News ID: 322287
Published: 0324 GMT June 14, 2022
University of Toronto scholar Nada Moumtaz:

Rise of charity in response to neoliberalism led to waqf revival

Rise of charity in response to neoliberalism led to waqf revival

IRAN DAILY: What conditions have led to, as you observe in your book, the surge of charity worldwide in the most recent decades?

NADA MOUMTAZ: In my book, I draw on a large body of literature that examines the rise of charitable giving worldwide over the last four to five decades. This literature shows that the surge correlates with the rise of neoliberalism and the retreat of the welfare state. These policies arose in the 1970s and 80s to discipline the rising power of labor, which caused decreasing profits in the US and Europe, and to quash the organizing of the “Third World” (weaponizing oil in 1973, demanding a New International Economic Order in 1974, etc.). If, in the Anglophone Global North, the face of neoliberalism is embodied in Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, in the Global South, a host of reforms have been externally mandated by the World Bank and development agencies as a condition for aid: The reduction in government expenditures, the privatization of state enterprises, the liberalization of trade, and the removal of barriers to foreign investment.

Under the mantra that markets are best suited to provide for all, a host of new regulations has supported the private sector, while reducing government expenditures on social reproduction (education, health, and other social services). With the state retreating from shouldering these services, nonprofits and individual benefactors, the so-called third sector, have stepped in to provide for them. A good example in Egypt is the provision of private lessons and health services by myriad private charities as state schools and hospitals are being defunded.

IRAN DAILY: You observe that there has been a revival of the waqf as well in recent decades. To what extent does it follow the global increase of charitable activities? And, are there factors specific to the Muslim world which have contributed to it?

NADA MOUMTAZ: I definitely think that the waqf revival is part of this global trend of the rise of charity in response to neoliberalism, as Muslim-majority countries are part of this global world and influenced by these global discourses and practices, while also dealing with their own dynamics. For example, the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia has a working paper that positions the waqf as a deeply rooted practice that can be mobilized in the new welfare mix where the state is not the main provider of social services. Much contemporary writing in the Muslim world that aims to revive the waqf embraces the neoliberal rhetoric of the need to decrease state expenditures, seeing the waqfs as a third sector that can help with this aim and concurrently redistribute wealth.

In terms of dynamics particular to the Muslim world, Lebanon also experienced the Islamic Revival (ṣaḥwa), which scholars often trace to the 1970s and 80s. But this is also part of a more global religious revival (think about the Christian Right in the US or the BJP in India), which challenged modernization theory and the assumption that modernity brings with it decreased religiosity. In the Muslim world, this awakening often refers to the wider appeal of calls for an Islamization of the state and/or law (as seen in the proliferation of Islamic parties and political groups) and to the rise in Islamic sensibility and practice (as seen in the spread of new preachers, TV shows, study circles, etc). Scholars and participants call this movement a revival because it follows a period of decreasing religiosity (between World War I and into the 1970s), when many modern Muslim-majority nation-states had actively pursued policies of secularization and the privatization of religion.

Scholars disagree as to the reasons behind this revival, some explaining it as the failure of the postcolonial state to deliver on its promises of development, and in particular the resounding failure of Arab nationalism in the Arab world following the Naksa (the defeat by Israel in 1967). At the same time, one needs to note that religion has continued to be relevant for many, even during the period of state secularization.

IRAN DAILY: In the context of contemporary Lebanon, how significant is the economic contribution/share of the whole waqf institution in the Lebanese economy (if there are any reliable statistics)?

NADA MOUMTAZ: There are unfortunately no reliable statistics in Lebanon as there is great secrecy around the waqf properties of various religious communities. For example, while the real-estate property registry is public, if you go and ask for the list of properties under the name of the Directorate General of Islamic Waqfs (DGIW) or the Orthodox Church or any other community, the answer is that these are not available except with the explicit permission of these institutions.

That said, some researchers have been able to work with these institutions and produce some statistics. Historian Issam Khalifé, for example, in ‘Les Wakfs Chrétiens au Liban’ (original title in French, ‘The Christian Wakfs in Lebanon’), estimates that the waqfs of churches constitute some 25% of the arable land in Lebanon (2012, 11). On my end, while I do not have statistics, I can say that the Sunni waqfs in Beirut are quite minimal in terms of area. But the DGIW owns some prime real-estate in the city-center and, before the current economic, financial, and monetary crisis and its accompanying inflation, these properties accrued good rents. My hunch is that the share of waqfs in the country’s economy is quite minimal, especially because the revival is less geared towards productive assets.

IRAN DAILY: You argue that with the advent of the modern state in Lebanon, waqf as an institution was gradually secularized. Could you please elaborate what that secularization of waqf means?

