Studying Islamic Law in the Mamlūk Barracks

By Christian Mauder

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

As former slave soldiers (mamlūks) of non-Muslim origin, many members of the military elite of the Mamlūk Sultanate did not acquire a natural familiarity with Islamic legal norms in their childhood and youth. Many of them grew up within non-Muslim Turkic or Circassian polytheistic societies and thereafter were typically sold as minors in the major urban centers of Egypt and Syria. There, they underwent rigorous martial training in highly militarized social spheres that offered few opportunities for encounters with the population around them. In what way then did these youngsters, some of whom would later rise to high office, learn the basics of Islamic law? How did they obtain the legal knowledge they needed to fulfill their religious duties as Muslims, to function within an economic sphere governed by Islamic law, and, perhaps most importantly, to govern their realm? As discussed in the first post of this series and in my new monograph In the Sultan’s Salon: Learning, Religion, and Rulership at the Mamluk Court of Qāniṣawh al-Ghawrī (r. 1501–1516) (Leiden: Brill, 2021), learned courtly majālis were a venue where members of the military elite could learn about the finer points of the law, but by what means did they gain the basic knowledge necessary to participate in these events?

Earlier generations of scholars assumed that the Mamlūk military elite simply did not bother with acquiring an understanding of the legal norms that regulated the internal affairs of the society over which they ruled. According to this older point of view, the Mamlūk military elite consisted of superficially Islamized semi-barbarians who cared very little for Islamic law or any other field of religious learning. Annemarie Schimmel, one of the early leading historians of the Mamlūk Sultanate, wrote:

The impression that we get […] is that neither the Mamlūk Sultans themselves nor the amīrs […] had any interest in spiritual things. […] We often read in the obituaries of these Mamlūks: “I never saw a book in his hand” or “he was completely devoid of any knowledge of any science or art”. The few exceptional cases when an amīr was interested in religious questions, or when his Arabic was not too bad are carefully mentioned by our historians.[1]

Later work, including my monograph Gelehrte Krieger [Educated Warriors] (Hildesheim: Olms, 2012), challenged this distorted image of the Mamlūk military elite and demonstrated not only that a significant share of these men gained advanced knowledge in disciplines of Islamic learning such as ḥadīth studies or Qur’ānic recitation, but also found evidence that an introduction to Islamic law according to the Ḥanafī school formed a regular part of the education that mamlūks received in the barracks of the Cairo Citadel.[2] This evidence comes mainly from the historian Aḥmad al-Maqrīzī (d. 1442 CE), who writes in his uniquely detailed description of the training of young mamlūks:

Every group [of recruits] had an expert of religious law (faqīh) who attended to them every day. Their education began with the book of God Most High, the skill of writing, and exercise in the conduct prescribed by religious law. […] When one of [the recruits] grew to the age of adolescence, the expert of religious law taught him about the science of law and read an introductory work (muqaddima) about it with him.[3]

While this passage allows the conclusion that at least some mamlūks received instruction in Islamic law, it tells us very little about how, on what basis, and to what depth the recruits pursued their studies.

Unedited sources and material objects from the late Mamlūk period and especially the reign of the penultimate Mamlūk Sultan Qāniṣawh al-Ghawrī (r. 1501–1516) allow us to address questions about legal education within the Mamlūk military in much greater depth, at least as far as the last decades of Mamlūk rule are concerned. These sources and objects not only help us to understand how soldiers, officers, and sultans acquired the knowledge they needed to govern the realm, but also provide insights into the formation of legal identities in an Islamic elite context of the late middle period, and complicate the traditional image of the Mamlūk military milieu as exclusively Ḥanafī.

