The Concept of Injustice among Intellectuals of Pre-Tanzimat Ottoman Syria

By Stephen E. Tamari
Submitted to Session P2382 (Themes in the Cultural and Intellectual History of the Ottoman Arab Provinces, 2010 Annual Meeting
13th-18th Centuries;
This paper begins at the intersection of post-classical, pre-modern Islamic intellectual history, on the one hand, and the political history of pre-Tanzimat Ottoman Syria, on the other. Historians of Islamic intellectual life generally consider the period after the middle of the 13th century to be marked by intellectual conservatism, if not outright cultural decline. However, work by social historians interested in the application of shari'a (through the study of bountiful fatawa collections) has chipped away at these dismal assessments. This paper continues in this vein by looking at how the concept of injustice (al-zulm, al-zulama, and other related terms) was understood in its myriad theological, philosophical, historical, and socio-psychological dimensions, above and beyond the particulars of specific legal opinions.

Historians of Ottoman Syria have determined that the middle of the 18th century saw an unprecedented level of political autonomy in the Syrian provinces of the Ottoman Empire. Most historians attribute the triumph of "localism" to the resourcefulness of Syrian political and military elites and the pragmatism of Ottoman central authorities at a time of administrative crisis. Little attention has been paid to the intellectual atmosphere which accompanied this political transformation.

The central primary source for this discussion is Yass b. Mustafa al-Faradi's (fl. 1676) Kitab nusrat al-mutagharribin 'an al-awtan 'ala al-zulama wa-ahl al-udwan, an indictment of Ottoman forced resettlement policies based on an analysis of shari'a and Islamic political theory and practice. Al-Faradi's text will be placed in the context of the work of other contemporaries, including several treatises by 'Abd al-Ghani al-Nabulusi (d. 1731). The paper concludes with a look at a political history of Bilad al-Sham by Muhammad ibn Kannan (fl. 1740), Al-Mawakib al-Islamiyya fi al-mamalik wa-al-mahasin al-Shamiyya which may be the first political history of geographic Syria of the entire Islamic period.

The paper concludes that the relative political autonomy of 18th-century Syria was accompanied by ideas about justice and injustice which, in turn, have implications for our understanding of the connection between politics and intellectual life during this period.