Forum on Waqfs / New Works in the Field / Philanthropy and Historical Research / Philanthropy and the State

Introducing HistPhil’s Forum on Waqfs

Editors’ Note: This post, by HistPhil co-editor Maribel Morey, introduces HistPhil’s forum on waqfs, which will be featured on this site for the next weeks.

If Andrew Carnegie invented modern philanthropy, Bill Gates has become its global evangelist.

For many HistPhil readers, including myself at times, this statement might not seem to be controversial. After all, many scholars and practitioners of philanthropy in the U.S. long have cited Andrew Carnegie’s Gospel of Wealth (1889) to explain what it means to do philanthropy, and long have written about Bill Gates—who long has found inspiration in Carnegie’s vision of philanthropy—as a global promoter of philanthropy.

This is to say that many Americans long have assumed that the U.S., and especially wealthy white American men such as Andrew Carnegie and Bill Gates—and some wealthy white women such as Olivia Sage, Melinda Gates, and MacKenzie Scott—have defined what it has meant to do philanthropy both within and beyond the United States. In this way, and while there have been plenty of Black and brown women and men within and beyond the United States who have been philanthropic, it is these white American men whom many U.S. scholars of philanthropy (and the U.S. public at large) tend to focus on when Americans discuss the role of philanthropy in public life, whether domestically in the U.S. or internationally.

Even more, many of us scholars of philanthropy in the U.S. largely have assumed that our own domestic networks of scholars of philanthropy produce the most significant and relevant knowledge on philanthropy anywhere in the world. To this point, and while there are plenty of scholars based outside the U.S. researching and writing on various forms of philanthropy, there is a general tendency in the U.S. to privilege knowledge produced particularly by U.S.-based scholars of U.S. philanthropy.

But this is a shame, not least because we U.S.-based scholars of U.S. philanthropy can do better in creating more inclusive understandings of what it means to practice and study philanthropy. It is also a shame because these intellectual blinders have limited our understandings of what it has meant to do philanthropy within and outside the United States, and equally has limited our appreciation for existing avenues of research and collaboration in the field of philanthropy. These leading assumptions have negative consequences both within and beyond our field by limiting the potential for us human beings in seeing each other as equally complicated ‘givers’ and ‘takers’ in the world and for the field of philanthropy to continue growing as an ever evolving and rigorous scholarly discipline.

Pushing against this dominant current, some philanthropy scholars long have found it important to address these pestering assumptions in the discipline. For example, this sensibility for a more international lens to the study of philanthropy led several scholars to establish the International Society for Third-Sector Research (ISTR) in 1992. As fellow HistPhil co-editor Stanley N. Katz reflected in his 2016 ISTR Prize Lecture: “It took U.S. scholars a long time to understand that our non-state, non-market sector was not unique, but we had finally reached that point by the mid-1980s, and we were proud to be part of the launch of ISTR in 1992, just short of twenty-five years ago.” Similarly too, ISTR’s Voluntas and the official journal of the Association for Research on Nonprofit Organizations and Voluntary Action (ARNOVA), The Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly (NVSQ), serve as leading international forums for research on philanthropy, nonprofits, and civil society around the world. Most recently launched in 2020 and based in Johannesburg, South Africa, the International Review of Philanthropy and Social Investment, has a particular focus on the study of philanthropy in Africa and “other continents outside of Euro-America.”

Within and beyond the U.S. too, there long have been scholars analyzing critically the work of U.S. philanthropies and others scholars challenging the field’s leading assumptions that the study and practice of philanthropy is the terrain of white Anglo-Americans. Such scholars are numerous and have included Lars Svedberg in Sweden, Tade Akin Aina in Kenya, Bhekinkosi Moyo in South Africa, Caroline Shenaz Hossein in Canada; Inderjeet Parmar and Linsey McGoey in the UK; and Tiffany Willoughby-Herard, Noliwe Rooks, and Tyrone Freeman in the United States. Further nurturing an international network of scholars studying elite U.S. philanthropies, Parmar coordinated this past spring and summer an international workshop (turned webinar series during the pandemic) on “US Think Tanks and Foundations in World Politics,” which attracted an international audience of scholars studying the behavior of U.S. philanthropies within and outside the United States.

