Recent scholarship on law in the Ottoman Empire has introduced new paradigms highlighting the complexities of legal practice. The intersection and flow of authority through administrative personnel, imperial orders, registers, kanunnames, and the textual genres of the fiqh has shifted our understanding of how law was established and applied in the period from the sixteenth through nineteenth centuries. The field has likewise gained a new appreciation for the dynamism of legal structures in this period. As an area of Ottoman legal practice long known to have a hybrid character, the Ottoman law governing miri land (the land that the Ottomans claimed for the treasury) is particularly well suited for further illuminating this dynamism and the complexity of intersecting sources of authority.
This paper combines a reading of multiple works by the famous jurist Muḥammad Amīn ibn ‘Ābidīn (d. 1836 CE) with a number of provincial Ottoman fatwas to illustrate two significant trends in the evolution of miri land law. First, specific kanunnames were increasingly recognized as the prevailing authority on miri land, regarded by ibn ‘Ābidīn as well as muftis in Rumelia and Anatolia as overriding local custom or previous scholarly opinion. Second, in Rumelia and Anatolia, equally important was an interpretive tradition of the kanun established by prominent muftis—some but not all of whom were şeyhülislams—that gave guidelines for applying and extrapolating the relevant kanuns. Although this interpretive tradition was integral to rulings in Turkish-language fatwas, it remained obscure in Damascus. The paper concludes that well before the 1858 Land Law the empire’s legal scholars and bureaucrats were moving toward a greater consensus in the application of miri law based on adherence to a particular selection of kanunnames, but the halting nature of this trend reflected the workings of circuits of knowledge as much as ideological commitments or local issues of political economy.