Narrating Change

By Guy Burak

The increasingly systematic study of Ottoman Islam – or, perhaps, Islam in the Ottoman Empire – is arguably one of the greatest historiographical developments in Islamic studies in recent decades. Indeed, the examination of the relationship between the Ottoman dynasty and multiple Islamic traditions has radically transformed the understanding of the “middle period” or the post-Mongol period in Islamic history. Significantly, the insights emerging from the Ottoman context have received the attention of scholars studying the Islamic tradition in other parts of the Islamic world. These conversations across academic fields have led to a growing recognition that Islamic history in the post-Mongol or “middle period” has to be examined across broader complexes – such as the Balkans-to-Bengal complex proposed by Shahab Ahmed – well beyond the narrow field of “Ottoman studies”.[1]

In my two blog posts this month, I will explore several issues that are particularly pertinent to the study of Islamic law in the Ottoman lands (or, perhaps, Ottoman Islamic law) and the Islamic East in the post-Mongol period more generally. To this end, I would like to revisit several historiographical themes and debates that have received scholarly attention over the past two decades or so. Much of what follows is an attempt to evaluate debates that I found particularly important in my own work on Ottoman Islamic law, but I hope to convince readers who are interested in other periods and geographies that some of these debates are relevant to the study of the Islamic legal traditions in general.

The selections of themes and topics reflect my personal interests and are informed by my own work on what I called “the second formation of Islamic law,”  which I have explained in greater detail elsewhere.[3] For the purpose of this series, suffice it to say that the historiographical construct of the “second formation” has been an attempt to capture a new relationship that emerged in the post-Mongol period between dynasts (the Ottoman sultan/dynasty, in the case I studied) and jurists. Post-Mongol rulers, I suggest, sought to intervene and regulate the doctrines of specific branches within the schools of law (madhhab, pl. madhāhib) they adopted by employing and developing new practices and institutions, such as officially appointed muftīs and learned hierarchies. In this sense, the relationship that emerged was different from earlier forms of courtly patronage of scholars and jurists.

In the decade or so since the publication of this thesis, first as an article and later as a monograph, I have benefited from lively conversations with friends and colleagues. Some have by and large accepted my interpretation, while others rejected or nuanced it. Throughout, I have been grateful for their engagement with my work.

One major point of contention has been the centrality of the “state” or the Ottoman dynasty in my narrative. Yavuz Aykan, Samy Ayoub, and most recently, Nenad Filipovic have all taken some issues with this narrative.[5] Ayoub has described my interpretation of the dynamics between the Ottoman dynasty and the empire’s scholarly circles as a “state-centric perspective” and has argued that scholars need to pay closer attention to “the acceptance by Ḥanafī juristic discourse as a whole, not just by individual Ḥanafī jurists, of a legislative role for the Ottoman sultan and the assignment of certain probative value to its orders and edicts.”[6] From a different perspective, Filipovic has argued that my narrative is “neo-statist” and, following Aykan and Snjezana Buzov, has posited that “Ottoman Ḥanafism is better seen as a law of a non-territorial guild, a constructed community of knowledge with a supposedly unbroken chain going back to early Islamic Transoxania and finally to Abū Ḥanīfa. This Ottoman guild of law doctors used the state and the facilities the state offered and/or might have offered rather than the Ottoman state and dynasty supposedly using the Ottoman doctors of law.”[7]

Instead of responding to these readings directly, I would like to situate the debate in a broader historiographical/methodological context. Specifically, I would like to suggest that the debate revolves around the question of causality and the nature of the Ḥanafī – and, more broadly, Islamic – juristic discourse.

As to the issue of causality, it seems to me that new perceptions of sovereignty that emerged across the Islamic East in the post-Mongol period led to the transformations in the Ḥanafī tradition in the Ottoman and other contexts, whereas the critics of this view seem to suggest that these transformations, to the extent that they indeed occurred, are internal and even integral to the Ḥanafī tradition. To be clear, I have never argued that these approaches are mutually exclusive, but I have called for greater attention to the mobilization of certain Ḥanafī arguments and doctrines (many indeed are found in Central Asian texts) by members of the Ottoman learned hierarchy.

