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Islamic Law and Empire in Ottoman Cairo

James E. Baldwin

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A study of Islamic law and political power in the Ottoman Empire’s richest provincial city

What did Islamic law mean in the early modern period, a world of great Muslim empires? Often portrayed as the quintessential jurists’ law, to a large extent it was developed by scholars outside the purview of the state. However, for the Sultans of the Ottoman Empire, justice was the ultimate duty of the monarch, and Islamic law was a tool of legitimation and governance. James E. Baldwin examines how the interplay of these two conceptions of Islamic law – religious scholarship and royal justice – undergirded legal practice in Cairo, the largest and richest city in the Ottoman provinces. Through detailed studies of the various formal and informal dispute resolution institutions and practices that formed the fabric of law in Ottoman Cairo, his book contributes to key questions concerning the relationship between the shari‘a and political power, the plurality of Islamic legal practice, and the nature of centre-periphery relations in the Ottoman Empire.

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Note on transliteration and dates
1. A Brief Portrait of Cairo under Ottoman Rule
2. Cairo’s Legal System: Institutions and Actors
3. Royal Justice: The Dīvān-i Hümāyūn and the Dīwān al-ʿĀlī
4. Government Authority, the Interpretation of Fiqh, and the Production of Applied Law
5. The Privatization of Justice: Dispute Resolution as a Domain of Political Competition
6. A Culture of Disputing: How Did Cairenes Use the Legal System?
Conclusion: Ottoman Cairo’s legal system and grand narratives
Appendix: Examples of Documents Used in this Study
Map: Cairo in the Eighteenth Century
Sources and Works Cited

About the Author

James E. Baldwin is Lecturer in Empires of the Early Modern Muslim World at Royal Holloway, University of London.


'Drawing on a rich variety of primary sources in both Arabic and Ottoman Turkish, Baldwin provides a very valuable reinterpretation of law and politics in Ottoman Egypt. In particular, he convincingly challenges the image of the autonomous judge as the pivot of Ottoman legal system, and instead argues that the judge should be placed within a complex network of legal institutions with overlapping jurisdictions. As a result a very rich and detailed picture of law and politics emerges, a picture that illustrates the relationship between imperial center and provincial societies, between shari‘a and state power, and between sultan and litigants. This is a very significant contribution to Islamic legal studies, Ottoman history and scholarship on early-modern Egypt.'

- Khaled Fahmy, The American University in Cairo

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