Zeinoul Cajee Interview


ICIT: Today we are speaking with Zeinoul Cajee, the Founding Chief Executive Officer of Awqaf South Africa. This organization is recognized as a leader in waqf development.

As'salaamu alaikum Br Zeinoul. It is a pleasure to speak with you to learn from your experiences of working with various organizations who are using the waqf system to help address issues of importance to them.

To get us started on this journey, please share your thoughts on some of the major obstacles you have experienced in your work and what approaches have been taken to try to overcome them.

Zeinoul Cajee: I think that there's largely ignorance about the system. I think traditionally, people are quite accustomed to contributing to religious waqfs, for example, mosques and madrasas and so forth. But I think to understand the kind of developmental role that awqaf and the waqf system plays, I think that's quite a major challenge.

Our religious leaders are basically into the legal frameworks and the legalistic issues surrounding the waqf system. They don't see the broader developmental and civilizational role of the waqf system. So we have a problem there. And on the ground it's about donating. Maybe a Qur'an and so on.

So people are not kind of familiar with this system, even though it has been part of our culture for centuries. We can sort of blame the colonialists and the nation-state governments, and so forth who have in some ways actually destroyed the system or even uprooted it.

But the fact of the matter is that on the ground one really needs to explain the concept and provide advocacy for using the waqf system. This would help to make it more popular amongst people and would help them understand it. So, it is very difficult to actually propagate the idea by just using literature and so forth.

But when one talks to people, I think if they see the penny dropping, then they understand and they can see the long-term vision and long-term goals. So to summarize, I think firstly, the challenge we face is that our religious leaders don't understand the developmental role of the waqf system. But they very much understand the legal rules and regulations around waqf, which is fine.

And then the second thing is that the population on the ground is not really familiar with the waqf system and only if one actually talks to them, talk to business people, talk to lay people, and once they understand it, they buy into it.

So we need to develop strategies of persuasion and of marketing. So that people on the ground understand it. And the religious leaders, who dominate the mosque platforms and give lectures to people need to be really convinced and shown the real value of the waqf system.

I can't generalize that across the board. There are a few of the ulema who really understand it, that will help us and promote it as well. But I think by and large the problem is what is taught at the madrasas, and the institutions where they become sheiks and ulema, and where the basic rules and regulations about waqfs are given.

So then it becomes very legalistic. In this sense, it does not become the activist type of role that they should be playing in, through popularizing and spreading the whole idea, and educating people. So, maybe a third area is also that no where in the schools or madrasas at the child's level, or at the teenage level, or the adolescent level, are these concepts being taught.

So, it means that our population on the ground is being deprived and I'm not talking only about South Africa. I think this goes worldwide that we have these sort of common problems and having spoken to a lot of people across the board and having listened to people from other countries as well, the major challenges also about knowledge, education, and awareness of the system.

ICIT: So it seems like there might be a gap between our knowledge of the waqf system and our collective application of this knowledge.

Zeinoul Cajee: In the last 30 years and more so in the last 20 years, there has been a movement worldwide to rejuvenate the system. And this is being done largely by activists on the ground.

So whether it's in Malaysia or in the U.S. or in London or in the far east, there are various people, various groups that are working strenuously to actually revive the system. It is moving slowly, yes. But it is actually gaining momentum as well.

And we see that growth. We see the kinds of conferences that are being held. For example, this year was the ninth global waqf confidence at end of 2021. We see the merger between the World Zakah Forum that have now incorporated waqfs. So now it's actually even called the World Zakah and Waqf Forum.

This is actually sponsored by the Indonesian government and co-funded also by the Indonesian government. So although it's a voluntary group, the fact is that important organizations within Indonesia are promoting this. I think this year was the 10th forum meeting.

So for the first time you've got them sort of merging both zakah and waqf. There have been attempts in the past to create a kind of a world waqf forum in Dubai because they regarded Dubai as sort of the world capital of Islamic finance. But that didn’t last long. It actually was a stillborn baby, so it didn’t even materialize.

Then there was an attempt in Malaysia. And there was another attempt by some dedicated brothers in Switzerland, and in European countries. They actually set up an institution, a World Awqaf Forum, to bring in all kinds of minority Muslim communities, into some kind of a forum to discuss it and to promote the waqf system.

So I would say that activists on the ground are doing quite a lot. Academics are doing quite a lot. We've seen a lot of material coming out from Nigeria, from Malaysia, from the universities, especially on waqf with lots of articles. We've got a website called the Waqf Academy. I don't know whether you're familiar with it, but waqfacademy.org, is a website we have created.

We did this to give access to people to a free course on the waqf system. Also the website has an online library where there is over 300 well researched articles on the waqf system. When we first got started in 2001 we probably had only one or two books on waqf at that time.

So I don't know whether I'm answering your question but what I'm trying to say is that this gap that we have, about knowledge and action, is slowly narrowing. And the more we actually talk about it, the more people are exposed to the idea.

