van Leeuwen, Richard. Waqfs and Urban Structures: The Case of Ottoman Damascus. Leiden: Brill, 1999. ISBN 90-04-11299-5.
In his Waqfs and Urban Structures, Richard van Leeuwen
gives a clear and coherent thesis regarding the evolution of Damascene
waqfs throughout the Ottoman period. Since the takeover in 1516
of Greater Syria by the Ottomans, "waqfs were an integral
part of imperial policy and were used as a mechanism to foster
the cohesion between the centre of authority and the conquered
provinces" (p. 148). A number of phenomena point in that
direction, all of which seem to confirm the thesis of the strengthening
of ties between Damascus and Istanbul. Thus, a number of sultans,
beginning with Selim, who entered Damascus in 1516, erected their
own waqfs within the city; ties were strengthened with local families
either through iqta' grants or prestigious appointments to religious
positions; while positions of judges, muftis, and administrators
to major public waqfs, were all intermittently infused with elements
from outside the city (or at least with elements known for their
loyalty to the "center," meaning not exclusively from
within the hierarchy of both a'yan and 'ulama', so that the internal
be mixed with loyal elements form other provinces). And, above
all, the local governors were for the most part-with the notable
exception of the 'Azms-Turkish, or at least from non-Arab provinces.
Van Leeuwen argues-and that's his main thesis-that such phenomena
constituted a clear indication of "centralizing tendencies"
(p. 114) whose aim was for the imperial state to interfere in
and control some of the major local institutions, among them,
of course, the waqfs. Even though van Leeuwen makes it plain clear
that such practices of "interference" did not imply
that "waqfs were appropriated by the central government"
(p. 87), there was nevertheless a deliberate urban policy of spatial
control (the way waqfs were distributed) either through resource
management (how rents and leases were granted), or appointments
to major religious and judicial positions; or through a re-framing
of the law so as to buttress the imperial grip over the city.
Van Leeuwen's main thesis is indeed far broader than urban waqfs:
it actually uses the example of waqfs to show that, contrary to
many theses of "decentralization" where the "center"
is portrayed as losing its grip over the provinces (the so-called
"peripheries"), the state did its best not to relinquish
control over major urban institutional frameworks. In short, the
"centralizing efforts" (p. 115) of the imperial state
is the motto of this study.
Since the process of centralization was vast and complex enough
so as not to be limited to a single domain, van Leeuwen's arguments
could prove convincing, or less so, depending on the area under
scrutiny (appointments to offices, the law, shari'a courts, urban
infrastructure, etc.). But the main drawback of the book, however,
remains its main thesis--centralization. In fact, van Leeuwen
borrows an already confusing theme from the Ottoman historiography
of the last few decades without subjecting it to much scrutiny.
The corollary to centralization, namely decentralization, is what
usually fuels the debate, considering its political undertone.
In fact, since the provinces of the Empire had all become since
the First World War, if not earlier, autonomous nation-states,
attempts to prove their quasi-"autonomy" prior to colonial
or post-colonial rule have thus become quite popular in particular
when stemming from contemporary concerns over the nation-state:
if Ottoman control proves minimal, then those "societies"
achieved their independence not through colonial rule, but they
did it on their own since "it was all there" in the
first place. In his centralization thesis, van Leeuwen does not
seem to have any political motives, and his enterprise aims no
more than towards historical objectivity and the search for reliable
criteria. The problem, however, does not reside in his sources
(even though not always systematically scrutinized), but in the
concept of centralization itself. To begin, such a concept emerged
first in the western literature to describe a process of central
control over regional institutions by creating a unified set of
norms. The purpose was to show that historically the western nation-states
were able to survive only by controlling and homogenizing all
kinds of societal institutions-a process that Max Weber described
as a systematic and formal rationalization of the life-world (lebenswelt).
Thus, and to pick up on the example of the birth of the English
common law, a concerted effort was deployed throughout the twelfth
and thirteenth centuries with the sole aim of establishing one
national feudal law-not Roman or canon law-that would pose itself
over all the local and regional customs; and there was one corps
of itinerant royal justices-the "eyres"-to administer
and develop it; moreover, procedure would be by writ, which meant
that a complaint had to fit within a well defined formula. To
be sure, and in hindsight, that was a model of centralization
and rationalization of the legal and political resources at its
best, one that would ensure the dominance of England until the
early twentieth century.
When we come to the strategies of centralization that van Leeuwen
describes in his book, they indeed turn out to be of a totally
different nature. For one thing, appointments of "loyal"
persons to fill the positions of judges, muftis, administrators,
preachers and teachers, only manifest attempts to ensure "loyalty,"
and do not point in any way to structural modifications of such
positions, however crucial and visible they might have been. Moreover,
even though shari'a law, in its Hanafi version, might have been
permeated by opinions that point to the state's interference,
it remains to be seen how all this had affected judicial decision
making in the courts or other institutions. Hanafi practice shared
a heavy tradition of taqlid, and even if we scrutinize
the shuruh and fatawa texts, it is hard to discern any
radical change in doctrine, at least one that would point to the
fingers of the state and its desire to centralize. In fact, unless
indication to the contrary, there was no desire to homogenize
(or centralize) Hanafi practice, and appointing a loyal judge
or mufti, or re-framing fatwas so as to make them congruent with
some of Ebu's-su'ud's opinions (p. 115), were definitely not exercises
in state control. In fact, Ebu's-su'ud's fatwas look in hindsight
much more radical in their perspective than anything Greater Syria
had ever produced (an indication at how much the bureaucratization
of the 'ulama' corps was successful at the imperial center), and
a careful examination of the fiqh literature only shows that the
fuqaha' manifested no concern for integrating the Istanbul mufti's
opinions within their own work. As the English example shows,
state control and homogenization need much more drastic efforts
to be fully operative and meaningful than the sporadic labors
described by van Leeuwen. Such a concerted will would only begin
late in the second half of the nineteenth century, and the Ottomans
had to learn the merits of rationalization the hard way.