Sultan al-Ghawrī’s own legal education is addressed in an anonymous historiographical work produced under his patronage. According to this text, al-Ghawrī received his legal education in the al-Ghawr Barracks from which he got his name. His instructor there was a Mālikī scholar by the name of Shaykh Sirāj al-Dīn (d. 1495–6) who held the position of “jurist of the sultanic barrack (faqīh al-ṭabaqa al-sharīfa)” and stood out not only for his legal learning, but also because he – apparently unlike his colleagues – never helped himself from the food and drink belonging to the roughly 150 recruits he was assigned to.[4] The text further claims that al-Ghawrī was among the best students in the barracks and instructed others in “writing, wisdom, religion, faith, prayer, and the Quran.”[5]

Several elements of this account are noteworthy for our understanding of legal education in a Mamlūk military context. First, legal knowledge and moral probity seem to have been perceived as closely connected, given that Sirāj al-Dīn’s personal conduct receives more attention in the text than his intellectual merits. This connection is also highlighted when the same text links an earlier sultan’s moral shortcomings to the fact that he was not educated by a jurist.[6] Second, there seems to have been a pronounced power asymmetry between the jurist and his soldier-students, given that his personal integrity was apparently the only factor that kept the jurist from depriving the recruits of their rations. Third, the fact that al-Ghawrī was educated by a Mālikī scholar is rather surprising, as he was, like almost all members of the Mamlūk military elite, a Ḥanafī. Should we take this to mean that the legal education the recruits received was so basic that differences between the madhhabs did not carry much weight? Or is this fact connected to the way members of the Mamlūk military made use of the legal system of the realm, in which knowledge about the views of different schools was a valuable asset? While it is impossible to decide at this point which of these explanations applies, the fact that Sultan al-Ghawrī was trained by a Mālikī jurist cautions against an oversimplified assessment of the Mamlūk military milieu as purely Ḥanafī in character.

While the account of Sultan al-Ghawrī’s own legal training offers valuable information on the circumstances of legal education in the Mamlūk barracks, it does not tell us much about the content of this education. Information on the training of al-Ghawrī’s slave soldiers can help fill this gap. Sources from his court depict the sultan as regularly reviewing the learning progress of his mamlūks by having them recite in front of him and their teachers what they had learnt.[7] In addition to passages from the Qur’ān, mamlūks are said to have delivered religious poetry, devotional formulas (sg. dhikr), and legal texts during these reviews. Specifically, one particularly gifted recruit is credited with memorizing the entire “ʿibādāt according to the school of Abū Ḥanīfa,”[8] while one of his peers had memorized the Qur’ān as a whole.

In light of the passage from al-Maqrīzī quoted above, it is not surprising that ʿibādāt (acts of devotion) should figure prominently in the mamlūks’ education. The context and phrasing of the passage makes it likely that the mamlūk in question had not just learned by heart some random rules of the Ḥanafī school about this subject, but had rather memorized a specific text. Possible works include Abū l-Layth al-Samarqandī’s (d. 983) al-Muqaddima fī l-ṣalāt (Introduction to the ritual prayer) of which the late Mamlūk sultanic library included a copy in 47 folios with an interlinear Turkish translation,[9] or a longer work such as Aḥmad b. Maḥmūd al-Ghaznawī’s (d. 1196) Muqaddima fī l-ʿibādāt ʿalā madhhab Abī Ḥanīfa al-Nuʿmān (Introduction to the religious observances according to the school of Abū Ḥanīfa al-Nuʿmān), which provides a thorough outline of the field of ʿibādāt and runs to about 400 pages in preserved manuscripts. Memorizing either of these texts would have constituted a significant achievement for a young recruit, one that could very well impress his sultan. In any case, the example of al-Ghawrī’s recruit suggests that mamlūks, at least particularly gifted ones, had access to works of legal scholarship for educational purposes.

Material evidence from the late Mamlūk court proves that such access was indeed provided to mamlūks in the sultan’s barracks. Libraries in Istanbul and elsewhere preserve several dozen late Mamlūk manuscripts produced by mamlūks living in the barracks of the Cairo Citadel. Barbara Flemming, who first drew attention to this corpus, convincingly interpreted them as products of the mamlūks’ non-military training, possibly constituting the equivalent of modern-day examination papers.[10] The topics of the texts copied varied widely, but at least three of them – one from the reign of Sultan Jaqmaq (r. 1438–1453),[11] one from al-Ghawrī’s reign,[12] and one from a late but unknown period[13] – dealt with issues of Islamic law. In addition to al-Samarqandī’s above-mentioned Ḥanafī work al-Muqaddima fī l-ṣalāt, the manuscripts include Ibn Jamāʿa’s (d. 1333) Taḥrīr al-aḥkām fī tadbīr ahl al-Islām (Record of the regulations on the organization of the people of Islam), which provides a legal discussion of proper Islamic government from a Shāfiʿī perspective, and an excerpt from Shams al-Dīn Muḥammad al-Saḥmāwī’s (d. 1464) al-Thaghr al-bāsim fī ṣināʿat al-kātib wa-l-kātim (The smiling mouth on the craft of the scribe and the secretary), another work on the proper running of an Islamic polity written by a Shāfiʿī scholar addressing legal matters, among other things.

