Looking for Credit in 18th Century Damascus

A Case from the Court Records [DYNTRAN WORKING PAPER 22, March 2017]

by Astrid MEIER

What to do if you do not have enough money to hand? Today, many might use a credit card or overdraw their bank account if they could. In this blog, I will present a court case from 18th century Damascus that provides glimpses into the world of a woman who struggled to balance debts and advance payments at a time when banks did not yet exist in her city. A woman called Āmina appeared in the main court of Damascus on February 2, 1735 (MSD 72/177/293, see bibliography for explanation and figure 1) to clarify her financial situation vis-à-vis the management of the huge endowment cluster under the control of her wider kin. It is an intriguing aspect of this case that she obviously thought she had the right to use her own entitlement (ḥaqq, istiḥqāq) and that of her children and grandchildren in a way similar to how we today use a bank account with a credit option.

Figure 1: The beginning of the legal document, Court Records Damascus (MSD 72/177/293)

Within the framework of the DYNTRAN project the case is significant in several respects. It highlights what has become a common understanding, namely that the group of people we usually call “family” is socially, legally and culturally constructed. Consequently, what it means to be member of a family depends on the specific historical context. More particularly, the case sheds light on the diverse types of capital transmitted within such groups. In this blog I will look at the ways in which social and economic capital was transmitted through the institution of endowments (waqf). In many Islamicate societies this has been one of the foremost instruments of transmission and has been recognised as such for a long time (see, e.g., Powers 1990). In daily practice, endowments seem to have had more uses than usually acknowledged. Finally, the case allows us to reflect on the transmission of knowledge, in this instance not scholarly knowledge but knowledge of a more practical sort, namely of how to identify members of one’s larger kin group and how they relate to each other.

The giving and taking of credit between relatives or strangers was common practice at the time (e.g. Ghazaleh 2010) and, contrary to what is generally assumed, interest played an important role in many such transactions. Average interest rates for loans were between 15 and 20 percent, often alluded to as “sales of soap” (Rafeq 2009, pp. 131–134). However, we usually do not think of endowments as credit institutions for the beneficiaries as this would not conform to the rather strict rules of Islamic law. To establish an endowment, one needed to own property (milk), withdraw it from the usual circulation by inheritance, gifts and sales in perpetuity (a legal operation called ḥabs, “sequestration”) and dedicate the profits or the use of the property to causes pleasing to God. In contrast to many European concepts of charity, one of the most meritorious forms of waqf was to dedicate use or profit to one’s descendants. This is usually called a family endowment (waqf ahli, dhurrī). Although I will concentrate here on the familial aspects, the case under investigation is of a more complex type that combines benefits for religious institutions and descendants (waqf mushtarak).

The Manjak endowment cluster in the 18th century

Āmina appeared in court as a beneficiary of the endowments connected to the Manjak family. This means that she was among the descendants (dhurriyya) of the founders, though she did not belong to their patriline or “family” (in Arabic often referred to as bayt or banū) as we shall see presently. The Manjak endowments consisted of twelve single foundations that controlled property not only in Damascus but also in and around Aleppo, Hims, Hama, Jerusalem, Tripoli, Ghazza and Ramla (e.g. MSD 72/30/65). These endowments were managed as a unit, which is why I refer to the twelve foundations as the Manjak endowment cluster.

The endowments date back to the late 15th and 16th century and belong to the charitable activities of a famous dynasty of Mamluk emirs (Vigouroux 2013, pp. 211–214). The lineage also prospered under Ottoman rule and survived well into the late 17th century (Güneş 1981, no. 301/300, pp. 103–105; Muḥibbī s.d., vol. 4, pp. 229–231). Then the direct male line seems to have died out. Against this background, one understands why the Manjaks no longer controlled the cluster in the 18th century. In 1680, shortly before his death, the emir Muḥammad b. Manjak had transferred half of his position as nāẓir to his paternal aunt Sayyida Khadīja Khatūn bt. al-Amīr ʿUmar al-Manjakī (MSD 2m//299, 18/69/110, see genealogical table figure 2). The other half went to Sayyid Tāj al-ʿĀrifīn Ibn al-Ḥajjār (MSD 18/71/111), who was Āmina’s grand-uncle (see figure 5). At the time she appeared in court, half of the cluster was in the hands of her second cousin once removed, Ibn al-Ḥajjār’s great grandson ‘Abd al-Qādir, whereas the second half was under the control of Khadīja’s grandsons.