But more important, I think, is to pay attention to the self-essentializing nature of the Ḥanafī legal discourse in general and in the post-Mongol period in particular. After all, these jurists operated in a post-Mongol world where rulers and dynasts had been making various legal claims for centuries, even if the jurists themselves did not explicitly acknowledge this context in their writings (indeed, relatively speaking, few jurists did, and most of them were quite critical of the changes they witnessed). Put differently, one could argue that these jurists internalized these claims and perhaps sensed the tension between the discourse and the historical reality in which they operated (a point we will revisit in the next blog post), but chose to make them transparent or trivial.

More broadly, one may read the debate about the possibility and limitation of reading legal change in the Islamic legal tradition (as well as in other traditions that are rooted in a single moment of revelation) from within. My interpretation of the developments during the “second formation” has been predicated on the assumption that certain changes can only be fully grasped when examined against other legal and historical sources. Such a reading can help us notice changes that jurists were discursively reluctant to admit.

To further illustrate this last point, it may be helpful to turn to other legal traditions, beyond the Ḥanafī one. To this end, I would like to turn to reflect on the “second formation” across denominational lines.

Entangled Legal Histories

When he was favored by victory and triumph at Sharur, he turned his reins toward Tabriz in 906 [1501], spreading the shade of his favor and fortune over the heads of the inhabitants and banishing the tyranny of the Turcomans from Azerbaijan. At an auspicious hour he mounted the throne and placed the crown of the caliphate and world conquest on his head. [. . .] And since the shah’s entire concern was the propagation of the Shīʿī sect and strengthening of the Prophet’s law, at the beginning of his coronation a regal decree was issued that all preachers in the realm of Azerbaijan pronounce the khoṭbe (Friday sermon) in the name of the Twelve imams [. . .][8]

This passage from the chronicle of the late fifteenth-early sixteenth century Ghiyāth al-Dīn Khwāndamīr (d. 1535/6), in Wheeler Thackston’s translation, narrates the conquest of Tabriz by Shāh Ismāʿīl (d. 1524), an event that is considered the foundation of the Safavids as a ruling dynasty. Interestingly, the adoption and promotion of the Shīʿī madhhab are mentioned along with another important Islamic marker of sovereignty, the Friday sermon (khoṭbe). Later recensions of this event will add the order to strike coins, the other marker of sovereignty. A seventeenth-century popular biography of the first Safavid Shāh, for example, relates that “when the victorious banners arrived at Tabriz, all the people of the city came out to welcome them. They strewed platefuls of gold before His Majesty and brought him to the residence of Ḥasan Pādeshāh. At an auspicious hour, Ismāʿīl took his place on the throne. The khoṭbe was recited in his name, and coins were struck bearing the glorious name of the holy Commander of the Faithful.”[9]

The passages raise an important question: Was “the second formation of Islamic law” exclusively an Ottoman, Sunnī Ḥanafī phenomenon? As I was studying the Ottoman adoption of a specific branch of the Ḥanafī school, I have come across institutions, textual practices and arguments that prevailed in other Ḥanafī polities from different parts of the Islamic East, such as the Mughals and different Central Asian khanates, that seemed remarkably familiar to me. Across the Islamic East, Ḥanafī rulers appointed muftīs and commissioned compilations of fatāwā and legal compendia, such as the famous Fatāvā-i ᶜĀlamigīrī, which were commissioned by the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb (d. 1707). The significant role played by these rulers and dynasts in shaping and regulating the doctrines of the schools they adopted are reminiscent of key developments in the Ottoman Empire. Therefore, despite significant differences between the polities, I suggested that the “second formation” was a broader phenomenon and proposed to see it as a broader historiographical framework to study parallel developments across the Islamic East, primarily among Ḥanafī polities.

