Law and Legality ranges wide and deep, covering a broad range of topics in the socio-legal history of the Ottoman Empire from the fifteenth to early twentieth centuries. Though its title is misleading as only one essay addresses topics pertaining to the modern Turkish Republic, the volume is full of important insights for any scholar interested in the legal issues and actual conduct of the peoples making up the multiethnic and polyglot polity that was the Ottoman Empire.
Overall, in the earlier periods, the Ottomans applied various reforms to their legal system in a unique mix to meet the administrative needs of their provinces. Toward the later years of the empire, the centralization of rule and policy reforms seem to be the result of addressing challenges from the European powers. This centralization tendency further spilled over into the Turkish Republic. Timothy Fitzgerald looks at what Ottoman law might have meant to the heterogeneous mix of ethnicities that populated the empire, how justice was formulated, and how Ottoman lawmakers responded to such a diverse citizenry. He assesses the importance of literacy studies for the study of law and how that affected mass engagement in politics and legal institutions. He addresses the challenges posed by transition from Mamluk to Ottoman rule in the Arab provinces as well as the evolution of Ottoman legal reforms that combined Mamluk, Ottoman, and Shari'a-based legal practices.
The impact of more frequent encounters with an ascendant West and its approach to legal matters as well as the homegrown needs of an increasingly consolidating administration permeate the work. The changing role of Shari'a law as it came into greater contact with Western norms and a growing centralized empire is examined by Kenneth Cuno in his chapter on the reorganization of religious courts in nineteenth-century Egypt. Cuno demonstrates how this process paralleled a reorganization of the Shari'a court system throughout the empire, a reorganization that not only included the introduction of secular law but which essentially relegated religious courts to matters of family law alone.
Michael Nizri shows how, over time, drawing land boundaries increasingly served the interests of the empire. Samy Ayoub analyzes the first attempts to standardize legal and judicial reasoning in the empire through the mecelle system, an effort to respond to Western modernity while simultaneously embodying the norms and doctrines of the Islamic (and arguably more flexible) Hanafi school of jurisprudence. Similarly, Schull investigates the transformation of criminal law and practice in the later years of the empire and proves convincingly that the reforms introduced were not mere cosmetic changes aimed at satisfying the demands of European powers but were a unique blend of traditional Ottoman criminal justice with standards of the modern world.
In all, this collection of essays, while not for the lay reader, is a welcome scholarly contribution to the study of law and legal affairs in the Ottoman Empire, with an emphasis on legal reforms, the politics of managing empire-citizen relationships, and institutional legal responses to challenges from Western powers. As such, this volume opens a new perspective for historians to develop and explore further.