended to develop rural communities in the Ottoman Empire.

Jacob Peeters. Description des principales villes, havres et isles du golfe de Venise du coté oriental. Comme aussi des villes et forteresses de la Moree, et quelques places de la Grèce, Antwerp, Sur le marché des vieux Souliers, 1690 (public domain)

Recognizing that pious endowments varied across the Islamic World, the waqf, in its most basic definition, is a registered piece of income-generating property donated to a religious foundation, a charitable cause, or to one’s heirs in perpetuity. Historian Pascale Ghazaleh has persuasively argued that awqaf were essential to the economic, social, and religious life in the city and could benefit either individuals or collectivities within or across religious lines (Ghazaleh 2011). Such endowments did not only structure relations in the city but organized relations between city and countryside—agricultural land and waterworks were also endowed in perpetuity by donors. The institution of waqf should, therefore, be understood as both an expression of piety and a form of social contract that, at times, transcended religious bounds.

The original deeds (waqfiyya) preserved in former Ottoman lands provide the contours of these property contracts in the early modern period. Regardless of the social status of the donor, there were two principal kinds of waqf institutions; the charitable endowment (waqf khayri), whose proceeds were absorbed back into the social work conducted by foundation, and the family waqf (waqf ahli) which worked as a family trust. In a family waqf, instead of inheriting property that would surely be subdivided according to Islamic law to heirs, the property could instead be registeredand the income generated from it could be directed in perpetuity to the heirs designated by the donor (Raymond, 17-18).  Historian Randi Deguilhem has found in her study of Damascus that public and private endowments could be combined so that family and charitable foundation would share the income generated in what is called a waqf mushtarak (Deguilhem 2006, 205). There was yet a third kind of foundation found primarily in Turkish-speaking Ottoman lands beginning in the fourteenth century called the cash endowment (waqf al-nuqud) that allowed individuals to borrow money at a designated interest (Zarinebaf 2006, 90, Mandaville 1979, 308).

Many scholars have shown how the institution had particular advantages for women who were able to protect their rights to property and designate how they wanted their property to be used after death (Deguilhem 2006, Zarinebaf 2006, Sonbol 2003, Fay 1997). Abraham Marcus has found in his study of eighteenth-century Aleppo that 36% of family waqfs were established by women donors (Marcus 1989, 304). Furthermore, Mary Ann Fay has shown for Mamluk Egypt, women’s property rights are enshrined in Islamic Law, but when it came to endowing those properties, women could convert those properties into trusts without interference from male relatives. Alternatively, an endowment could completely excise female heirs from their half share of inheritance in Islamic law—men by law were granted a full share (Fay 1997).

In her examination of Ottoman imperial architecture in Aleppo, Heghnar Watenpaugh has observed two models of waqf patronage: imperial architecture endowed by Ottoman elites based in Istanbul and those structures endowed by local nobility (Watenpaugh, 2004, 44). Imperial philanthropy was informed by a “decorum of patronage” embedded in both imperial and religious ethics. In the case of Muslim rulers, this involved the moral responsibility to give back the spoils of war as a gift to his subjects (Necipoğlu 2005). Yet, awqaf were not only the purview of imperial elites, but gifts to the community by people of means regardless of religious denomination (Watenpaugh 2004, 10). The gifting of properties and revenue reflected the notion that elites were obliged to provide for the least well off. They had great incentive to do so because blessings and prayers were heaped upon the patron for his or her good deeds (khayrat) in this life and the next. In the case for wealthy, charitable giving was embedded in the concept of zakat, the obligation of every Muslim to redistribute wealth by gifting a portion of their overall assets annually. Engin F. Isin has argued that awaqf served the public good, often employing scores of people and providing crucial services which should be understood as a social contract or even citizenship if we focus on citizenship as a social practice rather than political status bestowed by the state (Isin, 2011). As a result, the waqf institution resulted in a remarkable network of social services for communities under Ottoman rule and, as Amy Singer has documented, aspects of this tradition, while diminished by the modern state, continue to resonate in various ways in the Islamic World (Singer 2008).

