In this post, Dr. James Baldwin examines a petition sent to the Ottoman Sultan from Egypt in 1155 AH (1742-3), concerning a dispute between a Muslim and a Christian in the town of Zifta. The Muslim petitioner attempts to enforce the regulation of the Pact of ‘Umar that forbids non-Muslims from having houses taller than those of Muslims. Dr. Baldwin’s commentary focuses on how the petitioning process relates to the sharīʿa court system in the Ottoman Empire.
Petitions were a vital part of the Ottoman legal system. The sharīʿa court was the empire’s default dispute resolution forum, but subjects could also take their disputes to the Sultan via a petition. While petitions were addressed to the Sultan himself, in practice they were handled by the Dīvān-i Hümāyūn (Imperial Council), presided over by the Grand Vizier. The ability of ordinary subjects to communicate directly with the highest organ in the Ottoman government was an important component of Ottoman legitimation strategies, and did much to tie the provinces to the center even as the central authority weakened during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
Petitions represent a highly patrimonial model of governance and justice, in striking contrast to the sharīʿa courts. The rhetoric of petitioning reflected a Persianate tradition of imperial authority in which the monarch was personally responsible for providing justice directly to any of his subjects. In the Ottomans’ idealized image of petitioning, as it may have been practiced during the fifteenth century and earlier, the Sultan received petitions in person while on campaign, or while riding to the mosque for Friday prayers. Whereas the sharīʿa courts sought justice by relying on impersonal procedures, petitioning located justice in the person of the Sultan: in his wisdom, generosity and fairness. However, the patrimonial idiom of petitions was not matched by the reality of Ottoman government during the early modern period. In the sprawling empire of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the petitioning system was necessarily bureaucratized. Despite the apparent mismatch in their understanding of justice, the Dīvān-i Hümāyūn collaborated closely with the sharīʿa courts when responding to petitions.
The Petitioning Process
Petitions were written in Ottoman Turkish and were highly formulaic. Even petitioners who were literate in Turkish often employed professional petition-writers . . .