Al-Ahram Weekly Online
3 - 9 January 2002
Issue No.567
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Current issue | Previous issue | Site map


A Diwan of contemporary life (423)

Dr YunanThe extraordinary sum of LE100,000 -- by the standards of the 1920s -- which was donated by a certain Abdel-Rahim El-Demerdash to build a charity hospital, was a magnanimous gesture in 1928, the largest donation made by an Egyptian in living memory. Donations for philanthropic institutions was not a Western concept but had Islamic roots, institutionalised in the form of waqf, or religious endowments. So while unprecedented in scale, El-Demerdash's donation was not an isolated case. Al-Ahram cited the names of several citizens in earlier decades who had provided generously for the founding of hospitals. El-Demerdash's generosity, however, was the most widely publicised, and led to the beginning of community work and a scramble to emulate him. Professor Yunan Labib Rizk* profiles the great benefactor

Precedent-setting gift

"Last night, Abdel-Rahim El-Demerdash invited to his home in Ramla the prime minister and other members of government to present them a letter whereby he donated LE25,000, his daughter LE50,000 and his wife LE25,000 in addition to a 15,000 square- metre plot of land located on Queen Nazli (currently Ramses) Street. The land has been dedicated to the construction of a charity hospital which shall house 75 beds. The hospital cost is estimated at LE40,000 and the remainder of the donation -- LE60,000 -- is to be allocated to running the hospital on condition the government covers any deficit."

This announcement appeared in Al-Ahram of 5 August 1928. The report added that El-Demerdash Pasha had also stipulated that the hospital contain a prayer room as well as a chamber for his eventual burial. "He also pledged to pay the LE40,000 construction cost as soon as he was presented the bill which the government pledged would be given to him in two months."

Al-Ahram could not allow such a magnanimous gesture to pass without comment. It conveyed the gratitude of the nation for this "noble deed," adding, "Never has a benefactor made such a large donation. We hope that our nation's top officials and eminent writers will accord this deed the esteem and dedication it merits and do their utmost to encourage others to embark on this course of charity and good works."

Although some believe that giving donations for the creation of philanthropic institutions, such as hospitals, was originally a Western phenomenon later imitated in the east, a look into Arab history confirms it had Islamic roots. Such donations were institutionalised in the form of waqf, or religious endowments. Mohamed Afifi's exhaustive study, The Awqaf in the Economic Life of Egypt in the Ottoman Era, furnishes a detailed description of the role this system played in the public services not provided by the government. Under the feudal system of Ottoman rule, the government was primarily responsible for security and defence and tax collection. Other services were left to the governed who put land or other forms of wealth in trusts dedicated to the construction, maintenance or refurbishment of mosques, religious educational institutions, hospitals, general and mental hospices, asylums, bathhouses and sabils or public water fountains.

Despite the economic stagnation which Egypt went through in the Ottoman era, the waqf tradition persisted, as is evidenced by the deeds registered with the religious courts. As Mohamed Ali built up the modern Egyptian state, the waqf system continued to operate. The injunction of the Prophet's saying -- "When a person dies his work is carried on in only three manners: a continuing charity, an imparting of knowledge and a virtuous son who prays for him" -- provided the moral stimulus for its perpetuation. Then, as the system of private land ownership stabilised in the last quarter of the 19th century, leading to the rise of an indigenous landed gentry, the material mechanisms also came into being, not only sustaining but increasing the practice. By the early 20th century, the number of waqf trusts had grown to the point where, in 1913, it was deemed necessary to turn the Waqf Authority into a ministry.

However, significant change was bound to occur as the social service institutions of the Ottoman era gradually ceded to modern social services in the form of public or privately funded schools, charity organisations and modern hospitals. Al-Ahram took the occasion of El-Demerdash's donation to list the number of hospitals founded through waqf endowments established by Egyptian notables over the previous 20 years:

"In 1906 El-Shawarbi Pasha founded a 60-bed charity hospital in Qalyoub. Out of its LE3,700 annual running costs, LE1,400 came out of his waqf. There then followed the hospitals founded by El-Minshawi and El-Badrawi Pashas in Tanta and Samannoud."

