Articles Tagged with: The Benefits of Local Power

The Benefits of Local Power: The Case of Aziz Mahmud Efendi

Aziz Mahmud Efendi (d. ca. 1845) had a very long tenure as imam of the Kasap ƒlyas mosque. His signature appears on the local vakıf documents for the first time in 1821. In the course of his term of tenure, which lasted for about a quarter of a century, his signature appears, from 1827 on, as “elhac
Aziz Mahmud,” indicating that he had accomplished the pilgrimage to Mecca shortly before that date. In the course of his long tenure of office as imam of the neighborhood mosque and as trustee of the vakıfs attached to it, some of his decisions and actions can be followed pretty closely.

We shall take here one example of a vakıf property situated in the Kasap ƒlyas mahalle and try to see how Aziz Mahmud Efendi “managed” it in his time of tenure as imam and as trustee. A number of transactions recorded by Aziz Mahmud Efendi himself clearly show how a piece of property belonging
to a pious foundation could be used to his own convenience by the trustee of the foundation.
The property we take as an example here was named after its founder:
Hurœide Hatun Vakfı. It consisted of “…a garden with, in it, lodgings with a single room, a covered area, a water-well, a kitchen, latrines, a pond, and fruit bearing trees, all surrounded by a wall of stone on four sides….”19
When this so-called garden was set up as a foundation, by a deed of trust dated April 24, 1770, it was described as having a circumference of 1140 zira’, that is, about 800 meters. With its water-well, its pond, and its “fruitbearing trees” this was certainly a large vegetable garden, a bostan, as there
existed many in and around Kasap ƒlyas, and that must have brought a substantial income to its manager. From time immemorial, the tenants of this garden used to pay to the trustee of the vakıf a monthly rent (an icare-i kadime, as the expression went) of just sixty akçes, that is, just half a kuruœ.
This rent had apparently remained unchanged for more than half a century when Aziz Mahmud took over the post of imam of the Kasap ƒlyas mosque.
A few years after Aziz Mahmud’s appointment to the imamhood, on September 14, 1829 (15 Rebi’ I 1245 a.h.), Hediye Hatun binti Ismail, the woman who had been holding the right of usufruct to this large vegetable garden for the last eighteen years, returns it to the trustee of the vakıf. The reason for this act is not clear for, had Hediye Hatun died without a legal heir, the vakıf property would, first, have to be declared open or vacant (mahlûl). No payment seems to have been involved in the transaction, either.
Whatever the case may have been, only two days later, on September 16, 1829, Aziz Mahmud Efendi signs the document granting the transfer of the right of usufruct of this garden to another woman, probably also a local of the mahalle, Fatma Hatun binti Hasan. This woman made a payment of 1,000
kuruœ for the transfer of the right of usufruct, and the sum was duly recorded with the transaction. The record itself makes interesting reading, but for quite another reason: “…Aziz Mahmud Efendi, holder of the right of usufruct to the garden with a monthly rent of sixty akçes, has transfered this right to Fatma Hatun binti Hasan, wife of Ismail A™a, and has received the sum of 1,000 kuruœ, and I, as trustee, have allowed the transaction and recorded it in the vakıf book.”20
The tone that prevails in this text does reflect the fact that Aziz Mahmud Efendi, in a transaction where he is personally involved, is both judge and party to the transaction. He is both holder of the right of usufruct, so he speaks of himself as if he were a third party (“…Aziz Mahmud Efendi, holder of the right of usufruct….) and, also, a trustee who agrees to and records the transaction, and therefore speaks of himself in the first-person singular (“…I, as trustee, have allowed the transaction and recorded it….”).
It is noteworthy that all of the records concerning this particular vegetable garden bear an echo of this tone. They are all written in a style showing this mixture of personal enterprise and artificiality.
Just about a year later, on July 31, 1830, as recorded in a third transaction concerning the same property item, Fatma Hatun binti Hasan, who had taken over the vegetable garden from Aziz Mahmud Efendi eleven months ago, now returns it to him. The record reads: “…Fatma Hatun has taken back the received amount and returned the garden entirely to its first owner Aziz Mahmud Efendi and I, as trustee, have allowed the transaction and recorded it in the vakıf book.” The wording of this record leaves two crucial points in the dark.