In addition to providing clear-cut evidence of the advanced level that legal education of mamlūks in the barracks could reach, these three manuscripts are noteworthy for at least two further reasons: First, they document that military recruits, who could hope to one day become members of the ruling military elite, focused in their learning on fields of Islamic law that were of personal interest to them, namely proper religious conduct and statecraft. Second, the fact that two of the three texts addressing legal topics that were copied by mamlūks belong to the Shāfiʿī tradition highlights the important role that madhhabs other than the Ḥanafī one could play in the education of Mamlūk slave soldiers.

Taken together, what we know about legal education among Mamlūk slave soldiers clearly disproves overly generalizing misrepresentations of these men as unlettered and only superficially enculturated brutes. There is evidence that mamlūk recruits regularly received instruction in Islamic law, and that this instruction was provided by legal specialists who were closely integrated into their students’ everyday life. At least some of the recruits reached a level of education at which they could memorize or copy scholarly works of Islamic law. These achievements show that young mamlūks had access to the world of advanced legal learning, and that they received support in studying fields of Islamic law that were of direct relevance to their future life as Muslims and potential members of the ruling elite. Advanced legal learning could evidently take place in many contexts in premodern Islamic societies, even in such a seemingly unlikely environment as the slave soldiers’ barracks of the Cairo Citadel.

Moreover, the findings outlined here allow insights into the complexity of the formation of legal identities in an Islamic elite context of the late middle period. While nominally almost always Ḥanafīs, and often known for their support and patronage of this school, members of the Mamlūk military apparently had opportunities to interact with members of other schools during their formative years. They were connected to members of other madhhabs through teacher-student relationships, and they could and did work with texts by non-Ḥanafī authors. The fact that most members of the Mamlūk military were Ḥanafīs thus cannot be explained by a lack of familiarity with other schools. Rather, membership in the Ḥanafī school should be understood as an important factor in constructing and affirming a military identity in Mamlūk society. Earlier scholarship has emphasized the social distance between members of the Mamlūk military and the civilian population. In a process that resembles closely what social scientists describe when they study the creation of ethnic identities today,[14] members of the Mamlūk military elite used social markers such as choice of name, language, clothing, and diet to establish and maintain a clearly distinct military identity that their Arabic-speaking contemporaries described as “Turkic.” What we know about Mamlūk legal culture suggests that membership in the Ḥanafī school was an important aspect of what it meant to share this distinct “Turkic” Mamlūk military identity.


[1] Annemarie Schimmel, “Some Glimpses of the Religious Life in Egypt during the Later Mamluk Period,” Islamic Studies 4 (1965): 356.

[2] See among others Ulrich Haarmann, “Arabic in Speech, Turkish in Lineage: Mamluks and Their Sons in the Intellectual Life of Fourteenth-Century Egypt and Syria,” Journal of Semitic Studies 33 (1988): 81–114; Jonathan P. Berkey, “‘Silver Threads among the Coal’: A Well-Educated Mamluk of the Ninth/Fifteenth Century,” Studia Islamica 73 (1991): 109–25; Jonathan P. Berkey, The Transmission of Knowledge in Medieval Cairo: A Social History of Islamic Education (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992), 146–60; Christian Mauder, “The Development of Arabo-Islamic Education among Members of the Mamluk Military,” in Knowledge and Education in Classical Islam, ed. Sebastian Günther (Leiden: Brill, 2020), 963–83; Christian Mauder, “Education and Learning among Members of the Mamluk Army: Results of a Quantitative Analysis of Mamluk Biographies,” in History and Society during the Mamluk Period (1250–1517): Studies of the Annemarie Schimmel Institute for Advanced Study III, eds. Bethany Walker and Abdelkader Al Ghouz (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2021), 61–88; Christian Mauder, Gelehrte Krieger: Die Mamluken als Träger arabischsprachiger Bildung nach al-Ṣafadī, al-Maqrīzī und weiteren Quellen (Hildesheim: Olms, 2012); Élise Franssen, “What Was There in a Mamluk Amīr’s Library? Evidence from a Fifteenth-Century Manuscript,” in Developing Perspectives in Mamluk History: Essays in Honor of Amalia Levanoni, ed. Yuval Ben-Bassat (Leiden: Brill, 2017), 311–32.

