Beyond the Ribāṭ: Exploring Coastal and Offshore Jurisdiction

By Hassan S. Khalilieh

As early as the first half of the seventh-century, Caliph ʿUmar ibn al-Khaṭṭāb (r. 13-23/634-644) established the office of the “governorship of the coasts.” Initially focused on the Syro-Palestinian coastal frontiers, this office eventually expanded to encompass the entire Islamic maritime domain along the Mediterranean Sea. Administratively, the coastal frontiers were detached from their hinterlands and transferred to the territorial jurisdiction of the governor of the coasts, who was normally an army commander, was appointed directly by the Caliph and drew his authority from the central government. With the establishment of this distinct coastal administrative entity, the Caliph laid the official and legislative foundations for the post of admiralty.[1]

The admiral enjoyed supreme administrative, judicial, and military authority over the coastal frontiers. He was charged with maintaining good order and securing maritime frontiers and guarding them in order to defend the coastal frontiers against external naval attacks, facilitating the flow of commerce, sheltering wayfarers and caravans, and protecting merchants and postal systems against piratical raids and highway robbers. The admiral was responsible for the construction of caravanserais, ribāṭ-fortresses, and watchtowers (lookouts), official and private. The ribāṭ-fortresses and watchtowers, which characterized the rural coastal landscape of the Islamic Mediterranean, were generally built outside the urban centers. Their locations and the distances between them were primarily dictated by military and topographical considerations. Therefore, they were not uniformly spaced, but rather were situated at high gravel ridges, artificial mounds, and flatlands provided that signals and alerts could clearly be transmitted and observed from one ribāṭ to the next (refer to the architectural plan below).[2]

The ribāṭs’ architectural plan and features were unique to the religio-military landscapes of the Islamic Mediterranean. Prototype of the Umayyad desert castles, the ribāṭ-fortresses shared in common a similar architectural structure and plan, but varied in size. A typical ribāṭ was a squared-built enclosure strengthened by square buttresses along its external walls with four round towers at the corners. Two semi-circular towers protected the main gate leading into a courtyard surrounded by arms and food warehouses, stables for cattle and horses, larger and smaller rooms, reservoirs, a small mosque and prayer niches. In the middle of the courtyard were cisterns and drill areas for warriors. At the highest point were the command headquarters. Most ribāṭs were several stories high and housed one-hundred or more cavalrymen. Between one ribāṭ and the next were square miḥrāses (small watchtowers), each one’s size ranged between 50-60 square meters.[3]

The establishment of the ribāṭ institution from the seventh century onward along the Islamic Mediterranean littoral not only changed the demographic balance, but also introduced new settlement patterns and landscapes in the coastal rural areas. The practice of defensive jihād created a new lifestyle in the frontier landscape when heterogeneous warrior-saints, garrisoned soldiers, and volunteers from all over the Empire moved to perform their ribāṭ religious duty in the maritime borderlines. In spite of the ribāṭ practitioners’ diverse ethnic, social, economic, cultural, and sectarian backgrounds, they were unified in their devotional mission and way of life. As an administratively autonomous and self-sustaining entity, every ribāṭ­ was managed by an amīn (trustee) or imām (leader/commander), who gained his authority from the district commander.

The selection of the ribāṭ sites stemmed from military, administrative, ideological, religious, social, economic, and ecological considerations. Ecologically, its location was highly dependent on the existence of natural resources for the garrisoned stationers’ livelihood mostly from cultivating the lands, farming, herding, and fishing. Moreover, due to its strategic and presumable religious importance as a frontline against the enemy’s naval raids, central and regional authorities endowed vast estates, including ḥimās (reserved pastures) and granted offshore fishing rights over limited marine space for the communal benefit of the ribāṭ’s occupants.