The focus on the post-Mongol Ḥanafī polities grew out of convenience. The scholarship in European and Middle Eastern languages on non-Ḥanafī juristic circles across the Islamic East was quite limited and I was hesitant to draw parallels and connections between Sunnī and non-Sunnī jurisprudential traditions. There are still significant gaps in the modern historiography on non-Ḥanafī madhhabs across the Islamic East. It is still unclear how the Ottoman dynasty, for instance, intervened in shaping the doctrines of, say, the Shāfiʿī school in its domains, if at all. The question of the nature of the “second formation” in scholarly and juristic circles beyond the Ottoman learned hierarchy is intriguing as some of the key institutions and practices the Ottoman dynasty employed to shape the Ḥanafī branch it adopted were not fully implemented in other schools of law. On the other hand, adherents of the other madhāhib served in Ottoman courts and fatwās issued by certain non-Ḥanafī jurists were brought to court and recorded in the court records.[10] Yet, it is not fully clear to what extent these practices cultivated other “Ottoman schools of law.”

The Safavid adoption of the Twelver Shīʿī school – and specifically the moment of declaration of the propagation of the school upon the conquest of Tabriz in 1501, the founding moment of the Safavid polity – might be seen as part of a broader “second formation.” Much has been said in recent years about a broader Eurasian “confessionalization” or “confession building” projects, including in the Safavid domains. Much of the modern historiography has tended to focus on synchronous, horizontal readings of these developments. But if we examine these developments diachronically, Indeed, the connection the chroniclers made between the adoption of a school of law and other Islamic markers of sovereignty (coins and the Friday sermon) supports the interpretation that having a school was a marker of sovereignty. If this is indeed the case and part of the reason for the Safavid adoption of a school can be explained diachronically, the “second formation” may have been a historical development that cuts across the Sunnī-Shīʿī divide.

Much of my attention thus far has been on dynasties and rulers. Certainly, these actors play a major role in my narrative of the second formation. In recent years, however, scholars examining the legal thought of Jewish rabbis active in the Ottoman lands have pointed to some similarities between developments in Ottoman legal thought and contemporary developments in Jewish law (halakha). Roni Weinstein, whose new book is devoted to the luminary rabbi, Joseph Karo (d. 1575), who was mostly active in the northern Palestinian town of Safed, has argued that the Ottoman adoption of a branch within a school of law and the intervention in regulating the doctrines of that branch was one of the sources of inspiration that led Karo to embark on his massive codification project, known as the Sulḥan ᶜArukh. Weinstein and others have also shown that certain Ottoman institutional practices and concepts have parallels in Karo’s and other rabbis’ jurisprudential projects.[12] The Jewish developments are intriguing precisely because Jews did not have institutions at the imperial level to enforce law and communal order. In other words, the Jewish experience may help us distinguish between the political and institutional aspects of the “second formation” and the legal ideals and worldviews it inspired, regardless of the existence of such institutions.[13]

In a recent illuminating essay, Tijana Krstić explains the methodological-historiographical contours of an entangled approach to the study of confession building across early modern Eurasia: “The entangled approach does not apply only to the trans-imperial dimension of the present inquiry; instead of focusing only on the vertical relations between various state and communal authorities and their subjects and flocks, the discussion will emphasize the lateral, inter- and cross-communal entanglements within the empires themselves, which highlight the competitive and mimetic nature of co-existence in multi-confessional contexts.”[14] This approach may serve scholars of Islamic history as well. Instead of seeing the “second formation” as an Ottoman, Sunnī and Ḥanafī phenomenon, scholars can see it as part of a broader set of entangled developments – or, entangled legal histories – across denominational, institutional and political settings.

Entanglement is not only about compatibility. The entanglement is also manifested in tensions of different sorts. The next and last blog post returns to the Ḥanafī tradition to examine one of these tensions – the tension revolving around terminology.


[1] The corpus is quite vast but see, for instance, Shahab Ahmed, What Is Islam? The Importance of Being Islamic (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016); Abdurrahman Atçıl, Scholars and Sultans in the Early Modern Ottoman Empire (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2016); Tijana Krstic and Derin Terzioğlu, eds., Historicizing Sunni Islam in the Ottoman Empire, c.1450-c.1750 (Leiden: Brill, 2020).