[3] Aḥmad b. ʿAlī al-Maqrīzī, al-Mawāʿiẓ wa-l-iʿtibār fī dhikr al-khiṭaṭ wa-l-āthār, ed. Ayman F. Sayyid (London: Muʾassat al-Furqān lil-Turāth al-Islāmī, 2002-2004), 3:692. On this passage and its context, see 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), 186;  Mauder, Krieger, 80–84; Mauder, “Development,” 966–68; Haarmann, “Arabic,” 86–87.

[4] Anonymous, al-ʿUqūd al-jawhariyya fī l-nawādir al-Ghawriyya, MS Istanbul, Süleymaniye Kütüphanesi, Ayasofya 3313, fol. 65v.

[5] Anonymous, al-ʿUqūd al-jawhariyya, fol. 67v.

[6] Anonymous, al-ʿUqūd al-jawhariyya, fol. 95r.

[7] Anonymous, al-Majālis al-marḍiyya, MS Dublin, Chester Beatty Library, Arabic 5479, fols. 258r–258v, 276v–277r, 281v–283r; Ḥusayn b. Muḥammad al-Sharīf al-Ḥusaynī, Nafāʾis majālis al-sulṭāniyya fī ḥaqāʾiq asrār al-Qurʾāniyya, MS Istanbul, Topkapı Sarayı Kütüphanesi, Ahmet III 2680, 111, 164, 166, 225, 237. See also Mauder, In the Sultan’s Salon, 398–401.

[8] Ḥusayn b. Muḥammad al-Sharīf al-Ḥusaynī, Nafāʾis majālis al-sulṭāniyya fī ḥaqāʾiq asrār al-Qurʾāniyya, MS Istanbul, Topkapı Sarayı Kütüphanesi, Ahmet III 2680, 166.

[9] MS Istanbul, Süleymaniye Kütüphanesi, Ayasofya 1451. The text is edited as Ananjasz Zaja̧czkowski (ed.), Le traité Arabe Muḳaddima d’Abou-l-Laiṯ as-Samarḳandī en version Mamelouk-Kiptchak (Warsaw: Państwowe Wydawnictwo Naukowe, 1962).

[10] Barbara Flemming, “Literary Activities in Mamluk Halls and Barracks,” in Studies in Memory of Gaston Wiet, ed. Myriam Rosen-Ayalon (Jerusalem: Institute of Asian and African Studies of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, 1977), 249–60.

[11] MS Vienna, Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, NF 271.

[12] MS Berlin, Staatsbibliothek, Or. Quart. 1817.

[13] MS Istanbul, Süleymaniye Kütüphanesi, Ayasofya 1451.

[14] On ethnicity in Mamlūk elite contexts, see Christian Mauder, “Being Persian in Late Mamluk Egypt: The Construction and Significance of Persian Ethnic Identity in the Salons of Sultan Qāniṣawh al-Ghawrī (r. 906–922/1501–1516),” Al-ʿUṣūr al-Wusṭā 28 (2020): 376–408.

(Suggested Bluebook citation: Christian Mauder, Studying Islamic Law in the Mamlūk Barracks, Islamic Law Blog (Oct. 14, 2021),

(Suggested Chicago citation: Christian Mauder, “Studying Islamic Law in the Mamlūk Barracks,” Islamic Law Blog, October 14, 2021,

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