Scholarship in “Plain English”: Sherman Jackson on the Primacy of Domestic Politics

By Alicia Daniel

Citation: Alicia Daniel, Review of Sherman A. Jackson, The Primacy of Domestic Politics: Ibn Bint Al-Aʿazz and the Establishment of Four Chief Judgeships in Mamlūk Egypt [Journal of the American Oriental Society 115, no. 1 (1995): 52-65], Islamic Law Blog (2017)

Narrative Abstract

Upon coming into power in Egypt in the year 658/1260, Sulṭān Baybars I was in a tenuous position. After fighting his way to the top in a tumultuous political climate, Baybars knew that he needed to establish his legitimacy as an Islamic ruler.  One way he did so was by appointing the powerful and respected Shāfiʿī jurist, Tāj al-Dīn Ibn Bint al-Aʿazz as chief judge in a legal system in which each of the main schools of Sunnī Islamic law were represented. However, this Shāfiʿī judge’s exclusivist practices quickly began to anger the heads of the other schools of Islamic law in the region. In an attempt to win over the other schools without alienating the dominant Shāfiʿī school, Baybars introduced a chief judge from each of the other schools to serve alongside Ibn Bint al-Aʿazz. Although scholars have disputed Baybars’ motives for appointing multiple heads of the judiciary, it seems most likely that this was a calculated political decision, in line with Eckart Kehr’s famous theory about the importance of domestic politics. This post provides a “plain English” review of the article: Sherman A. Jackson, The Primacy of Domestic Politics: Ibn Bint Al-Aʿazz and the Establishment of Four Chief Judgeships in Mamlûk Egypt, Journal of the American Oriental Society 115, no. 1 (1995): 52-65.

Baybars’ Reform of the Judiciary was about Domestic Politics

In 1931, Eckart Kehr argued that history is shaped not by the official actions of government aristocrats but by domestic politics, or the relationships and conflicts between different groups in society. Though it may seem odd to apply this German theory from the early twentieth century to developments in thirteenth-century Mamlūk Egypt, Kehr’s theory actually provides persuasive explanation for Sulṭān Baybars’ makeover of the judiciary at that time. In some ways,

“Baybars’ action can be seen as having been neither symbolic nor the result of a

top-down decision voluntarily imposed. Rather, the new Sultan was responding to a concrete problem whose origins and dimensions were local. In short, his decision was the result of the dialectical unfolding of conflicts and hegemonies among an important group within Egyptian society—the [scholars of Islamic law].” (p. 53)

Baybars’ judiciary reforms were gradual, likely because he was working hard to build legitimacy. After reigning for two years, Baybars directed his Shāfiʿī chief justice, Ibn Bint Al-Aʿazz to appoint three deputies, one from each of the other main Sunnī schools of law. Because they were regarded as direct appointees of the Sultan, these three judges got special privileges not usually given to subordinates. After three years, Baybars promoted each of them officially to chief judgeships.

Historians of Islamic law have long recognized these reforms as important but have disagreed on their precise significance. Some theories on why Baybars enacted these reforms tend to be a bit far-fetched, such as the notion of Baybars’ supposed fear that Ibn Bint Al-Aʿazz and the Shāfiʿī school were growing too powerful. In reality, Baybars’ actions and the actions of his predecessors demonstrate no such fear. Rather, the reorganization of the judiciary was a response to the style and attitude of the chief justice, and had everything to do with domestic politics.

Much of the domestic politics had to do with the reality of Islamic legal pluralism stemming from abiding disagreements as to how to interpret Islamic law. From the early days of Islam in the seventh century, scholars have disagreed about how to interpret Islamic law. Like any legal system, Islamic law is complex and always evolving. Differences of opinion over not only the interpretation of texts but also the best way to govern a dynamic society are inevitable. One outgrowth of such differences was the establishment of different schools of Islamic law, or madhhabs. Each legal school has its own scholars and methods of interpretation, and they often held opposing views on issues of Islamic law. The schools often existed in harmony, as shown by the establishment of “super-colleges” where scholars from the different schools taught and studied side-by-side.

But differences in legal interpretation and practice could lead to sharp political divides. In Mamlūk Egypt, for example, the Shāfiʿī school was clearly dominant. However, when the other schools joined together, Baybars found that he could not afford to ignore them. Their cooperation against the exclusivist Shāfiʿī chief justice led to the appointment of three additional chief justices, each from one of the less powerful madhabs. This gave Baybars legitimacy while beginning to level the playing field between the different schools.

As Baybars was working hard to win support throughout Egypt, Ibn Bint Al-Aʿazz was governing in an exclusionary manner—privileging the opinions of his legal school against all others. The chief justice refused to give effect to the orders of judges from other schools with whom he disagreed. This, of course, infuriated his fellow judges, and the tension was made worse by the fact that the Shāfi’ī school was the only one that allowed this practice. All other Sunni schools of law (and even some Shāfi’ī scholars) believed that judges had to approve their deputies’ orders, even when they disagreed with the underlying doctrine. Yet Ibn Bint Al-Aʿazz, despite the outcries of his fellow scholars, remained inflexible, refusing to approve any subordinate’s ruling that conflicted with his own views. The other madhhabs became so fed up with this practice that they came to the sultan and demanded either the replacement of Ibn Bint Al-Aʿazz or checks on his power. Baybars, unwilling to fire such a powerful ally, began to look for a creative solution. His solution—gradually installing fellow chief justices, whose rulings Ibn Bint Al-Aʿazz could not refuse—allowed Baybars to remain in the good graces of all the madhabs at a time when he desperately needed their support. “Indeed, in his handling of the situation Baybars showed himself to be the consummate Mamlūk politician, establishing an essential Muslim institution and breathing new life into the fledgling Mamlūk dynasty.” (p. 65)

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