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Jurisprudence as the Language of Opposition in Early Modern Egypt: Egyptian Scholars and Ottoman Tax Reform
After capturing Egypt in 1517, the Ottoman sultan Selim I (r. 1512–1520) promised to recognize all property rights from the Mamluk era—private properties, endowments, tax immunities, salary assignments, etc. would continue as they had been. However, around 1550, the Ottoman government reversed its course. It sent a decree, accompanied by supporting fatwās from the chief jurist Ebussuud (d. 1574)—discussed in another paper in this panel—stating that all agricultural lands were now to be taxed uniformly: the government would collect its share (kharāj) from the dues paid by peasants regardless of the status of the land, whether public (mīrī), private (mulk), or endowment (waqf), with none of the previously recognized exemptions. This move met steep opposition. I focus on the responses of two Egyptian jurists: the Ḥanafī scholar Ibn Nujaym (d. 1563) and the Shafiʿī scholar Muḥammad b. Aḥmad al-Ghaytī (d. 1576). Both wrote treatises defending the status of the lands of Egypt, especially endowment lands, from the perspective of their own schools. They indirectly engage Ebussuud’s fatwās, argue the unlawfulness of imposing kharāj on endowment lands in Egypt, and call on the Ottoman government to retract its decision. I analyze the treatises to show how Ibn Nujaym and al-Ghayti constructed their arguments against the new Ottoman policy, revealing that their take on the Islamic jurisprudential tradition was quite different from Ebussuud’s. Each jurist selectively used the vast body of the opinions of the past authorities of their own school and explained, redefined, and qualified existing jurisprudential concepts in novel ways to support his position. Based on this case, I suggest that the language of jurisprudence served as a flexible tool for the expression of diverse views, one that imbued one’s discourse with authority and offered a shared framework within which scholars who represented diverse interests could interact. It was also effective—when the reform laws were finalized in 1553, endowment lands preserved their exemption from the government kharāj.
Geographic Area
All Middle East
Sub Area
13th-18th Centuries