Building upon the past and present work of these and many other likeminded scholars invested in internationalizing the study of elite U.S. philanthropies, and yet too, challenging this relatively narrow definition of philanthropy, I coordinated some events this past year aiming to de-center white Anglo-American men as go-to scholars on philanthropy, and the U.S. and the broader Anglo-American world as principal adjudicators of what is and is not philanthropy. Here in this post, I mention these events in order to provide a broader context to HistPhil’s present forum on the Islamic waqf, out of which it grew, and so too to amplify the work of the various scholars involved in these events during the past year.

At Ersta Sköndal Bräcke University College (ESBH) in Stockholm this past academic year, a group of us came together for a workshop on national political economy where we discussed the roles played by philanthropy, nonprofits, the state, and private industry in providing public goods in various national and sub-international communities, from China, the UK, and Northeast Africa to Scandinavia, Southeast Asia, the Southern Cone, and the United States. Participants included Norbert Götz, Yan Long, Álvaro Morcillo Laiz, Lars Trägårdh, Nurfadzilah Yahaya, Alden Young, and myself.

Following this theme of re-imagining the expectations and combination of actors necessary (including nonprofits and philanthropies) for more egalitarian and peaceful political economies at the national and international levels, we then organized the Fourth Annual Seminar on Philanthropy at ESBH in Stockholm this past May, held virtually, to have a particular focus on African philanthropy. With an eye towards understanding and appreciating the national, regional, and international realms—and how they interact with each other—this seminar in May also paid attention to global civil society. And with a nod to COVID-19, the three keynote speakers analyzed how this current pandemic could be shifting trends both in African philanthropy and global civil society. These speakers included Bhekinkosi Moyo, Tade Akin Aina, and Tatiana Carayannis. Moyo and Aina discussed their book, Giving to Help, Helping to Give: The Context and Politics of African Philanthropy (2013), and the current landscape of philanthropy in various regions of Africa. Carayannis discussed her forthcoming book, co-written with Thomas G. Weiss: The “Third” United Nations: How Knowledge Brokers Help the UN Think (forthcoming 2021, Oxford University Press).

In this HistPhil forum on the Islamic waqf, scholars (including Yahaya who participated in the national political economy workshop in Stockholm last November) are coming together to discuss the roles and evolution of these Muslim endowments in various historical time periods and regions of the world.

Focusing on the Arab diaspora in nineteenth- and early twentieth century Southeast Asia, Nurfadzilah Yahaya introduces her new book, Fluid Jurisdictions: Colonial Law and Arabs in Southeast Asia, which “describes how colonial administration of philanthropy, specifically through the implementation of various distorted versions of the Islamic waqf, not only rooted the property of diasporic Muslims but also routed their funds towards the well-being of the colony.”

In dialogue with Yahaya’s research on the Islamic waqf under colonial rule, Leilah Vevaina and Nada Moumtaz introduce their own ongoing work respectively on laws governing indigenous religious endowments in British India and Hong Kong and on waqf litigation among the Arab diaspora in twentieth century Beirut, Lebanon. Vevaina’s book, Trust Matters: Religious Endowments, Parsis & Property in Mumbai, is forthcoming with Duke University Press, and Moumtaz’s book, God’s Property: Islam, Charity, and the Modern State is forthcoming with University of California Press.  

Writing on early modern Ottoman Syria, Sabrina Joseph discusses the role of waqfs and the management of water resources. Looking to the present, Joseph argues that: “By deconstructing the history of natural resource management in the region, we gain precious insight not only into the role of local communities but also into those value systems and indigenous institutions, such as waqf, that can be harnessed by present day political and civil society leaders to foster and motivate meaningful community engagement in sustainable environmental practices.”

Please join us. This HistPhil forum on waqfs provides a preview of the current and rich scholarly literatures on Muslim endowments. Even further in sync with the above-mentioned seminars this past year, this forum offers opportunities for both scholars and practitioners of philanthropy within and outside the U.S. to reflect together on the actual and ideal roles of philanthropy, the state, and the private sector as providers of public goods, both past and present, in different regions of the world.

-Maribel Morey, HistPhil co-editor

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