In line with the Prophetic tradition (Sunnah) which maintains that every land has its ḥarīm (inviolable zone), by extension, the coast must also have its ḥarīm to include part of the maritime space along the shoreline. However, the Mālikī jurist Ashhab ibn ʿAbd al-ʿAzīz al-Qaysī (140-204/757-820) made a clear distinction between property rights on land as distinct to those pertaining to maritime spaces, arguing that contrary to the sea, land can be occupied. The inquiry reads as follows:

Ashhab was asked about a group of voluntary guards, who arrived in some town, set up boundary lines, and settled therein for the performance of garrison duty (ribāṭ); a woodland area separated their settlement from the sea. Along the coast there were deserted towns occupied by ribāṭ practitioners, too. Since these were exposed to immediate threat and frequent raids of the Byzantines (Rūm), governors refused the practitioners’ appeal to extend their boundaries. Their living conditions have improved in due course and, as a result, they have expanded their woodland zone so that their territorial rights extended to the seacoast. Are they entitled to do so? Do you think that the sea should have a ḥarīm zone on the pretext of repulsing Byzantine (maritime) threat? Or, can their zone be expanded under the pretense of feeding their animals?

He answered: They shall not be forbidden from developing their woodlands as much as they wish, provided that their territorial extension should not get close to populated areas and cause harm to local residents. If that were to happen, they shall be forbidden from doing so. I do not think that the sea should have its own inviolable zone.[4]

As land, the coast can have ḥarīm extending over a limited and clearly visible seaward distance. However, the sea itself does not have ḥarīm. Thus, the sea bordering the coast can be an appurtenant to the coastland, but not vice versa. This legal opinion does not suggest that non-local residents may exploit marine natural resources off coastal settlements, ribāṭ­s, or installations other than their own according to their free will. Contrary to the open sea, which is common and openly accessible to all, maritime zones contiguous to populated coastal frontiers enjoy a different legal status, although they still may not be subject to private ownership. Dwellers in coastal settlements, garrisoned warriors and volunteers at ribāṭs could claim exclusive fishing rights, restrict access, or exclude outsiders from exploiting marine resources. Even so, they still could not prevent non-threatening vessels from freely navigating these waters.

Coastal urban and rural residents, including ribāṭ occupants, made a living from farming, local, regional, and overseas trading, manufacturing, gathering hay, collecting wood, producing salt, and catching fish.[5] Abū al-Ḥasan Muḥammad ibn Khalaf al-Qābisī (324-403/935-1012) was asked about fish vendors purchasing fish from garrisons at the Ribāṭ of Monastir (Tunisia) and selling them in different towns. He responded with concern that this activity could negatively affect the economy of the ribāṭ:

In my view, fishing in (the Sea of Monastir) is like collecting hay and wood from its woodland areas; outsiders cannot exploit them, except if harm is not caused to them, or its occupants do not yield benefits from leaving it (marine species) unfished. It is not something attainable, like collecting hay and wood in land, which are always within reach. This means that any resident of Monastir who catches fish in this sea has to sell them in its market; whoever wishes may buy (fish) provided that he neither pays a very low price to the seller nor fixes the rate of sale. They must, however, be sold in conformity with what God has assigned to him at that time, regardless of whether they fetch a greater or lesser price. Whatever is left over from the purchase for the consumption of the residents of Monastir, the catcher/fisherman (al-ṣāʾid) can dispose of and sell (them) as he wishes and at his own free well.

If the catcher intends to fish in this sea with the intention of selling them in the local market, then no one is eligible to buy the fish at the gateway to the sea, or when heading for the market; they must, however, be sold at the marketplace. Merchants, who take-up residence in these strongholds, are associates of other occupants. Nevertheless, if they inflict harm on occupants, their affiliation will be terminated and their residence revoked because they are disqualified from meeting the ribāṭ’s religious duties and conditions. Their way of earning a livelihood is equivalent to that of shopkeepers (ahl al-aswāq); therefore, they must be forbidden from residing due to the harm they may inflict. Those who inflict harm in one way or another on practitioners of the strongholds must be expelled. Any merchant who arrives in this place for fishing therein with the purpose of trading them in various places other than Monastir must not be permitted to do so because he inflicts harm on those who fish in Monastir. However, if the residents of Monastir have taken what is sufficient to supply their want, there is no harm, if God wills, in transporting what they caught from this sea on the condition that such an action neither inflicts harm nor straitens their conditions; this is because sea fishing is dissimilar to land hunting, where the land prey (is easier to attain). If someone inclines to leave them unexploited in that place, I do not see any reason why local people be prevented from reaping benefit from fishing! This is what seems to me (is happening) in the case of the Sea of Monastir. May God grant us success![6]

