Legal Diversity at the Late Mamlūk Court

By Christian Mauder

This is part one in a series of four posts on legal culture at the late Mamlūk court.

Many students of Islamic history are fascinated by the unusual polity that ruled Egypt, Syria, and neighboring regions from about 1250 to 1517 CE. This political entity was dominated by a small elite group of former slave soldiers of non-Muslim origin called mamlūks, and is hence known in modern scholarship as the Mamlūk Sultanate. The Mamlūk sultans, many of whom had started their lives as Turkic or Circassian polytheists and had gone through uprooting experiences of slavery, human trafficking, and forced conversion, were for centuries the most powerful rulers of the Islamic world and played a key role in defending its institutions against foreign invaders.

Among scholars of Islamic legal history, the Mamlūks are perhaps best known for establishing a new legal system that transformed the way in which Sunnī Muslims experienced the diversity of Islamic law. Beginning in 1265 under Sultan Baybars (r. 1260–1277), four chief-judges, one from each of the four major Sunnī schools of law (sg. madhhab), served in Cairo as the heads of a judiciary in which the four schools were of almost equal standing. As Yossef Rapoport has convincingly argued, Baybars’s reform resulted in a legal system whose rulings were extremely predictable, yet that was at the same time highly flexible. The chief-judges and their subordinates were expected to give rulings in accordance with the predominant (mashhūr) view of their schools, as stipulated in the pertinent canonical legal literature. This made their rulings highly predictable, as judges were no longer free to select any of the different possible rulings developed within their school, but rather had to follow its established understanding of the law.

People who knew a judge’s madhhab and were familiar with its legal literature could thus foretell his decision in a given case with a high degree of certainty. Concomitantly, the coexistence of four madhhabs allowed the inhabitants of the Mamlūk Sultanate to choose which judge would hear a given case based on the school that was most agreeable to the desired outcome and thus make full use of the differences between the schools. For example, a person who wanted to marry his male slave to a free woman would bring his case in front of a Ḥanbalī judge who, unlike his colleagues from the other schools, could approve such a union. Similarly, if one wanted to imprison a debtor who claimed to be bankrupt in Mamlūk Cairo, one had to approach a Ḥanafī judge. A Mālikī judge was the appropriate choice if one wanted to make sure that a proven heretic would be executed. These and similar “legal specialties” of each school are noted in the appointment documents of Mamlūk judges, which thus indicate that “madhhab shopping” was an accepted practice within the system of Mamlūk legal diversity.[1]

There is ample historical evidence that members of the mostly Ḥanafī Mamlūk military elite were particularly apt at using the opportunities that the legal system offered. They relied for example on Ḥanbalī judges to sanction the sale and purchase of endowed property, which the other schools held to be illegal. Moreover, they often followed Shāfiʿī doctrine in their personal diet, as the latter school permitted the consumption of horse meat – a delicacy that the former mamlūks, many of whom had grown up in the Asian steppes, did not want to forgo.[2] While earlier scholarship has documented in detail the military elite’s skillful navigation of inter-madhhab differences, one question has remained difficult to answer: How did these military professionals, many of whom were former non-Muslim slaves, obtain the advanced legal knowledge necessary to make best use of the often minute differences between the recognized schools of law?

As I argue in my recently published monograph, In the Sultan’s Salon: Learning, Religion, and Rulership at the Mamluk Court of Qāniṣawh al-Ghawrī (r. 1501–1516) (Leiden: Brill, 2021), courtly gatherings known as majālis were one of the venues where members of the military elite learned about the differences between the schools of law and how to use these differences to their advantage. Source material about legal discussions in such majālis allows us to study the processes through which members of the military elite relied on high-ranking judges and other experts to obtain the knowledge they needed to navigate the Mamlūk system of madhhab plurality. Moreover, these sources elucidate the close interconnections between the Mamlūk courtly, educational, and juridical institutions and provide insights into the ramifications of legal canonization.

