Historical Primary Sources: A Petition to the Ottoman Sultan from Egypt, 1155 AH (1742-3)

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, known as ʿarzuḥālcis, who knew the correct honorifics to use when addressing the Sultan and the standard format for presenting one’s case. The petition was then delivered to the Dīvān-i Hümāyūn in Istanbul: some petitioners presented their petitions in person, while others relied on couriers. The Dīvān-i Hümāyūn, or Imperial Council, consisted of the top officials in the capital and was presided over by the Grand Vizier.

Unlike in a sharīʿa court case, the Dīvān’s consideration of a petition was one-sided: it did not invite the petitioner’s adversary to respond. Moreover, in most cases the Dīvān did not grant the petitioner an audience, but considered the case based on paperwork alone. For these reasons, in most cases the Dīvān declined to issue a definitive ruling in response to a petition, but instead referred the case to a judge in the petitioner’s nearest city, ordering him to hear the case according to the sharīʿa. In some cases, however, the Dīvān was able to investigate a case itself. This was when the petitioner’s claim rested on a fact that could be verified in the Dīvān’s own archives: typically, if it rested on a title to office or property that had been granted by the Dīvān. In such cases, the Dīvān would refer the case to a local judge with the explicit instruction to enforce the petitioner’s right, based on the Dīvān’s records.[1] The Dīvān’s response to a petition was formulated as an imperial order (emr-i şerīf) addressed to a judge and/or a provincial governor. A copy of the outgoing imperial order would be made in a special series of registers known as the Şikayet Defterleri (Complaints Registers), and the petition itself would be filed.[2]


The Petition of al-Ḥājj Muṣṭafā (Başbakanlık Osmanlı Arşivi, Şikayet Kalemi 1/93)

This petition originated in Egypt, a wealthy but distant province of the empire. While the Ottoman government often struggled to control Egypt’s volatile politics, the province’s legal institutions were integrated into the imperial legal system.[3] Petitioning was one of the main ways in which the imperial center was involved in Egyptian legal affairs: Egyptian subjects sent petitions concerning a wide range of legal issues, including private disputes and complaints against officials. In this petition, which dates from 1155 AH (1742-3), a man called Muṣṭafā from Ziftā, a small town in the Egyptian delta, complained about a Christian neighbor called Banūb.[4] Muṣṭafā claimed that Banūb had built a house that was taller than the houses of his Muslim neighbors, and he demanded that Banūb be forced either to reduce the height of his house or to sell it to a Muslim. The Dīvān-i Hümāyūn’s response is indicated in an annotation, by the Grand Vizier or a Dīvān official, above the petition: this says that the case should be heard according to the sharīʿa in its location, i.e., at the Ziftā sharīʿa court.


Transcription of Petition:

A: Petition:

۱. دولتلو مرحمتلو سلطانم حضرتلری صاغ اولسون

۲. عرضحال قوللری مصر قاهره ساکنلرندن زفته قصبه سنده واقع بنوب نام

۳. نصرانی مسلمین محله سنده اولان منزلنی مسلمین منزللرندن زیاده ترفیع ووضع

٤. قدیمنی تغییر ایلیوب اطراف اربعه سنده واقع مسلمین وجوهله اذا

٥. وتعجیزدن خالی اولمامکله مراحم علیه لرندن مرجودر که یدمزده اولان

٦. شیخ الاسلام فتوای شریفه سی موجبنجه ترفیع ایلدیکی بناسنی مسلمین منزللرینه

۷. مساوی اولنجه هدم اولنوب ویاخود قبل شرعده منزل مزبوری

۸. بر مسلمینه بیع ایتدرلمک بابنده حالا مصر والیسینه خطاباً فرمان شریفه

۹. رجا اولنور امر [و] فرمان سلطانمکدر                    بنده الحاج مصطفی

B: Dīvān-i Hümāyūn’s instruction (annotated above petition):

محلنده شرعله حکم بیورولدی



A: Petition:

Long live his excellency my Sultan, the illustrious and merciful!

The petition of the slave [is as follows]: Among the inhabitants of Victorious Egypt, living in the town of Ziftā, is a Christian named Banūb.[5] His house, which is in the Muslim quarter [of Ziftā], is taller than the houses of the Muslims, contravening the established tradition. Because the Muslims living on all four sides [of Banūb] cannot be free of harm and trouble [due to this], we request from your august mercies that, in accordance with the noble fatwas of the Şeyhulislām that we possess, the building that has been raised [higher than the Muslims’] should be brought down to the level of the Muslims’ houses, or the aforementioned house should be legally sold to one of the Muslims. An noble fermān to that effect, addressed to the current governor of Egypt, is requested. The order and fermān is my Sultan’s [prerogative]. [From] the slave, al-Ḥājj Muṣṭafā.


