Women’s Role in the Development of Waqf Throughout Islamic History

Women have played a major role in the development of waqf during the time of Islamic dynasties, from the Abbasids to the Ottomans.

Spring built by Zubaidah
Lady Zubaidah, the wife of the famous Abbasid Caliph Harun Al-Rashid and the mother of Caliph Al-Amin during built ponds, wells, reservoirs in Makkah, and dug springs to provide water for the pilgrims from Makkah to Arafat. (scta.gov.sa)

ACTNews, JAKARTA – Women have their own history in developing waqf in the medieval Muslim world. There are examples of waqf endowments donated by women that provided benefits for the public.

In early Islam, the women’s contribution to waqf was limited, mostly in the form of housing for the needy or jewelry to fund public interests. However, as time went by, the development of waqf progressed in line with the increasing role of women in Islamic society. One of the earliest examples of waqf endowment by women is the waqf endowed by Fatimah Az-Zahra, the youngest daughter of Prophet Muhammad (Peace be Upon Him).

The Abbasids

During the Abbasid dynasty, one of the examples of waqf endowment was exemplified by Lady Zubaidah (d. 216 AH/831 CE), the wife of Caliph Harun Al-Rashid (d. 193 AH/809 CE) and the mother of Caliph al-Amin (193-198 AH/809-813 AD). She was a philanthropist who built ponds, wells, reservoirs in Makkah, and dug the al-Mashash spring in the north of al-Hijaz.

This clean water channeled from the springs built by Zubaidah was then used by the pilgrims to drink along the twelve miles from Makkah to Arafat. There were also several ponds that collected water and flow around Jabal Rahmah, around the Muzdalifah Mountains, and back to Makkah.

This water was also used by wild animals. It cost around 1.7 million gold pieces. To this day, the pilgrims still can see the remains of the aqueduct built by Lady Zubaidah which signifies the triumph of Islamic civilization.

Zubaidah bought gardens around Hunain and donated them. She devoted her income to providing drinking water for pilgrims. He donated many buildings and gardens. With the proceeds from the waqf amounting to 1.6 million per year, the springs and other facilities were maintained.

Fatimid dynasty

During the Fatimid dynasty, women contributed together with men in establishing libraries and centers for scientific studies. During this era, many women endowed mosques which have a major role in strengthening education and scientific studies.

For example, a mosque and its facilities were built by Durzan, the mother of Caliph al-Aziz Billah (975-996 CE). The Al-Qarafah Mosque is the second mosque founded by the Fatimid dynasty in Egypt after the Al-Azhar mosque. The wife of Caliph al-Amir bin Ahkamillah also built a mosque in 1132 CE which included an inscription that says, "This is the tomb of Sayidah Ruqayyah, daughter of Caliph Ali ibn Abi Talib".

In addition, Muslim women from the al-Maghrib region have contributed to building a great Islamic civilization in North Africa, including by the establishment of a Quran memorization and scientific center from the inheritance of Fatimah al-Fahriyyah named the al-Qarawiyyin University in the city of Fez. Her sincerity in managing educational institutions by means of waqf made it a great institution in the future.

Mamluk dynasty

During the Mamluk dynasty (1258-1517 CE) the women had abundant wealth and they liked to donate for religious causes. They even manage their own wealth. In this era, the Mamluks had continued the progress of their predecessor dynasties.

Ottoman dynasty

Ottoman women also showed extraordinary contributions to the public interests with waqf. This can be seen from the public facilities in Constantinople (Istanbul) which were built from waqf funds of local women. Influential women such as Hurrem Sultan and Mihrimah Sultan took part in building public baths or hamam as mentioned in an article titled "The Waqf System and Socio-Economic Life in Istanbul during the Classical Ottoman Period" (2019) written by Frial R. Supratman.

These public baths served as a special public space. Women can socialize with each other without losing their right to privacy.

In each hamam, they could freely discuss various issues; from politics to personal matters. Especially in Istanbul, these hamams were designed by the renowned architect, Mimar Sinan.

There are several historical hamams in Istanbul, Turkey. One of them is the hamam near the Findikli Mosque. It was built from a waqf endowed by Molla Çellebi, a retired soldier. Other waqf-funded hamams are in Yenikapi donated by Odabaşı Behrus Aga; in Edirnekapi by Mihrimah Sultan; and in Yenikapi (now the Merkezefendi area) by Shah Sultan. []