Sacred and Secular Justice in the Ottoman Empire: The Execution of Râziye and Its Aftermath (c. 1590)

By Amir Toft
Submitted to Session P5013 (The Formation of the Secular Since Ottoman Times, 2017 Annual Meeting
Ottoman Empire;
Islamic Law;
LCD Projector without Audio;
The Ottoman court registers have long been recognized for their immense historical value. The thousands of case summaries they contain, involving both litigated disputes and registered claims, offer evidence about various facets of Ottoman economy and society, and, more indirectly, daily life in many cities of the empire. Ironically, however, the registers have been thought to tell us very little about Ottoman law as such. Details about substantive and procedural rules are scant, and explicit judicial decisions and sentences are almost never to be found. And certain types of cases, especially criminal ones, are few.
These silences have strengthened the view that the sacred law (sharia) was toothless and ineffective, forcing the Ottoman sultanate to incorporate the sacred courts into its expanding bureaucracy and to make up the shortfall of justice by promulgating and enforcing its own secular laws (kanun). By the 19th century, the secularizing reforms of the Tanzimat completed the eclipse of the sacred law.
I challenge this common narrative of duality in Ottoman law by considering the case of Râziye, an ordinary resident of Üsküdar (one of Istanbul's Asian districts) who was executed, so far as we can tell, for participating in a rebellion after the 1585 monetary crisis. The records give few details about the rebellion or what exactly Râziye's offense was. Instead, it dwells on the disposition of her estate. The implication is that the Ottoman sharia courts, when it came to public crimes, were not effective enough in dealing with them and were thus stripped of the jurisdiction to do so.
Using Râziye’s case to illustrate, I show that limitations on what the courts do are better explained not by judicial inefficacy but by juridical design. Classical treatises on political theory discuss in detail what the respective roles of judges and rulers ought to be—the one mediating claims and disputes, the other policing compliance with public norms—and it has been overlooked that Ottoman jurists continued and expanded this genre. In looking at this theory side by side with cases like Râziye’s, this paper argues that the line between “sacred” and “secular” law, as understood by Ottoman legal officials, did not exist in the way legal historians have commonly supposed. Problematizing these categories will serve us greatly in understanding how the Ottoman legal system, as well as other premodern Islamic legal systems, worked as an integrated whole of norms and institutions.