Comparative Studies in Society and History

Research Article

The Second Formation of Islamic Law: The Post-Mongol Context of the Ottoman Adoption of a School of Law

Guy Burak 

Bobst Library, New York University


This article proposes a comparative analytical framework to study changes in Islamic law during the post-Mongol period, particularly the rise of the official school of law (or state madhhab). Taking as my case study the Ottoman adoption of a particular branch within the Sunni Hanafi school of law, I suggest that this adoption marks a new chapter in Islamic legal history. In earlier periods, while rulers appointed judges and thus regulated the adjudication procedures, they did not intervene, at least theoretically, in the structure and doctrine of the schools of law, which remained the relatively autonomous realm of the jurists. The Ottoman adoption of the school, by contrast, was not merely an act of state patronage, since the dynasty played an important role in regulating the school's structure and doctrine. To this end, it employed a set of administrative and institutional practices, such as the development of an imperial learned hierarchy with standardized career and training tracks and the appointment of jurisconsults (muftis). Some of these practices were found in other polities across the eastern Islamic lands in the post-Mongol period, but these similarities have not been treated comparatively in modern historiography. They suggest that the Ottoman case was part of a broader legal culture that spanned several polities across the region. This article outlines a framework that will enable historians of Islamic law to treat these similarities in a more coherent manner. The framework raises key issues in the historiography of Islamic law and its nineteenth-century modernization.



  Many readers commented on many versions of this article. I would like to thank Bruce Grant, Adi Burak, Yigal Nizri, Nada Moumtaz, Jonathan Brown, Selma Zecevic, Michael Gilsenan, and the participants at the May 2012 Approaches to Islamic Law and Society workshop at New York University's Hagop Kevorkian Center. I am also grateful to the anonymous CSSH reviewers for detailed comments and suggestions and to Andrew Shryock for encouragement. I also thank the Islamic Legal Studies Program of Harvard Law School for the fellowship during which this article was substantially revised.