And of course there's the other issue that the whole Islamic finance and Islamic banking and finance system is very much focused on commercial banking. They are not really into social finance or looking at for example, financing waqf. This is related to the fact that there's lots of waqf land and waqf properties around the world where data show that some of it are lying, dormant, idle, and nonproductive.

But there's no major financial institution apart from maybe Islamic Development Bank that's trying to do a bit of funding, but I mean, your local Islamic banks are not really proactive in this field. In South African we have not had Islamic banks or so-called Islamic banks clamoring to help fund waqf properties.

This is because it would be a very different kind of funding model than the normal commercial funding model. But nonetheless having said that, I would say that that gap is narrowing and we are seeing growth in the entire sector. But of course more needs to be done, more resources need to be put into place.

So I think if more can be done, if more people are knowledgeable and speak about it, then all the better.

ICIT: Thank you. Your overview description is quite helpful. What example can you share that provides a look into how I waqf gets started?

Zeinoul Cajee: So for example, I get a call from somebody who says he has been really searching for some ways in which he can contribute. His personal life is that his wife just passed away a few months ago due to cancer. He doesn't have any parents. He doesn't have any offspring. He's got one brother. So he says I want to donate my house as a waqf. And I want to to live in it until I pass on. But once I pass on, I'd like to dedicate it for education purposes.

So that's one example. What also happened with the same person is that his wife had some funds. So instead of him taking the inheritance from there, he takes that money and he plugs it into a waqf that is also with Awqaf South Africa. So there's one example.

Another example is this. So there's a person who has a warehouse. It is in a large business complex that deals with hardware and building materials.

And he also has a retail store. What this brother does is he says this business, and this building, I'm donating it as a waqf.

The income that gets generated from here, I would like it to be spent in a way that gives me some proportions. He says some of it I would like to go to this organization for dawah purposes. And I would like, say 20% to go for my alma mater — the mosque that I use and that I grew up in the madrasa, I’d like to contribute something towards that. Then I'd like to contribute something towards some health projects, poverty alleviation, vision, and he would donate X percent to. Basically, what he does is he is donating the property, quite a large property, I would say. And he says, I will be paying the rent.

I will still occupy the building and I will continue paying the rent. So he pays the rent every month which is a reasonable market-related rent. And we then distribute the profits according to his directive. So there’s another example.

There are different other models that we can talk about. That are from our own experience in South Africa, but maybe not directly with Awqaf South Africa, but independent ones that are outside of our scope and domain but operated by families.

There is this example is of a man who's encouraged by his wife to donate some money as a waqf. So I would say in the 1930s or 1940s, he takes like 3000 pounds (at that time South Africa was under Britain, so we had the British pound as our currency).

So he donates 3000 pounds. And that money has now grown into various shopping centers, Islamic schools, madrasas, and they support various other charities. And that family still runs that particular waqf. It's called the Lockhart waqf in Durban, South Africa.

So there are examples like that. And of course we have within South Africa, hundreds of examples of people that have just donated for the love of Allah, knowing that they wanted to donate for education or they wanted to donate for media work that needs to be done.

So they would make a dedicated waqf for maybe water or sanitation, or for children's work. Those are the smaller ones. So there are some small and some big as well. Donors have donated into like specific areas or designated waqfs as we call them into the areas that I just mentioned.

We have some wonderful examples. One of the very first examples in South Africa has been the first mosque in South Africa. It was donated by a woman who was a slave descendant. And she inherited some property from her father and she donated that property to become the first mosque in South Africa. It played a major role in the propagation of Islam in South Africa and it was completely color blind.

It was completely open to everybody. And that allowed Islam to spread in the Cape to a great extent so that we are very, very proud of and very grateful. May Allah reward that lady the very highest stage in jannah.

ICIT: Ameen. Looking ahead, what do you see as a major challenge for establishing the waqf system as a system of choice for financing essential services such as health, education, infrastructure, and other public needs.

Zeinoul Cajee: Our major challenge right now is that institutions, such as madrasas, schools, and other public institutions have not actually bought into waqf in a way that they should. They should actually include it, for example, in their school curriculum or in a madrasa curriculum. And they show them how a waqf actually works.

What we have done successfully is that the waqf system is included as a module of an Islamic finance course, which is really speaking more of a postgraduate level.

To make it part of an everyday living institution, it really needs a lot more than just an occasional radio talk or an occasional interview on TV and things like that. It really needs much more widespread, propagation and proliferation so that it becomes literally part of our culture. Once again, when it becomes a culture, then it's smooth sailing and people know and understand it.

People are giving. It's not like people are not giving. People do give and we continuously see people giving for charitable causes, whether it be local or international. At the moment there is some outbreak or any disaster or something, South African Muslims, and maybe even worldwide, we always see that people are giving.

But if we can have this paradigm shift from short-term consumption giving to long-term productive giving, then I think we will really make this breakthrough by ensuring that we would have much bigger waqfs. The waqf system would then start to become embedded and part of our everyday culture. Then we are really talking.

ICIT: Thank you brother Zeinoul for taking time to share your time, expertise, and thoughts.

We greatly admire and appreciate the work that you and others are doing.

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