First of all, we are not told whether the “received amount” that Aziz Mahmud Efendi returns to Fatma Hatun is equal to the 1,000 kuruœ that he had been paid, about a year ago, for granting to Fatma Hatun the right of usufruct to that garden. If the second amount was larger than the first, this means that the whole operation was in fact nothing more than a cover-up for a simple loan assorted with a rate of interest, an operation prohibited by Islamic law. What we see here is obviously a cumbersome method for concealing and transforming a prohibited operation, but from the point of view of Islamic jurisprudence, it was a fully sanctioned instrument.21
Second, and even if we assume that the two transactions were not a cover-up for what was, in reality, a loan assorted with a rate of interest (i.e., if the two sums were equal), we are still left in the dark as to the real nature of the whole operation. Was the garden transferred as a mortgage (a fera™ bi’l
vefâ in Ottoman juridical parlance), or was it simply pawned (fera™ bi’l istiglâl) to Fatma Hatun as a security for money loaned by her to Aziz Mahmud Efendi? And, besides, what was it that prompted Aziz Mahmud Efendi, imam of a small neighborhood mosque in Istanbul, to borrow such a large
amount of money for such a short period of time from a person belonging to his congregation? The answers to these questions are not clear. What is fairly obvious from these transactions of 1829 and 1830, however, is that Aziz Mahmud did not hesitate to use the vakıf properties entrusted to him, as and when he thought fit, for his own personal financial purposes.
Fourteen years then go by, during which this “garden” remains in the possession of Aziz Mahmut Efendi, to whom its nonnegligible revenues keep accruing. Then, on March 14, 1844, a last deed of transfer concerning the same vegetable garden provides another illustration of the imam’s arbitrary
decisions. Here is the text: “…I have consented to transfer the right of usufruct of one half of the garden with a monthly rent of thirty akçes, which had been at my disposal, to my daughter Hatice Huriye Hatun binti [daugh- ter of] Aziz Mahmud, and that of the other half to my son-in-law Ahmed bey bin [son of] elhac ƒbrahim, so that they share it on a basis of equality, and have therefore agreed to record the transaction in the vakıf book….”22 Aziz
Mahmud Efendi has chosen not to hide anything in this record. What he has de facto done is simply this: he has divided this large vakıf garden into two equal parts and given one half to his daughter and the other half to his son-in-law. Here again Aziz Mahmud Efendi is obviously both judge and party.
As trustee of the foundation he “consents” to the transfer of the endowment to “my daughter” [Hatice Huriye daughter of Aziz Mahmud] and to “my son-in-law.” The record does not mention the payment of an “immediate rent,” an icare-i muaccele. Besides, the monthly rent (icare-i müeccele) of this
garden belonging to the Hurœide Hatun vakfı, had, for no apparent reason, been reduced from sixty to thirty akçes.
As a principle, a trustee of a vakıf was supposed to lease the real estate property placed under his trusteeship at the highest possible rent. To that end, a number of well-known traditional “marketing techniques” (including consulting real estate “experts,” and using town-criers and market auction-
eers) were available to him. According to Ottoman law and to the common usage on vakıf real estate property in Istanbul, Aziz Mahmud Efendi should have first declared this garden to be mahlûl (open or vacant). Second, he should have informed all those likely to make an offer. Only then should he
have put the vakıf property at the disposal of the highest bidder.23 That is how the interests of the vakıf would have been safeguarded in the long run.
Aziz Mahmud, however, had availed himself of none of these methods. Instead, on March 14, 1844, he had chosen, simply on his own initiative, to give the large vakıf garden that had been put under his care, to his daughter and son-in-law.
The successors and predecessors of Aziz Mahmud Efendi at the imamhood of the Kasap ƒlyas mosque and at the trusteeship of the vakıfs attached to it, often took the necessary precautionary steps to protect the long-run interests of their foundations. For instance, the newly vacated real estate properties were first advertised, that is, they were “…offered to the demanders,…” and the trustees made up their mind on who the new tenant was to be only when “…no other demander offered a higher price….”24 For some transfers of the right of disposal to vakıf property, it was made clear, for the record, that an auction had taken place (“…when the demand of the public has completely ceased after the market auction….”)25 Sometimes the records mention that, instead of having an auction, the trustee had recourse to the advice of experts in order to estimate real estate prices and rents.26
Obviously, all of the trustees of the many small local vakıfs of Istanbul could not always have had either the time, a sufficient margin of social initiative, or direct access to resources in order to perform all of these marketing operations. But, at least in Kasap ƒlyas, they usually took care to note that everything was done on a strictly legal basis and in the long-run interests of the foundation, that the vakıf records bore traces of their careful management of the endowed property, and that they contained no sloppiness likely to be picked up by inspectors.
Aziz Mahmud Efendi seems to have been an open exception to that state of affairs. For him, as a trustee, favoritism, flanked by a keen sense of his personal interest, seems to have been the habitual mode of operation. The same day as the case of the “garden” just described, that is, on March 14,
1844, the imam of the Kasap ƒlyas mosque also took a second initiative. This was quite similar to the first. Aziz Mahmud took another, but this time, a smaller “garden” that was under his trusteeship, split it into two and, again, put it at the disposal of the same two persons, his daughter and son-in-law.27
Here, too, there is no trace in the records of any auction or advertisement of any sort. Besides, Aziz Mahmud Efendi reduces the monthly rent of the second garden, too. It was previously set at thirty akçes, but Aziz Mahmud reduces it to ten akçes. What was already a purely symbolic amount was thus
reduced to almost nothing. Our trustee and imam had thus, the same day, transferred the right of disposal of two pieces of revenue-generating vakıf property to his daughter Hatice Huriye Hatun and to his son-in-law, and simultaneously further reduced the vakıf’s revenues.