B: Dīvān-i Hümāyūn’s instruction (annotated above petition):

[Issue an] order that this should be judged according to the law in the relevant locality.


Commentary: The Rhetoric and Reasoning of Petitions

The language and format of petitions are a striking contrast to that of Ottoman sharīʿa court records in several ways, as this example demonstrates. Where sharīʿa court records are precise and detailed, petitions tend towards vague abstraction. And where sharīʿa court plaintiffs point to specific violations of the law, petitioners appeal to a nebulous notion of tradition.

The first feature of this petition that I would like to draw to attention is its approach to naming. When identifying an individual, sharīʿa court records provide, at a minimum, a name and patronym, and they almost always include additional information such as further patronyms, family name, title, occupation, place of residence, affiliation to a regiment or a political household, and, in the case of a married woman, the husband’s identity. By contrast, in the petition under study the petitioner signs off simply as al-Ḥājj Muṣṭafā: al-Ḥājj being a common title indicating that a person had undertaken the pilgrimage to Mecca, and Muṣṭafā being an extremely common given name. He also identifies the town where he lives, Ziftā, but gives no information about the neighborhood or street, as a sharīʿa court record might. Similarly, he identifies the object of his complaint by his given name only, Banūb, stating also that he is a Christian, which is crucial to the complaint. This petition is, in fact, relatively forthcoming in the details of individuals it provides. It was routine for petitioners to identify themselves with their given names only.[6] It was also common for them not to name their adversaries at all, but instead to use phrases such as “people who bear me grudges and ill-will.”

The second feature worthy of comment is how al-Ḥājj Muṣṭafā frames his complaint. Banūb’s offense is to have built a house taller than those of his Muslim neighbors. As Banūb was a Christian, this violated Islamic law, according to which non-Muslims should live in houses that were smaller than those of the Muslims in the same place. This was one of a series of restrictions on non-Muslim life, known collectively as the Pact of ʿUmar, designed to ensure the political and social superiority of Muslims while allowing Christians and Jews security and freedom of religion. Over the course of Muslim history, the restrictions of the Pact of ʿUmar, including the one concerning the height of non-Muslims’ houses, were not consistently enforced. Indeed, in the eighteenth-century Ottoman Empire they seem to have been frequently and flagrantly violated. But while enforcement was inconsistent, the validity of the laws was not in doubt: this was not a controversial or disputed legal doctrine. It is all the more striking, therefore, that al-Ḥājj Muṣṭafā does not refer to the law at all. Instead, he complains that Banūb’s tall house altered the status quo: vażʿ-i ḳadīmini tağyīr eyleyüb. Rhetorically, tradition, custom and the status quo were the main sources of legitimacy in petitions, rather than the letter of the law.

The third feature I will highlight is the way that patrimonialism is embedded in the language of the petition. In a sharīʿa court record, the judge is often introduced with a lengthy list of honorifics, but the litigants are also introduced with respectful language: if a litigant is a prominent person, the honorifics preceding his or her name may exceed those of the judge. Petitions, by contrast, articulate a pronounced status difference between the addressee (the Sultan), who is exalted, and the petitioner, who is explicitly demeaned. As al-Ḥājj Muṣṭafā does here, petitioners always introduced themselves as a lowly slave: a phrase that did not indicate that they were, legally, slaves, but simply that they were making an appeal to the beneficence of the Sultan from a position of abject inferiority. This profoundly unequal relationship is indicated elsewhere as well: the petitioner does not confidently demand his or her right, as a sharīʿa court plaintiff might, but defers to the prerogative of the Sultan with the stock closing phrase emr ü fermān Sulṭānımındır, meaning “the decision remains yours, my Sultan.”

The features I have highlighted show that the rhetoric associated with petitions was profoundly different from that associated with the sharīʿa courts. Petitions embodied a patrimonial understanding of justice, seeing it as gift bestowed by the beneficent Sultan on his grateful subject. Correspondingly, petitioners were often imprecise in their complaints, referring in very vague terms to harm, wrong, and the contravening of tradition. Moreover, the petitioning system lacked an adjudicatory process, making the precise identification of persons and incidents superfluous. By contrast, the procedures employed in sharīʿa court adjudication required litigants and witnesses to give precise information about the substance of the dispute and the people involved, and this is reflected in their records.