Figure 2: The Manjak – ʿAjlānī Connection

Khadīja Khatūn had married into the ʿAjlānī family (MSD 18/68/104; 18/71/110). Bearing the title of sayyida, she probably had a mother who belonged to the ashrāf as the patriline of the Manjaks was not associated with that group. She brought not only wealth and the management of the cluster with her but also a high social position that is reflected in the new name of her descendants. From that time on, this branch is known as the Manjak ʿAjlānīs, a fact that is obscured in the later histories of the lineage (Schilcher 1985, p. 201).

One of the main tasks of the cluster management was to distribute the income among the beneficiaries. This was a complex operation because the twelve individual endowments followed their own rules of transmission. What they all had in common was that both male and female descendants were entitled to have and transmit a share. Two endowments distributed the income in equal shares among all the endowers’ living descendants, male and female alike (waqf al-ruʾūs). Five endowments distributed the income equally to females and males, but only to the oldest member of each line, hence a father would overshadow his children and a grandmother her children and children’s children. This was also true for the last five endowments, though they assigned to females only half the share of a male (ʿalā al-farīḍa).

Year in, year out, the share of every beneficiary had to be recalculated to account for recent births and deaths. Intermarriage between the lineages made the calculations even more complicated. Moreover, expressing the often infinitesimally small shares in words was cumbersome. Note the repetition of fractions like a tenth (ʿushr) or a ninth (tusʿ) in a document related to the division of the cluster in an earlier year (see figure 3).

Figure 3: Court record, calculation of shares in the Manjak waqf cluster (MSD 49/130/444)

These calculations were the work of experts who probably also used graphic tools such as genealogical tables. One such chart was referred to in a legal act pertaining to the same endowment cluster as a “tree” (see figure 4). Unfortunately, such documents are accessible to researchers only very rarely as they were not part of the ‘official’ documentation of waqf affairs in the Ottoman court system. They were presented in court only in case of disputes about the size of shares. This, however, was not Āmina’s problem as we shall see presently.

Figure 4: The expression ‘Tree of the names of the descendants of the founders’ (shajarat asmāʾ dhurriyyat al-wāqifīn) (MSD 49/130/444)


Āmina and her ‘family’

At the time she appeared in court in 1735, Āmina was already a grandmother, as she spoke not only for herself, but also for her children Aḥmad and ʿĀʾisha and her grandchildren, ʿĀʾisha’s son and daughter ʿAbd Allāh and Zaynab (see figure 5). Āmina is the only one of this three-generation group whom we can place within a patrilineal descent group. The document does not mention the husbands of either mother or daughter. It clarifies Āmina’s descent (nasab) by naming her father and grandfather. In addition, the text also mentions a ‘family’ name. At that time this was a mark of distinction and a sign of an elevated position (see Michel 2016): Āmina was the daughter of Isma‘īl b. Abū Makārim al-Ḥajjār.

The Ḥajjār were an old Damascene family of Sharifian descent, mostly working in trade (Muhibbi s.d., vol. 2, pp. 15–16; Ṣayyādī 1993, pp. 83–84). The text mentions Āmina and her children’s titles of sharīfa or sayyid respectively (the grandchildren appear without title). Āmina, Aḥmad and ʿĀʾisha belonged to that distinguished category of people called al-ashrāf who claimed descent from the Prophet Muḥammad himself, a claim acknowledged by the Ottoman state and registered in the lists of the syndic of the group (naqīb al-ashrāf). The actual holder of this function was also part of the wider kin group and a beneficiary of the endowment cluster.

Figure 5: The Manjak – Ḥajjār Connection

Āmina’s quarrel was with the three men of her kin who jointly managed the endowments. Two appeared in court in person, al-Sayyid ‘Abd al-Qādir Jelebi b. al-Sayyid Tāj al-‘Ārifīn b.  al-Ḥajjār who controlled one half of the waqf cluster, and al-Sayyid ‘Alī Jelebi b. Sayyid Ḥusayn Efendi al-‘Ajlānī (see figure 3) who together with his brother Sayyid Ibrāhīm Jelebi controlled the other half. In court Sayyid ‘Alī acted as Sayyid Ibrāhīm’s trustee (wakīl).