We have been able to trace Aziz Mahmud’s daughter forty years later in the 1885 census records.28 She was then alive and well, a widow, and living with her eldest daughter in a house that belonged to her at 60 Samatya Street (formerly “Butchers’ Road”). Hatice Huriye was then obviously a woman of
some means, since she also owned another house in the Kasap ƒlyas mahalle, as well as a shop in the Grand Bazaar. The most interesting feature revealed by the 1885 census documents is that Hatice Huriye’s eldest daughter, Fatma Ismet hanım, had been born in 1845, that is, just a year after her father had passed on the two vakıf “gardens” to her mother and to her father. Hatice Huriye was eighteen years old when her eldest daughter was born. We may surmise therefore that her marriage to Ahmed bey had taken place about a year before that date, perhaps in 1843 or 1844, that is, just about when Aziz Mahmut efendi transferred the rights of disposal to the two vakıf gardens to his newly married daughter and to his son-in-law. We do not know for sure whether there was a direct causal relationship between the two events. If, however, the two transfers made by Aziz Mahmud efendi on the same day were meant to be a dowry for his daughter who was just getting married, we would certainly have here a patent case of breach of trust, an open abuse of power.
The obvious questions that arise are the following: Was Aziz Mahmud efendi always as oblivious of the long-term interests and the perennity of the vakıfs put under his trusteeship? Was he always in the habit of making a disguised present of the real estate property he was supposed to oversee and protect? Did Aziz Mahmud treat all potential or effective tenants of this property with such tolerance and leniency? The answer is certainly negative. The case of his neighbor Mehmed Salih Efendi provides a good contrast.29
In September 1825, Aziz Mahmut Efendi had let a vakıf “garden” in common to Mehmed Salih Efendi and to his wife ¥erife Fatma hanım. Ten years later, Fatma ¥erife hanım, who had no children, died. Her share of the right of usufruct of this “garden” did not revert to her husband, however, but to the
foundation itself and to its trustee, Aziz Mahmud Efendi. Then, the imam of the Kasap ƒlyas mosque did not take into account Mehmet Salih efendi’s past status as an honorable neighbor and as a good and trustworthy tenant of the vakıf. Mehmed Salih Efendi’s and his wife’s contributions to the upkeep of the vakıf property during the past ten years seemed not to carry any weight in his mind, either.
As a result, Aziz Mahmud Efendi agreed to the reversion of the right of usufruct that had belonged to the deceased Fatma ¥erife hanım to her widowed husband only after Mehmed Salih had paid him in cash, on March  23, 1835, an “immediate rent” of two hundred kuruœ. This amount was in fact the equivalent of more than ten years of “postponed rent” of the same garden. Indeed, there was more than one standard on our imam’s mind and, clearly, Aziz Mahmud’s preferential treatment was addressed only to his daughter and to his son-in-law. Other considerations seem to have carried little weight for him. To say that all of the imams in Istanbul always used the real estate portfolio put under their trusteeship and management as a systematic instrument of oppression of the local populations and as a means of accumulating personal wealth would, of course, be an exaggeration. Nevertheless, the local power and influence that the imams wielded, and the social leverage they acquired within their neighborhood by managing vakıf real estate properties can hardly be overestimated.
The example of Aziz Mahmud Efendi does show that local imams in Istanbul could easily be tempted to enhance their own personal interests before dealing with those of the community or those of the vakıf that they were supposed to serve. Obviously, this was more likely to happen when the trusteeship of local vakıfs was the imam’s main source of income. To the extent that the long run objective of many local foundations in Istanbul was to generate a perpetual stream of income for the imam and for the müezzin of the local mosque, the interests of these two persons coincided with those of the vakıf itself. In that general context, Aziz Mahmud Efendi’s free and reckless use of perpetual endowments and of vakıf real estate property, were, perhaps, far from being an exception.
We therefore have some reason to suppose that the complaints voiced by the Istanbulites about the mismanagement and the arbitrariness of their imams were sometimes valid. When the administrative reformers of the Tanzimat instituted secular muhtars as local headmen in lieu of the traditional imams, the effect was to severe the religious and ritual functions of the minister from his traditional administrative powers and from its political extensions. “Westernization,” as well as administrative and political recentralization, were the key ideas of the reforms and, at least in the strategic and sensitive capital-city of the empire, the new muhtars were placed under the direct supervision of
the political authority.
As to the process of the effective transfer of authority at the local level, it probably showed a large degree of variation from one mahalle to the other. What we know of the case of the Kasap ƒlyas mahalle through the personal notebooks that its imams and muhtars of the second half of the nineteenth century have left to us,30 however, shows that, in our neighborhood at least, the transfer of authority and the progressive sharing of local initiatives went rather smoothly. As we shall see, the process was apparently devoid of conflict.

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