Islamic Law at MESA 2022: Post-Conference Observations

By Dilyara Agisheva

The 56th Annual Meeting for the Middle Eastern Studies Association convened in Denver, Colorado, on December 1-4, 2022. The conference abounded with numerous panels and presentations on Islamic law and legal history. Here are some of the highlights:

Legal Diversity in the Ottoman Empire    

The panel entitled “The Diversity of Ottoman Legal Discourse” explored the complex nature of the Ottoman land regime from the 16th to the 18th century. The first two presentations of the panel, delivered by Christopher Markiewicz (Associate Professor in Ottoman and Islamic History, University of Birmingham) and Abdurrahman Atcil (Associate Professor of History, Sabancı University), directly conversed with each other. They explored the topic of waqf lands and taxation in 16th-century Egypt. After conquering Egypt in 1517, Ottoman officials vowed to maintain the existing land structure. A debate between imperial muftī Ebu’s-su’ūd (d. 1574) and local Egyptian scholars ensued when this imperial approach changed in the 1540s.

Christopher Markiewicz presented the official Ottoman position. Fatwās of Ebu’s-su’ūd supported the imperial view that kharāj taxes should be collected on all land, regardless of their status. Abdurrahman Atcil presented the Egyptian objection—most notably that of Ibn Nujaym (d. 1563) and al-Ghayṭī (d. 1576). Abdurrahman Atcil explained that Ebu’s-su’ūd and Ibn Nujaym viewed the “locus of taxation” differently. Unlike Ebu’s-su’ūd who conceived tax as attached to the land, Ibn Nujaym linked taxation to the owner. A Shāfi’ī scholar, al-Ghayṭī, opposed Ebu’s-su’ūd for a different reason. He argued that since early Muslims conquered Egypt by force, they assigned ‘ushr tax—not kharāj—on the land. Markiewicz and Atcil concluded that the sound legal argumentation of Egyptian scholars forced the central authority to retract its 1551 policy and keep its original promise to maintain waqf lands. Both presentations demonstrated the effectiveness of provincial legal scholars in shaping imperial legal policies.

Melissa Taylor (Assistant Professor of Middle Eastern Studies, University of Massachusetts, Amherst) presented on provincial muftīs of 17th and 18th-century Damascus. She highlighted how they incorporate sultans’ directives (kānūns) and orders (fermāns) on land tenure into fiqh literature. Taylor argued that Mehmed Sekizi (d. 1687/88), a 17th-century muftī, initiated this practice. Learning from Sekizi, Hamid al-‘Imadi (d. 1758) and Ali al-Muradi (d. 1771), muftīs in the 18th century, continued the trend, but in a slightly different way. They incorporated the sultan’s rules into Islamic jurisprudence by referencing kānūns and fermāns in their fatwās. Taylor concluded that Sekizi’s fiqh manuals and later fatwās of the 18th-century Damascian muftīs—which eventually impacted court procedures—led to the uniformity of the Ottoman legal system.

Evgenia Kermeli (Professor of History, Hacettepe University) discussed the monastic land waqfs of the Mount Athos community. Kermeli argued that the Ottoman imperial efforts to regulate monastic lands in the late 19th century failed because the monks of Mount Athos implemented legal and political maneuvering to expand their dominion. To prove their right over lands, the monks used ancient fermāns and fatwās as evidence, collaborated with European powers to pressure the Ottoman administration, and cajoled the local villagers into testifying on the monastery’s behalf. Kermeli’s research showed different ways religious minorities manipulated the Ottoman legal system to their advantage.

Overall, the panel brought to light the complicated nature of land tenure in the Ottoman Empire. However, the theses presented in the four papers go beyond the issue of land. The papers expand our understanding of the Ottoman legal system as a whole. The panel has proven that the Ottoman authority depended on a negotiated and entangled legal system between the imperial administration and local traditions.

Ottoman Law at the Edge of the Empire

Another panel, entitled “Privileges, Autonomy, and Legal Authority at the Edge of Empire,” examined the jurisdictions in autonomous regions of the Ottoman Empire, specifically Serbia, Danubian principalities, and Crimea, in the early 19th century. Each paper grappled with the meaning and limits of imperial sovereignty against local realities and legal practices. The panel’s commentator, Aimee Genell (Assistant Professor of History, University of West Georgia), insightfully noted, “in every case, space mattered.” Indeed, the panel presented interesting observations with respect to law and space. The records of local district courts (okruznii sud) in Ottoman Serbia of the early 19th century, for example—as presented by Emily Greble (Professor of History, Vanderbilt University)—described legal jurisdiction as dependent on where the person was rather than who the person was. Thus, moving from “Muslim” to “Christian” households, villages, or other spaces determined which specific legal actions applied to individuals.