Photograph of the Ipşir Pasha Complex in Aleppo, destroyed by bombing in 2015. (Image: Jean-Claude David, 1979, Syrian Heritage Archive)

Imperial endowments resulted in monumental architecture that still characterizes many of the cityscapes of the Middle East.  Larger awqaf, such as the imperial kind or those donated by wealthy Ottoman notables, can include a wide range of structures that housed, fed, and employed the community. Such deeds included mosques, schools, dervish lodges, public libraries, and guest houses (khan/caravanseri). Some of the larger, grander awqaf would occupy entire city blocks and include shops, workshops, kiosks, bathhouses, orchards, soup kitchens, hospitals and asylums for the poor and indigent (including poor scholars), cemeteries, and parks (Faroqhi 2000, 131-132, Singer 2008). Many of these investments clearly overlap with both religious and public works as they serviced orphans, the poor, the indigent, and the sick. Infrastructure such as bridges, waterways, canals and reservoirs in both city and countryside were yet another aspect of pious endowments that provided vital urban and rural infrastructure (Mikhail 2011, 44-45). In the early modern period, half of Aleppo’s waqf endowments contributed to providing residents with access to water in the scorching summer with many fountain inscriptions heaping blessings on the donors (Marcus, 305).  

Waqf properties were either registered in the Imperial Porte in Constantinople or locally with judges (qadi) in the shari’a courts. One impressive Aleppo endowment preserved in the Ottoman capitol was the Bahram Pasha Waqf (1583), an impressive imperial endowment bestowed upon Aleppo in the name of a grand vizier of the Ottoman Empire, Sokollu Mehmed Pasha, assassinated by his political enemies in 1579 (Behram Paşa Vakıf Ev.Vkf 11 991 Z 29, 1583). Extensively documented by both Jean-Claude David and Heghnar Watenpaugh, the portion of the endowment dedicated to the central market included a fountain for passersby and a large Ottoman style mosque with a prominent dome supported by a unique five-sided apse (David 1982, Watenpaugh 2004). But central Aleppo was not the endowment’s only location. The waqf extended to another location in the emerging Christian quarter of Judayda to support non-Muslim residents of the city and support an emerging secondary market in the city with the Bahram Pasha bathhouse (hammam). Impressively, portions of the Bahram Pasha waqf supported facilities far beyond Aleppo, including regional cities of Antioch, Aintab, and Diyarbakir, but extended as far as Ottoman Palestine and the Hijaz, Mecca and Medina, mapping the boundaries of the empire in West Asia (Sauvaget, 1941, 263-265).

Part of facade of the Waqf of Ibshir Mustafa Pasha Complex (Z. Taj-Eddin 2005, CC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

The official waqf register designated how waqf revenue, which was not subjected to taxation, was to be distributed.  The patron could name any party, individuals, descendants, or institutions. The dynamic institution of endowments was not only used by Muslim donors, but non-Muslims, merchants, and any persons of means. These more modest endowments could include homes earmarked for the poor and valuable or useful objects donated places of worship. For example, wealthy Christian men and women endowed homes for poverty relief in the city specifying the poor within their own community as the recipients.[1] However, this form of charity was not that common because larger endowments such as fountains and religious spaces offered far more prestige to donors. There is also evidence that Christian community endowments often channeled revenue back into the community to defray the cost of the poll tax for the poorest members (Marcus, 216).  Historian Yaron Ayalon has similarly found that Aleppo’s Jewish community frequently used the waqf system to offer public and private forms of charity. Such giving offered prestige to wealthy families and could work to preserve inherited properties within the community and guard against debt collection (Ayalon, 2014, 79-81).

The cafe hall of the Waqf of Ibshir Mustafa Pasha in Aleppo in 2017, after being damaged in the civil war (troya23, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

 Imperial and local endowments can provide illuminating insights into urban planning in the Ottoman Empire. An array of donors from different gender and religious backgrounds co-constituted spatial relations in the early modern Ottoman cities. Often forgotten is how this system of endowments also shaped the countryside as farm land and water works were developed through the waqf system entangling city and with countryside. The waqf, therefore, is arguably an ideal space where religion and urbanity meet.

