The Muhtasib, Law, and Society in Early Mamluk Cairo and Fustat (648-802/1250-1400)

Thesis Type:

PhD dissertation


This dissertation brings the scholarship of “legal realism” to the field of Islamic law by studying the application of law by the muhtasib in early Mamluk Cairo and Fustat (648–802/1250–1400). The muhtasib, best described as an inspector of the markets and public spaces in general, was a legal official charged with “commanding right and forbidding wrong” and who would patrol the streets of the marketplaces and enforce “laws” whenever he encountered a violation.

Drawing upon the lessons of the legal realists, this dissertation takes at its starting point that Islamic laws were not applied in a formalistic fashion. As is the case in legal systems generally, there is an intellectual step between the “law on the books” and the “law in action,'” with much room for discretion, consciously or not, on the part of the implementer of the law—whether judge, muhtasib, or other—in this step. Beginning with these premises, this dissertation asks questions such as: How was the relevant law determined by the muhtasib in any given case? What were the factors influencing the muhtasib when applying law and making decisions? What was the relationship between the legal text and the context of daily life? And, most generally, how did the legal system function in that period?

The goal of this dissertation is to examine as many of the muhtasib's actions in early Mamluk Cairo and Fustat as can be gleaned from the historical sources, and come to general conclusions about the determination and application of law and the factors and conditions that accompanied these processes. The dissertation covers six substantive areas of the Mamluk-era muhtasib's actions and decision-making—(1) morality, health, safety, and public order; (2) religious endowments (waqf) and property; (3) weights and measures; (4) prices, currency, and taxation; (5) Muslim religious practice; and (6) Jews and Christians.

This dissertation shows that the muhtasib was a hybrid official, at the same time part of the traditional legal system but also responsible for carrying out the policy orders of the Sultan. As such, the position of the muhtasib contained the possibility of both supporting the legitimacy of a divine system while also bending to meet the particular needs of the day. This dissertation will hopefully advance our understanding of the Mamluk legal system, and in particular the position of muhtasib within it, as well as suggest new methods to study Islamic legal systems generally.

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