Contending visions of a ‘properly’ Islamic land law in the Ottoman Empire

By Malissa Taylor
Submitted to Session P4871 (Changing configurations of the political and the religious in the early modern Ottoman and Safavid Empires, 2017 Annual Meeting
Ottoman Empire;
13th-18th Centuries;
LCD Projector without Audio;
Ottoman historians have long been aware that there exist a few provincial kanunnames—dating mostly to the second half of the seventeenth century—that seemed to overturn longstanding Ottoman land policy. Abandoning the schema championed by the famous ?eyhü’l-Islam Ebussu?ud Efendi, they classified the land and the taxes due upon it using categories that recalled the early days of the Islamic community. This development has received attention because it goes to the heart of one of the great debates of the field: was the Ottoman regime turning away from the Ottoman kanun as a source of law from the late seventeenth century? Was kanun obsolete, or no longer considered legitimate? What happened to the law-making authority of the sultan after Sultan Suleyman, and what happened to the body of dynastic law itself?

Based on a study of the provincial kanunnames issued between 1669 and 1790, my paper will show that this shift away from the old land regime was not confined to one or two isolated cases, but rather indicative of a systematic change in policy during the reign of Mehmed IV. During that time, the officials of the chancery introduced a new, Salafi vision of the law that persisted into the eighteenth century before it was finally overturned in the reign of Ahmed III. In the year 1717, a new kanunname for the Morea was produced that marked a return to Ebussu?ud’s vision. In the same year, a new text began to circulate that championed Ebussu?ud’s formulation and exhaustively recorded the subsequent land law based upon it. Usually referred to as the Kanun-i Cedid, this text expressed the dominant vision of land law embraced by the state into the nineteenth century. In time, this same text provided the skeleton for the 1858 Land Code.

In brief, the paper maintains that the dispute between those chancery officials who championed the Salafi refashioning of land law and those who favored a law based on Ebussu?ud’s principles shows deep disagreement within Ottoman society about what constituted proper adherence to Islamic precedent, and to the Hanafi school. If we better understand these differing visions of how Islam and state power were to be properly configured, then we will better understand how much of nineteenth-century reform represented a departure or a continuation of the empire’s legal practices.