Social Entrepreneurship from the Middle Ages

03 Nov Social Entrepreneurship from the Middle Ages

Thanks to volunteering with MedinaPedia, a project launched by Carthagina & ASM Tunis to upload historical information about the Medina of Tunis onto Wikipedia, I have discovered that the Medina contains 28 Madrasas (schools which were built to educate civil servants). Some of these have closed down, some have disappeared and some are now government-owned and rarely open to the public. Each and every one is a hidden architectural jewel and most of them are in desperate need of restoration, making them currently unsuitable destinations for tours of any kind. The oldest one probably dates back to the 13th century and the newest was built during the 18th century. All are rich in architectural details, which shed light on the artistic value and quality of the craftsmen working on their construction in the eras in which they were built.

I am not a qualified expert at almost anything I do. I’m neither a historian, architect, nor am I a theologian. I am, however, a human being who senses the legacy of people from eras past and I am immensely humbled and moved by the human beings behind those Madrasas!

Once upon a time, a Mr Human Being from a not very distant past, constructed a beautiful building with his own money and made it a student residence for those who pursued their higher education at ez-Zitouna mosque. The residence was for students who came from far-away cities, and had neither any relatives nor the means to otherwise live in the capital. Mr Human Being also had a Fondouk, which today would be called a hotel, that generated profits dedicated for the Madrasa. These profits were used to maintain the building, pay for the salaries of the teaching staff and employees of the Madrasa, and to offer scholarships to those in need or who needed to do research or write a book.

Mr Human Being who built the Madrasa and made these important and sustainable financial sacrifices for a higher social return on his investment, was obviously either a social entrepreneur or a strategic philanthropist!

In the 7th century, Omar Ibn el-Khattab approached Prophet Mohamed and told him, “I have a farm that I wish to donate.” Prophet Mohamed replied, “Do not donate your farm to one person, but rather make it a Waqf, so your family, the needy and passers-by might also benefit from its fruits.” And so, the story of the first ever non-religious Waqf in the history of Islamic finance was born.

Waqf or Hbouss, is an Islamic religious endowment, similar to a “trust”, which contributes to social, cultural, environmental, and economic development. In the early days, Waqf was a way for civil society to fill identified gaps in a community’s needs. The concept of charity is very important in Islam, and the more sustainable, the better. Waqf is probably the earliest form of strategic philanthropy that ever existed, and is perceived as the most sustainable form of charity.

Waqf is not restricted to a certain sector. It could be a hospital, research scholarship, a home for the elderly, a home for abandoned wives and widows, land for old horses to be taken care of before they die, roads, wells, farms, musical performance space, Quran teaching centers, hotels for immigrants, hammams, public gardens, public libraries, a house for the poor…the options are limitless. Commonly a Waqf is found in the form of a mosque or cemetery but just like social entrepreneurship, it could be any establishment, service provider or business that strives to make the world a better place.

Mr Human Being, the strategic philanthropist who first constructed the Madrasa, had an operating system which he thought would sustain the social fruits of his Waqf over the years following his passing. Nevertheless, a while down the road, other perhaps greedier and more corrupt humans might take over, with no interest or passion to pursue a project with little or no profit for a sustainable and positive impact. So the building becomes stagnant and the government steps in to take over its ownership and management, who by no means prove to be more passionate or less corrupt or more motivated. Today the government owns 28 Madrassas in the Medina, but we also know that most of them need a new and passionate Mr or Ms Human Being to adopt them and give them new life and a purpose based on today’s needs.

Social entrepreneurship and strategic philanthropy are obviously not new concepts. They have been part of Islamic finance before the modern concept of finance even existed. The core of Islam however, does not seem to be a topic of interest when compared to headline grabbing negative news.

Waqf is a form of civil society activism, the 3rd sector of society, working hand in hand with governments to fill gaps in the community’s needs. It is managed and operates in an entrepreneurial fashion; a movement worthy of being preserved for the betterment of our community today.

Whenever I pass by, or enter one of those Madrasas, I can’t help but think of the human being who allowed the community (us) to inherit this beautiful monument, and I feel sad to see the building inactive and responsible to do something to bring life back to its rooms. No matter how rich you are or how much you want to show off your wealth, sacrificing time and money to save such a jewel of a building to our Medinas would be a legacy that can be neither underestimated nor ignored. Today, it is up to us to continue the legacy of Mr or Ms Human Being, who donated a piece of much needed space to our city, which could be reused for numerous community needs. Some of the old Madrasas are collapsing but still they manage to stand tall, trying to confront time in order to preserve the legacy of their patron.

Mr. Human Being was an entrepreneur, which is why he was able to develop a business model inspired by the needs of the community. I believe that social entrepreneurs are the most suitable candidates to take over such a legacy by creating new business models based on their community’s current needs, thereby respecting the jewel of a building and its environment through sustainable business modelling.

Thank you, Mr Human Being, we will honor your generous endowment!

 

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