It would be more appropriate to describe the Ottoman measures
as partial attempts towards rationalization with the primary aim
of controlling the fiscal revenues of the conquered territories.
Obviously, in the meantime, such measures did have symbolic returns,
as all economic performances do, but their main purpose-besides
granting the loyalty of élites and their subjects-was to
impose a new system of rent control. In effect, with the measures
deployed by the state to enforce the propagation of some public
waqfs, the waqf system became the main competitor to the miri
(both the early timar, and the iltizam) in managing
taxes and rents, assuming, of course, that a distinction between
the two fiscal categories proves relevant. If we posit the "rent"
as the amount (in kind and/or cash) that the tenant-farmer or
peasant payed to the landlord, then the miri system, whether in
its early militaristic form, or in its later more competitive
formula, had definitely contributed in an overall decline of the
value of rents. In fact, considering the large sums that timar-holders
and multazims had to pay for the state, in addition to the surplus
they extracted from the peasantry, the whole miri system became
an abusive corvée labor where rents as such were minimal,
and taxation a meaningless category. As a result, waqf rents declined
for the simple reason that they became uncompetitive vis-à-vis
the miri, and up to the nineteenth century, jurists have been
complaining of the harshness of the miri and its lowering of the
rents. Thus, Ibn 'Abidin, whose work constituted a closure to
Hanafi practice, had to accept willy-nilly that the "tax"
on the waqf's rent be paid by the tenant rather than the administrator,
simply because rents had rested on such low levels that no taxes
could be afforded on them anymore-a perfect example of custom
imposing itself on the norms of the fiqh.
Considering then that the primary aim of the state was to ensure
the implementation of its miri system, which at its core was a
hegemonic rent control formula, what was behind its "interference"
in the waqf system? Even though jurists tend to date the origins
of waqfs since the time of the Prophet, the system that the Ottomans
had inherited from the Mamluks probably goes back to what Marshall
Hodgson had labeled as the "Shi'i century" (945-1118),
when in the Seljuq period the custom of putting landholdings into
waqfs so as not to subject them to government seizure, became
common. In other words, it was under the rule of the small militarized
bureaucracies, and the a'yan-amirs system, that waqfs had flourished.
In fact, waqfs, together with shari'a law and sufi orders had
become the sole domain of the a'yan and 'ulama' as a protective
shell against the excessive militarization of public life and
landholdings. But it was under the Mongols, and later the Mamluks,
that courtly control of waqf endowments became the norm. Besides
attempting closer links with the 'ulama', what was the economic
significance of such an approach? With the peasantry being trapped
in corvée labor, and the value of rent for both milk and
waqfs in disarray, courtly control over a domain that kept the
a'yan-'ulama' factions quasi-autonomous would only create a balance
between state iqta' and the waqfs, whether public or private.
And the Ottomans were no different: "by the end of the 16th
century the state had taken almost total control of the field
of waqf" (p. 117). It was indeed that imbalance, due to the
excessive assignments in landholdings, between various types of
rents, that gave the imperial state a golden opportunity to intervene.
That investment in public waqfs, however, seems to have relinquished
throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, while the traditional
grip that the 'ulama' maintained over the shari'a courts persevered,
and the dismal rents only contributed towards more procedural
fictions in the courts (marsad, long leases, dismemberment
techniques, etc.). It is therefore a gross error to conceptualize
the language of the courts, as van Leeuwen does, as a discourse
of the state (p. 153). But they are not anti-state either: a centralization
of the court system would have implied far more sophisticated
and costlier methods of domination than those deployed by the
Waqf systems have been generally described as tools to protect
private property in the face of large state landholdings, even
though, as the late Mamluk scholar Burhan Tarabulsi noted (who
was apparently assassinated in the first year of Ottoman rule
in Syria), that most lands converted to waqfs were originally
"possessed" by their "owners," and if strict
ownership was to be followed as a rule, the majority of waqfs
would cease to exist. Clearly, then, if individuals were converting
"possessed" rather than "owned" properties
to waqfs, it could be either that those possessed properties felt
much safer as waqfs (to transfer them to future generations related
to the founder), or it could have been a "rent control"
mechanism: properties that were part of a compendium would survive
better the hegemony of the rent system controlled by the state.
To conclude, a city like Damascus was kept with its major institutions running without much control from the imperial center. But the socio-economic ties with the rest of the empire, and in particular the rent control mechanism (both in its militaristic and non-militaristic patterns), did not help in creating a homogeneous bourgeois culture within the city. Thus, even though waqfs contributed in creating an urban culture, they nevertheless represented more a sign of resistance to structural socio-economic problems than a healthy indication of an urban cultural renewal.
Loyola University Chicago
Department of History
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Chicago, IL 60611
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