Ottoman Imperial Jurisprudential Authority, 16-17c


A review of The Abū anīfah of His Time: Islamic Law, Jurisprudential Authority and Empire in the Ottoman Domains (16th-17th Centuries), by Guy Burak.

This dissertation examines how jurisprudential authority was constituted in the Ottoman Empire during the 16th and 17th centuries. The author studies the discussions between muftīs, both those who were appointed officially by the Ottoman state and ‘unofficial’ muftīs, and how these religious scholars established their juridical authority through their fatwās. These debates, which took place during the integration of the Arab lands into the Ottoman administrative matrix, illuminate the development of an imperial legal system and its articulation of Hanafi jurisprudence sponsored by the Ottoman religious-judicial establishment. An examination of the religious scholarship emanating from these lands lends support to the author’s project of outlining the process by which an Ottoman imperial jurisprudential tradition developed.

The first chapter of the dissertation, “‘According to His Exalted Kanun’: Contending Views of the Institution of the Muftī in Ottoman Greater Syria,” opens with a discussion of the institution of the mufti in the Mamluk Sultanate and the development of this institution under the Ottomans after their conquest of the Mamluk lands, with particular reference to the juridical scholarship emerging from Damascus. After examining the trajectory of the institution of the mufti, this chapter argues that the Ottoman dynasty attempted to control the content of the shari‘a by creating a state-sponsored religious hierarchy. Central to the Ottomans’ creation of a new set of juridical norms was the re-invention of the role of the mufti as a state-appointed official who issued rulings that were considered to be endorsed by the state, a theme that reappears and is explored in detail throughout the remainder of the dissertation.

Elaborating on the creation of a distinctively Ottoman understanding of jurisprudence, the second chapter, “Contending Traditions: The Ṭabaqāt Literature of the Ḥanafī School in the Ottoman Domains,” responds to the work of Baber Johansen, Colin Imber, and Rudolph Peters and their studies on the characteristically Ottoman “Rumi-Hanafi” formulation of the shari‘a. To examine the connection between the “Rumis” and the Hanafi madhhab, the author approaches a genre of writing that has yet to be studied in depth, namely the abaqāt genre. The abaqāt works record the intellectual genealogy of jurists, typically those associated with the Ottoman establishment. In addition to information on the training of jurists, the abaqāt provide insight into the ways in which state-sponsored jurists perceived their intellectual lineage and their role within the Hanafi legal tradition. A number of abaqāt works are examined in this chapter, starting with the work of Kemalpaşazade, written in the first half of the 16th century, and continuing with an analysis of the rise in the production of abaqāt works in the second half of the same century.

This increase in the creation of intellectual genealogies was accompanied by a similar increase in biographical dictionaries being written by jurists associated with the imperial hierarchy, suggesting a new self-consciousness and desire to classify, categorise and label jurists and thereby mark the boundaries of their community. The work of Kinalızade is also examined in this chapter, as Kinalızade determined which jurists could be relied upon by emphasising the importance of particular jurisprudential texts and manuals for the acceptable training of a jurist. Through his delineation of an acceptable set of texts and doctrines, Kinalızade also established which jurists could produce an authoritative opinion; the delineation of the boundaries of an authoritative community of scholars was central to the project of creating an official class of jurists. In a contribution to the study of the structure and politics of abaqāt works, the narrative structure of Mahmud b. Süleyman Kefevi’s abaqāt work is explored for its increased detail in describing and categorising jurists, as well as its attention to the historical development of the Hanafi school. This work sought to justify the rise of the Ottoman Emprire as a centre of Hanafi jurisprudence after the Mongols wiped out the Hanafi scholars of Central Asia, many of whom fled to Mamluk Egypt and then as the Mamluk Sultanate fell apart (so Kefevi’s legitimising narrative goes) to the Ottoman realms, thereby rendering the Ottomans the true successors to Hanafi knowledge.

After examining the above works, which were associated with the Ottoman imperial religious establishment, the author turns to the abaqāt works from the Arab provinces. The Damascene Ibn Ṭūlūn’s 16th-century work considers itself to be a study of the intellectual geneaology of the ‘later Hanafis’ and a dhayl to the 14th-century al-Qurashī’s al-Jawāhir al-Muīyah, although it is possible that Ibn Ṭūlūn was influenced or inspired by al-Ghazzī’s extensive 15th-century work on the Damascene Shāfi‘ī community. Like his counterparts in the Ottoman religious establishment, he seeks to delineate the boundaries of a Hanafi community of jurists; however, rather than associating the Hanafi school specifically with the Ottoman dynasty, he discusses several other rulers who embraced Hanafi fiqh, for instance the Timurid rulers Shahrukh and Ulugh Beg, as well as the sultans of Bengal, in addition to some (but not all) of the Ottoman sultans. The author does a masterful job of comparing the construction of juridical authority and authenticity in the abaqāt works emanating from Istanbul and those from the Arab provinces, and brings to light a number of extremely pertinent points about the divergent programmes pursued by scholars in the centre versus the periphery.

