In the middle of the sixteenth century, an enormous controversy erupted between Egyptian scholars and Ottoman officials concerning whether lands controlled by endowments (waqf, singular) were subject to taxation (kharāj). The controversy was so significant because approximately 40% of Egyptian agricultural lands were controlled by endowments in the sixteenth century even as the enormous agricultural productivity of Egypt also accounted for a major revenue source for the Ottoman imperial treasury. Modern scholarship has taken great interest in this controversy since the legal treatises it precipitated—penned by legal luminaries such as Ibn Nujaym (d. 1563)—demonstrate so convincingly the considerable evolution of Hanafi law on fundamental questions over several centuries, as well as the early modern consensus that coalesced around the positions of a number of jurists active in the Arab provinces of the Ottoman Empire. Notwithstanding these insights, exclusive focus on the works of Arab jurists obscures the diversity of Hanafi legal thought on this consequential question.
This presentation explores the Ottoman juridical position on the Egyptian waqf controversy by examining a series of fatwas formulated by Ebu’s-su'ūd (d. 1574), the chief jurisconsult of the empire, to buttress the Ottoman imperial edicts which established taxation on waqf lands. Rather than seeking to impose unilaterally a new legal regime in Egypt in the form of Ottoman dynastic law (kanun), Ottoman authorities necessarily engaged with Egyptian scholars in the mutually comprehensible legal language of the sharī'a. Although the Egyptian scholars and Ottoman officials reached diametrically opposed positions, both groups grounded their arguments in well-established juridical positions. Such an approach to governance entailed a prominent place for the accepted learned genres through which scholars articulated positions of political, social, and economic import. In this context, the fatwa emerged as a useful instrument for articulating and defending imperial policy since the opinions expressed in it could distill complex legal positions clearly and succinctly while also resting upon an enormous reservoir of legal thought worked out over centuries. Beyond this, the formulae of imperial policy—sultanic edicts and kanun—actively incorporated the juristic language and shar'ī principles worked out through fatwas and scholarly epistles to ground their positions within a widely recognizable, if still contestable, framework of the sharī'a.