Vaqf and Ecology: Reading the Endowment of the Madrasa-yi Sultani from an Environmental History Perspective

By James M. Gustafson
Submitted to Session P4974 (State Consolidation and Contestation in Qajar and Pahlavi Iran, 2017 Annual Meeting
19th-21st Centuries;
LCD Projector without Audio;
Given the ecological diversity of modern Iran, environmental historians must take into account a wide variety of local experiences in comparative perspective. This observation has frequently been made in secondary literature, from Peter Christensen’s work on the decline of irrigation works and arable lands since antiquity, to Richard Bulliett’s groundbreaking studies of climate change and ecological transformation in early Islamic Iran. There is, unfortunately, very little research on the environmental history of modern Iran to allow for a comparative regional approach.

One fruitful area of research that remains to be fully examined is the link between local economic structures and broader ecological systems. In Ottoman studies, where environmental history has gained some recent traction, there is a strong emphasis on central requisition systems and large-scale transfers of resources to provision military forces, the central bureaucracy, and large urban centers. Qajar Iran, by contrast, was significantly less centralized, with local political and economic structures operating with little central interference into the 1920s.

In the environmental history of modern Iran, I will argue that avqaf (religious endowments) are an important starting point for research, given the need of analyzing local experiences in comparative perspective. Vaqf scholars have long observed that religious endowments provided a structure for local economies, social services, and land use patterns. This paper will follow up on that line of research by examining a Qajar era endowment from the Madrasa-yi Sultani in Kashan from an ecological perspective. I will demonstrate that such documents also reveal important elements of the reciprocal relationships between local communities and environments.

This paper will analyze an 1814 vaqfnama for the Madrasa-yi Sultani, an 1871 geographical text on Kashan (Zarrabi’s Mir’at al-Qasan), and comments from both Qajar and British imperial sources, and demonstrate that this endowment is a clear example of how endowed institutions structured relationships between urban and rural areas. This includes land use and reclamation patterns, irrigation works, crop production, the flow of resources into urban centers, and the generation of demand for agricultural surplus.