Forum on Waqfs / Philanthropy and Historical Research / Philanthropy and the State

Waqf and the Management of Water Resources in the Middle East: the historical role of local communities

Editors’ Note: Closing HistPhil’s forum on waqfs, Sabrina Joseph argues that, by analyzing natural resource management in early modern Ottoman Syria, for example, “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.”  

As war, economic development, refugee crises, and political instability have exacerbated resource scarcities and contributed to environmental degradation across the Middle East, the relationship between citizens and states in managing natural resources becomes ever more important. Natural resources in the region are largely controlled and managed by centralized states, with lack of meaningful involvement by citizens and communities. This is not necessarily in keeping, however, with past practices in the region. Evidence from early modern Ottoman Syria demonstrates that pious endowments (awqaf, pl. of waqf) were an important mechanism through which local communities regulated land and water resources, and, as a result, offered a counterbalance to centralized state power. Social responsibility and a thriving civil society are integral to nurturing and promoting environmental sustainability. 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. Ultimately, this look to the past is imperative for the long-term viability of such projects in the region.

Modern day governments in the region have, by and large, sidelined everyday citizens in the  management of natural resources. Control over resources and the income generated by these resources have been integral to state-driven development plans and the consolidation of state power in the Middle East. Over the course of the twentieth century, for example, water became more and more of a political and military weapon used by states across the region to secure their strategic and development agendas. This modern-day reality, however, is not consistent with the history of the region in the pre-modern period.

The Ottoman state often deferred to local authorities on a host of legal issues relevant to the natural environment, including land tenure disputes and water management issues related mostly to the upkeep, use, and productivity of these resources. Such an approach was in line with the Ottoman administration’s hands-off approach to provincial matters in general. Rather than demonstrate passivity and negligence towards the physical environment, local communities often contributed to the sustainable management of natural resources. This is illustrated, for example, in the regulation of water resources in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Syria. Local jurists regularly acted as intermediaries between state and local interests in the use and management of water. Interestingly, legal opinions (fatawa, pl. of fatwa) from this period demonstrate that awqaf played a key role in the history of water usage in Ottoman Syria. It is significant that water resources were often regulated through endowments given that the latter were in several respects protected from state power, frequently funded by non-state sources, and subject to Islamic law as interpreted by jurists. By upholding custom in their rulings on water use and management, local jurists empowered community members, including peasants and waqf overseers, to be accountable for the use and distribution of resources. The state, for its part, by delegating the management of water resources to local jurists, ensured that civil society was invested in the efficient use of resources.

Jurists in Ottoman Syria drew on custom to regulate various aspects of water use, including the functioning and operation of qanat (canal/aqueduct system of water management that efficiently delivers water to the surface by tapping into subterranean sources without the need for pumping), water power as a source of energy, control over water resources, and the use of water in ways beneficial to the public good. Such topics are addressed by various jurists from the period, including Mubibb al-din al-Hanafi (1542-1602) and the well-known eighteenth-century mufti and scholar of Damascus ‘Abd al-Ghani al-Nabulusi (1641-1731). Specifically, some issues tackled by jurists in relation to water resources included: the cleanliness of qanat, diversion of water resources in a way not consistent with customary practice, water use rights of beneficiaries versus those with land use rights, the role of the deed vs. custom in legitimizing water rights, the water rights of upstream vs. downstream villages, and the efficient use of water for industrial purposes. Not surprisingly, jurists were first and foremost concerned with ensuring that water was not used in ways that harmed the cultivation of land or placed the interests of individuals above those of the community. They also assigned responsibility to community members—be they cultivators or waqf overseers—to keep qanat clean and free of debris. Finally, customary practice in relation to water use often carried more weight than what was documented in a deed or written agreement. Interestingly, jurists often reconciled this approach with Islamic law given that water resources were frequently part of waqf properties. Drawing on custom, however, sometimes meant that the status quo was upheld in disputes between villagers about water rights. For instance, as per long-standing practice, upstream villages tended to be responsible for maintaining irrigation systems, and, as a result, often held the upper hand in negotiating access to water. This resulted in disputes with villagers located downstream when they felt that water was diverted for the benefit of upstream villages at their expense.

Awqaf by their very nature embodied those principles that legal scholars perceived as integral to defining man’s relationship to natural resources—long-term use, perpetuity, and service to the common good. While waqf properties were certainly not immutable, the law did at times reject initiatives that involved the development or transformation of endowed properties on the basis that such changes compromised the perpetuity of waqf. Jurists, for example, usually maintained that tenants could not alter waqf lands or structures (including through significant digging) without the permission of the supervisor, even if these changes improved the condition of the property. Thus, on the one hand, the inherent legal attributes of waqf as an Islamic institution informed how local populations utilized land and water resources designated as pious endowments. On the other hand, however, legal scholars, including judges and jurists, were conscious of the social, political, and economic factors that shaped people’s relationship to the natural world around them. Through their rulings and judgements, jurists in Ottoman Syria reconciled practice (i.e. custom) with Islamic principles (reflected here, for example, in the notion of perpetuity), thereby ensuring that Islam was not static and adapted to changing circumstances on the ground.