Nevertheless, petitioning was not a vehicle for the imposition of arbitrary justice based on the discretion of the Sultan or Grand Vizier. The annotation at the top of al-Ḥājj Muṣṭafā’s petition, which instructs the Dīvān-i Hümāyūn’s scribe to draw up an imperial order in response to the petition, demonstrates the Dīvān’s hesitancy when responding to petitioners. The Dīvān’s decision in this case, and in many others, was that the case should be heard according to the sharīʿa by the petitioner’s local judge. The Dīvān-i Hümāyūn recognized the limitations imposed by the lack of a full adjudicatory process, and so often declined to make a definitive judgment, instead deferring to local authorities who were in a position to investigate a petitioner’s claim. In other words, the petitioning system was closely integrated into the sharīʿa court network, despite their rhetorical differences.

The frequency with which the Dīvān-i Hümāyūn referred petitions back to local judges raises the question why petitioners went to the trouble of petitioning. Obviously individual circumstances varied considerably, so it is difficult say anything with certainty about a particular case. But one thing that petitioners gained was oversight of the resulting judicial process by the imperial authorities, and in some cases they may also have hoped for the authorities’ assistance with enforcing the resulting court judgment. Moreover, the fact that some petitioners pursued several avenues of complaint simultaneously suggests that petitioning may have formed part of an aggressive litigation strategy.[7]


[1] For an example of this process see Baldwin, “Petitioning the Sultan,” 509-11.

[2] For an example of a Şikayet Defteri in facsimile, see Majer, Das osmanische Registerbuch. The Şikayet Defterleri were introduced in the mid-seventeenth century; prior to this copies of imperial orders sent in response to petitions were kept in the Mühimme Defterleri (Registers of Important Affairs), the general series of registers of outgoing correspondence. Original petitions survive in abundance, and in their own designated series of boxes, from 1742 onwards. Prior to this, there are extant petitions scattered across many different archival units. It is not clear whether this indicates that original petitions were not systematically archived prior to 1742, or whether they were archived in a different way, or whether files were simply lost.

[3] On the integration of Egypt into the Ottoman legal system, see Baldwin, Islamic Law and Empire.

[4] The petition itself is undated, but the date has been added later by an archivist. It is not clear how the archivist determined the date, but as it consists of the year only and the petition itself contains no relevant information, it seems likely that at the time of receipt it was filed with a batch of petitions from the same year.

[5] In the document, the town is spelled with a tāʾ marbūṭa at the end (Zifta), but the correct spelling today ends with an alif (Ziftā).

[6] Some petitions, especially collective petitions sent by a group of people, are signed with seals that identify the petitioners more clearly, but these are in the minority. Regardless, the important point is that full identifying details were not necessary in a petition, whereas they were considered mandatory in court records.

[7] For more thoughts on this question see Baldwin, “Petitioning the Sultan,” 511-20.



Baldwin, James E., “Petitioning the Sultan in Ottoman Egypt,” Bulletin of the School of Oriental & African Studies 75 (2012), 499-524.

Baldwin, James E., Islamic Law and Empire in Ottoman Cairo (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2017).

Ben-Bassat, Yuval, Petitioning the Sultan: Protests and Justice in Late Ottoman Palestine(London: IB Tauris, 2013).

Gerber, Haim, State, Society and Law in Islam: Ottoman Law in Comparative Perspective (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1994).

İnalcık, Halil, “Arz-ı Hal ve Arz-ı Mahzarlar,” in Osmanlı’da Devlet, Hukuk, Adalet(Istanbul: Eren, 2000), 49-71.

Lafi, Nora, “Petitions and Accommodating Urban Change in the Ottoman Empire,” in Elisabeth Özdalga, M. Sait Özervarlı and Feryal Tansuğ (eds.), Istanbul as Seen from a Distance: Centre and Provinces in the Ottoman Empire (Istanbul: Swedish Research Institute, 2011), 73-82.

Majer, Hans Georg, Das osmanische Registerbuch der Beschwerden (Şikayet Defteri) vom Jahre 1675: Österreichische Nationalbibliothek Cod. mixt 683 (Vienna: Verlag der Österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, 1984).

Tuğ, Başak, Politics of Honor in Ottoman Anatolia: Sexual Violence and Socio-Legal Surveillance in the Eighteenth Century (Leiden: Brill, 2017)

Ursinus, Michael, “Petitions from Orthodox Church Officials to the Imperial Diwan, 1675,” Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies 18 (1994), 236-47.

Wittman, Richard, “Before Qadi and Grand Vizier: Intra-Communal Dispute Resolution and Legal Transactions among Christians and Jews in the Plural Society of Seventeenth-Century Istanbul,” PhD dissertation, Harvard University, 2008.

Zarinebaf, Fariba, Crime and Punishment in Ottoman Istanbul, 1700-1800 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010).