Sharīfa Āmina accused the administrators of not having received payment of her and her descendants’ rightful shares for the past seven years. She also claimed to have been denied the share of her paternal aunts who had died without offspring some forty years earlier. The payments due to her and the group she represented would exceed the debt of 80 qursh which she had received as an advance (ʿalā ṭarīq al-salaf wa-l-ta‘jīl) from the waqf administration. She demanded to be paid the rest. The sums in question were not inconsiderable. In 1734, the share of the five individuals was a sum of 36.33 qursh. This is more than double the yearly salary of a financial agent of the same cluster (14.75 qursh) or of a Quran reciter in one of the Manjak mosques (11.80 qurush) (MSD 72/30/65).

The defendants, in their turn, declared to have paid all dues to her and her group up to end of the year 1733. Āmina herself had acknowledged this fact (aqarrat al-muwāṣala). It was only then that one of the managers had allotted her 80 qursh as an advance for the years 1734 and 1735. The administration had deducted the share of 1734 from the debt and would do the same with that of 1735. Presently, the claimant was asking for a new advance, but the administrators were denying her wish.

The judge explained to Āmina that she could not force the administrators to advance her any of the waqf funds. The share of her paternal aunts who had died without offspring forty years earlier, he informed her, had gone to the persons of the same “generation” (daraja) according to the stipulations of the endowers. As she belonged to a younger generation (anzal daraja), she could not claim a share as long as people of the earlier generation were still alive.

One can only speculate about the reasons why the administrators denied the request for credit at this time. It may well be that this change of policy was due to the reshuffling of responsibilities in the administration that had taken place shortly before this lawsuit was brought to court. A new generation had taken over: Sayyid ʿAlī and Sayyid Ibrāhīm al-ʿAjlānī obtained their position in July 1732 and their paternal cousin transmitted them his last share in October 1734 (MSD 72/30/65, cf. 72/46/93). The other half of the control was in the hands of Sayyid ʿAbd al-Qādir Jelebi since September 1727, when he had taken over from his father (MSD 61/7/17, cf. 61/24/57).

To get credit from a waqf was circumstantial and depended on the personal relationship between the one who demanded and the one who gave credit. The regular income provided by a functioning endowment could serve as security for advances and loans, yet credit was not automatically granted nor was it a beneficiary’s acknowledged right. Considering the high rates of interest paid for loans in the regular market (15 % and more), the interest-free advance payments from the waqf management seem to have been a very attractive option.

Astrid Meier (March 2017)



Damascus, Dār al-wathā’iq al-waṭaniyya, Series Maḥākim Dimashq al-shar‘iyya (MSD). Individual acts will be quoted as (MSD volume/page/document number). Here the Hijri date is added for clarity:

  • 2m//299 [24 Jumādā I 1091]
  • 18/69/110 [21 Muḥarram 1101]
  • 18/71/111 [21 Muḥarram 1101]
  • 49/130/444 [21 Jumādā II 1135]
  • 61/7/17 [11 Ṣafar 1140]
  • 61/24/57 [13 Ṣafar 1140]
  • 72/30/65 [25 Jumādā I 1147]
  • 72/46/93 [8 Jumādā II 1147]
  • 72/177/293 [25 Ramaḍān 1147]


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  • Vigouroux, Elodie: “Les Banū Manǧak à Damas: Capital social, enracinement local et gestion patrimoniale d’une famille d’awlād al-nās à l’époque mamelouke”, Annales Islamologiques 47, 2014, pp. 197–233. http://www.ifao.egnet.net/publications/catalogue/?aut=AnIsl047_art_09.pdf&nv=0

To quote this publication:

Astrid Meier, “Looking for Credit in 18th Century Damascus: A Case from the Court Records”, DYNTRAN Working Papers, n° 22, online edition, March 2017, available at: http://dyntran.hypotheses.org/1794

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