Shiah and Endowments (waqf); Gifts (nibah) and Charities (sadaqah)
If someone owns some property and wishes to relinquish possession of it, his transference of it may be such that it is final. That is, now only will it go out of his possession, but he can never claim it back, whether, e.g., he frees a slave, or gives up possession of a house or some land to make it a place of worship, a mosque, or a place for use in pilgrimages. By such an act, the property can never again return to the ownership of that person again. In such a case, in fact, the item can never again be anyone's property.
On the other hand, the person may relinquish possession of some property which then passes into the hands of another. Such a transaction may be based on exchange or a monetary transaction, it may be part of a peach treaty, etc.
Thirdly, he may relinquish ownership without any exchange taking place, but solely with regard to the world to come and recompense therein. This is what is commoly know as "sadaqah", and this is in turn divided into two parts:
a) if the property is durable and the donor's intention is that it should last and profits from it used in good acts, it will then be called an endowment (waqf);
b) if it is not durable or the donor has not stipulated any conditions for its being permanently kept and utilised, it will then be called sadaqah proper (charity).
Fourthly, if possession of some property is handed over to someone else without there taking place any exchange and without any thought of Divine recompense (e.g. for the sake of friendship), the donation is calle hibah (gift). If, however, some exchange take place, e.g. one man gives another his shirt on the condition that the second man gives a book to him, it is called " iwad" (a consideration). If the second party accepts, the gifting will become binding and neither party will have the right to take his property back, except if they both agree to break their agreement. It is necessary that the something gifted must be in the possession of the donor. If the gifting was without any 'iwad, the item (s) may be taken back. Naturally, this does not apply to gifts given between close relatives or between husband and wife, or if the item (s) is (are) lost or damaged.
This contrasts with the situation in the case of sadaqah; for here, once possession has been relinquished, the thing (s) cannot be taken back. The declaration of intention to donate is enough to make the taking back unlawful. This is called the sighatu 'l-waqf, and the property then passes to the trustee, who may be the original owner himself. It may not be taken back, sold, divided, pawned, or otherwise pledged, whether it be a "waqf khass" (special endowment), for descendents, for example, or a "waqf 'amm" (general endowment), for the poor, the needy, a mosque or a school.
There are, of couse, some occasions when exceptions can be made and the trust property can be sold. This may happen, for instance, if the property has become damaged, but the damage should be to an extent that prevents the property from being of any use. The waqf property can also be sold if there is serious fear of its being destroyed, in which case it should be such that no profit would accrue from it. The property can also be sold if there are acute differences among those who are in possession of it and there is danger of loss of life and property or loss of honour and respect.
In spite of all these conditions, no one can take the decision to sell the property or divide it. The decision rests entirely with the hakimu 'sh-shar' (the mujtahid). The hakimu 'sh-shar' alone has the right to pass the necessary decree after assessing all the prevailing conditions. But it is a pity that in the matter of endowments, people have become extremely apathetic. They pay no attention to the limitation of the Divine Law. God is aware of all their intentions and actions.
This was a brief account of sadaqah as it is generally understood.
Adopted from the book: "The Origin of the Shi'ite Islam and its Principles (Asl ash-Shi'ah wa Usuluh" by: "Allamah Kashiful Ghita"
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