[2] Guy Burak, The Second Formation of Islamic Law: The Hanafi School in the Early Modern Ottoman Empire (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015); Guy Burak, “Dynasty, Law and the Imperial Provincial Madrasa: The Case of al-Madrasa al-‘Uthmaniyya in Ottoman Jerusalem,” International Journal of Middle East Studies 45, no. 1 (2013): 111-25; Guy Burak, “Faith, law and empire in the Ottoman ‘age of confessionalization’ (fifteenth-seventeenth centuries): the case of ‘renewal of faith,’” Mediterranean Historical Review 28, no. 1 (2013): 1-23; Guy Burak, “Şeyhulislâm Feyzullah Efendi, the Ḥanafi Mufti of Jerusalem and the Rise of the Provincial Fatāwā Collections in the Eighteenth Century,” Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient 64, no. 4 (2021): 377-403.

[3] Burak, The Second Formation of Islamic Law.

[4] Guy Burak, “The Second Formation of Islamic Law: The Post-Mongol Context of the Ottoman Adoption of a School of Law,” Comparative Studies in Society and History 55, no. 3 (2013): 579-602; Burak, The Second Formation of Islamic Law.

[5] Yavuz Aykan, “Review of The Second Formation of Islamic Law,” International Journal of Middle Eastern Studies 48, no. 4 (2016): 793-95; Samy Ayoub, Law, Empire, and the Sultan: Ottoman Imperial Authority and Late Ḥanafī Jurisprudence (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2022); Nenad Filipovic, “Grand Vizier Koca Sinan Pasha and the Non-Muslims,” in Entangled Confessionalizations? Dialogic Perspectives on the Politics of Piety and Community Building in the Ottoman Empire, 15th-18th Centuries, eds. Tijana Krstić and Derin Terzioğlu (New Brunswick: Gorgias Press, 2022), 656.

[6] Ayoub, Law, Empire, and the Sultan, 21.

[7] Filipovic, “Grand Vizier Koca Sinan Pasha,” 656.

[8] Khwandamir, Habibu’s-Siyar, 3 vols., trans. Wheeler Thackston (Cambridge, MA: The Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations, Harvard University, 1994), 3:576.

[9] Barry Wood, ed. and trans., The Adventures of Shah Esma’il: A Seventeenth-Century Persian Popular Romance (Leiden: Brill, 2018), 52. 

[10] Ahmed Fekry Ibrahim, Pragmatism in Islamic Law: A Social and Intellectual History (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2015); Guy Burak, “Şeyhulislâm Feyzullah Efendi,” 382.

[11] Rula Abisaab, Converting Persia: Religion and Power in the Safavid Empire (New York: I.B. Tauris, 2004), esp. ch. 1; Maryam Moazzen, Formation of a Religious Landscape: Shi‘i Higher Learning in Safavid Iran (Boston: Brill, 2017).

[12] Roni Weinstein, Joseph Karo and Shaping Modern Jewish Law: The Early Modern Ottoman and Global Settings (London and New York: Anthem Press, 2022).

[13] Guy Burak and Roni Weinstein, “Two Visions of Rabbinic Authority and Their Ottoman Context: The Legal Worldviews of Joseph Caro (d. 1575) and Joseph Sambari (d. c. 1703),” in Entangled Confessionalizations? Dialogic Perspectives on the Politics of Piety and Community Building in the Ottoman Empire, 15th-18th Centuries, eds. Tijana Krstić and Derin Terzioğlu (New Brunswick: Gorgias Press, 2022), 117-38.

[14]  Tijana Krstić, “Can We Speak of ‘Confessionalizaiton’ beyond the Reformation? Ottoman Communities, Politics of Piety, and Empire-Building in an Early Modern Eurasian Perspective,” in Entangled Confessionalizations? Dialogic Perspectives on the Politics of Piety and Community Building in the Ottoman Empire, 15th-18th Centuries, eds. Tijana Krstić and Derin Terzioğlu (New Brunswick: Gorgias Press, 2022), 29.

(Suggested Bluebook citation: Guy Burak, Narrating Change, Islamic Law Blog (Oct. 13, 2022),

(Suggested Chicago citation: Guy Burak, “Narrating Change,” Islamic Law Blog, October 13, 2022,

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