In Libya, religious endowments and their associated wealth have become a magnet for intense and often violent competition among Libya’s many political and religious currents.
One evening in November 2015, just after 6:00 p.m., five men carrying assault rifles entered a government office in the Libyan capital of Tripoli and arrested the office’s director.
At first glance, the incident is unremarkable and barely newsworthy—one of countless instances of coercion after the fall of late dictator Muammar Qadhafi in Libya, where a succession of weak governments has faced pressure from unaccountable militias.
In this case, the abductors belonged to a powerful, Tripoli-based armed group called the Special Deterrence Force. Nominally under the Ministry of Interior, the Special Deterrence Force has long acted as de facto police and moral enforcers in the Libyan capital and its environs.
Their ranks include a sizeable number of adherents of Salafism—the doctrinaire, literalist, Islamic current.
This ideological outlook partially explains the arrest that night. In a statement, the militia claimed that the office director was supporting propaganda and recruitment by the self-proclaimed Islamic State in Tripoli’s mosques.
Yet this was a flimsy pretext.
To be sure, the government functionary—a former Quran teacher and building contractor in his forties named Muhammad Ala’ al-Din al-Taktik—followed the so-called Libya Dawn coalition that included revolutionary Islamists and some sympathizers of jihadi militancy.
And his doctrinal interpretation of Islam certainly clashed with that of the Salafists. But he was no friend of the Islamic State either.
In place of the charge of extremism, a more credible explanation for the brusque abduction that night is to be found in al-Taktik’s appointment.
He was the director of the Tripoli office charged with overseeing Libya’s awqaf (singular waqf, or Islamic endowments, such as financial or property assets), a religious institution that has long wielded immense economic, political, and moral power both in Libya and throughout the Muslim world.
Abolished at one point during Qadhafi’s rule, the national awqaf office—at various times termed a ministry or an authority—and its local branches have become the objects of a fierce and occasionally violent contest between contending political factions since the dictator’s demise in 2011.
At stake is the endowment’s authority to manage vast sums of rental income from the buildings, real estate, and other financial assets donated as waqf; oversee zakat (mandatory annual charitable donations made by Muslims); and regulate Islamic discourse through the appointments of imams (mosque leaders), khatibs (preachers at Friday prayers), and Quran teachers.
The implications of such roles are far-reaching in Libya’s economic and political affairs, extending well beyond the nominally religious role of the General Authority for Awqaf and Islamic Affairs, as the current national bureaucracy in Tripoli is known.
“It’s more important than the presidency,” noted one Libyan community leader and religious scholar. “When you control it, you get hayba [prestige] and income,” noted a Libyan scholar who studies the country’s religious currents.
Echoing this, a Muslim cleric and community leader pointed to the authority’s financial resources and its ability to shape popular opinions as evidence that controlling it was “more important than oil.”
While some might take issue with such sweeping assertions, the battle for the ministry has still been an important corollary to the more high-profile and better-studied rivalries to influence and control Libya’s central bank, investment authority, national oil corporation, and security sector.
Disputes over the awqaf authority have shaped the institution’s authority and roles, battered Libya’s already dire economy, added to its political turmoil, widened its social fissures, and sometimes exploded into violence.
Those associated with awqaf offices have experienced these tribulations firsthand, often at great personal risk.
In the case of the Tripoli cleric, al-Taktik was lucky.
The Special Deterrence Force released him not long after his arrest, though he was summarily dismissed from his post and replaced by a figure from a rival ideological and political current that was aligned, unsurprisingly, with the militia that had detained him.
And al-Taktik would not be the last Libyan awqaf official to be threatened or coerced in the years ahead.
The competition for the management of awqaf as a source of political and social authority but also an economic asset stems in large measure from its long-standing repression during Qadhafi’s decades-long dictatorship as well as the formative period of Italian colonial rule from 1911 to 1943.
Following the 2011 revolution that toppled Qadhafi, the escalating rivalry over the awqaf authority mirrors the broader trends of political fragmentation, hyper-localization, and descent into nationwide armed conflict.
This chaos was itself the result of weak or nonexistent governing institutions, inter-elite contestation, and growing international intervention, especially by the competing regional powers of Turkey and the United Arab Emirates, who have advanced different visions of ideological and political order in the Middle East.
In particular, the struggle embodies the tensions between national and local authority, the misappropriation of oil-derived government funds, and the recourse to armed intimidation as a zero-sum expression of politics.
Disputes over property ownership, an especially disruptive legacy of Qadhafi’s rule, have worsened awqaf-related turmoil. As part of his collectivist ideology, Qadhafi appropriated awqaf–managed real estate and used it to build housing, universities, airports, and regime facilities.
ince the 2011 revolution, resurgent awqaf authorities and citizens have laid competing claims to these holdings, though the absence of accurate land surveys and record keeping have made establishing proper entitlements especially contentious.
In some cases, Libyan citizens have tried to appropriate real estate assets claimed by the awqaf ministry, eliciting frequent warnings from religious authorities.
At another level, the awqaf have become a casualty of competition within Libya’s religious field over social legitimacy, economic resources, and political power.
This contest, broadly speaking, has been waged between two loose constellations: on the one hand, adherents of Salafism—especially a Saudi-inspired variant of Salafism whose followers are colloquially known as Madkhalis for their deference to the Medina-based Saudi cleric Rabi bin Hadi al-Madkhali—versus more revolutionary and activist Islamist currents, including those aligned with or supportive of the Muslim Brotherhood and jihadist elements, as well as adherents of Sufism.
Far from being an arcane religious debate or solely the domain of Islamic clerics, the question of the awqaf in Libya has broad implications for the country’s economic, political, and social stability.
Foreign, and especially Western, policymakers who seek to engage with Libya’s religious field—as part of broader efforts at societal outreach, conflict resolution, or countering violent extremism—need an understanding of how the institution’s roles, authorities, and practices have been shaped by armed conflict, political contestation, and foreign influences.
Importantly, Western policymakers should understand that the awqaf bodies are not above politics. Nor is there such a thing as a so-called authentically Libyan or religiously pure awqaf authority: the institutions have always been shaped by politics, diverse and sometimes contending Islamic currents, and foreign influences throughout Libya’s modern history.
Conversely, diplomats and nongovernmental organizations should be aware of two important dynamics:
(a) how the competition for the awqaf institution has contributed to Libya’s current fragmentation and divisions and
(b) how Libya’s elites and citizens perceive the awqaf body’s dynamic roles.
More specifically, those investigating and trying to eliminate corruption within Libya’s state institutions should understand the impact of corruption on the awqaf authority’s financial roles, especially its management of real estate and supervision of zakat.
Frederic Wehrey is a senior fellow in the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His research deals with armed conflict, security sector governance, and Islamist politics, with a focus on Libya, North Africa, and the Gulf.