Sleeping Giant: In Saudi Arabia, reviving a traditional form of philanthropy
05 October 2021
For anyone who doesn’t speak Arabic, Awqaf is not a familiar word. It’s pronounced “AW-kaf,” and it means to “stand still, hold still, not let go.”
It’s also a form of philanthropic giving.
Founded by the Prophet Muhammad, Awqaf have been around for centuries in the Islamic world. A Waqf — that’s the singular form of the noun — is formed when a founder creates an endowment for a pious purpose or the social good, such as poverty alleviation, education, health care or disaster relief.
In some countries, the Awqaf sector may not be addressing the social issues of today, which leaves many Awqaf less effective than they could be.
A new research report explores the potential of Awqaf in contributing to Saudi Arabia’s National Transformation Programme and the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. The report is a project of the UN in Saudi Arabia, in partnership with the Islamic Corporation for the Development of the Private Sector (ICD), the private sector arm of Islamic Development Bank Group.
The research is part of an effort to rouse this sleeping giant in support of sustainable development. Some top questions about Awqaf are addressed below.
What is the history of Awqaf?
Awqaf used to be an integral part of Muslim societies and the endowment continues to yield funds even after the death of the donor. The practice has deep religious significance since it is linked to sayings of the Prophet Muhammad that encourage continuous charity.
One of the first Awqaf was endowed by a devotee of the Prophet, Othman bin Affan, who purchased the well of Rumah in Madina right after the Prophet’s migration from Makkah over 1400 years ago and gave it to the public so anyone could drink from it for free. The well still provides the city’s residents with drinking water, and water for their palms and trees.
What makes Awqaf special?
The Awqaf sector started to decline in many parts of the Muslim world in the 19th century, when colonial powers confiscated Waqf lands. Then, even after decolonization in the 20th century, governments neglected Awqaf, leading to a further decline.
However, Awqaf are permanent. Neither the donor nor their heirs can revoke the endowment if it has already been declared a Waqf. This ensures that the Waqf is created solely for philanthropic purposes and that it will always benefit the community.
Awqaf cannot be sold. Although the benefits of the donation are beneficial to human beings, the property itself is considered to have been returned to God. No person can ever become the owner, so the Waqf becomes a common asset. It cannot be sold, mortgaged, gifted or inherited.
Some Awqaf are private, meaning the Waqf benefits particular individuals, such as relatives of the founder. When the beneficiaries die, the Waqf is transferred to the public. Most Awqaf, however, are public to start with, and they support the greater good, and may focus on poor and vulnerable people. Other Awqaf are joined or hybrids, in which the founder dedicates a part of the Waqf to his/her family and another part to the public.
How are Awqaf managed?
Awqaf might take the form of a donation of cash, of corporate shares, or property, such as mosques, plots of land, houses, hospitals, offices, or other buildings.
The founder determines how a waqf can be managed and governed and the details of the process and succession. Traditionally, Waqf managers, referred to as “Nazir,” were individuals, usually family members. Over the years, the state took over the management of some Awqaf, particularly in cases where the succession of the Nazir was not clear.
Contemporary Awqaf can also be managed by boards of trustees or by a professional who provides specialized services, similar to a portfolio or estate manager.
What is the potential for Awqaf and the SDGs?
Social Awqaf serve purposes that are relevant to the times when they were launched — and the vast majority were created before the advent of the SDGs and the Kingdom’s Vision 2030. But still, the purposes of many Awqaf align with these broader agendas. The research undertaken identified potential of Awqaf for Vision 2030 and the Sustainable Development Goals, for example:
Awqaf in Saudi Arabia play key roles in taking care of the most vulnerable groups such as women, persons with disabilities, and orphans. Such efforts are aligned with SDG 10, on reduced inequalities.
Between 2005-2007, universities pioneered efforts to use Awqaf to generate additional income. Higher education is mentioned in target 4.3 of SDG 4.
Some Awqaf in KSA are funding activities that are aligned with SDG 11, Sustainable Cities and Communities, particularly target 4 to protect and safeguard the world’s cultural heritage.
Still, the new research paper indicates that there are challenges to realizing the potential of Awqaf. The difficulty lies in aligning Awqaf with the purposes, projects, and investments of these modern development agendas.
If the sector can overcome these challenges, then newly established Awqaf can support the SDGs in Saudi Arabia by addressing current social and economic concerns.
Just imagine what this sleeping giant, once revived, could do in service of sustainable development, leaving no one behind.
Story written by Sheema Baghabra. With editorial support by Paul VanDeCarr, Development Coordination Office. For more information about the United Nations' work in Saudi Arabia, please visit SaudiArabia.UN.org. To learn more about the results of our work in this area and beyond, please read the UNSDG Chair Report on DCO.