Islamic Law in Action: Authority, Discretion, and Everyday Experiences in Mamluk Egypt

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9780199602438: Islamic Law in Action: Authority, Discretion, and Everyday Experiences in Mamluk Egypt

A vibrant account of the practice of Islamic law, this book focuses on the actions of a particular legal official, the muhtasib, whose vast jurisdiction included all public behavior.

In the cities of Cairo and neighboring Fustat during the Mamluk period (1250-1517), the muhtasib is best described as a regulator of markets and public spaces. They traversed the city carrying out their duties to forbid wrongful acts and require mandatory ones, and were as much a part of the legal landscape as the better-known figures of judge and mufti. Taking direction from the rulers, the sultan foremost among them, they were also guided by legal doctrine as formulated by the jurists, combining these two sources of law in one face of authority.
The daily workings of law are illuminated by the reports of the muhtasib in the rich chronicles of the Mamluk period, which also record the responses of the individuals who encountered him. The book is organized around actions taken by the muhtasib in the areas of Muslim devotional and pious practice; crimes and offenses; the management of Christians and Jews; market regulation and consumer protection; the essential bread markets; currency and taxes; and public order. These records show that legal doctrine was clearly relevant to the muhtasib's actions, but the policy demands of the sultan were also very important, and rules from both sources of authority intersected with social, political, economic, and even personal motivating factors and produce the fullest possible picture of the practice of Islamic law.

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About the Author:

Kristen Stilt is Associate Professor in the departments of Law and History at Northwestern University. She holds a J.D. from the University of Texas School of Law and a PhD. in History and Middle Eastern Studies from Harvard University. She has been named a Carnegie Scholar for her work on constitutional authority and Islamic law in the Muslim world.


"Islamic Law in Action is a valuable contribution to law and society studies and at
the same time a marvelous introduction to pre-modern Middle Eastern society
generally. By focusing on actual cases, this first comprehensive study of the
muhtasib, the official most intimately involved in the regulation of public life, shows vividly how the actions of ordinary people, the laws of jurists, and the policy dictates of the ruler
were interwoven. Stilt's book is a triple hit, speaking as it does to specialists and
students of Islamic cultures as well as to historians of other world cultures."
--Leslie Peirce, author of Morality Tales: Law and Gender in the Ottoman Court of Aintab

"Using the figure of the muhtasib or inspector of public spaces as a lens through which
to analyze the lived experience of the law in Mamluk Egypt, Kristen Stilt takes us into
the streets of Cairo and Fustat and into the lives of their inhabitants: merchants, millers,
and bakers, consumers of bread, young men playing games of chance, female mourners
and women in public spaces, tax payers, and religious minorities. The result is a rich
tapestry of Egyptian daily life and a fine demonstration of how state agents worked to
regulate society by marking the boundary between lawful and unlawful behavior."
--David S. Powers, Cornell University

"Professor Stilt's work on the muhtasib during the Mamluk period explains the
role played by this important functionary who was entrusted with maintaining law
and order in the markets. In addition to shedding light on important aspects of daily
life in Mamluk Egypt, the book also deals with a central question that Muslim societies
raised since the time of the Prophet Muhammad, namely, how to negotiate the
boundary between the religious and the secular. Relying not only on fiqh manuals
but also on a wide array of original sources, Professor Stilt's book is a solid piece
of scholarship on Sharia and is a good example of how to study Islamic law in action."
--Khaled Fahmy, author of All the Pasha's Men: Mehmed Ali, His Army and the Making of
Modern Egypt

"There should be no doubt that Stilt's Islamic Law in Action represents an important moment in the ongoing refinement and revisions of academic understandings of late medieval Syro Egyptian social practices. The assumptions and conclusions that inform this well written, carefully structured and convincingly argued monograph are embedded in a growing field of study that prioritizes social readings of Islamic law as a socially constructed and therefore transforming phenomenon. Islamic Law in Action clearly infuses this field with an important historical dimension." --Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations

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