Translations of Three Tenth/Sixteenth Century Egyptian Ottoman Court Decisions

By Omar Farahat

This is the first of two posts that discuss sixteenth-century Egyptian Ottoman court records. In this post, I offer translations of three decisions and briefly explain their context. In the second post, I will provide some reflections on the structure of those records and its implications.

This post includes translations of three selected Ottoman Egyptian court decisions. The selected records are part of a collection that was edited and arranged by then professor at al-Azhar and Kuwait University, ʿAbd al-Raḥīm ʿAbd al-Raḥmān and published in four volumes between 1992 and 2004.[1] The documents, according to the editor, were obtained from Notary Public offices in both Cairo and Alexandria. The main criterion for inclusion of the documents in this printed edition is their being related to the Muslim West in one way or another. With regards to the content of the records, this criterion does not make them a specific or non-representative sample of Ottoman Egyptian court records. The connection of any given case to the Muslim West can be (and often is) as little as an attribution to a maghribī town or region of one among the many parties involved in the transaction or dispute at hand.

All of the records in this collection are summarized, and so no extended quotations of debates or documents are provided. The majority of those records in the collection concern cases of authentication and approval of transactions, and, in some cases, dispute settlements reached outside of the court. A significant minority of those documents involve disputes and allow us to see the judge’s role in managing the conflicting parties and the role played by different rules of evidence and substantive law. The following translations are examples of such records that reflect active litigation. By “active litigation” I mean that the records depict a claim and counterclaim that were made before the judge by the disputants, thus triggering a process of balancing of proofs that is characteristic of litigation. Out of a total of 270 records included in the first volume, 73 involve active litigation in the sense mentioned above, which is more than one quarter of the records (exactly 27.03%). A noteworthy observation is that those litigations almost exclusively involve individuals that can be characterized as members of the middle-class, such as merchants, artisans and scholars, and for the most part, revolve around questions of unpaid debts, small properties, and inheritance. Thus, those records give us good insights into the disputes involving transactions of the early Ottoman Egyptian urban middle class, and the role of sharīʿa court judges in solving them.

Documents of al-Qisma al-ʿArabiyya Court (located in the dome across from Qalawūn Mosque) Record 18, Text 2 [2]

On this blessed day of Friday, the seventh of Muḥarram 987 AH [1579 CE]

Before our master Ibrahīm al-Qassām, the foreigner ʿAbdul Karīm, son of the late ʿAbdu l-ʿAzīz ibn Yaḥyā al-Maghribī al-Fahmī claimed that ʿAbd al-Fattaḥ ibn Ibrahīm ibn Muḥammad al-ʿAttal from Bāb al-Zahūma in the lands of Egypt, may God glorify him, son of the deceased Muḥammad ʿAbd al-ʿAzīz, is the claimant’s paternal sibling, and that he moved through death to the mercy of God Almighty, in the safeguarded city of Alexandria, and left behind his wife the protected Masʿūda, the woman, daughter of the Ḥajj Muḥammad al-Salāmī, and his son from her Muḥammad the minor, and that before his death he established the said claimant as a chosen guardian over his minor son, the aforementioned, and that the deceased owed him two Dinars in new gold, which arose from a legal cause, and requested the share of the said minor, which equals one and a half and a quarter Dinars, in new gold; whereupon the defendant was asked and responded by admitting the said amount, equal to two Dinars, in the manner explained, and asked that the said claimant prove the alleged chosen guardianship, whence the claimant was asked to prove this, so he brought Zayn al-Din ʿAbd al-Razzāq ibn ʿAbd al-Raḥman ibn Aḥmad, known as Abī Rabīʿ al-Maghribī al-Tunusī among the people of Suez, and ʿAlī ibn al-Rais Khalaf al-Dīn ibn ʿAlī al-Sakandarī, renown as his father, and solicited their testimony, so each testified before our master presiding over the case, that they knew the late Muḥammad, brother of the said claimant, decisive [knowledge], and that before his death he established his paternal sibling, the said claimant, as a chosen guardian over his aforementioned minor son, a legal appointment, witnessed legally, whereupon the defendant had no response to their testimony, and that was established before our said master, in a legal manner, and ruled based on that, and commanded the defendant to pay the minor’s share mentioned above, to the said guardian, a legal command and ruling, after satisfaction of the legal conditions, and made this all witnessed, and it was witnessed, after which the claimant admitted to receiving the share of the said minor, from the said defendant, a legal admission, which was acknowledged legally, all this took place and was recorded on its date, [in the presence of] witnesses.

