You hear the term “Sadqa Jaariya” during fundraising pitches. It’s the kind of thing that Muslims want to contribute to charities that are, while not forever (since that is only Allah) is perpetual in existence. Muslims are rewarded for Sadqa Jaaria long after they die and are otherwise unable to contribute good deeds in this world. Another way of course based on the famous oft-quoted hadith is beneficial knowledge and a pious child that prays for you.
I distinguish between Sadqa Jaariya and other forms of Sadqa. You spend money for the needy, and the benefit fulfills a human need, but it is not continuous. It is still a virtuous deed but not relevant to the cautions in this post.
Let me give you an example of a questionable Sadqa Jaariya practice in the Muslim community.
It Starts with Intent
Harris is a doctor. He wants to donate to a group headed by Salman, that wants to establish an Islamic school in his community. Harris feels this is a beneficial thing to do. Harris wants Islam to flourish in his area. He and other donors want their children to grow up in an Islamic environment, at least part of the time. They want to establish an institution that shows children a love of the deen, of learning the Quran and Arabic. Creating this institution must be Sadqa Jaariya.
So Salman and his group, with generous funding from community members like Harris, established the school. Salman is the Chairman of the Board of Directors. He realizes that it is exceedingly difficult to get paying students in his area. It takes a lot of time and effort to run a nonprofit, pay teachers decent wages and deal with parents, students, regulators, lawyers, and community members for continually raising money. Salman and his board of directors, after five years of this, figured they needed a change in direction.
They decide they will change their Islamic school to a charter school. Under state law, it will have a secular mission and jettison any connection with Islam. It will be free for all to attend and will charge no tuition. It is easier to run this non-profit than run an Islamic School. There will be no religious programming at the school during school hours, and the promise of an Islamic environment for the children will disappear. However, there will still be Arabic instruction. There can also be some Islamic programming after school if parents so chose.
Within five years, there is more board turnover. Salman moves on. Islamic programming after school starts to disappear. The school is now secular.
Many formerly religious institutions over the past hundreds of years in the United States decided being secular was a better deal. Don’t expect Muslims to be any different. The tendency of Islamic Schools to go charter has happened before, and that is an easy example. But this can happen to virtually any Muslim institution. At a minimum, an Islamic School becoming a charter school can be Sadqa Jaaria because it is still an educational institution, it’s just not the kind of Sadqa Jaariya the donors intended. It is entirely possible for me also to provide an example where the entire mission changes from the education of children to political advocacy. Future generations often shift the purpose of an older institution.
The question is: Did Harris ever make a Sadaqa Jaaria donation? He intended to donate towards establishing an Islamic educational institution. He wanted an Islamic environment. Maybe Harris was not hoodwinked when Salman told him his gift would be for Islamic education and an Islamic Environment and the contribution counted as Sadqa Jaariya for precisely this. Everyone started with good intentions.
The good intentions were never followed up with protective action. That is where Salman and even Harris went wrong. It was a substance-free, feel good transaction based on misplaced confidence. Not just faith in Salman, but on future generations of board members. Neither Salman or Harris has any idea who these people will be in the next several decades (if the organization lasts that long) or what their agenda might be.
What if the institution gets sued? For any reader who has been an adult for more than a few years, you know this is not a hypothetical concern. Islamic organizations are employers, maintain facilities. They interact with the world and are subject to liability that comes with it. So it is vital they think about protecting their missions with asset protection.
Protecting intent through Waqf
To establish a Waqf, you need more than intent. There need to be assurances in place to prevent a fundamental change in mission. If someone asks for money for Sadqa Jaariya, it is worth finding out if the organization is set up to accept Sadqa Jaariya or if they are throwing around the term because of its religious power.
There’s a solid chance institutions that suggest donating to them as “Sadqa Jaariya” did nothing to protect themselves from a future change in their mission. Nonprofits are usually corporations where the Board of Directors can do what they want. Islamic Organizations make sense this year? Let’s do that! A new grant is available that makes us change our whole educational mission? Sold!
Of course, many organizations will continue to do the right thing and honor donor intent for a long time. They are on their honor. As the years pass, donors die, founders die, and successors have other interests, funding sources and even values. If you want Sadqa Jaariya, you need to limit the authority of future generations to do whatever they want.
Fight the Future with Trusts
Trusts and Waqf are related concepts. Trusts in the abstract are far more flexible property management devices. However, they are still well suited for the Waqf if well-drafted. A corporation’s whole direction can usually be changed with a board of directors changing it. Under the doctrine of cy pres, you have a nonprofit organized as a trust; you cannot change anything unless the purpose of the Trust becomes illegal, impractical or impossible.
So if you create an Islamic School as a Trust instead of as a corporation and are specific about the values of the school in the founding documents, future trustees of the Trust cannot violate the purpose of the Trust. Donor intent from decades ago has often frustrated the wishes of people who run organizations. Sometimes this can be problematic, but usually, it is a legal check on nonprofit excess or mission creep.
There are other checks out there. However, none of them are as good as trusts. Masjid bylaws that require approval from a membership ensure that a board cannot change the mission of the organization, but the voting members could. You might presume unless there is a coordinated takeover of a Masjid by fixing members, Masjid membership will always want their institution to be a masjid. Some founders make sure nobody revisits this underlying assumption in the future.
Another thing hundreds of Masajid in the United States have done is transfer title deed to their property to the North American Islamic Trust (NAIT). NAIT was set up as a “National Waqf.” There are some safeguards in place, and Muslim organizations that have placed their assets with NAIT did well by seriously addressing the inherent problems with corporate charities. However NAIT is not a Trust itself, it is a corporation. For the most part, though, they hold properties as a trust. It’s worth scrutinizing how charities own whatever it is they claim to hold as Sadqa Jaariya in all instances though.
The last possible check on the future power of boards, which applies to very few Muslim institutions, is the Uniform Management of Institutional Funds Act (UMIFA), which is the law in many states. UMIFA mandates how some endowment funds are governed and is narrow enough in scope that it hardly matters. Muslims who donate at a fundraising dinner for “Sadqa Jaariya” will probably get no comfort here.
Donating to an Islamic cause is an act of worship. You (hopefully) don’t pay zakat to random charities that say they are Zakat eligible without supporting the claim, you won’t do Islamic Inheritance haphazardly, and you won’t pray on a filthy mat. Don’t give your Sadqa Jaariya to organizations that have not cared enough to entrust their resources to a real Waqf, instead of giving to a pretend waqf whose mission will forever be twisting in the wind. This can either be in a donation, with your charitable planning or the wasiyyah.
Another thing donors can do, especially if it is a significant enough commitment to an organization, is to create a “supporting organization” that commits to the mission of an organization, but not necessarily the organization itself, if the organization moves in a different direction. Some families do this, and often there are good reasons to that are beyond the scope of this article, but most of the time, you would avoid going to this length if you can.
Muslim Leadership Opportunity
Do you believe in your mission enough to protect it from future board members? Did you ever make a promise to donors you want to do everything you can to keep? You need to get serious about the Sadqa Jaariya claim. Establish a waqf as a trust to preserve the intent of founding and let your donors know it exists. You are not only serious about your mission today, but you are serious about charity being continuous.