Religious Court Records Bring Ottoman History to Life

15 May, 2017

Published by the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies, Khaled Ziade's Sharia Court Records from the Ottoman Era: Methodology and Terminology (March, 2017) is based on the author's research into the records of the personal affairs rulings from the Islamic Court of Lebanon's Tripoli, an institution which has remained in operation since the late seventeenth century. Ziade begins the book with a detailed introduction to the varieties of different documents available—including inheritance rulings, marriage and divorce records and death records—through the Islamic Sharia Court of Tripoli. He explains also the important contribution such documents can make for a proper historical understanding of the time period under study, filling out aspects of social and economic life not otherwise visible from other records which survive from the high Ottoman Era under question, such as consular missives, church records and trade records.

The first of three sections, "The Traditional View of Urban Life: a Methodological Reading of the Records of the Tripoli Sharia Court in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries" is divided into five chapters. In the first, Ziade describes how historical interest in the records of Sharia courts has been limited in scope thus far, and have therefore had a limited impact. Importantly, Ziade notes that the present state of the archives at the Tripoli Sharia Court does not lend the documents to enquiry: they remain unindexed, are not properly digitized and the record continues to have major gaps. The consequence of this, explains the author, is that any attempt to base a social history on the documents in question would necessarily be selective and patchy. Ziade goes on to take in the limits of authority of the texts in question.

In the third chapter, Ziade describes how the authority of the Sharia Court judges acted on the limit of the authority of the Wali of Tripoli. The author then goes on in the next chapter to detail the extent of the judges' power over the daily lives of Tripolitanians, as illustrated in the documents at his disposal. The records also show the extent to which the judges of the Sharia Courts in Tripoli could influence the daily lives of the people of the city through oversight. Importantly, Sharia judges had power not only over the lives of individuals but also over voluntary organizations of Sufi tarikas and others. The fifth chapter is given over to describing the complex social composition of late-Ottoman Tripoli.

The second section of Ziade's book is divided into six chapters. The first of these charts increased interest in the personal affairs records held in Lebanon's Sharia courts. Ziade claims that scholarly interest in these records began in the 1980s. The seventh chapter is where the author explains the value of the Sharia Court records in establishing the architectural legacy of Lebanese cities. The records, says Ziade, would allow for a more realistic understanding of the living conditions of Tripolitanian Lebanese in the seventeenth century.  An eighth chapter is given over to studying the formation of communities in Tripoli through the formation of families, as evidenced in the Sharia Court documents. The ninth and tenth chapters are given over to examining what the Sharia Court records can reveal about the status of the Christian community in Tripoli and the spatial distribution of Christian and Muslim communities living in Tripoli during the time period in question. Significantly, Ziade argues that the Christians of Tripoli were no more subject to any more strenuous pressures than the Muslim communities for the period under consideration.

The third section includes the twelfth and thirteenth chapters covering the "archaeology of archival work," as well as a glossary of terms. Ziade presents the final two chapters as a guide to readers, allowing them to better piece together the types of documents which the Sharia Court of Tripoli has on record, and to unravel the meanings of the phrases used.

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