The article said, "Between 1923 and 1928 the founding of hospitals by private benefactors increased dramatically. In 1923, the inhabitants of Tahta collected a large sum of money with which they built a hospital that could hold 15 beds. In 1925, Saleh Lamloum Pasha founded a 12-bed hospital in Maghagha. He also pays LE800 per year towards its expenses while the government pays LE1,000. In 1926, the inhabitants of Malawi donated money for a 16-bed hospital, the annual running costs of which were LE1,600. In the same year, El-Shurbagi Bek Badar funded a 30-bed hospital. The following year, the residents of Mit Ghamr collected enough funds to build a 24-bed hospital, Abdel-Aziz Bek donated money to build a 16-bed hospital in Zawiya Al-Naoura and the inhabitants of Al-Fikriya in Abu Qirqas collected money for a 25- bed hospital. In addition, the wife of Minshawi Pasha founded a 20-bed pediatric hospital in Abbasiya and dedicated the income from her waqf to its operating costs. Similarly, before he died, Ahmed Talaat Bek bequeathed his large home in Al-Suyufiya to be transformed into an orphanage for the crippled and infirm. It houses 30 beds and its expenses are paid for from his waqf."

As for the most generous benefactor to date, Abdel-Rahim El- Demerdash was the sheikh of an ancient Sufi order, the Demerdashiya order, founded by Mohamed El-Demerdash El- Mahmoudi in 1522, shortly after the Ottoman conquest of Egypt. Since that time, the position was passed down the El- Demerdashi line. Abdel-Rahim inherited from his father Mustafa at the age of 30. Al-Ahram writes that when Abdel-Rahim's father died, the order consisted only of a handful of merchants, notables and ordinary people who kept its rites alive in Thursday evening prayer meetings and the zikrs, or Sufi chanting sessions, that were held in the Abdallah Mohamed El-Demerdash family tomb. However, the newspaper continues, "in spite of the preoccupations that took up so much of Abdel-Rahim's time, membership in the El-Demerdash order increased manifold compared to the age of his noble ancestors. Moreover, now the order includes the most eminent scholars, merchants and manufactures, the most select group of Sufi members in all of Egypt."

The article adds that the Demerdashiya order possessed major religious trusts, the annual income from which exceeded LE4,000. Although such earnings were considerable by the standards of the time, there are reasons to believe that Abdel-Rahim El-Demerdash had other means to augment his personal fortune. In his memoirs, Ahmed Shafiq, the director of the Waqf Authority before it became a ministry, tells the following story:

"Before leaving my post in 1913, I left a report with my successor drawing his attention to certain important legal and administrative matters. One matter involved the suit brought against Abdel-Hamid Pasha El-Demerdash over a plot of land near Hadayiq Al-Qubba. Pursuant to the instructions of the khedive, I submitted the relevant documents to Minister of Interior Mohamed Said Pasha so that he could determine whether the Waqf Authority had the right to file this suit." Shafiq said that when his successor asked Said Pasha to return the documents, the minister said he had given them to his deputy minister and that the documents were no longer in his office. One suspects that those papers somehow found their way back to the home of Sheikh El-Demerdash.

Parliamentary minutes reveal that El-Demerdash had been elected one of the four representatives of Cairo on three parliamentary advisory commissions from 1891 to 1894, from 1902 to 1907 and from 1909 to 1912. He was also elected as a deputy in the Legislative Assembly from 1913 to 1914. In other words, El-Demerdash was a member of parliamentary bodies almost throughout his career. Although the khedive had sought to have him removed, particularly after he joined the Umma Party, the influence El-Demerdash wielded as head of a Sufi order and through his personal fortune would ensure his return. Ahmed Shafiq recounts that in 1908, Khedive Abbas II selected one of his men, Ibrahim Ragi, to run against El- Demerdash. However, the latter assembled the leaders of all the Bayoumi orders, of which the El-Demerdashi order was one, and had them take an oath not to back any other candidate but him. His strategy succeeded, earning him 120 votes to 60 votes for the khedive's candidate. The strategy worked a second time when he fielded himself in the legislative elections as deputy for the Al-Gamaliya constituency, a popular quarter in which the influence of the Sufi orders ran high.