The third chapter, “Reliable Books: The Ottoman Jurisprudential Canon and the Textualization of the Madhhab,” discusses the development of a set of authoritative works on jurisprudence that would come to constitute an official canon. The examination of the issue of the transmission of texts from scholars both inside and outside of the official establishment illuminates the interplay between the different realms of religio-legal scholarship. For instance, the chapter opens with a discussion of al-Bāqānī’s commentary on the important jurisprudential manual by Ibrāhīm al-Ḥalabī, the Multaqà al-Abḥur, one of seventy commentaries made on the Multaqà in the centuries following its creation. Al-Bāqānī’s commentary was very well received in Istanbul as well as in his native Damascus, and the reception of this work in scholarly circles serves as an example of the process of accepting texts into an imperial jurisprudential canon.

This chapter discusses canonization in the Sunni Islamic scholarly tradition, then analyses the different processes of creating a textual canon in the imperial centre in contrast with Bilād al-Shām, followed a detailed examination the chief mufti’s role in the canonization of a particular jurisprudential text, Ibn Nujaym’s al-Ashbāh wa al-Naẓā’ir, and one of its commentaries. The chapter goes on to examine the fatwa collection of the Ottoman chief mufti Minkarizade, the analysis of which provides evidence for the formation of an imperial jurisprudential canon in the 17th century. Then, Minkarizade’s collection is compared with those fatwa collections of muftis who were very prominent in their time but did not hold an official Ottoman state appointment, in particular, Khayr al-Dīn al-Ramlī and ‘Alā’ al-Dīn al- Ḥaṣkafī, both of whom operated in Bilād al-Shām. After this detailed examination of the contrasting processes of formation of a textual canon in the Ottoman capital and the Arab provinces, the chapter concludes with a truly fascinating discussion of Ottoman manuscript culture and its role in canonization practices. The author contextualises his own research against the influential studies of Moshe Halbertal on canonization in the Jewish religious tradition, Brannon Wheeler on the texts of the Hanafi canon as a hermeneutic tool, and Jonathan Brown’s seminal work on the creation of a Sunni hadith canon in the form of the Saḥīḥayn of Muslim and Bukharī, a process by which a canon serves to identify a scholarly community and at the same time bind together this community through its use of common, approved texts, much as was the case in the 16th and 17th-century Ottoman Empire.

This chapter also discusses a process that has been acknowledged but never studied with such depth, namely, the transformation of the chief imperial mufti during the 16th century into a gatekeeper of canonical texts. Over the course of the 16th century, the process of canonization became closely linked with the official state apparatus, as witnessed in Sultan Süleyman’s 1556 edict specifying the texts that were to be studied in the imperial madrasas. Both the transformation of the mufti into a gatekeeper of texts, and the sultanic regulation of the juridical canon exemplify the method by which the Ottoman state attempted to regulate the contents of the shari’a as studied and applied by muftis. This ground-breaking discussion of the creation of an official canon of jurisprudential texts also illuminates the process by which the scholars of the Arab lands were integrated into the religio-legal landscape of the Ottoman Empire. At this point in the dissertation, the connection is made between the abaqāt works discussed in the second chapter and the development of a typically Ottoman Hanafi form of jurisprudence examined in the third chapter with the conquering of the Mamluk sultanate. The consolidation of the institution of the mufti and the writing of abaqāt works that defined an authoritative intellectual genealogy and acceptable method of textual transmission, as well as the creation of an imperial jurisprudential canon took place during the incorporation of the Arab lands into the Ottoman Empire. This series of events would suggest that this newly conquered territory exercised a large influence on the development of the form of Hanafi jurisprudence practiced in the courts and upheld by the fatwas of state-sponsored muftis across the Ottoman lands.

In the fourth chapter on the characteristics of the Ottoman Arabic fatwa, “What is the Opinion of Mawlānā Shaykh al-Islām: Questions from the Arab Lands to the Şeyhülislâm and State-Appointed Muftīs,” the author discusses a number of fascinating situations that illuminate the interactions between local and imperial legal practices, as well as the role that fatwas played in non-Muslim communities as well. For instance, this chapter opens with an intriguing case of Jews praying in prison in Jerusalem and how a fatwa addressing this situation was phrased, and offers an analysis of how the semantics of the fatwa illuminates the intricacies of inter-communal relations and legal authority. Through such illustrative examples, this chapter shifts the focus from the mufti to the individual who elicited the fatwa, the mustaftī, and discusses whether the mustaftī was aware of the mufti’s specific role in the imperial landscape of religious scholarship. It is argued that many elicitors of fatwas did indeed make a conscious choice to approach a particular mufti because of his standing, or because they wanted his opinion to serve a particular purpose either in the Ottoman courts or in a communal and social context.