The court of the penultimate Mamlūk Sultan Qāniṣawh al-Ghawrī (r. 1501–1516) offers particularly rich opportunities to study the dynamics of Mamluk majālis and allows deep insights into Mamluk legal culture, which in its institutional framework had remained remarkably stable since Baybars’s reform. Moreover, there is evidence that several Mamlūk rulers throughout the history of the Sultanate convened similar majālis, although apparently none of these events preceding al-Ghawrī’s reign were recorded in detail.[3] In contrast, we have no fewer than three surviving eyewitness accounts of the majālis hosted by Sultan al-Ghawrī, none of which has been edited completely. The fact that these three accounts stem from two independent traditions of writing about al-Ghawrī’s majālis, but nevertheless agree in numerous details in their descriptions of the events, underlines their value as historical sources.[4] According to these texts, Sultan al-Ghawrī convened a diverse circle of participants including high-ranking judges, scholars, and administrators, itinerant litterateurs, jesters, musicians, soldiers, diplomats, and members of foreign dynasties. They met on two to three evenings a week at the Cairo Citadel to discuss scholarly, religious, and political questions, but also to enjoy music, poetry, and refined food. The scholarly topics of al-Ghawrī’s majālis were very diverse, ranging from questions of Qur’ānic exegesis and theology to riddle poetry, political philosophy, and botany. Yet questions of Islamic law clearly predominated, making up about a third of the topics debated.[5]

Many of the legal questions discussed in al-Ghawrī’s majālis were posed by the sultan, who as a former slave soldier had attained his position after a long military career, and directly dealt with issues that were of personal, religious, or political significance to members of the military elite. The sultan and other majālis participants often addressed in their questions the differences between the schools of law, and in their replies provided insights on how to best draw advantage from the flexibility that the Mamlūk system offered.

Examples of legal topics discussed in al-Ghawrī’s majālis that were of direct importance to the military elite included issues of religious ritual, oaths of political loyalty, and courtly dress code. Regarding the latter, Sultan al-Ghawrī is depicted in one of the majālis accounts as conversing with the Ḥanafī chief-judge ʿAbd al-Barr Ibn al-Shiḥna (d. 1515), who is referred to as shaykh al-Islām. The topic under discussion was whether wearing Sallarī tunics, the preferred dress of the military elite in times of peace, constituted a violation of Islamic sartorial norms:[6]

Question: Our lord the sultan said: “If a person who is performing the ritual prayer wears a Sallarī tunic and the [person’s] hand does not stick out from the sleeve, is the prayer valid or not?”

Answer: “It is reprehensible (makrūh) according to the Ḥanafī authorities, while the Shāfiʿī authorities allow it without declaring it reprehensible.”

Question: Our lord the sultan said: “Is it then preferable to wear the Sallarī during ritual prayer or not?”

Answer: The shaykh al-Islām said: “It is obviously preferable to wear it, as it indicates the perfection of the ruler’s manners (adab).”[7]

This exchange is typical for legal discussions in al-Ghawrī’s salons for at least two reasons. First, it shows a Ḥanafī scholar – the sitting chief-judge of the school, no less – giving legal advice from the perspectives of both his own and the Shāfiʿī school. Second, the Ḥanafī chief-judge recommends here that the sultan, a fellow Ḥanafī, should follow the Shāfiʿī interpretation of the law, as the latter allows him to perform his ritual prayer while following norms of courtly etiquette.

Al-Ghawrī was not only interested in his own ritual prayer; historiographical sources depict him as one of the few Mamlūk rulers who policed the streets of Cairo to make sure that his subjects performed their ritual prayers on time. In this context, it is noteworthy that one of the majālis accounts portrays the sultan as inquiring of its first-person-narrator, who was also a Ḥanafī jurist, about when exactly Muslims had neglected their duty to pray, thus becoming liable to punishment:

Question: Our lord the sultan said: “Who has abandoned prayer (tārik al-ṣalāt)?”