NADA MOUMTAZ: The waqf is secularized in different ways. The first example, and perhaps the one that will make immediate sense to readers, is the way that God was ousted from the waqf: For the Hanafis, God is the owner of the waqf’s property (often real-estate), which is administered on God’s behalf by an administrator. But in a private property regime, there is no space for God as an owner, and so in the process of property registration under the French Mandate (1920-1943), waqfs came to be owned by the “waqf” which is now a corporate entity (a legal person/shakhs maʿnawi).

The second way the waqf is secularized is when it comes to be conceived of as the “religious property” of a “religious community.” Given that, in this formulation, the waqf appears to be “religious” rather than simply “secular,” this might seem like a puzzling claim, because when people or newspapers or politicians speak of secularization, they usually imply a separation of religion and politics. So, one might imagine that waqfs cease to be associated with religious communities and are administered by the state as state property. This is what happened in Algeria and Tunisia, and even Egypt. In Lebanon, however, waqfs are “owned” and administered by different religious communities, so you have Sunni waqfs and Shiʿi waqfs (administered by a Directorate General), Maronite waqfs, Orthodox waqfs (administered by the church), etc. This arrangement appears to leave a lot of the provision of social services to religious communities rather than the state, and to, thus, be not “secular.”

However, in my book, I suggest that this association of religious communities with waqf is itself a facet of the waqf’s secularization. Indeed, waqfs in Beirut in the nineteenth century were very much an individual endeavor, and when they were dedicated to the poor, they often did not make distinctions based on the religious affiliations of those they served. Many waqfs were dedicated to the poor of the city of Beirut, for example. They were also mostly administered by family members of the founders. It was only with state centralization and the definition of Lebanon as a state composed of different religious sects that they started to become the “religious property” of a religious community. This definition of Lebanon as a nation of minorities each with legal sovereignty over its private religious affairs (marriage, divorce, waqf, and sometimes inheritance) is a secular configuration because the state maintains equal distance from all religious sects, defining what counts as religion and placing it in the sphere of the private. I should add that my view follows scholars of secularism, who show that secularization involves the state defining what counts as religion and its place, rather than simply the separation of religion from politics.

Finally, the waqf is secularized when it is classified as either a religious or an economic endeavor in order to be governed according to either the (religious) laws of the community or the state’s civil law. This has led to the classification of waqfs dedicated to their founders’ families as not really charitable, thus severely limiting new foundations and strongly encouraging their dissolution. It has also led to the restriction of the “religious” to worship, and its separation from the “economic.” You see this in the way waqfs have come to be used mostly to make mosques and Islamic centers. New waqf foundation deeds for such centers and mosques today rarely contain the multiple lands and buildings that used to be mentioned in nineteenth-century waqf foundation deeds, and that used to fund the functioning and the upkeep of these mosques. This reflects the withering away of an approach to the “religious,” in which any activity, even the most worldly, when done with the right intent, can become an act of worship that gets Muslims closer to God.

IRAN DAILY: You mention that Islamic charity, to a significant extent, “has espoused neoliberal logic.” How can we characterize a neoliberal Islamic approach to charity?

NADA MOUMTAZ: I do not delve so much into the neoliberalization of charity in my book, partly because it was not something I observed in Beirut. But scholars like Mona Atia, in her book ‘Building a House in Heaven’, have done great work to document this process in Egypt. By looking at different charities, Atia shows how many of them have moved away from the handout model, which emphasizes giving for the sake of God to achieve good deeds (think of soup kitchens or Ramadan tables that feed anyone who shows up). Instead, they adopt models of charity that seek to empower the poor and give them the means to change their lives – a charity type modeled after development and geared towards individualizing responsibility, self-improvement, and productivity, and instilling entrepreneurship, often presented as Islamic virtues. Such giving also relies on the notion of the deserving poor, meaning that supposedly not all poor people deserve aid. Amira Mittermaier also finds, in Egypt, some practices that can be thus interpreted this way, although she suggests that these “neoliberal” models do draw on strands within the Islamic tradition.

My work confirms Mittermaier’s insight, because waqfs present models of “sustainable” charitable giving – they need to be objects that generate income without being extinguished in the process. However, they also challenge us to rethink our association of sustainable development with neoliberalism and ideas of progress, because the aim of waqfs is not necessarily to eradicate poverty, as they assume that the poor will always exist.

IRAN DAILY: You cite some scholars who argue that even the advocates of Islamic revival “share with modernizers and secularists common epistemological assumptions and understandings of history, time, and religion.” What about revivalists’ assumptions and understandings of “the self”?

NADA MOUMTAZ: The book does indeed delve into modern notions of the self and the relationship of acts and intentions: The accessibility of these intentions, ways to assess them, who should do the assessment, and when. Here, I draw on work that investigates our modern understandings of the self. Coming from the lens of philosophy and literature, philosopher Charles Taylor, for example, argues that our conception of ourselves as having “partly unexplored and dark interiors,” in other words, an inner depth that is the locus of our true self, is what characterizes these modern notions of the self. Of course, he is not referring to the idea that one’s inner thoughts are known only to oneself and that one sees oneself differently than others do. These are common ideas. What is different today is that this inner perspective is privileged as the only way to achieve certain capacities. It is through an exploration of the self that one can find one’s “true” self, express it, and develop as a human being. This is in contrast to understandings that see the inner self as malleable and changeable through external means, and it is a view that is quite hegemonic today.