Present-day Muslim thinkers in the West have championed the role of waqf as a vehicle for sustainable development and an example of civil society in action. While there is certainly historical evidence to support such perceptions, further research is needed to examine the role of endowments in managing land and water resources and how state/society relations evolved over time in the context of such arrangements. This is particularly significant as pious endowments came increasingly under state control from the nineteenth century onwards. Although evidence shows that waqf served as a civil institution, this did not necessarily mean that it was also not integral to state power. Indeed, many waqf properties were established by government officials. Nonetheless, through the institution of waqf, jurists and the broader umma (Muslim community) acted as a ‘check’ on state power—this is best exemplified through the role of endowments in the management of natural resources. Thus, state involvement in the enterprise of waqf making and management did not necessarily preclude endowments from having a communal identity.

Evidence from the early modern Muslim world highlights that strategies which promoted conservation and protection of the public good worked as a result of the community’s engagement in the management of natural resources. Broader research in the field of political ecology also supports this view. This is not to say that various social and economic factors do not influence access to and use of natural resources at the community level, including class and power relations. As a result, not all environmental actions emanating from communities are ecologically sensible. However, by legitimizing and reconciling resource management practices with Islam and custom, jurists in Ottoman Syria nurtured community ‘buy in’ and commitment to responsible resource use by embedding their rulings in beliefs and values embraced by community members.

Today, states and civil society leaders across the region can harness this rich history to promote a broad sense of social cohesion when it comes to resource use and conservation, thereby empowering local communities and various social groups and motivating them to action. This is the foundation of a vibrant civil society that, at its core, entails bottom-up, ‘organic’ collective action inspired by common values and interests. The idea here is not to replicate past practices in the modern period, but rather to use this shared history as a springboard to meaningful action and the re-creation of social institutions in line with indigenous values.

-Sabrina Joseph

Dr. Sabrina Joseph is Acting Provost and Chief Academic Officer at the American University in Dubai in the United Arab Emirates.  Her research interests are in the field of Middle Eastern and Ottoman history, with a focus on land use rights in Islamic law, water management, agricultural development, and inter-faith relations during the early modern and modern periods. She is the author of Islamic Law on Peasant Usufruct in Ottoman Syria:  17th to Early 19th Century (Brill, 2012) and, most recently, editor of Commodity Frontiers and Global Capitalist Expansion: Social, Ecological and Political Implications from the Nineteenth Century to the Present Day (Palgrave MacMillan, 2019). Dr. Joseph has also published her work in numerous journals including: British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies; Environment and History; Frontiers: A Journal of Women’s Studies; Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations; Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs; andRural History: Economy, Society, Culture.


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Select Publications by Author

Joseph, Sabrina, ed. Commodity Frontiers and Global Capitalist Expansion: Social, Ecological and Political Implications from the Nineteenth Century to the Present Day.  Cham:  Palgrave MacMillan, 2019.

—————-. “Communicating Justice: Shari‘a Courts and the Christian Community in Seventeenth- and Eighteenth-Century Ottoman Greece.” Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations 20, no. 3 (July 2009): 333-350.

—————–. “Farming the Desert: Agriculture in the Oil Frontier, the case of the United Arab Emirates 1940s1990s.” British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies  45, no. 5 (2018): 678-694. DOI: 10.1080/13530194.2017.1320977.

————— & Brigitte Howarth.  “Fertile Sands: Colonial Politics and the Development of Land and Water Resources in the Trucial States, mid- to Late 20th Century.” The Arab World Geographer 18, no. 3 (2015): 139-58.

—————, ed. Islamic Law and Society: A Global Perspective. Series: Encounters: An International Journal for the Study of Culture and Society Vol. 6.  Dubai & Abu Dhabi: Zayed University Press, 2016. Distributed by IB Tauris. ISBN:9789948185505.

—————. “Islamic Law and the Management of Natural Resources in 17th and 18th Century Ottoman Syria.” Environment and History 21, no. 2 (2015): 227-56.

—————.  Islamic Law on Peasant Usufruct in Ottoman Syria: 17th to Early 19th Century.  Leiden: Brill, 2012.

—————-. “The Legal Status of Peasants in 17th and 18th Century Ottoman Syria and France.” Rural History: Economy, Society, Culture 18 (2007): 23-46.

—————-. “Waqf in Historical Perspective: Online fatāwā and Contemporary Discourses by Muslim Scholars.” Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs 34, no. 4 (2014): 425-437.


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