On 8 August 1928, Al-Ahram published the statement of the El- Demerdash donation which took the form of a letter addressed to the prime minister. In view of the insight such documents give into the times, we reprint it here in full:

"We the undersigned -- Abdel-Rahim El-Demerdash, his wife and his daughter Qout El-Qulub El-Demerdashiya -- are honoured to present the following to Your Excellency:

"It is our resolve to found a charity hospital to be located on Queen Nazli Street, in the El-Demerdash quarter of Abbasiya, El-Wayli precinct, and to be administered by the government. Towards this end we donate the following:

"First, a plot of land in that location from our estate covering approximately 15,000 square metres;

"Secondly, the sum of LE40,000 to cover construction costs. The money is to be allocated after we have been presented with and approved the preliminary estimate;

"Thirdly, the sum of LE60,000 which we pledge to the government forthwith upon the completion of the hospital. If the money from this sum is insufficient, the government shall pledge to pay the remaining costs annually.

"Further, we make the following stipulations:

"That this be a public hospital for the treatment of all illnesses apart from epidemic diseases, and that it contain all necessary departments and an out-patient clinic;

"The hospital admits the poor free of charge, regardless of national or religious affiliation;

"That it be permitted to admit patients with the financial means who will pay the set fees;

"That this hospital be named Abdel-Rahim Mustafa El- Demerdash and Family Hospital, to be written on a marble plaque placed at the main entrance;

"A prayer room to be built in the courtyard of the hospital to allow prayers to be performed on the hospital grounds;

"A mausoleum to be constructed inside the prayer chamber for the sole use of the undersigned and no one should be accorded burial in that mausoleum apart from us;

"A commemorative bust be erected in the hospital reception hall to be inscribed on its base: Al-Sayyid Abdel-Rahim El- Demerdash Pasha, founder of this hospital;

"The government publicly pledge to undertake the maintenance of the hospital and to conduct any necessary refurbishment or reconstruction should part or all of the hospital be destroyed or require renovation on condition that such reconstruction does not obstruct medical treatment in the hospital except when meeting the absolute exigencies for the completion of work;

"An annual commemorative ceremony be held in honour of Abdel-Rahim El-Demerdash on the anniversary of the inauguration of the hospital. On that day, sweets shall be distributed to the patients and a portion shall be set aside to offer guests attending the ceremony;

"Invitations to attend the inaugural ceremony be issued by Abdel-Rahim Pasha El-Demerdash."

The same edition of Al-Ahram also published the response of Prime Minister Mohamed Mahmoud:

"We have received your letter in which you have kindly informed us of the noble gift which you and your honourable family have bestowed upon the nation out of compassion for the poor and ailing.

"Such rare munificence in the spirit of mercy, charity and piety towards God shall ensure the highest praise and commemoration of your name for all time and constitutes an outstanding model for the country's wealthy to emulate and a powerful appeal to the cause of good deeds and self-sacrifice for the sake of the public welfare. In addition, your action shall remain a source of pride for Egypt as long as nations boast of their great benefactors."

Soon afterwards, the cabinet met to discuss the conditions stipulated by the magnanimous benefactor. They agreed to them all without reservation, after which all the necessary measures were put into effect to make El-Demerdash's "noble gift" a reality.

On 13 August 1928, El-Demerdash Pasha presented the prime minister with a letter from the German Oriental Bank declaring its authorisation of the benefactor's instructions to place LE40,000 at the disposal of the Ministry of Public Works for the purpose of covering the construction costs of the hospital. The newspaper added, "We have been given to understand that the blueprint for the hospital was drawn up by the Building Authority in cooperation with the Public Health Authority and that this hospital is to be the best health-care facility in Egypt."

The planned hospital, Al-Ahram reported, would be built on 12,400 square metres of land, hold as many as 90 beds and have the following sections: quarters for a resident physician and chief nurse, two wards, a surgery unit, out-patient clinic, a laboratory, kitchen, laundry room, isolation ward, an autopsy department and a mosque containing the mausoleum for the El- Demerdash family.

At 3.30pm on 25 November, a throng of officials and public personalities gathered to lay the foundation stone of the El- Demerdash Hospital. Al-Ahram's reporter on the scene writes, "It is futile to attempt to list all the names of those present. Suffice it to say that they included present and past ministers and deputy ministers, religious officials and others of prominence and stature. Not a single class of society was without a representative in this gathering." Those present also found the two most powerful figures in the country in their midst: Lord George Lloyd, the British high commissioner who was greeted with applause, and Prime Minister Mohamed Mahmoud Pasha, popularly referred to as "the man with the iron fist."

