The Qur'an commands us to take lesson or advice from the (hi)stories of people who have gone before us: "There is certainly advice ('ibrah) in their stories for people who have reason." The great historian and socio-economist, Ibn Khaldun, entitled his magnum opus, Kitab al-'Ibar (The Book of Lessons). In academia, we all know that knowing the text is not enough, for we must also know the social and historical context in which the text is embedded. Hence, it is simply not enough to know the formal, technical fiqh and legal rules governing waqf, but we have also to know both the concrete historical contexts in which those rules arose and were implemenetd as well as the present contemporary contexts in which those rules--and the axiological precepts underpinning them--are to be creatively revived and operationalized again.
A study of the history of waqf will show that there was a "constant dialogue between the letter of waqf law and socio-economic requirements." And as Dr. Ahmad al-Qasimi, a former mudir al-awqaf (Director of Endowments) in Damascus, puts it, "the waqf was never the dead, unchangeable property described by the Orientalists as 'mainmorte'. Rather, waqf was a vital, central institution in Islamic society which adapted to the needs of the community in each epoch."
The extent to which the current ongoing revival of waqf is to be a creative, anticipative, proactive and systemic one--and thereby preempt it from being hijacked and coopted into the reductionist Islamic finance and banking (IBF) framework--will largely depend on the extent of our critical understanding of waqf socio-legal history, and the way that history is embedded in the larger socio-economic history of Muslim societies. Many historical case-studies have shown that waqf was the operative economic dimension of civil society in Islam; i.e., waqf was how civil society was actually practiced in Islam. But what is meant by 'civil society'?
What is 'Civil Society'?
The word 'civil' and its various cognates, 'city', 'citizen', 'civilization', 'civic', etc., which are all derived from the Latin 'civitas', originally connote a settled community of a significance size facilitative of complex, organized political and socio-economic life. This is an essentially secular connotation without religious or transcendent undertones, since the basic underlying idea is that human beings are by nature rational, social and sensible enough to eventually come together and agree on some common good for mutual prosperity in the temporal life of this world. Thus the term 'civil society' simply refers to a group of people coming together on their own accord and shared sense of mutual responsibility and common values without or even despite the coercive power of the centralizing state or the seductive power of the profit-driven market.In constrast, the corresponding term in Arabic, al-mujtama' al-madani, (Malay, masyarakat madam) connotes, in addition, a religious, transcendent meaning, for the adjective madam comes from the noun madinah, which literally means "the place where the religion is practiced." For Muslims, this meaning was most fully realised in the city of the Prophet--Allah bless him and grant him peace--and subsequent generations would always look back to that time and that place and that society for eliciting intellectual and practical insights into the nature of the virtuous city (al-madinah alfadilah). Thus civil society must also mean for Muslims as referring to a society whose members, largely on their own accord, organize its private and public life according to Islamic religious norms which set the parameters of virtue and vice. In short, civil society in Islam is both a society of personal conscience and communal solidarity, in which its intellectual, legal and social leadership serves their concrete community rather than the abstract state. If, according to the working definition given by the Center for Civil Society at the London School of Economics, "civil society refers to the arena of uncoerced collective action around shared interests, purposes and values," involving institutional forms distinct from the impersonal, coercive and centralising state, then the institution of waqf has been and shall continue to be the cornerstone for establishing vibrant communities largely socio-economically autonomous, even aloof, from the centralised and centralising political apparatus of the impersonal, or even "impossible," state.
In other words, waqf allows creative space for communities to micromanage their own socio-economic affairs in relative autonomy according to the divinely sanctioned ethical norms they believe in as a matter of individual, personal conscience, instead of surrendering their communal responsibility to the disembedded coercive state, which should instead, by virtue of its central authority, focus on establishing and nurturing the macro-framework for this communal responsibility to be realised to the fullest extent possible. Civil society as operationalised in Islamic civilizational history has allowed for the fruitful integration of the mosque and the market, of the private and the public, of the spiritual and the material, and of the individual and the communal. As a matter of fact, it can be said that civil society in Islam is a living, existential realization of the ethico-legal precept of fard al-kfayah, or the duty of sufficing the community.
Journal of Islamic Sciences, Vol. 12 (Winter 2014) No. 2
Adi Setia is the founding director of IGE Advisory, which is dedicated to consulting, teaching and researching in the Islamic Gift Economy framework. He is also the co-founder of the Program for Ethical, Appropriate & Regenerative Livelihoods (PEARL).