After Mass in the Courtyard of the Forty Martyr’s Armenian Church in Pre-War Judayda, Aleppo in 2007 (Image: Kathryn Cook)

Elyse Semerdjian is Robert Aram and Marianne Kaloosdian and Stephen and Marian Mugar Chair of Armenian Genocide Studies at the Strassler Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at Clark University. A specialist in the history of the Ottoman Armenians and Syria, she authored Off the Straight Path: Illicit Sex, Law, and Community in Ottoman Aleppo (Syracuse University Press, 2008) and Remnants: Embodied Archives of the Armenian Genocide (Stanford University Press, 2023). She publishes widely on Armenians, gender, genocide, and law in the Ottoman Empire.



Behram Paşa Vakıf Ev.Vkf 11 991 Z 29, 1583, Başbakanlık Osmanlı Arşivi, Istanbul, Turkey.

Sijallat al-Mahakam Shar‘iyya (SMH), Shari‘a Court Records, Aleppo, Dar al-Wathai’q al-Tarikhiyya, Damascus, Syria.


Ayalon, Yaron, “Poor Relief in Ottoman Jewish Communities,” in Jews, Christians, and Muslims in Medieval and Early Modern Times. Eds. Arnold E. Franklin, Roxani Eleni Margariti, Marina Rustow, and Uriel Simonsohn, Leiden: Brill 2014, 67-82.

David, Jean Claude. “Le waqf d’Ipšīr Pāšā á Alep,” Étude d’urbanisme historique. Damas : Institut français de Damas, 1982.

Deguilhem, Randi, “Consciousness of Self: The Muslim Woman as Creator and Manager of Waqf Foundations in Late Ottoman Damascus,” in Beyond the Exotic: Women’s Histories in the Islamic World. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2006, 102-115.

Faroqhi, Suraiya. Subjects of the Sultans: Culture and Everyday Life in the Ottoman Empire from the Middle Ages until the Beginning of the Twentieth Century. London: I.B. Tauris, 2000.

Fay, Mary Ann. “Women and Waqf: Toward a Reconsideration of Women’s Place in the Mamluk Household,” International Journal of Middle East Studies 29:1 (Feb., 1997), 33-51.

Ghazaleh, Pascale. “Introduction: Pious Foundations: From Here to Eternity?” in Held in Trust: Waqf in the Islamic World, ed. Pascale Ghazaleh. Cairo: American University of Cairo Press, 2011, 1-22.

Isin, Engin F., “Ottoman Waqfs as Acts of Citizenship,” in Held in Trust: Waqf in the Islamic World, ed. Pascale Ghazaleh. Cairo: American University of Cairo Press, 2011, 209-229.

Mandaville, Jon E. “Usurious Piety: The Cash Waqf Controversy in the Ottoman Empire,” International Journal of Middle East Studies 10 (1979) 289-308.

Marcus, Abraham. The Middle East on the Eve of Modernity: Aleppo in the Eighteenth Century. New York: Columbia University Press, 1989.

Mikhail, Alan. Nature and Empire in Ottoman Egypt. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011.

Necipoğlu, Gülrü, The Age of Sinan: Architectural Culture in the Ottoman Empire. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005.

Raymond, André. The Great Arab Cities in the 16th-18th Centuries: An Introduction. New York: New York University Press, 1984.

Sauvaget, Jean. Alep: essai sur le développement d’une grande ville syrienne des origines au milieu du XIXe siècle (Paris:  P. Geuthner, 1941), 2 vols.

Singer, Amy. Charity in Islamic Societies. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008.

Sonbol, Amira. Women in Shari’ah Courts: A Historical and Methodological Discussion,” Fordham International Law Journal 27:1 (2003) 225-253.

Watenpaugh, Heghnar Zeitlian. The Image of an Ottoman City: Imperial Architecture and Urban Experience in Aleppo in the 16th and 17th Centuries. Leiden: E.J. Brill, 2004.

Zarinebaf, Fariba. “Women, Patronage, and Charity in Ottoman Istanbul.” Beyond the Exotic: Women’s Histories in the Islamic World. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2006, 89-101.

[1] A few sample early modern Christian awqaf for the poor were registered in the shari‘a court in Aleppo and include: (Armenian) SMH 45: 201:495 and SMH 55:136:432 and (Assyrian) SMH 45:201:495.

Cite this blog post
elysesemerdijan (2024, February 29). The Waqf: Where Religion Meets Urbanity. Religion and Urbanity: Reciprocal Formations. Retrieved May 29, 2024, from

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