Rethinking Commercial Practices and Laws in Ottoman Syria: Merchants’ Interactions with the Islamic Courts

By Hania Abou Al-Shamat
Submitted to Session P4674 (Ottoman Provinces: Commerce and Communities, 2016 Annual Meeting
13th-18th Centuries;
LCD Projector without Audio;
The Islamic courts have been placed at the center of commercial life of the Arab Ottoman provinces and the court records have been declared as the source that would give researchers insight into the actual Muslim practices of trade in the region. Whether tracing the activities of the head of the merchants’ guilds in 17th century Cairo, assessing the fortunes of merchants in 18th century Damascus, writing the economic history of an Arab city, or evaluating the position of Islamic commercial law vis-à-vis practice, researchers have turned to the Islamic court registers for select cases upon which to base their narrations and analyses. These studies reaffirmed the centrality of the Islamic courts in commercial life. This paper questions such centrality by studying merchants’ real interactions with and utilization of the Islamic legal system in Damascus throughout the 17th century. The goal is to assess the volume and type of cases involving merchants by equally focusing on what is in the registers and what is not.

Analyzing cases from 17th century court registers in Damascus, the paper pursues different questions: How often and why did merchants go to the courts? In what capacity did they use them and for what purposes? Which merchants used the courts most? It shows that prominent and wealthy merchants rarely went to the courts for business. They showed up mainly as witnesses, guarantors, or party in real estate transactions. It also shows that many of the cases involving merchants were either inheritance lawsuits or estate probates; they were brought to court after the death of the merchant or one of his partners. Such a surprising finding challenges established assumptions in the field that the Islamic courts provided the legal framework for trade and business in the region.

By conducting longitudinal data analysis and differentiating between types of merchants, this study sheds light on the validity/invalidity of the common assumptions that view the Islamic courts as the main legal institution for commercial activities in the Ottoman Arab provinces. It contributes to the recent scholarship on the dynamic interaction between Islamic law and economic performance.