Islamic Law and Culture, 1600-1840

By Haim Gerber | Go to book overview

INTRODUCTION

This study seeks to examine some important aspects of the legal life of Muslims in the Middle East in the sixteenth to the early nineteenth centuries, that is, to the last historical moment when the traditional Islamic legal system may be said to have been still undiluted by Western cultural penetration. I shall do this by analyzing the legal opinions (fatwas)1 of two Arab and one Turkish jurisconsults (muftīs), the seventeenth-century Palestinian Khayr al-Dīn al-Ramlī, Muḥammad Amīn Ibn ʿĀbidīn who lived in Damascus in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, and Ebu Suud al-Imadi, chief jurisconsult (şeyhülislam) of the Ottoman Empire, who lived in sixteenth-century Istanbul.2 The inclusion of this latter mufti is made particularly necessary by the fact that at that period the Ottoman Empire ruled the Middle East and most probably affected the mode of functioning of Islamic law, an influence that could well have been exercised via this very mufti. To disregard him would have meant leaving aside the socio-political milieu of Islamic law in this period.

My purpose in this study is to offer a reconsideration of the general structure of Islamic law as a thought world: there are many excellent studies on Islamic law in the classical period but only a few references to what took place in the final stages of late classical Islam. When the muftis discussed here are mentioned, it is always

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1
A fatwa is a question addressed to an expert in Islamic law, the reasoned answer to which could be presented in court or used privately. A fatwa had no binding force. See below for further details.
2
The discussion of this mufti in the present context may give rise to some theoretical objections, since as a Turkish speaking scholar he was (or may have been) marginal from the point of view of what is ordinarily taken by scholars to be “Islamic law, ” and also because the political job he held made him exceptional. But on examination, both these views appear to be unfounded: In fact, the most influential doctrinal textbook in use in Ottoman madrasas was the Multaqā al-Abḥur of Ibrāhīm al-Ḥalabī, which follows the Mukhtaṣar of al-Qudūrī and the Hidāya of al-Marghīnānī, the major texts giving specific direction and form to the Hanafī line of authoritative tradition. See N. Aghnides, Muhammedan Theories of Finance (New York: Columbia University Press, 1916), 182. (On the books mentioned see further below). As to the second assumption: Ebu Suud's collection of fatwas shows that he operated as an ordinary mufti (often, by the way, giving detailed reasoning rather than one word answers), rather than as a leading politician possessing power over other jurists.

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