Jul
29

Poverty and Charity in Medieval Islam

Adam Sabra's historical work "Poverty and Charity in Medieval Islam: Mamluk Egypt, 1250-1517" (2000) is a unique contribution of historical studies (shifting the gaze to everyday life). The book covers ideas regarding poverty (in contrast with forms of asceticism), an assessment of poverty of the era, forms of charitable giving (and the jurisprudence thereof), and a chapter on endowments (Ch 4). I was most interested in the content on endowments, although this aspect was relatively brief in the context of the book. A few notes:

"The establishment of hospitals to provide free medical care to the public required the endowment of huge amounts of property, perhaps due to the fact that these hospitals were surprisingly few in number and were expected to provide care to a large number of patients. Indeed, the waqfs established to benefit hospitals, invariably established by rulers, constituted some of the largest endowments made in medieval Cairo. The best example of this phenomenon was the hospital established by Sultan al-Manşūr Qalāwūn in 1284, as part of a larger waqf complex. This hospital was not only one of the largest endowments, it was also one of the most long lasting. By the end of the eighteenth century, it was in considerable disrepair, but was put to new use by Mehmed 'Ali in the first half of the nineteenth century. After several attempts at reconstruction, it was finally demolished in the early twentieth century." (p. 73)

"Much has been written about the importance of waqfs in funding Islamic education in Mamluk Egypt, and in the Islamic Middle Period in general. For the most part, this literature has focused on the madrasa and the khanqah. While many of the students who studied in these institutions of higher learning were no doubt dependent on their stipends for the continuance of their study, the madrasa was not primarily intended to serve the poor. The endowment deeds of these madrasas did not stipulate that the student be poor... In the case of Qur'an school, however, orphaned and poor boys were specifically targeted by founders to receive a free education. While many children received home schooling, and others attended private Qur'an schools (maktab, pl. makatib), at least forty-six waqfs were established between 1300 and 1517 in Cairo to provide a basic education to boys whose families could not be expected to pay for it themselves. Many of these waqfs stipulated that these lessons should be given at an existing or newly created institution such as a mosque, but by the late ninth/fifteenth century maktabs were being built independent of other wafq institutions. Typically, they took the form of a maktab build over a cistern (sabil) which provided water to the public." (p. 80-81) 

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