Antagonistic Sharī'as and the construction of orthodoxy in sixteenth-century Ottoman Cairo

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In the bourgeoning field of Ottoman studies, there remains surprisingly little on the impact of the conquest upon the largest Arabic-speaking province, Egypt, in the long sixteenth century. Although the conquest of Mamluk Egypt in 1517 ushered in a period of extensive legal reforms, we have yet to fully analyse, classify or quantify the impact of these reforms on law and society in the sixteenth century. While it is widely acknowledged that the reforms triggered opposition from Egyptian ulema, the prevailing view in the secondary literature is that tensions eased soon thereafter. Drawing on al-Damīrī's biography of sixteenth-century judges, as well as on Ibn Iyās' well-known chronicle of the conquest, this paper challenges the conventional wisdom on both the duration and substantive consequences of the reforms. The picture that emerges is one which resists the traditional paradigms generally assigned to such conflicts, i.e. 'juristic orthodoxy' versus 'state heterodoxy'. Turning this paradigm on its head, the evidence reveals that the real agent of legal 'orthodoxification', understood as a homogenizing, or streamlining process in which correct opinion is emphasized, was the state. Conversely, it is Egyptian jurists, guardians of a legal tradition which emphasized orthopraxy (correct conduct) over and above orthodoxy, who formed a bulwark against it. What is at stake is in this empire-wide debate/conflict is not only the definition and function of qānūn and its relationship to fiqh, as assumed by many, but the very definition of the Sharī'a itself. As an abstraction of the perfected moral cosmos, the Shar'a could and did undergo a radical reimagining, producing not only a consciously Ottoman qānūn, but a consciously Ottoman Sharī'a, to be distinguished from that of rival Sunni powers, past and present. To avoid the conceptual confusion generated by the labels traditionally attached to such matters, the intervention I propose includes an alternative paradigm centered on the notion of 'antagonistic Sharī'as', or antagonistic legal utopias.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)183-212
Number of pages30
JournalJournal of Islamic Studies
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 1 May 2010


ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Cultural Studies
  • History
  • Religious studies
  • Literature and Literary Theory

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