Heritage conservation in Islam: the role of pious foundations

Zeynep Aygen

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter (peer-reviewed)peer-review


Although conservation of historic buildings and preservation of both natural and urban heritage had been a major part of the Islamic tradition, as this paper will present, today a great part of the Muslim world is suffering from the loss of its urban fabric. Traditional skills are disappearing, historic houses are being demolished, protected conservation zones suffer from lack of interest and finance and covered bazaars become tourist show pieces. Stefano Bianca points out that the attempt to absorb changes which took place in Europe over two centuries, just within a few decades, caught traditional Islamic cultures unprepared and caused a violent clash. Unfortunately in many countries oil revenues were used to erase historic centres to replace them with ‘modern’ structures. Other countries have fragile budgets and cannot support their remaining historic districts and towns financially which leads to decay and obsolescence. One of the institutions to have played a major role in historic conservation and maintenance of conservation skills is the pious foundation, wakf. This concept represents an early version of the contemporary non-governmental organisation (NGO) and constituted on the common base of the Islamic law has an impact on the physical environment. The act of and owner surrendering his/her rights of possession of purpose built property like a mosque, fountain, school or hospital thorough a ‘public’ endowment is different than the ‘private’ endowment which may allow near relations to receive income from such a trust, a degeneration which leads to misinterpretations in the contemporary definitions of the wakf. In addition to its role ensuring the participation of public in supplying services to neighbourhoods and thus determining and effecting planning decisions, one of the less known functions of the wakf was to enhance conservation and employ and train craftsmen. The relationship of the wakf to the government represented in the person of the judge is one of the most interesting case studies in the realm of urban planning on systems incorporating governmental and non-governmental institutions. The decline and death of the conservation function of the wakf through the impact of centralization mechanisms introduced by westernization led to the loss of a participative building conservation concept. Although there are international awkaf dedicated to the preservation of Islam’s architectural and artistic heritage, wakf as a neighbourhood unit linking central government and residents of a street and ensuring the continuity of the built environment is nearly lost; however it can still be saved before it is too late. The paper discusses a part of the initial findings of the currently led research by the author on the conservation function of the wakf to suggest a model for the contemporary use of wakf as a neighbourhood conservation education centre to provide a conservation concept to appeal to the collective memory of the people in the Islamic world.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationResponsibilities and opportunities in architectural conservation (Vol. 1)
EditorsS. Elwazani, S. Malhis, J. Alqawami
Place of PublicationAmman, Jordan
PublisherCSAAR Press
Number of pages12
ISBN (Print)9789957860264
Publication statusPublished - 2008


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