Foundations and Civilisation

Prof. Dr. Tahsin Özcan
Marmara University Faculty of Islamic Theology

Throughout history our world has been host to various cultures and civilisations. Every civilisation differs from other civilisations with regards to characteristic values and institutions. The history of humanity offers countless examples in this area. From this angle Islamic civilisation surpasses others in terms of an understanding of charity. It is this understanding that formed the basis for the development of foundations as institutions which are a trademark of our civilisation.

The religion of Islam has highly valued principles such as social justice and peace, charity and almsgiving which are aimed at achieving social solidarity. Religious commands and suggestions on this topic aim for the cultivation of a type of person who chooses others over himself/herself rather than an egoist figure. They also aim for the development of an altruist who rather than his/her own personal benefit, keeps the interests of the community at the foreground. In many verses of the Holy Qur’an, commands and encouragements appear with regards to charity and almsgiving. We are witness to not only the existence of encouragements and advice with regards to the topic of almsgiving in the hadith of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) but also the consequent practice by the firstly the Prophet Muhammad himself and then his companions. We see many examples of this practice in biographies of the Prophet Muhammad and hadith and Islamic history sources.

Foundations, which emerged due to the understanding of donations and almsgiving gaining an institutional identity, earned a central place in Islamic communities as a structure which transformed individuals’ assets into services that the community is in need of in different areas. From the early years of Islamic history until today, foundations emerged as institutions which maintain their significance and function, show activity in almost all areas of social life and play a big role in fulfilling the needs of the community. The institution that is ‘the foundation’ has played an important role in terms of the manifestations of Islamic civilisation such as allowing it to continue its existence, the formation of an institutional base in many areas and allowing services to be carried in an active manner. For this reason it is a very appropriate evaluation for historians to emphasise the establishment of ‘the foundation’ as a ‘civilisation of foundations’ while speaking about Islamic civilisation.

The existence of establishments similar to foundations before Islam in various communities is recorded. However it is understood that these operated in a restricted area and came about as an extension of temples or religious structures. In Islamic communities the institution that is ‘the foundation’ is not restricted to the area of religion but also has influence in and contributes to different areas of life. In Islamic history we see the first foundations in the first period, established by the Prophet Muhammad himself. In accordance with the Prophet Muhammad allotting his land called ‘Fedek’ to the benefit of the poor, many of his companions took his example and established foundations. Examples include the purchase and devotion of wells to fulfil Medina’s water needs, taking care of the needs of the educational establishment called ‘Suffe,’ set up by the Prophet Muhammad himself adjacent to Masjid Nabawi, equipping the needs of soldiers getting ready to go to war, the fulfilment of various needs people making pilgrimage had on the road and in Makkah.

This institutional settlement which emerged in the golden age continued its existence and development in later periods. Throughout Islamic history, in places where Muslim populations lived, thousands of foundations big and small in terms of their economic power offered their services to people. The institution of ‘the foundation’ and an understanding of charity and almsgiving which forms its basis is an important characteristic of Islamic civilisation and is a custom which continues today. Throughout history the institution of ‘the foundation’ has recorded significant developments. It became a widespread institution in Ummayad, Abbasid, Mamluk, Karakhanid and Saljuk periods.

The prevalence seen in the practice ensured that the topic was dealt with in terms of law; a separate title was made under Islamic jurisprudence covering law regarding foundations. Generally studied under topics entitled “kitâbü’l-vakf” (book of foundation) “ahkâmü’-l-vakf” (provisions of foundations) in Islamic Jurisprudence books, the topic has also been written about in separate books and a rich literature has formed surrounding the subject. In Islamic communities services sought in various areas were realised by foundations. These services include education, health, infrastructure and public works, all sorts of donation services, religious and cultural services, and urban planning. Institutions which offer services to people in these areas have been established by foundations made up of altruists and have found the opportunity to present their services without fail from the endless support given by associated foundations. Under this framework in the Islamic world all levels of educational institutions beginning from the madrasah; health institutions such as hospitals (dârüşşifâ), Structures which offer religious services like mosques and masjids, libraries, and other institutions such as dervish lodges (tekke) were made by foundations to give religious and cultural services while, the cities’ infrastructure: road, water, bridge etc. needs were covered by foundations.  Also, given the name “akarât-ı mevkûfe” markets, stores, house, inns, baths and workshops existed to generate revenue and made up the cities’ trade and industrial infrastructure covering the need for residences.

