The Constituent Assembly’s Finance, Planning and Development Committee, recently created considerable controversy when it decided to revive the Islamic Endowments Law discussing it within the framework of the committee’s work, approving it and submitting it to the general session to pass it. 

The Constituent Assembly’s Finance, Planning and Development Committee, recently created considerable controversy when it decided to revive the Islamic Endowments Law discussing it within the framework of the committee’s work, approving it and submitting it to the general session to pass it. 

Endowment in the Islamic culture, or waqf, refers to donations made by one person or a group of persons from their own property for the benefit of a larger group of people, for developmental, educational and health projects. The philosophy of the endowment is based on opening the door for donating money, land and property to be used in religious charitable projects, whose Islamic nature the state cannot change.

The Islamic Endowments Law was officially abolished in Tunisia on 18 July, 1957, by an order given by the last Beys of Tunisia (Beys are representatives of the Ottoman Empire in Tunisia from the beginning of the 18th century to the mid of the 20th century) and with the approval of the senior minister at that time, Habib Bourguiba, a week before the announcement of the republican system and the abolition of the rule of Beys in Tunisia.

Bourguiba and the abolishment of the endowments system

Mustapha Filali, a veteran politician, was one of Bourguiba’s ministers when the Endowments Law was abolished. “At that time I was the Minister of Agriculture and Ahmed Mestiri was the Minister of Justice.  I strongly advocated the abolishment of the Endowments Law. There were many justifications for my stance based on the importance of liberating real estate from this system and integrating it in the economic cycle in order to build the national economy.” 

Filali said the revival of the endowments law could not be made arbitrarily and that the issue should be studied from all sides.

Among the historic landmarks—recipients of the endowments law in Tunisia—are the Aziza Othmana Hospital in Tunis and the Zaytuna Mosque, which had its own endowment used for religious education.

Hussein al-Obeidi, the imam of a mosque in Zaytuna, is one of the strongest advocates of the revival of the endowments law.  “Bourguiba canceled the endowments law to deter the Zaytuni Education, which is one of the Islamic lighthouses and to promote secularism, which he believes in.”  

The abolition of this law, according to al-Obeidi, aimed at “drying out the funding of Zaytuna Mosque and the confiscation of its property. This was a plan entrusted to Bourguiba by the French colonial powers in order to get rid of the Zaytuna education.”   

For these reasons, Sheikh Hussein al-Obeidi believes that the endowments law, which was submitted by the government to the Constituent Assembly for consideration, “is capable of supporting the country’s developmental efforts and it will bring significant economic benefits to all Tunisians.”

Contrary to what was said by al-Obeidi, Abdul Jalil Bougherra, a historian and a researcher, said: “The project of Bourguiba was essentially a modernization project on the social as well as the economic levels.”

“Since the endowments system is the economic rule of the clerical class from which they derive their social, economic and political influence– given that they supervise this system and they can make use of it,” said Bougherra, “Bourguiba was inclined to abolish this system to liberate the means of production and to weaken the clerical class and transfer its powers to the state such as the supervision of mosques, their maintenance, the supervision of the historic tombs and help the poor in collaboration with civil society organizations such as the Tunisian Solidarity Union.”

A religious state within a civil state

Among the criticism raised against the endowments law is that it will contribute to the vanishing of the concept of public institutions and it will create parallel ones such as schools and hospitals that can be used to serve narrow political interests and to create parallel educational and health systems that have a different administration methods than those of the state.

“The endowments system has nothing to do with Sharia (Quran and Sunnah), contrary to what is promoted,” said Bougherra. “It is more of a social system resulting from specific historical circumstances.

He considered that the creation of an endowments judge position as an example, as stipulated in the draft law, will become the nucleus of a parallel judicial institution and the beginning of the division of the judicial institution.

According Bougherra and a several observers in Tunisia, the creation of the Endowment Judge Plan will create the nucleus of the Islamic courts in the direction of the application of Sharia, “This is the primary goal of the Muslim Brotherhood, which they do not abandon. In many occasions, their leaders were repeating that ‘we do not allow what God has banned and we do not ban what God has allowed.'”

Bougherra concluded saying that “the endowment system will issue a death verdict against means of production because it will ban their sale, purchase and disposal.”

Among the implications of this law and its many and serious repercussions is the freezing of some of the means of production and removing them from the economic cycle and the creation of a parallel social class (the supervisors of endowments) who survive on these endowments and the promotion of a metaphysical and religious ideology and for a certain religious stream, which is invading the country and eating up the civil nature of the state.

Bougherra and other opponents of this project believes that the endowments law is the most dangerous step taken by the Ennahda Movement in its endeavors to strike the modernist identity of the Tunisian society. “We will suffer from it in the future. However, it is difficult now to estimate the size of the damage this law is going to cause.”

He added that “it is for this reason that Bourguiba had quickly abolished the law before the passing of the Constitution and before the establishment of the first legislative institution after independence. It is because he knew that such a decision requires lots of courage and political bravery.”  The Ennahda did the same by quickly reviving it before the approval of the Constitution and before the creation of the new legislative institution, because Rached Ghannouchi, the leader of the Ennahda Movement Bourguiba’s historical opponent, also knows that it requires courage and political bravery “because this decision makes a radical change in the path of the society and its destiny” according to Bougherra.

Is religious aristocracy is back?

Naji Jalul, civilization professor at the University of Tunisia and a researcher in the history of Islamic groups, confirmed that the endowment law is Ennahda’s biggest blow to democracy and the civil state.

“This law establishes for the creation of parallel institutions such as educational institutions that are supported by preaching and charitable groups. In the future, these institutions will produce an extremist religious generation.  We should not forget that the Taliban in Afghanistan graduated from Koranic schools that were basically financed by religious endowments.”

Naji Jalul also believes that the insistence of the Ennahda Movement in the Constituent Assembly on the revival of this law and on passing it on this specific time aims at creating a parallel space through the endowments judge, which will be the gate leading to the application of Sharia law later on.

He firmly believes that “these endowments will be financed with money from the Gulf States and thus the endowments will become a legal method of laundering Gulf money of unknown sources.”

Naji Jalul warned that the special endowments system would deprive females of their right to inheritance, which would directly undermine the Personal Status Law.

As for the economic feasibility of the project, which its advocates are promoting, Jalul claimed it was often not possible to economically benefit from the endowment system specially because the financing of the endowment is limited to Islamic banks.

Thus, he said, this law might become a tool for the freezing of property and transforming it into a feudal system. “This will create a group of people who will depend, in the survival of endowments, and these are often the clergy. Thus, a new religious aristocracy will be created and this class will serve the political interests of the Islamists, who are advocating this law that contradicts, in its essence and spirit, with the constitution which is being drafted.”