::Roundtable:: History of Islamic International Law

By Intisar Rabb & Umut Özsu

What do we know about the history of international law in the Islamic world? We asked a select group of historians and legal scholars to explore this understudied field of history, as part of the Cambridge History of International Law series. As editors of volume eight of that series, we are pleased to draw from a diverse set of sources concerning both the medieval Islamic world (622–1453) and the Ottoman era (1453–1923).

Contributions to the first part of the volume, which focuses on the medieval period, examine the reach of international relations in early Islamic law, stretching from Iran and Iraq to the Andalusian and Maghrib territories of present-day Algeria, Morocco, Portugal, Spain, and Tunisia, as well as developments in sub-Saharan Africa and Asia along the coast of the Indian Ocean. Contributors draw on legal treatises and collections of juristic opinions or judicial manuals, but also on historical chronicles, diplomatic letters, and papyri records, all of which shed light on the international legal rules and ideas of this period and region. The first three centuries of Islamic law – the seventh to ninth centuries CE – are its founding period, the period in which the architects of the Islamic law edifice first laid the foundations for its sources, methods, and doctrines, both within and beyond the borders of the Muslim empire. The Prophet’s encounters with imperial rulers in the seventh century through caliphal negotiations of war, as well as commerce through the ninth century, materially shaped the idea of Islamic international law and relations. What defined the rules of diplomacy or authorized Muslim rulers to declare war? How did their rules of war define jihād and regulate the Crusades? How and why did judges mediate differences between different subjects? These questions percolated in the minds of jurists of the tenth and eleventh centuries, who sought to bring order to an evolving world of international law and relations as the empire started to break up into several smaller principalities and the integrity of the community required greater order in the law: juristic interpretation, judicial rulings, and caliphal rulings. By 1258, the year of the fall of Baghdad, the Muslim empire witnessed the dramatic invasion by the Mongols, who would put each of these questions to the test. The year symbolized the end of the Abbasid Caliphate and the beginning of a series of dynasties which would appeal to different rules with regard to warfare, empire-building, and the Crusades.

Contributions to the second part of the volume, which focuses on the Ottoman era, examine the contested status of various visions of international law in the Ottoman Empire. This part of the volume commences with the conquest of Constantinople in 1453, selected as a chronological point of departure due to its structural importance for Ottoman and European relations and its status as a particularly potent symbol of the empire’s ambiguous role in the emergent European state system. It comes to a conclusion with the empire’s formal dissolution in 1923, the systemic after-effects of which continue to be felt today. The period’s spatial sphere of application is defined by the uneven legal and political topography of the Ottoman Empire itself: the contributors discuss not only the empire’s ‘core’ Balkan and Anatolian provinces, but also its various semi-sovereign tributaries and dependencies. The focus is on the Ottoman Empire, a state that was home to the caliphate and in possession of Mecca and Medina, as a critical (though certainly not exclusive) locus of engagement with and interpretation of international law in the Islamic world.

Contributions to this second part deal with issues of private as well as public international law, drawing upon archival materials, published documents (in Ottoman Turkish as well as other languages, including, of course, Western languages), and relevant secondary literature from a host of disciplines, including but not limited to international legal history, diplomatic history, economic history, intellectual history, and social history. They focus on key Ottoman jurists, scholars, diplomats, and functionaries; debates about the Ottoman Empire’s place in (or its relation to) the development of the European state system; the empire’s complex role in the emergence and consolidation of the modern capitalist world economy; and the competing ways of interpreting, transforming, and repudiating Euro-American models of international legal order that found expression in Ottoman methods of interacting with the non-Ottoman world. Contributing to a nascent body of literature on the international legal history of the Ottoman Empire, the essays comprising this part demonstrate the centrality of the empire for understanding the history of what we have become accustomed to calling ‘international law’.

Join us over the next several weeks as we convene a public and accessible Roundtable that brings together a select group of historians and legal scholars to examine international law in Islamic and Ottoman history. Contributing scholars include Cemil Aydin, Fahad Bishara, Malika Dekkiche, Mohammad Fadel, Aimee Genell, Will Hanley, Suleiman Mourad, Umut Özsu, Intisar Rabb, Will Smiley, Mathieu Tillier, Joshua White, and Adnan Zulfiqar. We will be convening a live Roundtable webinar alongside publishing essays and summaries on our blog. During the Roundtable webinar, contributing scholars will reflect on and deliberate the larger themes, lingering questions, and ongoing debates about the history of what we now call ‘international law’.

(Suggested Bluebook citation: Intisar Rabb & Umut Özsu, Roundtable: History of Islamic International Law, Islamic Law Blog (Nov. 1, 2022), https://islamiclaw.blog/2022/11/01/roundtable-history-of-islamic-international-law/)

(Suggested Chicago citation: Intisar Rabb and Umut Özsu, “Roundtable: History of Islamic International Law,” Islamic Law Blog, November 1, 2022, https://islamiclaw.blog/2022/11/01/roundtable-history-of-islamic-international-law/)


Ottoman Empire and Eurocentric Law of Nations” by Cemil Aydin (summarized by Cem Tecimer)

Cemil Aydin’s chapter on “Ottoman Empire and Eurocentric Law of Nations” explores the history of how the Ottoman Empire navigated and negotiated its simultaneous inclusion and unequal status in a Eurocentric international world order. Aydin argues that the Ottoman Empire was gradually integrated into a Eurocentric world order on the terms of a Eurocentric international law, which positioned Ottomans as inferior to European nations because of the former’s perceived status as “uncivilized” or “semi-civilized.” In response to their second-class treatment, Ottoman politicians, diplomats, and intellectuals formulated robust arguments from within, reasoning that it was a violation of European powers’ own notions of international law for them to treat the Ottoman Empire as hierarchically inferior.