A number of legal inferences can be gleaned from the above responsum. First, and consistent with the Prophetic tradition, being part of the land, every coast has its own ḥarīm. Second, local residents of coastal settlements enjoyed exclusive rights to exploit marine resources available within a specified distance from the coast. Therefore, access to any offshore ḥarīm was either conditional or denied outright to outsiders. Third, although exact boundaries for the maritime ḥarīms were not fixed, it is reasonable to assume that they ranged up to the seaward distance at which a vessel could be sighted from the coast. Fourth, exploitation of natural resources in the “protected maritime zones”—if such a term is appropriate—required prior approval from local, and at times peripheral, governing authorities. Fifth, in order to conserve the marine ecosystem and the economies and livelihoods of the local residents, both native and foreign fishermen alike were obliged not to overfish and deplete the resources, since the needs of the community held precedence over those of the individual; local coastal residents had the rights to exclude non-locals from fishing in their own coastal waters. Sixth, even though the sea is considered to be the property of no particular person but instead common to all, and although fishermen could freely set sail for any destination, they were not licensed to fish unrestrained within sighting distance of populated coastal areas other than those of their own hometowns. In other words, the maritime spaces bordering coastal settlements may be considered to have had the status of res communes, whereby local residents held exclusive rights over—but could not deny non-local vessels from passing through—these natural resources.[7]

In sum, selection of the ribāṭ location was not arbitrary; rather, it was meticulously coordinated and planned in conjunction with the Admiral’s office. Factors such as the area’s strategic significance, living conditions for the inhabitants, and the economic rights of the ribāṭ practitioners over both a defined offshore zone and a coastal space were carefully considered. The coastal defense system, designed primarily to safeguard Islamic coastal frontiers from hostile incursions, also functioned as caravanserais for land-traveling merchants and merchant vessels vulnerable to piracy and enemy assaults. The ribāṭ occupants enjoyed the exclusive privilege of cultivating the lands adjacent to their post and harnessing marine natural resources. Non-local residents were restricted from exploiting these resources. Only with the explicit permission of the ribāṭ leader could they access them ensuring that such access does not detrimentally affect the ribāṭ practitioners.

Detailed architectural plan of the early eighth century C.E. Umayyad ribāṭ of Kafr Lāb. Source: Hassan S. Khalilieh, “May the Umayyad Coastal Ribāṭ Fortress of Kafr Lāb Have Been Built in Memory of Mujāhid ibn Jabr?,” Al-Masāq: Journal of the Medieval Mediterranean 34, no. 3 (2022): 310.


[1] Anwar M. al-ʿAwwa, “Tārīkh al-Sāḥil al-Shāmī mundhu Maṭlaʿ al-ʿAṣr al-Rāshidī ḥattā Nihāyat al-Ḥukm al-Sufyānī: Futūhātuhu, Taʾsīs al-Arbiṭa, Inshāʾ al-Quwā al-Baḥriyya” (PhD diss., Faculty of Literature and Humanities, Damascus University, 1433/2012), 133; Rana Mikati, “The Creation of Early Islamic Beirut: The Sea, Scholars, Jihad and the Sacred” (PhD diss., University of Chicago, 2013), 42; Aḥmad ʿA. Maḥāfẓa, “Al-Taḥṣīn al-ʿAskarī li’l-Thughūr al-Shāmiyya al-Barriyya wa’l-Sāḥiliyya fī al-ʿAhd al-Rāshidī,” Majallat al-Mishāt li’l-ʿUlūm al-Insāniyya wa’l-Ijtimāʿiyya 3, no. 2 (2016): 354-55; Sulaymān S. Kamāl, “Al-Idāra al-ʿAskariyya fī al-Dawala al-Islāmiyya: Nashʾatuhā wa-Taṭawwuruhā ḥatā Muntaṣaf al-Qarn al-Thālith al-Hijrī” (PhD diss., Umm al-Qurā University, 1413/1992), 470-71.