Not only did the Ottomans pass on their inheritance from former Islamic societies, they also developed the establishment of ‘the foundation’ in practice and even more so at a legal level. In the Ottoman period foundations undertook new tasks in addition to their existing functions in previous Islamic societies. The Ottomans put into practice appropriation foundations and family foundations (zurri foundations) besides developing different practices of rent (icareteyn and gedik). Furthermore, money foundations, particular to the Ottomans, existed to, on one hand provide the means for foundation services to broaden and on the other hand, to form a legal institution which covers the hard cash and credit needs of individuals.

By virtue of these money foundations the institution of ‘the foundation’ assumed the role of a financial and a social security and assistance institution. Economy historians highlight a number of similarities between money foundations and private finance institutions and participation banks developed as a different model. In addition, the similarities between money foundations and microfinance which has displayed successful examples in practice in recent years especially in terms of social solidarity. The Ottomans did not allocate any sort of source from the central government budget for religious and cultural services, education, health and public works. All of these services operated within the scope of the custom of foundations and voluntary individuals’ contributions from the Sultan in the government’s highest rank to average citizens. The best examples of achievements that the custom of foundations has put forward are the complexes established by the help of Sultans, high ranking government officials and other people who had an affiliation with the palace.  In Ottoman history there are few Sultans, high ranking government officials and individuals affiliated with the palace who had not established a foundation in their own name.  A significant number of these are in the form of an establishment of a combination of services and are given the name ‘kulliye’ (complex).

It is essential to analyse the role complexes which reached the pinnacle of architecture at the hands of Mimar Sinan with examples like Vâlide-i Atik, Süleymaniye and Selimiye had in the establishment of cities and the progress of lifestyle.

It is observed that, with the institutions located in the structure and the foundations which allow it to function these complexes which were multifaceted and had many functions were a system which formed a seed of the city and formed the infrastructure fulfilling the fundamental needs sought after in city life.

The structures foundations possess are generally evaluated under two main categories. The first group constitutes of structures composing of the foundation’s source of revenue and simultaneously institutions which make up the infrastructure of commercial, industrial, medical etc. activities such as markets, covered bazaars, workshops and baths. The name ‘akarât-ı mevkûfe’ is given to these institutions. The second group includes structures which for the basis of religious and cultural activities and education and health services such as mosques, schools, madrasahs, soup kitchens, dervish lodges, hospitals etc.. These are called ‘müessesât-ı hayriyye’. The earnings derived from the first group, ‘akarât-ı mevkûfe’, were seen as a source of revenue which financed the activities of the second group, ‘müessesât-ı hayriyye’. During the establishment of the complex the establisher of the foundation would be a financial resource. On this subject we can say that the government policy accepted and supported this circumstance as well as promoting it due to the grants they provided.  It is understood that the grants given by foundation establishers and established within the structure of foundations, the complexes made up an economic whole which could stand on their own and run their activities. Under the framework of terms put in a deed of trust, foundations were able to actively run their service in an independent manner.

At the centre of the complexes were mosques which were places for worship and education. As well as being a location for the community to perform their worship, mosques carried the attribute of being formal educational institutions which offered various educational programs to the community.

It is observed that the wide framework of personnel in mosques offered their religious services and established an atmosphere of activity and vibrancy. Imams, preachers and people who perform the call to prayer as well as other officers kept the religious lifestyle alive while maintaining employment rates. Simultaneously within the structure of the complex mosques, madrasahs, schools and tekkes, allowed a location for the science and culture to come to life. Food and housing expenses of madrasah students were covered and pocket money was also given to them. Teachers and staff were offered very high wages and within the scope of opportunities foundations offered the teachers possessed a satisfactory place of development.