War and Peace in the Medieval Islamic World, 622–1453” by Suleiman A. Mourad 

The study of war and peace in a complex religious tradition like Islam is not an easy undertaking. On the one hand, the mosaic of beliefs and sectarian divisions that we call Islam does not have a fixed view on war and peace (and many other issues). On the other hand, the laws of war and peace are complicated by the fact that medieval Muslim jurists invariably acknowledged the contradiction and incoherence within and between the foundational sources (especially the Qurʾān and Ḥadīth), the historical practice of rulers, and the opinions of jurists. Furthermore, it is important to keep in mind that discussions of the laws of war and peace in Islam were often impacted by other considerations stemming from religious practice, doctrinal affiliation, philosophical principles, realpolitik, and more.

Territory and Jurisdiction” by Adnan A. Zulfiqar 

This essay explores features of territory and jurisdiction in medieval Islamic law—both a straightforward consideration, mirroring other legal regimes, and a uniquely complicated proposition. On the one hand, in the medieval period, Islamic law operated as the legal system of empire, constrained by physical borders and the administration of law within those boundaries. On the other hand, Islamic law served as the guiding framework of a moral community whose religious identity, premised on “belief,” transcended borders, and functioned as the primary, legally cognizable status.

An Overview of Islamic International Law” by Mohammad Fadel

My chapter attempts to set out the broad outlines of the history and development of Islamic international law from the rise of Islam in the seventh century to the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in 1453. When faced with such an assignment, I was forced to choose between breadth and depth. The approach I adopted was intended to be sufficiently broad as to give the reader an idea of the vast range of topics Muslim jurists discussed in the doctrines of international law while at the same time giving the curious reader the ability to go beyond my succinct presentation of these substantive doctrines if the reader so desired. 

Markets and the Making of the Islamic World” by Fahad A. Bishara (summarized by Hadi Qazwini)

Fahad A. Bishara’s chapter on “Markets and the Making of the Islamic World” explores the histories of Muslim commerce and communication and the discussions surrounding Islamic law that emerged out of these histories, spanning the mid-1st/7th to mid-9th/15th centuries. Bishara argues that the relationship between political economy and law (“the material” and “the ideational,” respectively) is dialogical and that historians must investigate the two together if we are properly to conceive of an economic history of the Islamic world.

Dispute Settlement in the Medieval Islamic World” by Mathieu Tillier (summarized by Rami Koujah)

Mathieu Tillier’s chapter on “Dispute Settlement in the Medieval Islamic World” surveys the venues, procedures, and juridical systems for the adjudication of legal disputes in Islamic lands. He focuses on disputes involving non-Muslim parties, where non-Muslim litigants fall into one of several categories: dhimmī, a non-Muslim residing in Islamic territory with permanent protected status; mustaʾmin, a non-Muslim from beyond the frontier who is a beneficiary of safe passage (amān); and ḥarbī, a foreigner belonging to hostile territory (dār al-ḥarb) who did not benefit from mustaʾmin status. Tillier also discusses disputes involving Muslims belonging to a rebellious political power, ahl al-baghy (rebels) or ahl al-ahwāʾ (“people of passions”). His chapter shows how the rules and procedures governing a case changed depending on the venue and parties involved.

Ottoman Empire: War and Peace” by Will Smiley and Aimee Genell (summarized by Hadi Qazwini)

Will Smiley and Aimee Genell’s chapter, “Ottoman Empire: War and Peace,” investigates the Ottoman dynasty’s theories and practices surrounding war and peace from its 8th/14th century origins as a north-central Anatolian emirate through its heyday as a vast empire spanning three continents and then its eventual collapse in the 14th/20th century. The authors maintain that the Ottoman Empire – like its counterparts – “was made by and for war,” and therefore discussions about the laws of war and the practices of the state are deeply intertwined with the history of the empire.

Diplomacy in the Medieval Islamic World” by Malika Dekkiche (summarized by Rami Koujah)

Malika Dekkiche’s chapter provides an insightful overview of diplomacy in the medieval Islamic world with crucial pointers on the challenges and task of studying the topic. She begins by alerting us to the ambiguity of the term “diplomacy” and developments in the discipline of diplomatic history. Both have contributed toward skewing our understanding and ability to perceive diplomacy in medieval Islamic history. The methodological developments advanced by the New Diplomatic History (NDH) have shifted the focus from politics and the state towards the multiple actors and social and cultural dynamics of premodern diplomatic practices. The field of Islamic diplomacy still lags behind its European counterparts in this respect, and so Dekkiche’s work offers a much-needed corrective.

Leave a Reply