Answer: I [i.e., the first person narrator] said: “In the madhhab of Abū Ḥanīfa, one who has missed six prayers has abandoned prayer. According to al-Shāfiʿī, [it is] one who has missed one prayer. According to al-Mālik, [it is one who] has missed a prayer and has not enough time left to perform one of its rakʿas on time. According to Aḥmad, [it is one who] has missed two prayers. We [Ḥanafīs] demand that he be given a chance to repent, and if he accepts it, he is pardoned; and if not, he must be killed. According to Mālik, he must be killed as a ḥadd punishment even if he repents.[8]

The historiographical record indicates that the sultan made full use of the flexibility that the Mamlūk legal system offered when enforcing the ritual obligations of his subjects. In dealing with the majority of the population of Cairo, the sultan seems to have applied relative leniency as stipulated by the Ḥanafī school according to the quoted passage. The only people who had to fear that they would be dealt with according to the much stricter Mālikī standards were those who not only disregarded their ritual obligations, but made also explicit statements of unbelief.[9]

As is clear from the examples discussed so far, the members of al-Ghawrī’s majālis did not focus in their legal discussions on the range of opinions developed within specific schools, but rather on the differences between their established positions. They did this based on the canonized legal literature of each school, as is very clear in majālis debates about the legal details of the oaths on pain of divorce (al-ḥalf bi-l-ṭalāq), which constituted the legally most binding way of asserting political loyalties within the Mamlūk military elite.[10] The majālis accounts describe repeatedly and at considerable length how the members of al-Ghawrī’s circle discussed what kind of behavior exactly constituted a violation of such oaths and which legal expedients could be applied in such cases.[11] As is fitting given the predominance of the Ḥanafī school among the military, the most important reference text by far for these debates was Burhān al-Dīn al-Marghīnānī’s (d. 1197) al-Hidāya. This work was hugely popular among late Mamlūk Ḥanafīs.  Together with its various commentaries, it constituted one of the most widely used textbooks in madrasas of the period and was also the middle-length Ḥanafī work that legal functionaries appointed by the government were expected to know.[12] It was thus clearly one of the authoritative sources of established legal views that Ḥanafī judges were expected to apply and constituted part of the canonized legal literature of the period.

Together with the observation that high-ranking judges and educators were among the most prominent participants in the legal debates hosted by the sultan, the fact that legal debates in al-Ghawrī’s majālis were based on exactly those canonized texts that dominated legal education and defined the established rulings of each madhhab underlines the close interconnections between courtly learned culture, institutionalized scholarship, and real-life litigation in the late Mamlūk period. The late Mamlūk court appears in this context as a hitherto under-studied forum of the transmission of legal knowledge between highly learned legal specialists and the military elite. This transmission was facilitated by the existence of a rather clearly-defined corpus of canonized legal texts, knowledge of which made it possible to reliably predict the rulings of Mamlūk judges. By discussing the content of these texts in the sultan’s circle, members of the military elite not only gained the legal knowledge they required to navigate the system of late Mamlūk legal diversity; they also performatively affirmed the authority of the central legal texts of the four major Sunnī schools, thus reinforcing processes of canonization.

Future research should explore in more detail both the historical processes that led to the emergence of canonized texts within each school in the Mamlūk period and the social implications that the authoritative status of these texts carried. In this undertaking, scholars can build on the insights generated by the collaborative research project CanCode: Canonization and Codification of Islamic Legal Texts based at the University of Bergen that examines how processes of canonization and codification are related to change in Islamic law, and brings findings from the premodern Arabic-speaking world into conversation with insights from other regions and periods, including East Africa, the modern Middle East, and contemporary Scandinavia.


[1] Yossef Rapoport, “Legal Diversity in the Age of taqlīd: The Four Chief qaḍīs under the Mamluks,” Islamic Law and Society 10 (2003): 210–28. On the reform, see also Christian Müller, “Mamluk Law: A Reassessment,” in Ubi sumus? quo vademus? Mamluk Studies, State of the Art, ed. Stephan Conermann (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2013), 263–83; and the older studies referenced by Rapoport and Müller. For an overview of the legal specialties of each school, see Shihāb al-Dīn Aḥmad b. ʿAlī al-Qalqashandī, Ṣubḥ al-aʿshā fī ṣināʿat al-inshāʾ (Cairo: Wizārat al-Thaqāfa wa-l-Irshād al-Qawmī, 1913-1922, repr. 1970), 11:95–96.