The most important speech of the day, of course, was that delivered by the "great benefactor." El-Demerdash declared that his purpose was "to alleviate the sufferings of the ill" and that he had been moved to perform this deed "out of deference to the call of my conscience and in fulfillment of the loftiest calls of Islam which exhorts us to comfort the ill and assist the wretched. The pleasure I feel at this moment exceeds all other joys that life has brought me in rank, wealth, lineage and the like."

Al-Ahram's correspondent observed that on the table before which El-Demerdash had delivered his speech lay a bricklayer's tools, a tin vessel containing an Egyptian coin, a silver vessel containing a silver trowel and a VIP book made of gazelle parchment which was signed by all the senior officials present. All then stood as Mohamed Mahmoud placed these objects in the hollow that had been carved out of the cornerstone, placed the cover over the opening and affixed it with a lock which was then secured by wire mesh.

Naturally, such a high-profile act of charity gained widespread acclaim from many quarters, the press above all and Al-Ahram specifically. On 9 August, under the headline "LE135,000 -- cooperation is the foundation of the life of nations," Al-Ahram commented, "Those who know Abdel-Rahim Pasha El- Demerdash and those who do not, and those who love him as well as those who hate him, say in one voice, 'You have done well, donator of thousands, and with your gift you have endeared yourself to all hearts. Those who remember you tomorrow will recall from your lengthy life's record only this generous act of charity and when people remember all the great benefactors of the world and civilised nations, the name of El-Demerdash will be foremost in the mind of every Egyptian.'"

The writer of the above article took note of an important development in charitable activity "in a nation that for centuries has only known the construction of mosques and houses of worship. The age of decadence caused people to forget the works of their righteous forefathers and all methods of performing good deeds apart from the construction of temples." Now, however, "The advocates of reform and the prophets of revival have roused us to the realisation that charity can be performed through other means."

This development manifested itself in "community work," or what we might term today NGOs. Or, in the words of the article, "No sooner did that voice call out to the nation than people poured forth money to establish charitable societies, of which we now have more than 80, to build schools for the poor, shelters and hospitals. And with every passing year those with the means take yet another big step forward in charitable works, to the extent that within a quarter of a century we will stand among the ranks of civilised nations."

To emphasise the importance of the "great gift," Al-Ahram published reports from the British press: the Times, which covered the opening ceremony, and the Near East, which praised the "splendid donation" of an amount unprecedented in Egypt. It added, "It is to be hoped that many people of means will emulate this noble example."

Egyptian society expressed its appreciation of the donation through a spate of receptions and ceremonies in honour of El- Demerdash. More significant was the rush to keep up with the El- Demerdashes in charitable donations. Of the new benefactors, some appeared more sincere than others.

On the one hand, for example, there were individuals such as Mohamed Bek Sultan and Mohamed Badrawi Pasha Ashour. The former put into effect a provision in his father's will to found a hospital in the northern part of Minya, "an area which, despite its importance, is bereft of hospitals." Construction of the hospital was estimated to cost LE25,000 and the land upon which it was built was estimated at LE5,000, all paid for by the father's estate. "All that remains is for the fixtures to be mounted and the walls to be painted," wrote Al-Ahram, adding, "This noble humanitarian deed ensures lasting and heartfelt gratitude to the late Omar Pasha Sultan and his son Mohamed Bek Sultan." In a similar philanthropic spirit, Ashour dedicated a 300-feddan plot of his estate and a significant ongoing waqf trust for a hospital in Talkha.

On the other hand, there were others who made promises but failed to keep them. Ibrahim Murad Pasha, for example, announced that he intended to found a hospital in Bilbeis, towards which end he would put 60 feddans of land in trust. Although the pledge was greeted with great fanfare, after a considerable period of waiting, Al-Ahram was forced to comment, "It is our belief that the pasha will put into effect this charitable deed, which will preserve his name among the ranks of magnanimous benefactors. However, up to now, no measures have been taken to fulfill his pledge, for which reason we renew our plea to the pasha to take steps towards the implementation of his noble intention." After it noticed still no signs of progress, Al-Ahram gave up and fell silent on the matter.

* The author is a professor of history and head of Al-Ahram History Studies Centre.

EmailIt!Recommend this page

© Copyright Al-Ahram Weekly. All rights reserved

Issue 567 Front Page

Search for words and exact phrases (as quotes strings),
Use boolean operators (AND, OR, NEAR, AND NOT) for advanced queries
Letter from the Editor
Editorial Board
Updated every Saturday at 11.00 GMT, 2pm local time
Al-Ahram Organisation