Islam and the Humanities

Conference 2014

Beshara Doumani

Director, Middle East Studies, Brown University
Joukowsky Family Professor of Modern Middle East History, Brown University

Husayn’s and Abd al-Wahid’s Designs: The Waqf as a Family Charter

This paper, a chapter in a book on the social history of family life in the Eastern Mediterranean from 1660s to the 1860s, argues that the family waqf during this period is a sensitive barometer of historically contingent notions of kinship, gender, and property within the larger contexts of Islamic legal traditions and modes of imperial governance. The pervasiveness of its use for “fixing” these notions through the act of endowment, is due to its built-in toolbox of options and preferences that allow individuals to custom-design each waqf, making them highly flexible and expressive legal instruments. Choices include the timing and purpose of the endowment, the types and extent of properties to endow, who to include or exclude as beneficiaries of the revenues generated by the endowed properties, the particular conditions attached that govern the distribution of revenues, the setting aside of funds for annual enactments of specific pious rituals, the designation of charitable venues following the extinction of the endower’s progeny, and a hierarchy of preferences in terms of who is to administer the waqf.

Taken together, these choices express, among other things, the endower’s vision of what constitutes family, how it should be reproduced, and its proper place in both the material and spiritual worlds. The family waqf can be fruitfully analyzed, therefore, as a family charter or a mini-constitution that governs not only property relations between kin, but also the moral-disciplinary order of kinship. Illustrated by case studies, this paper also argues that a mapping of all family waqfs endowed in Tripoli and Nablus reveal striking differences between these two cities. These differences call into question the existence of a specific Arab, Muslim, Mediterranean, or Syrian family type on which Orientalist, nationalist and Islamist constructions of this region’s past depend so heavily on. Further, the historically contingent diversity and dynamism of family life question the voracity of both Modernization and Focauldian-inspired narratives about the nature of social and cultural transformations supposedly ushered by the ruptures of modernity in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. They also pose difficult questions about what, exactly, constitutes Islamic cultural, legal, and religious “traditions,” and about how these traditions can be historicized.

Beshara Doumani is the director of Middle East Studies and Joukowsky Family Distinguished Professor of Modern Middle East History at Brown University. Doumani’s research focuses on the history of social groups, places, and time periods that have been silenced or erased by conventional scholarship on the early modern and modern Middle East. He helped pioneer the fields of Middle East family history and the social history of the Palestinians. His forthcoming book, The Rightful Beneficiaries: A Social History of Family Life in Ottoman Syria, 1660-1860, questions assumptions about Arab and Muslim families by revealing and then seeking to explain dramatic regional differences in the organization of family life within the same cultural zone. He is also the editor of Family History in the Middle East: Household, Property and Gender. His first book, Rediscovering Palestine: Merchants and Peasants in Jabal Nablus, 1700-1900 uses local sources such as family papers and legal records to tell an intimate and textured story of the transformation of Palestinian society during the Ottoman period.

Beshara Doumani is a public intellectual who writes on current events in the Middle East, on the ethics of knowledge production, and on the relationship between culture and politics. He is editor of Academic Freedom After September 11, and recently led a team that produced a strategic plan for the establishment of a Palestinian museum. Doumani comes to Brown after fourteen years at the University of California, Berkeley. He received his PhD from Georgetown University, and was first tenured at the University of Pennsylvania.