Documents of al-Ṣaliḥiyya al-Najmiyya Court (located in al-Ṣaliḥiyya Alley in the Quarter of Copper Artisans); Record 32, Text 1[3]

Ḥabīb ibn Yaḥyā ibn Dawūd, the Jewish [real estate] agent, claimed that his opponent, Yaʿqūb ibn Samīḥ ibn Dawūd the Jewish, al-Maghribī al-Marājibī, owes him an amount of Forty Dinars in new sultanic gold, according to the price in the Egyptian lands on the transaction’s date, equal to the amount agreed in writing in a letter written in Hebrew in a prior date assigning to [the plaintiff] one third of the company instituted between the two, and demanded, on the basis of this transaction, a ruling granting him the amounts indicated in this writing; whereupon [the defendant] was asked, so he answered that approximately four months ago, prior to the present date, the said claimant issued a blanket legal release in the broadest terms to the defendant in question, that covered this particular debt among others, in the presence of a group of Jews, in the Alley of Jews; whereupon the claimant did not confirm this allegation, and requested that the defendant provides proof of said release; thus the defendant exited the court to bring evidence, and returned; and he brought Yūsuf ibn Yūsuf, the Jewish, who has the privilege of serving the honorable masters, and Ibn Ma‘ūd ibn Ḥayīm al-Maghribī al-Fāsī, and he solicited their testimony concerning what they know about this matter; so they provided their testimony, before our master the judge viewing the matter, in front of Habīb, the said claimant, that the said claimant Habīb, approximately four months prior to the present date, issued to the aforementioned Yaʿqūb a legal release in broad terms, covering this and other matters, in their presence in the Alley of the Jews, a legal testimony, accepted as such, and when confronted with this testimony, the claimant provided no legal response or appeal; and whereas the substance of the claim, the rebuttal and the failure to respond have been established before the Ḥanafī judge based on his witnesses, as well as the said release based on the above testimony, our master the Ḥanafī judge prohibited further claims against Yaʿqūb the said defendant pertaining to the same matter, on the basis of the above amount, a valid, legal, total, binding and enforceable prohibition, by virtue of his authority, in compliance with all the legal conditions, and all the known and followed duties, and made this witnessed, all that on the sixth of Rabīʿ al-Thānī of the year One Thousand and Five (17 November 1596).[4] 

Document of the Ṭūlūn Court (located in the Mosque of Aḥmad ibn Ṭūlūn); Record 78, Text 1[5]

Before the Mālikī judge, the foreigner Saʿīd ibn ʿAbdu l-ʿAzīz Abī al-Qasim al-Maghribī al-Jarbī, the most prominent among all merchants in the market of Ṭūlūn, claimed that the master Yūsuf ibn Solaymān ibn Sharaf al-Dīn al-Minshāwī, the coffee shop owner, owes him five hundred halves of the new Muḥammadan silver, according to the price in the Egyptian lands on the transaction’s date, out of a total of eight hundred and twenty five that he had vowed to pay as a price for thirty seven quarters of coffee, identified by both of them in the legal manner, bought by [the defendant] and delivered to him on a prior date after viewing, knowing, inspecting and studying the merchandise in knowledge and expertise, and demanded those [amounts] from [the defendant]; whence the defendant was asked, so he responded by admitting the existence of the debt above, and that it is still incumbent upon him to this date according to law; and since the substance of the claim, the request, the response, and the confession have all been established before our master the above-mentioned judge, before his witnesses, in the legal manner, the above claimant asked the judge to do what is required by the glorious sharīʿa in this regard, so he granted him request and obliged the said defendant to pay the above-mentioned eight hundred and twenty five halves, to the said claimant, a binding obligation, and they left the court upon this notice; and then they returned and again payment was commanded, but he did not pay, at which time [the judge] chose to arrest him, whence he was arrested upon the command of our said master, but he still did not pay, may God release him from distress, and all Muslims, all this took place and was recorded on this date.


[1] ʿAbd al-Raḥīm ʿAbd al-Raḥmān, Wathāʼiq al-maḥākim al-sharʿiyya al-Miṣriyya ʿan al-jālīya al-Maghāribīya ibbān al-ʿaṣr al-ʿUthmānī, 4 vols. (Zaghwan, [Tunisia]: Markaz al-Dirāsāt wa-al-Buḥūth al-ʻUthmānīyah wa-al-Mūrīskīyah wa-al-Tawthīq wa-al-Maʻlūmāt, 1992-2004).

[2] Editor’s note: “source of record: Notary Public archives in Cairo, al-Qismah al-ʿArabiyya court, record 6, p. 22,  No. 49, 7 Muḥarram 987 AH/ 6 March 1579 CE.” Ibid., 1:89-90. (Italics added.)

[3] Editor’s note: “source of the record: archives of the Notary Public in Cairo: al-Ṣaliḥiyya al-Najmiyya Court, record 473, page 301, No. 1192, dated 6 Rabī‘ al-Thānī 1005, 27 November 1596.” Ibid., 1:220– 221. (Italics added.)

[4] The Gregorian date is included between parentheses, most likely by the editor. Ibid., 1:221.

[5] Editor’s note: “source of record: Notary Public archives in Cairo, Court of Ṭūlūn, record No. 188, page 426, number 1437, dated 2 Rabī‘ al-Thānī 1009 AH/ 11 October 1600 CE.” Ibid., 1:304. (Italics added.)

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