Madrasahs and schools were the complexes’ inseparable institutions of education. An education system at all levels is observable in these institutions. Specialised madrasahs for theological disciplines such as ‘darülhadis’ and ‘darülkurra’, hospitals called ‘darüşşifa’ in which medicine was taught and health services were given were all part of the complex. ‘Darüşşifa’, ‘darülafiye’, ‘darüttıb’, ‘bimarhane’ are all health institutions which offered free consultations and treatment. These institutions offered services with a wide and educated framework of personnel. Another part of the complex which must be mentioned is libraries which were a part of the madrasah and offered their services independently.

“Imaret” is the name given to soup kitchens which are locations in which food was given to complex personnel, madrasah students, and the needy citizens of the community. These soup kitchens worked in sanitary circumstances and maintained standards which were determined in the deed of trust of the complex.

Rest houses “tabhane” within the structure of the complex were each a place where guests could stay. Other structures called ‘tekke’, ‘zaviye’ and ‘dergah’ were each a place which offered ethical education to a wide populace of the community under a particular methodology and also made up an appropriate place for the education of literature, music, and the fine arts. In addition to the services mentioned above the ‘muvakkithane’ was a service for the determination of time was an element of the complex as well as buildings reserved for personnel taking into consideration their housing needs, water installations such as wells, taps, drinking fountains and public fountains which we must note while discussing the complex. With all the aforementioned elements the complex had a central role in the city life. Complexes were being established for services that were needed in new settlements or in developing sections of existing cities. The surroundings of an established complex would develop in a short time and become an important residential area. A typical example of this is the ‘Fatih Kulliye’ that was established after Istanbul was conquered. It can be observed that the surroundings of ‘Fatih Kulliye’ flourished and developed in a short time after its formation.

The source of revenue of the foundation which belonged to the complex which comprised of spaces like markets, grand bazaar, covered bazaars, inns, stores and workshops formed an important contribution by meeting the area’s trade and industrial needs. Qualified tradesmen and craftsmen were able to open stores with decent rent prices and this was revenue for the foundation to run its services and formed an important portion of income.

Among sources of income a serious contribution were residences that were considered real estate which fulfilled the cities’ accommodation needs.When we analyse Houses that were reserved for someone who holds a particular job in mosque complexes we see that the foundation system increased its contributed even moreso in this area. Add to this the madrasah rooms in which were designated for madrasah students to take residents in and it can easily be said that the complexes played a central role in resolving housing issues.

Complexes also contributed to the places they appeared as they were a centre of economic appeal. Employed nearby structures such as markets, covered bazaars and workshops which provide a basis for mercantile and industrial activity, personnel and their families’ residence in this area indicates a backdrop for significant economic activity. Some foundations personnel numbers reach a thousand and this meant that together with their families this constitutes a small town.  It is inevitable that the restoration and maintenance of buildings belonging to the complex, necessities like cleaning and lighting, supplies needed for the soup kitchen paved the way for economic development and variation.

The economic dimension is better understood when we take into consideration that all foundation activities were performed by foundation officials and all expenses were covered by the foundation. When considered from this viewpoint, it can be understood that by means of the institutions harboured in the complex education, health, culture and reconstruction activities have an important place in the financing. When we add the contribution of thousands of foundations big or small it can be said that the foundation system run by the care of the government and counted as the reason for financial crises did not in this circumstance leave any space for the governments contribution.

We can count the benefits of the foundation system in this way:

The community was able to benefit from the many services provided including education and health free of charge. Because the funding of these services was fulfilled by the foundations sources the government’s responsibilities in these areas were significantly lifted. With the voluntary contribution by people whose wealth was in place, the foundation system constantly had the opportunity to develop and again needs were able to be fulfilled by means of the foundations. We can say that activities were able to be run more efficiently due to their administrative and financial independence. This situation has provided for a mechanism which diminishes the effects of deep political and economic crises which may bring about social turmoil. Therefore we can say that in the general public and in individual lives due to foundation the effects of political and economic crises are experienced less. Moreover, foundations are institutions which the possibility of profit is low, and which have ensured an important productive role so that services needed by the community such as culture, education, health and public works which indivduals do not pay an interest in have their gaps filled.

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