IRAN DAILY: Modernity made everything about “the self” by rejecting transcendence, effectively presuming that nothing can be truly selfless, thus making the real intent of waqf founders open to suspicion. Why does the true motive of waqf founders matter? And how, if at all, does it matter to the modern state? Aren’t there other examples of charitable trusts and endowments which use privately and lawfully accumulated wealth for certain purposes willed by the donors?

NADA MOUMTAZ: I would perhaps say that it is not just the “self” but also the “social” that becomes very central with the rejection of transcendence. Modern scientific thinking does not account for God and the hereafter, and so social scientific explanations of charity usually highlight its social, political, and economic advantages, thus seeing charity as ultimately self-serving. The modern secularist assumptions of this thinking make it impossible to imagine that people might do things for God’s sake. These explanations of charity also oppose charity to self-interest – a charitable act cannot be “self-serving” and still be charitable. The idea that charity needs to be completely selfless, as anthropologist Jonathan Parry explains, is also a modern one and it rose in opposition to the modern idea that the market is driven by purely self-interested individuals.

I am not making the claim that charity can be a win-win situation for givers and recipients (as philanthrocapitalists proclaim, for example, in Matthew Bishop, Michael Green’s ‘Philanthrocapitalism: How Giving Can Save the World’). One needs to be suspicious of projects that claim to save the world, particularly when the very practices of those charitable givers produce the inequalities they then attempt to remedy (Linsey McGoey’s book on the Gates Foundation, ‘No Such Thing as a Free Gift: The Gates Foundation and the Price of Philanthropy’, is a great documentation of that process). When the “self-serving”-ness consists of rewards in the hereafter, however, it seems like a categorical difference that warrants analytic attention. That is, I do think that it is important to distinguish analytically between actions that bring returns in the here and now (through more money especially) and those that do so only in the hereafter.

IRAN DAILY: Somehow related to the above question, investigation into the “intents” of private waqf founders might seem to be a sort of undue interference by the state in matters of private practice of religion, or even violation of the freedom of belief. What’s your take on that?

NADA MOUMTAZ: As much as we would like to think that a secular state does not intervene in religion, the reality, as I mentioned earlier, is that modern states constantly define what counts as “religion” and even “sincere” practice – the latter one is explained by Jean-Michel Landry in ‘Niqab, sunglasses, and the sincerity of belief’, published online by the Immanent Frame magazine. Then, think about the debates in Europe or Canada, or currently in India, regarding whether the veil is an essential religious practice. Furthermore, investigating intent has always been part of criminal law (and other parts of the law), although the question of how we know this intent, how it is accessed, changes. I would also say that I did not encounter any contemporary court cases that questioned the intent of waqf founders.

Instead, I witnessed a general suspicion about “true” motives – even if many scholars and lay Muslims consciously avoided such guesswork about people’s real intent, drawing on traditions that condemn speculation. This increased suspicion around motives is partly caused by what is called the rejection of transcendence. It occurs both because the deferral of judgement to a hereafter is not possible, and because, analytically, it becomes difficult to imagine charity for God’s sake or for rewards in the hereafter. I also highlight material conditions in the book – especially new regimes of debt under capitalism, where foreclosure is much more common – that lead to increased suspicion of waqf founding, because the waqf’s inalienability stands in the way of foreclosure for debt.

IRAN DAILY: I’m also curious to know more about a point which might only be a footnote to your whole investigation: You note that the Iranian Revolution served as “the watershed moment” in the Islamic Revival, defined as “the rise of political Islam and Islamic sensibility and practice in Muslim-majority countries since the 1970s.” In your view, what was the role of, and how widespread was the effect of the Iranian Revolution in that regard?

NADA MOUMTAZ: I do think that the Iranian revolution was foundational in terms of the possibilities and imaginative horizons it opened. It showed that mass popular uprisings could defeat repressive regimes allied with the United States. For many committed Muslims, it also showcased the possibility of a nation-state that respects the religious sensibilities of the majority and is not secularizing and secular, but rather “Islamic.” But this popular impression belies a more complex reality. Given its modern history, as well as the powers of the modern nation-state and its very nature more generally, as Arzoo Osanloo suggests, the Iranian state is better described as having an Islamico-civil legal system. As a modern state, its reach has been much deeper than any premodern Islamic state, especially in regards to its ability to enforce ideas of what counts as religious or Islamic and to exclude others. As such, the Iranian Revolution also serves as a cautionary tale about the dangers of taking the modern state for granted.



Nada Moumtaz is assistant professor of the study of religion at the University of Toronto, and author of ‘God's Property: Islam, Charity, and the Modern State’, published by the University of California Press in 2021.



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