Kelly O’Neill (Imperiia Project Director, Davis Center, Harvard University) showcased GIS representations of geographical narratives found in the collection of Crimean yarliks and fermāns. She highlighted how space and dimensions of landed property in Crimean Islamic legal thinking were tied to local knowledge. Drawing on Islamic court records and imperial decrees from the 1790s to the 1830s, Will Smiley (Assistant Professor of Classics, Humanities, and Italian Studies, University of New Hampshire) described the changing status of enslaved subjects from the Ottoman provinces of Moldavia, Wallachia, and Serbia. Smiley explained that because the release of POWs signified recognition of sovereignty in the international political arena of the period, the Ottoman state inadvertently made those provinces independent from the Ottoman realm by emancipating their war captives. Overall, all three papers of this insightful panel suggested that boundaries of legal jurisdiction in those autonomous provinces continuously shifted precisely because space—and the meanings spaces generated—often carried more weight than the legal and administrative norms of the empire.

Rising Scholars 

Various other panels featured some notable individual papers from young scholars with insightful contributions to law and legal practice in the Islamic world and Muslim communities. These included presentations by Erdem Idil (Ph.D. student in History, University of Toronto), Dr. Ahmet Izmirlioglu (Lecturer in History, Utah State University), Mohannad Abusarah (Ph.D. student in Religious Studies, University of Toronto), and Kamal Gasimov (Ph.D. student in Middle East Studies, University of Michigan).

Erdem Idil and Dr. Ahmet Izmirlioglu participated in a loosely organized panel entitled “Social and Political Life of the Ottoman Empire.” Erdem Idil examined the fatwā collections of two grand muftīs of the 17th century who wrote on the topic of inter-confessional communities of Istanbul. Erdem argued that these muftīs became instrumental in advancing imperial policies against non-Muslims. They condoned the confiscation of houses and forceful expulsions of non-Muslims to reduce the presence of non-Muslim religious rituals that supposedly endangered the sensibilities of Muslim inhabitants. Erdem argued that by associating notions of impurity, danger, or disturbance with non-Muslims, the two grand muftīs provided legal bases for coercive imperial policies against non-Muslims.

Drawing on the British and Ottoman archives, Ahmet Izmirlioglu examined court proceedings of the Ottoman Commercial Tribunals during the Tanzimat reforms (1839-1876). In the presentation, Izmirlioglu demonstrated that foreign empires—most notably Great Britain—attempted to increase their economic and political influence in the Ottoman Empire by expanding their presence and representation through agents and advocates in these commercial legal venues.

In another loosely organized panel entitled “Islamic law and Jurisprudence,” Mohannad Abusarah examined the modern Islamic reformist thesis that a “return to the original sources of Islam” leads to a correct “understanding of religious teachings.” He asked whether this thesis is original or stems from “a pre-modern Islamic discourse.” By comparing this modernist discourse, as elaborated by Muḥammad ʿAbduh (1849-1905) and Rashīd Riḍā (1865-1935), with the works of a pre-modern Islamic scholar, Ibn Ḥazm (d.1064), Abusarah argued these discourses differed with respect to the type of rationalities on which they are based. While premodern scholars relied on two layers of rationality (Pure and Dependent Reason) in their legal thinking, modern scholars dismissed the second layer and opted for Pure Reason alone when analyzing sacred texts.

In the same panel, Kamal Gasimov explored an argument of a 16th-century jurist and a Sufi, ’Abd al-Wahhab al-Sha‘rani (d. 973/1565). Gasimov explained that al-Sha’rani perceived the story of Adam’s fall and the concept of “original sin” as motivation for Islamic religious rituals and legal principles. Gasimov argued that the story of Adam and Eve in al-Sha‘rani’s theory of Islamic law reflects the political turmoil of 16th-century Egypt and offers a promise of salvation to the social concerns that arose in this period of crisis.

Celebrating the Legacy of a Scholar

At this year’s meeting, MESA held a roundtable in celebration of Professor Dr. Judith Tucker‘s (Professor Emerita of History, Georgetown University) achievement as a teacher and scholar in the fields of legal studies, Middle Eastern history, and gender studies. Dr. Tucker’s works, such as Women in Nineteenth-Century Egypt (1985), Gender and Islamic History (1993), In the House of the Law: Gender and Islamic Law in Ottoman Syria and Palestine (1998), Women, Family, and Gender in Islamic law (2008), and numerous journal articles and edited volumes revolutionized the field of Islamic legal studies in Western academia. Her recent retirement from Georgetown University, where she held a position for four decades, sparked an outpouring of gratitude from her former students and current scholars for her impactful scholarship and compassionate pedagogy.

Final Thoughts

Themes of “law and space,” “Islamic law in the Ottoman Empire,” and “Islamic law in practice” pervaded many of these presentations and panels. The frequency of these topics reflects a growing accessibility of sharīʿa court records and other archival sources, especially from the Ottoman period, that allows scholars in the field to chronicle the details of Islamic legal practice on the ground.

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