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The Use of Ottoman Sharīʿa Court Records As a Source for Middle Eastern Social History: A Reappraisal

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Sharīʿa court records are among the most important sources available for the social, economic and cultural history of the Ottoman empire and its provinces, especially from the sixteenth century onwards. These records contain invaluable material on diverse subjects such as economic consumption, agrarian relations, personal status, social stratification, crime and local politics. While covering a large geographical area and spanning several centuries, these records are often regarded by researchers as a single, homogeneous source and treated as a simple account of facts.

In this essay, I argue that Sharīʿa court records are a complex source and that researchers should be cautious about accepting the information they contain at face-value. From their questionable statistical representation of society to their biased representation of Islamic law and order, these records defy categorization as simple reflections of reality. Comparisons between different geographical areas and time periods — and to fieldwork carried out in contemporary Sharīʿa courts, demonstrate the potential distance between the records and the reality they purportedly convey.

Affiliations: 1: Ben-Gurion University of the Negev


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