[2] Robert Irwin, “Eating Horses and Drinking Mare’s Milk,” in Mamluks and Crusaders: Men of the Sword and Men of the Pen, ed. Robert Irwin (Aldershot: Ashgate Variorum, 2010), 1–7.

[3] See on these earlier events Christian Mauder, In the Sultan’s Salon: Learning, Religion, and Rulership at the Mamluk Court of Qāniṣawh al-Ghawrī (r. 1501–1516) (Leiden: Brill, 2021), 1036–37.

[4] Anonymous, al-Kawkab al-durrī fī masāʾil al-Ghawrī, MS Istanbul, Topkapı Sarayı Kütüphanesi, Ahmet III 1377; Anonymous, al-ʿUqūd al-jawhariyya fī l-nawādir al-Ghawriyya, MS Istanbul, Süleymaniye Kütüphanesi, Ayasofya 3312 and 3313; Ḥusayn b. Muḥammad al-Sharīf al-Ḥusaynī, Nafāʾis majālis al-sulṭāniyya fī ḥaqāʾiq asrār al-Qurʾāniyya, MS Istanbul, Topkapı Sarayı Kütüphanesi, Ahmet III 2680. See on the texts Mauder, In the Sultan’s Salon, 129–252; Christian Mauder and Christopher Markiewicz, “A New Source on the Social Gatherings (majālis) of the Mamluk Sultan Qānṣawh al-Ghawrī,” Al-ʿUsur al-Wusta: The Journal of Middle East Medievalists 24 (2016): 145–48. A partial edition of two of the three texts is available in ʿAbd al-Wahhāb ʿAzzām (ed.), Majālis al-Sulṭān al-Ghawrī: Ṣafaḥāt min tārīkh Miṣr min al-qarn al-ʿāshir al-hijrī (Cairo: Maṭbaʿat Lajnat al-Taʾlīf wa-l-Tarjama wa-l-Nashr, 1941).

[5] For analyses of debates about topics other than Islamic law, see Mauder, In the Sultan’s Salon, 448–560; Christian Mauder, “‘And They Read in That Night Books of History’: Consuming, Discussing, and Producing Texts about the Past in al-Ghawrī’s Majālis as Social Practices,” in New Readings in Arabic Historiography from Late Medieval Egypt and Syria: Proceedings of the Themed Day of the Fifth Conference of Mamluk Studies, eds. Jo van Steenbergen and Maya Termonia (Leiden: Brill, 2021), 401–28; Christian Mauder, “Does a Mamluk Sultan Hold Religious Authority? Quranic Exegesis and Hadith Studies in Late Mamluk Courtly majālis,” Intellectual History of the Islamicate World (forthcoming).

[6] On this kind of clothing, see Leo A. Mayer, Mamluk Costume: A Survey (Geneva: Albert Kundig, 1952), 23–25, 30, 55.

[7] Anonymous, al-Kawkab al-durrī, 230–31.

[8] Al-Sharīf al-Ḥusaynī, Nafāʾis majālis al-sulṭāniyya, 159.

[9] See in detail Mauder, In the Sultan’s Salon, 702–13.

[10] Al-Qalqashandī, Ṣubḥ, 8:218; Yossef Rapoport, Marriage, Money and Divorce in Medieval Islamic Society (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 89–110.

[11] See, e.g., Anonymous, al-Kawkab al-durrī, 67, 112–14, 211; al-Sharīf al-Ḥusaynī, Nafāʾis majālis al-sulṭāniyya, 72, 234, 238; and in detail Mauder, In the Sultan’s Salon, 429–33.

[12] See al-Qalqashandī, Ṣubḥ, 1:473; Jonathan P. Berkey, The Transmission of Knowledge in Medieval Cairo: A Social History of Islamic Education (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992), 154.

(Suggested Bluebook citation: Christian Mauder, Legal Diversity at the Late Mamlūk Court, Islamic Law Blog (Oct. 7, 2021),

(Suggested Chicago citation: Christian Mauder, “Legal Diversity at the Late Mamlūk Court,” Islamic Law Blog, October 7, 2021,

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