Thinking Waqf in Pandemic Times

Covid pandemic made us realise that how poor our welfare institutions are

While the developed world responded to pandemic by throwing millions and trillions of dollars to save their economies and assist their people in all ways possible, the situation was not same in the rest of the globe. It is the people that bore the brunt of the horrific pandemic (that still continues), right from deaths in thousands to severe contraction of economies to millions of job losses, painful return-migration, huge number of people sinking in poverty, tremendous hunger and malnutrition issues and heart wrenching suicide cases besides scores of stories of suffering and endless pain. Back home amid this all even labeling a section of society as corona carriers, super spreaders even bio-terrorists followed by hateful politics, hospital denials, fake news and media propaganda that even encouraged people to inflict violence on the vulnerable became the part of the pandemic times.

The question is why did the masses felt the pandemic current so severely despite living in modern times? Perhaps more than the crumbling economy of the State, it was out of the lack of a socially collective backup in terms of the absence of a sustainable shared wealth. Despite having millions of religious endowments, the response and the difference made by such a wealth of faiths were not as expected. Such a scenario makes one reflect and ponder over the concept of Islamic Waqf (Pl. Auqaf) which means a permanent dedication of a property that is given in the name of God for charity, religious and welfare purposes of the faithful. The question is whether it is really a sustainable Islamic institution today? The waqf institution having more than six lakh properties (664000 properties- highest in the world) in our country really that sustainable and income generating that it can come handy to the Muslim community at the time of any such  disaster and really could make a difference? On the current state of Auqaf in India, the debate is longer, however, post Sacchar Committee Report, one can see nothing much has changed beyond a few developments (like WAMSI project & digitization and geo-tagging of waqfs). The challenge of making Indian auqaf more sustainable and income generating remains as such and nothing much has happened to enrich the impoverished auqaf barring a few success stories in the whole country. The existing financial system is laden with lots of crises that jeopardize waqf sustainability in terms of its welfare contributions. In the present era and given the challenges like the ongoing pandemic, just existence of waqfs is not sufficient; it has to be more than that. What waqfs role in Islamic financial system is, it has to be more influencing with all sustainable and structural alternatives. The question is, are those alternatives explored scientifically to enrich the waqf institution beyond the Islamic lectures on the concept of waqfs?  Sustainability of waqfs today means the ability to empower, and the capacity of making the difference in the lives of the most needy not just having a huge book value (600,000 acres waqf land in the country) or just a useless perpetuity.

The Covid pandemic is like a stark test that has shown how poor our welfare institutions are. It is not just wealth inequality but an invisible or neglected vulnerability that got exposed during the pandemic and made us realize the fragility hidden under the tag of sustainability and the term sustainable just reduced to a hollow political jargon. There has to be an efficient functioning of waqf economy which is so far not seen in our context, even the innovative ways to generate waqf economy.

Needless to mention that our Jammu and Kashmir is tremendously waqf rich (second richest institution after the state). But is it really rich in terms of income generating waqf properties, I am doubtful! The last time JK Waqf Board for Specified Wakfs and Wakf properties  was in news is when the Board donated five crore rupees to Covid fund to LG which is appreciable. However, not a single person that day especially in Kashmir valley praised the Board despite a good step of contributing to fight the deadly pandemic. The question is why is public not so happy with the Board at all? Is it all because of the decades of severe politicization of auqaf in the valley or the Board has not been able to do what was its mandate actually was?     Waqfs need a strong overhaul in the UT and lot of enrichment and empowerment in terms of funds from the CWC to be sustainable and income generating in real sense. Especially in a place like the valley that saw decades of turmoil and thousands of causalities, suffering and pain.

Before  government plans about opening up of new schools and colleges or skill development institutions in waqf properties, it should understand that already the existing Board runs a chain of schools, nursing colleges, madrassas, etc, that need to be developed and well funded and when the new Waqf Board is set up, it should at least build one institution of excellence in the valley  that could benefit the larger society likewise the existing Board had set up IUST (Islamic University at Awantipura)  that became a state level university ultimately and has a lot of contribution today. Besides these streamlining welfare policies, medical and other professional courses and fellowships for the destitute children should also be thought about.

It has also been observed that people's understanding towards auqaf is very limited in our context. Are people really interested in auqaf affairs or they just love to criticize waqfs only? I think the later is true in our case. Are waqf services easily accessible to needy public and if no, what needs to be done to enrich auqaf in Kashmir, should come from people's suggestions that the new Board should solicit on priority? Will anything of this sort be done, remains to be seen.

Waqf management and administration is a complex issue. Even waqf administrators are hardly aware of what is going on in the countries where waqf institution has made a difference and there is barely any knowledge of good practices adopted by countries like Malaysia, Indonesia, UAE and a few other Islamic nations. Therefore Waqf administration here needs an international waqf exposure. Auqaf experts have come up with various waqf models but waqf in our part is still devoid of such a  knowledge, strategies and the skill set, that need to be adopted. To develop auqaf and a professional waqf administration and management, we need waqf experts and primarily Waqf Studies as a discipline to be taught at the post graduate level in some selected institutes. Waqf studies in itself is a complete subject and must be started in some universities so that the concept of auqaf is streamlined in academics and authentic researches (not just theological sermons) are conducted that would eventually benefit waqf system and administration in the country. Waqf studies as a discipline is well established in many countries and even MBA in Waqf economy is being proposed as a course besides post graduate studies in Waqf. Besides Islamic endowment is a well defined research area and needs to be encouraged and introduced in our universities with all seriousness, vigour and will. At the moment there is a serious paucity of research especially academic research on auqaf and such a situation is also responsible for peoples' ignorance on auqaf affairs.

Since waqf is a parallel economy, waqf management as a course needs to be taught so that we produce waqf knowing professionals. Islamic University of Science and Technology (IUST) can begin with the required Waqf Studies so that the society gets waqf experts who actually know auqaf affairs and only that is a solution to enrich and improve waqf situation in J&K and the country

Tail Piece

Waqf situation in the country is complex and can't be improved overnight and same is the case of Jammu and Kashmir. The waqf administration and accountability need also to be looked into. Also the question is, if Ladakh will have a Shia Waqf Board, what about Shia waqfs in Jammu and Kashmir and who will enrich, empower and and restore the accountability there? Such waqfs also need to be thoroughly looked into and transparency needs be established in all kinds of waqfs. There have to be consistent and serious efforts to streamline auqaf in Jammu and Kashmir. I think waqf institution (Board) before doing anything should sensitize Muslim community on auqaf, its essence and problems and potential and for that waqf education should be promoted. In India though Sacchar committee argued for a cadre of Indian waqf services along the lines of Indian Administrative services for the proper waqf administration but till date it has either not been accepted or given a second thought. We must remember just having the largest number of auqaf in the world and not harnessing their true potential is a disappointing reality.

(Dr. Adfer Shah, a Delhi based Sociologist and George Greenia Research Fellow works in Jamia Millia Islamia. Author expertise's in Sociology of Religion and has worked on Muslim Endowments and Society in Kashmir. Mail at adfer.syed@gmail.com).

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