[2] Hassan S. Khalilieh, “The Ribāṭ System and Its Role in Coastal Navigation,” Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient 42, no. 2 (1999): 212-25; Hassan S. Khalilieh, “The Ribāṭ of Arsūf and the Coastal Defence System in Early Islamic Palestine,” Journal of Islamic Studies 19, no. 2 (2008): 159-77.

[3] Hassan S. Khalilieh, “May the Umayyad Coastal Ribāṭ Fortress of Kafr Lāb Have Been Built in Memory of Mujāhid ibn Jabr?,” Al-Masāq: Journal of the Medieval Mediterranean 34, no. 3 (2022): 292-313.

[4] Abū ʿAbd Allāh ibn ʿAbd al-Raḥmān ibn Abū Zayd al-Qayrawānī, Al-Nawādir wa’l-Ziyādāt ʿalā mā fī al-Mudawwana min ghayrihā min al-Ummahāt (Beirut: Dār al-Gharb al-Islāmī, 1999), 10:521: “wa-lā arā li’l-baḥri ḥarīman.”

[5] Néji Djelloul, Al-Ribāṭāt al-Baḥriyya bi-Ifrīqiya fī al-ʿAṣr al-Wasīṭ (Tunis: Markaz al-Dirāsāt wa’l-Buḥūth al-Iqṭiṣādiyya wa’l-Ijtimāʿiyya, 1999), 88, 111, 114-115, 118, 119-120, 137, 139, 150, 168, 177, 194, 202-03; Roxani Margariti, “The Rasūlids and the Bountiful Sea: Marine Resources, State Control, and Maritime Culture in the Southern Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden (626/1229-854/1454),” Der Islam 98, no. 1 (2021): 71.

[6] Abū al-ʿAbbās Aḥmad ibn Yaḥyā al-Wansharīsī, Al-Miʿyār al-Muʿrib wa’l-Jāmiʿ al-Mughrib ʿan Fatāwā Ahl Ifrīqiya wa’l-Andalus wa’l-Maghrib (Beirut: Dār al-Gharb al-Islāmī, 1981), 2:5-6.

[7] Offshore waters, rivers, and springs must be freely accessible and shared by all people. Individuals are not authorized to erect private constructions that may hinder or prevent access to aquatic resources. Abū ʿAbd Allāh ʿAbd al-Raḥmān ibn al-Qāsim ibn Khālid ibn Junāda alʿUtqī al-Miṣrī, known as Ibn al-Qāsim (133-191/751-806), an Egyptian born jurist and one of Mālik’s disciples, was asked about a person who prevents others by different means from reaching and exploiting natural resources. Ibn al-Qāsim rules:

No one has the right to block a sea bay (inlet) or a valley with a barrier thus excluding people from fishing in it; he and other people alike enjoy similar fishing rights. Muḥammad ibn Rushd decrees: This is quite true because the river is common to all Muslims. No one has fishing rights over others even if his estate is adjacent to either edge of the riverbanks. He neither has right to block it with a barrier, nor allocate an exclusive fishing area for himself. If he does so, he is more deserving to fish in it in for his own need only. Then, let the people share fishery with him in it. This opinion has been endorsed by Muṭrif (ibn ʿAbd Allāh al-Hilālī, d. 220/835) and Ibn al-Mājishūn (d. 212/827) in the Wāḍiḥa. In my opinion, he is entitled to fish for his own need only. May God bless us with success.

See Abū al-Walīd Muḥammad ibn Aḥmad ibn Rushd al-Qurṭubī, Al-Bayān wa’l-Taḥṣīl wa’l-Sharḥ wa’l-Tawjīh wa’l-Taʿlīl fī Masāʾil al-Mustakhraja (Beirut: Dār al-Gharb al-Islāmī, 1984), 3:314-315.

(Suggested Bluebook citation: Hassan S. Khalilieh, Beyond the Ribāṭ: Exploring Coastal and Offshore Jurisdiction, Islamic Law Blog (May 9, 2024),

(Suggested Chicago citation: Hassan S. Khalilieh, “Beyond the Ribāṭ: Exploring Coastal and Offshore Jurisdiction,” Islamic Law Blog, May 9, 2024,

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