Experiments in Tracking Canons across the Mecelle

By Intisar Rabb & Yusuf Celik

The Courts & Canons (CnC) Project at SHARIAsource leverages data science tools to explore questions in Islamic law and society historically through mapping the controversies and values reflected in courts (from taʾrīkh, ṭabaqāt) and legal canons (qawāʿid fiqhiyya). This year, we convened a CnC Research Group to gather a global group of scholars interested in interpretation of Islamic law to share works in progress, read texts, and discuss new research on questions relevant to the history of interpretation, courts, and canons. One aim was to better understand legal canons as tools for interpretation in historical context. A second aim was to see whether and how data science tools can augment that process. To those ends, the group workshops works-in-progress deliberately designed to be ‘half-baked ideas’ at preliminary stages of research. We experiment with ways in which the data science tools we are developing at SHARIAsource (CnC Qayyim) can aid in that research. 

Legal canons provide fertile ground for anyone interested in interpretation and discovering the fruits of judicial labor on issues of law and society as it changes over time and place. One of us has proposed that legal canons are memes of sorts: they emerge, spread, and evolve over space and time. A series of statements, rulings, and precedents from aggregated legal discussions and cases become legal canons at the moment when they become so well-established and so widespread that they take on particular and recognizable forms. They are, by definition, attributable to no single author and thus anonymized (even where some scholars claim prophetic or particular origins); they are shared widely among jurists and others (often with slight variations that become all the more possible by virtue of the settled nature of the initial ‘meme’). Their pervasive presence and ever-widening spread means that these canons-as-memes show up unexpectedly and unindexed all across works of history, biography, literature, and more, in addition to works of law. 

Legal canons also thus provide fertile ground for mining the past with data science tools. Case in point: our most recent workshop on the Ottoman Code of 1869, better known as the Mecelle, which was the best known early modern experiment in codifying Islamic law. We presented a work in progress that explores debates over how and why the Mecelle Drafting Committee borrowed 99 legal canons to reform Ottoman law. Playing with a new data visualization tool, we examined the 99 legal canons (kaideler) that begin the Mecelle according to 5 major categories that Intisar Rabb has developed–drawing on Islamic law structures and American statutory interpretation debates–to track the types of canons in the code (textual, substantive, procedural, structural, and governmental canons). We also read the prefatory notes that explain the reasons for drafting the Mecelle both in the original Ottoman Turkish and an Arabic translation from one of dozens of commentaries–here a former muftī in Syria, Salīm Rustam Bāz al-Lubnānī’s (d. 1338–9/1920),  Sharḥ al-Majalla. There, the Mecelle drafters were careful to note that they drew their selection of 99 canons principally from the sixteenth-century Ḥanafī scholar and canons collector, Ibn Nujaym (d. 970/1563), and that they consulted other Ḥanafī sources of Islamic law to produce a code that “does not depart from the Ḥanafī school.” The Ḥanafī school bound the Ottoman Empire as it was tied to religious legitimacy, and the sultan had commanded that the new code follow it. 

But some commentators have called into question the provenance of those canons, or the Mecelle Committee’s reasons for selecting this set of 99 canons among the thousands of known canon collections from the eleventh century onward. True to the legislative nature of this new Code, the Mecelle canons contain no clear references to their respective sources or what led the drafters to include them. Accordingly, dozens of commentators and critics have sought to trace these canons to earlier sources of Islamic law, with special attention to Ibn Nujaym. Their attempts to track down all of the canons have come up short. Through computational means, we found that Ibn Nujaym’s book of legal canons contains less than two-thirds of the Mecelle canons. Attempts to locate the rest fared somewhat better but were not conclusive. In research using traditional means, scholars were not able to be exhaustively trace the canons—neither across different legal schools, nor vertically across history, aside from the single 16th-century scholar from which they purportedly emanated. The sources are too voluminous and unwieldy. 

To address this problem, we developed CnC-Qayyim’s digital tools to trace and map what turns out to be heterogeneous sources for the Mecelle’s canons. Those tools allowed us to compare canons across texts, and to visualize which canons the Drafting Committee borrowed, which it privileged, and which it omitted altogether. Our findings raise new research questions and inform tentative conclusions as to why the Drafting Committee chose the canons it did. Using these new tools,  our initial research raised follow-up questions about canons’ prevalence within the Ḥanafī school in addition to the conventional questions about canons’ provenance: why did the Mecelle Drafting Committee make certain choices over which canons to include over others in their short list of 99 legal canons? What did it reflect about the values and anxieties of Ottoman society at the time? 

Workshop participants provided valuable insight. The group raised questions about how extensive the corpus needed to be to definitively answer the questions posed as well as what types of sources would add greater insight into applications of those canons in late-Ottoman law and society. And together, we worked through the clustering of canons in the ‘Mecelle Flow,’ highlighted in figures 1 and 2 below. We will go back to the digital drawing board, to further develop the tools and prepare a paper to publish the results.

Figure 1: Zoomed out image of the ‘Mecelle Flow’ using CnC Qayyim.
Figure 2: Zoomed in image of the ‘Mecelle Flow’ using CnC Qayyim.

This Workshop is an example of the ways in which we hope that ongoing discussion and research using traditional means and data science tools will enable new insights into the social and interpretive history of Islamic law by connecting legal canons to laws (court cases, juristic opinions), people (judges and jurists), and places (regional schools, varied empires and eras). We hope that over time, our collective discussions and ‘half-baked’ ideas will be generative for new research insights into the dynamic social and interpretive history of Islamic law, over time and space. 

About the CnC Project 

The Program of Islamic Law’s SHARIAsource at Harvard Law School is developing a suite of digital Islamic law tools to expand access to and facilitate research in the field. Courts&Canons (CnC) is a major initiative that facilitates research and insights into Islamic law and the motivating values behind it, across space and time. Our platform will not only house information on Muslim judges, jurists, and others; but we aim to develop tools accompanying ‘bits’ of data about them in a way that allows us to organize and store metadata that permits social network-mapping of groups core to the formation and function of Islamic societies, geo-timelines of trends in Islamic history, and other data visualizations important to researchers and the general public seeking to better understand the field.

Through the suite of CnC tools, we aim to build and deploy a set of AI and other data science tools to facilitate new research in fields of Islamic law and Islamic studies writ large. Three tools that we are developing to this end are the CnC Data-Entry tool (for researchers to enter key bits of data about the people and laws they are most interested in studying), the CnC-Qayyim data analytics tool (for researchers to track and visualize the people and laws in social networks and other maps), and the SEARCHstrata metadata mapping tool (for researchers to connect the people and sources of interest to the rich bibliographical metadata of the Harvard Libraries, the Library of Congress, and beyond). Together, these tools will open possibilities for answering new questions about both Islamic legal history and contemporary law. Joining scholarly texts with digital tools will, moreover, enable insights in Islamic law and history that neither the jurist nor the machine could arrive at alone.

(Suggested Bluebook citation: Intisar Rabb & Yusuf Celik, Experiments in Tracking Canons across the Mecelle, Islamic Law Blog (Mar. 16, 2022), https://islamiclaw.blog/2022/03/16/works-in-progress-experiments-in-tracking-canons-across-the-mecelle/)

(Suggested Chicago citation: Intisar Rabb & Yusuf Celik, “Experiments in Tracking Canons across the Mecelle,” Islamic Law Blog, March 16, 2022, https://islamiclaw.blog/2022/03/16/works-in-progress-experiments-in-tracking-canons-across-the-mecelle/)

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