Furthermore, the author focuses on the questions put to state-appointed muftis and unpacks the tangled issue of the use of Arabic versus Turkish in their responsa. It is argued that the occurrence, although limited, of Arabic fatwas in the collections of Istanbul’s chief jurisconsult indicates that specific fatwas were directed either at the populations of the Arab provinces or at the scholars of the Arab provinces who would then pass on the imperial version of jurisprudence to their mustaftīs. This discussion describes the practical mechanism by which Ottoman ‘official’ legal rulings were disseminated from the imperial capital to the Arab provinces. Adding to and developing Uriel Heyd’s work on the aspects of the fatwa, this chapter examines in wonderful detail the characteristics of the Ottoman Arabic fatwa and the differences between Turkish and Arabic fatwas, including the formulae used to address the chief mufti and other important details of phrasing and terminology that bring to light the nuances and adaptions of terminology, suggesting a process of juridical dialogue between the Arab provinces and the imperial centre. It is further argued in this chapter that the Ottomans’ use of honorific titles that were in circulation during the Mamluk period – for instance, shaykh al-Islām as a general honorific for a prominent jurist transformed into an official Ottoman title for the head of the imperial learned hierarchy – indicates the co-optation of pre-existing usages in order to adapt previous notions of juridical authority to their own needs. The use of Arabic in fatwas and court documents in the 16th and 17th centuries suggests an attempt to vernacularise legal language and make it recognisably Ottoman, a process witnessed in other areas of the Ottoman juridical bureaucracy.

The fifth and final chapter, “Addressing Non-appointed Greater Syrian Ḥanafī Muftīs: The Case of the Practice of the ‘Renewal of the Faith,’” addresses a practice that was considered controversial in some respects. “Renewal of the faith” (tecdîd-i îmân), which often also required a renewal of the marriage contract, came into use in the 16th and 17th centuries as a method of defining what did and did not constitute unbelief. Lack of practice of religious obligations did not disqualify one from belonging to the Muslim community; however, the renunciation of belief – either by accident or intentionally – rendered one an apostate and necessitated the renewal of the faith. Through an analysis of practices such as renewal of the faith, together with discussions of the complex textual history of creating a canon and also establishing an authoritative community of jurists and regulating the content of muftis’ fatwas, the dissertation examines the complex issue of the creation of an Ottoman Hanafi school of jurisprudence and the role of muftis in this process with great depth and insight.

The dissertation also includes a number of extremely useful appendices. Appendix I, “Fatāwá collections,” groups the fatwas used in the dissertation into three groups, namely the fatwas of 16th- and 17th-century chief imperial muftis; two late 17th-century Arab muftis who held appointments in the Ottoman state; and fatwas by prominent muftis who did not hold state appointments. This appendix provides an overview of the characteristics of each group of fatwas that will be extremely useful to scholars of jurisprudence. The second appendix, “The Classification of the Authorities of the Ḥanafī School,” surveys the ways that the various abaqāt works described muftis and categorised them into ranks, and analyses the differences and parallels between the systems of categorisation, a scholarly accomplishment that will benefit future muftologists. The third appendix, “Ak Şems Çelebi’s Ṭabaqāt,” describes two manuscripts (H. Hüsnü Paşa 848 and Ali Emiri Arab 2510) that have been catalogued as this elusive work, which was attributed to the tutor of Selim II, Ak Şems Çelebi (d. 1551) and pre-dates Kinalızade’s abaqāt work. Given the similarities between the two works, the author explores the question of whether Kinalızade plagiarised the earlier abaqāt work by Ak Şems Çelebi. The title of the fourth appendix, “Kefevî’s Chains of Tranmission,” is self-explanatory and lends support to the claims made in the second chapter. The fifth appendix is a very useful bibliography and testament to the author’s extremely dedicated and meticulous scholarship, and comprises the works (including printed editions, where they exist) that appear in Minkarizade and al-Ramlī’s fatwa collections.

The potential impact of this research is manifold; it revolutionizes our understanding not only of the creation of an official Hanafi legal canon from the 16th to the 17th century in the Ottoman Empire, but also illuminates the role that the integration of the Arab provinces played in this complex process. The extremely exhaustive and meticulous scholarship evident in this dissertation is truly impressive and will benefit researchers of Ottoman legal, social, and political history. The book based on the PhD dissertation is forthcoming with Cambridge University Press and will certainly represent a major contribution to the world of Ottoman scholarship.

Nur Sobers-Khan
Curator for the Ottoman Collection
Museum of Islamic Art, Doha

Primary Sources

Fatāwā collections from the Süleymaniye Library, Beyazıt Library, and printed editions
Ṭabaqāt literature
Historical chronicles

Dissertation Information

New York University. 2012. 516 pp. Primary Advisor: Leslie Peirce.


Image: Ottoman mufti, by Jean-Baptiste Vanmour, 1707. Wikimedia Commons.

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