Law and Legality in the Ottoman Empire: Book Review

Law and Legality in the Ottoman Empire and Republic of Turkey. Edited by Kent F. Schull, M. Safa Saraçolu, and Robert F. Zens. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2016. Pp. 207. ISBN: 9780253020925 (paperback).

This volume is the expansion and culmination of articles presented at the Middle East Scholars Association’s annual conference in 2013 and in the Journal of the Ottoman and Turkish Studies Association’s Spring 2015 issue. The theme of the essays, organized by chronology, revolve around the relationship between law, legality, and legitimacy in the Ottoman Empire and modern Turkish state, with a particular view to correcting the simplified misperception of Ottoman legal practice popularized by sociologist Max Weber (d. 1920). Overall, the purpose is to advance our historical understanding of the complex interplay between social, cultural, political, and economic factors in the trend towards standardization, centralization, and rationalization of law as practiced by the Ottoman state and its successor.

Each of the nine scholarly articles represents a developing area of inquiry related to law, society, and history in Ottoman and Turkish studies. Timothy J. Fitzgerald explores the relationship of literacy and law during the transition from Mamluk to Ottoman rule in the Arabic-speaking world. Fitzgerald is particularly concerned with how the perspective of literacy can help historians understand popular engagement with law and politics. Hadi Hosainy examines the role of extra-judicial officers in the Sharia courts of seventeenth-century Istanbul. Based upon an analysis of two court cases, Hosainy argues that the early modern Sharia courts did not enjoy as much impartial independence as previously thought, as several actors had the potential to manipulate court proceedings for their own interests.

Michael Nizri examines four court cases dealing with the boundaries of property belonging to endowments. The elites sometimes attempted to convert public property into their own private property, even though the state always retained ownership in practice. M. Safa Saraçolu analyzes the Ottoman state’s intervention into markets via market inspectors (muhtasib) and the setting of price-ceilings (narh). These practices were based in Islamic law but slowly gave way to new practices as these powers were delegated to provincial councils. Kenneth Cuno attempts to provide insight into the reorganization of Sharia courts in Egypt, which paralleled the reforms being made by their Ottoman imperial counterparts. Cuno argues that the modernization of the legal code had actually put women at a greater disadvantage than had earlier legal practices.

Nora Barakat argues that the current understanding historians have of legal pluralism in the late Ottoman state is in reality more complicated. An extra-state land market existed in the rural Syrian district of Salt, which although limited, was a challenge to the monopoly of state taxation instead of state-sanctioned pluralism. Samy Ayoub addresses an important point of debate in the historical transmutation of decentralized Islamic law into centralized state law. According to Ayoub, the codification of the Hanafi law school in the form of Mecelle was not without precedent in the school itself. Kent F. Schull looks at the gradual centralization of criminal law and punishment by the late Ottoman state. Ottoman administrators eventually circumscribed the autonomy of local courts and introduced incarceration as the primary form of punishment. In the final article, Ellinor Morack shares her research on laws related to migrants who came to Turkey from Greece during the population exchange of 1923. The existence of a law itself does not necessarily mean it was uniformly applied; as Morack demonstrates, a number of different notions of law and legality were understood by various state administrations and populations affects by their policies.

In summary, the volume will likely interest scholars of Ottoman and Turkish studies, Islamic law studies, and Middle Eastern history in general. The content is most appropriate for graduate students and advanced scholars. There is no comprehensive bibliography, but sources are documented using Chicago-style footnotes.

Justin Parrott
New York University in Abu Dhabi