The prominent part played by Shias in the uprising in 2011, and in the months leading to the Grand Prix in April 2012, has combined to give a fair degree of understanding on the nature of tribal power, as vested in the ruling family Al- Khalifa and the opposing Shias and their religious networks. It is of interest that the challenges came from leftists, trade unions, college educated young with strong affiliations to clubs and Shia funeral houses (ma’tam) which are managed and contained in times of stability but are exacerbated under turbulent times of political and social transformations in the Middle East, so aptly called the Arab Spring. Land and principally endowed (waqf) land and economic deprivation of majority Shias are of central concern in a land deficient country. The Al- Khalifa’s monopoly of land, political and economic power and the rise of Sunni merchants has increased the arbitrary tyranny of dynastic rule with increasing ruinous consequences for the largely rural Shias and their poor urban compatriots. This project traces the historical roots of the problem through a detailed study of the waqf (endowment) and ma’tam (funeral houses) which have land at the centre of the political power and status and religious sectarianism. This religious sectarianism and its associated institutions of the waqf and ma’tam bring into focus economic issues of land tenure, collection of zakat, use of Islamic finance. The twin realms of religion and the bazaar and oil economy are the major forces in the uprising. Religious groups both conservatives and modernists align themselves with idealogues of left and moderate persuasion revealing the peculiarity of Bahraini religion which has never been fully subordinated to government as in their Sunni neighbours.It is this institutional autonomy that is investigated within the waqf and ma’tam, collection of zakat , the rigour and application of Sharia and Ja’fari jurisprudence, the growth of Islamic finance and the coalescence of political and cultural identity within this sectarianism.
Land has been a highly contested factor in Islamic history of Bahrain and this is reflected in the zealous defence of private property rights through endowments. The waqf thus became the focus of this defence. This bequeathing of land and property by an elite seeking to protect its wealth for the family for posterity through the waqf was not only an ‘intergenerational social record of relations of power and marriage’ but more of an economic institution. The waqf’s assets of land and properties were ordained to be held in perpetuity, and transfers could be made only for assets of similar or higher value. Such exchanges (istibdal) also had to be permitted within the original deeds of the foundation. To justify this perpetuity of assets, beneficiaries were defined and their interests and shares were fixed. With burial tombs and cemetery sites, appropriation was forbidden.
In Bahrain the institution of the ma’tam dominated the Shiite waqf. Bahrain’s tribalism, Islamic sectarianism is intertwined with both. The research focuses on how the waqf intersects with Sharia law, Shia jurisprudence and customary law and colonial legal systems in protecting access to, ownership and security of tenure. Can Islamic egalitarian principles translate into viable property rights, assist the poor, and with slum clearance.
It also examines women’s rights to land and property through different sources of ownership in Bahrain. According to Sharia, women have the right to inherit and hold property. In the Middle East intergenerational transfers indicate women were an important component in the transactions of the land economy. The crucial question remains; how far different cultural environments and economic situations shaped the empowerment of women through land assets in the waqf. Another complicating issue for the waqf are the transient groups living in parts of Bahrain and the state do not recognise their need for land titles, registration or legal ownership. Here the aim is to identify how far Islamic jurisprudence linked to cultural and social legacies as well as to the operations of the waqf, were ultimately responsible for providing security and entitlement to marginal groups in society. Was the waqf providing support and opportunities for socio-economic change and mobility in Islamic societies in Bahrain? Another complicating factor is the presence of Sunnis of diverse origins: Arabs, Persians and Gulf tribes; while Shias forming the religious majority are equally diverse having come from Persia, Iraq and Saudi Arabia. This is further complicated by the tribal background of many Sunnis and the pressures towards inclusiveness within these tribal collectivities. The bureaucratic reforms from the 1920s to the mid 1970s and increasing centralisation of the state accentuated the growing loss of tribal identity, but a rise in aggressive religious fervour and belonging.
Manama Harbour view.
In Bahrain, ninety percent of the old villages around Manama, Muharraq, Hidd and Rifa contain Shia waqf and ma’tam that are principally vast areas of wasteland with derelict buildings. They lack capital for redevelopment and are also constrained by the Islamic rule of perpetuity pertaining to waqf lands. The developed and wealthy waqf in Manama and Muharraq are owned by Sunni Muslims with connections to the Al-Khalifa family and to powerful tribes in the state. This unfortunate divergence in the deplorable economic state of waqf land and properties between the Sunni and Shia sects is compounded by the fear and reluctance of the predominantly Sunni state administration to intervene in Shia strongholds. Yet there has been appropriation of valuable Shia land and property steadily since the 1930s oil boom and loss of agricultural space for the Shiites. This land issue surrounding charities both Sunni and Shiite forms the core of the project.
The Shia majority are poor, largely rural with few connections to Bahrain’s elite who are predominantly Sunni. The project outlines the model of land and property development through the waqf. Another significant contribution is the creation and utilisation of Sharia-compliant financial instruments for the redevelopment of properties nestling within these endowments.
Professor Rajeswary Brown