Monthly Lectures on Islamic Legal Genres: “Sijills and Transformations of Qāḍī Documents in Islamic Law” by Prof. Christian Müller

By Omar Khaled Abdel-Ghaffar

This is a summary of the lecture by Prof. Christian Müller entitled “Sijills and Transformations of Qāḍī Documents in Islamic Law” delivered at 12 noon (EST), 6 pm (Münster) 7 pm (Istanbul) via Zoom.  The video recording of the lecture can be accessed here.

Professor Müller offered this month what he himself termed as a reflection on Ottoman sijills “from the outside.” He examined the genre of Ottoman sijills within the larger context of Islamic court records, offering a longue durée analysis of qāḍī court documents. An Ottoman sijill is a systematically archived court record associated with a specific court, stored in a series of equasized codices. Any given sijill included the qāḍī’s decisions, along with Imperial decrees and the executive decisions of local governors. Therefore, Müller argues that the sijill is a point of intersection between qānūn and sharīʿa, a legal genre that functioned to cultivate legal continuity at a time when Ottoman qāḍī tenure usually did not extend beyond three years. 

Müller points out that the bulk of sijills confirm the rights of individuals without referencing any conflicts. However, considering that Ottoman law required certain fees for the registry of rights in court, Müller argues that these documents only materialized to fulfill certain needs on the part of litigants. These documents always include a series of shuhūd or court witnesses. Müller does not think the presence of these witnesses was a mere formality, rather he argues that they authenticated court records individually. Therefore, despite being written and preserved, the rights outlined were actually legitimized by the presence of people at the moment of registration.

Müller then posed the question of whether these legal mechanisms were Ottoman innovations or continuations of older court systems. Müller does not deny the existence of a certain administrative rupture that took place upon the Ottoman invasion of the Arab provinces. Mamlūk (1250-1517 AD)  sijills were presumably written on scrolls but remain somewhat mysterious, as the only surviving Mamlūk sijills are the ones which the court handed out to families and waqfs. Thus, the Ottomans were probably the first to introduce the sijill-codex. Additionally, after the Ottoman invasion, the four chief judges of the four schools of Sunnī law, each with a court of his own, were replaced by a single Ḥanafī chief judge. Deputies from other schools continued to function albeit under the precincts of the Ḥanafī court. One aspect of court records that did not change, Müller points out, is the presence of shuhūd, who were an essential part of court proceedings before and after the invasions. To further his argument, Müller cites a Qarakhānid (999-1211 AD) register, which also includes a witness registry.

Müller points to how silence in the court record may be productive to the legal historian. For example, the aspects of the law that notaries leave unmentioned in court documents may point to topics presumed to be common knowledge. The historian may be able to read the stakes that required the drafting of the documents, even if the conflicts themselves are not mentioned in the documents. Finally, judges – Müller speculates – could have resorted to the shuhūd mentioned in the documents when new issues pertaining to the case arose. These shuhūd were important because the attestation of these witnesses effectively legitimized the court’s proceedings. 

As a genre, Ottoman sijills could and did deviate from matn and sharḥ texts. Unlike these other genres however, sijills were not revised or edited, and so Müller argues that sijills are not a genre of legal literature per se. The sijill does provide us evidence of the materialization of Islamic law, and should therefore be read as such.

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