Sovereignty, Uniformity, and Practicability: Facets of Early Modern Ottoman Law

AHA Session 179
Saturday, January 5, 2019: 10:30 AM-12:00 PM
Spire Parlor (Palmer House Hilton, Sixth Floor)
Bogac A. Ergene, University of Vermont
Bogac A. Ergene, University of Vermont

Session Abstract

Despite advances in our knowledge about the bureaucratic, intellectual, and social life of the early modern Ottoman Empire, the scholarship on Ottoman law and legal culture before the nineteenth century remains sparse and theoretically underdeveloped. The nineteenth and twentieth centuries, by contrast, have enjoyed intense attention from scholars. Across numerous studies, scholars have evaluated theories of westernization, modernization, and globalization and have hammered out their implications for law and other facets of life in the late Ottoman Empire. The works on constitutionalism alone fill many volumes. One consequence of this uneven attention is that the historiography of early modern Ottoman law still has a teleological quality, with all developments moving definitively toward the Tanzimat legal reforms. A few scholars have chipped away at the imbalance. This panel broadly aims to further their project. The contributions of this panel will interest not only Ottomanists and historians of Islamic law and the Middle East, but also legal comparativists, law and society scholars, and those general interested in questions of sovereignty, imperial governance, and foreign relations in the early modern Mediterranean.

The three papers touch on three related themes of early modern Ottoman law: sovereignty, uniformity, and practicability. These issues are common components of the perennial issue that any legal system faces of bridging the gap between law on the books and law on the ground. More specifically, all past and present states with a centrally run legal systems have had to do three things: establish the juridical authority of the ruler to make rules, form institutions that execute those rules consistently and predictably, and manage things that go wrong when those rules come into contact with the real world. This was perhaps even more true of early modern imperial legal systems, like the Ottoman one, that aspired to govern a diverse population without imposing on them a national conception of citizenship and a unitary system of law. These two regimes took root everywhere in the nineteenth century with the rise of nationalism. This session leaves them aside and asks, How did the Ottoman legal system work before them?

While none of the papers is focused on either all theory or all practice, the panel is structure to slide from a relatively more theoretical focus to a relatively more practical one. The first paper looks at attempts to link sultanic legislation with established jurisprudence concerning pious endowments in order to juridically establish the sovereign authority of the sultan over land regulation. The second paper then examines at a treatise by the Ottoman chief jurist that attempts to standardize the drafting of legal instruments and creating a more uniform legal procedure. The third and final paper looks at marriages between European Christians and Ottoman Muslims and unpacks some of the practical challenges of administering family law between members of different cultural and confessional communities.

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