The Sultan’s Scribe

 The Craft of Intellectuals and Jurisprudents
12 January, 2021

In The Sultan’s Scribe: The Craft of Intellectuals and Jurisprudents, now in a fourth edition (2020) recently published by the Arab Center, Khaled Ziade returns to the Mamluk and Ottoman eras in Egypt and the Levant. He documents the roles of clerics and diwan scribes and their attitudes towards boundaries imposed by modernization on the influence of the religious establishment, at the beginning of the nineteenth century. The creation of civil courts and technical institutes led to the loss of established judicial and educational functions and to the collapse of the diwan scribe apparatus, with administrators taking over management of the affairs of state.

In the preface to this new edition (304 pp), the author presents an extensive study of the function and role of the intellectual in the European world, and the conditions that led to the Arab intellectual’s emergence.

The Ottoman Yasaq Tax

In the first of the book’s six chapters, “The Ottoman Yasaq,” the author cites the Artukid ruler of Mardin, Najm al-Din al-Ghazi’s definition of the yasaq (Ottoman tax): “yasaq is not of the shari’a, but rather is in ignorance of it, one of the customs of Turkish jurisprudents (ulāma) that is not recognized or approved by jurisprudents of Syria and Egypt”. When adopted by the Ottoman state, actions according to yasaq were thus considered religiously seditious and the ulāma’ of the Levant and Egypt rejected the levy as running counter to shari’a. Ziade believes that Ottoman dominion consequently led to a fundamental shift in the status of ulamā’ in both regions: they were distanced from administration service, and dismissed from the offices of the chancery, treasury and army. This class of direct descendants of scholarly origins, who had wielded influence within the Mamluk state apparatus, was dissolved and replaced with a class of kalam (theological) scribes, further signifying the separation between the administrative and the legal apparatus.

The Jurists' Profession

In the second chapter, “The Crafts of the Jurists,” Ziade describes how they sought and acquired knowledge, and details their religious apparatus in Egypt and the Levant. In his view, the latter is an expanded network of functions distributed by its members amongst themselves. “There are burdensome functions that must be shouldered for a worthy religious life such as the call to prayer (adhān), the role of the imam (imāma) and sermonizing (khitāba), in addition to teaching and preaching. The specific definition of the job, as conveyed in jurist classifications (muannafāt) and directories (tarājim) or in Ottoman era shari’a court records, refer to a specific, defined task performed by the scholar or cleric, acquired either through inheritance, from father to son, or by a sultan’s decree. When obtained by sultan’s decree the position can be passed on as an inheritance. Likewise, the position may be granted through nomination, merit, or a judge’s appointment”. Ziade also discusses Sufism and its orders (turuq), and the turbulance that beset them with the Ottoman entrance on the scene.

Shura (Consultative) Councils

In the third chapter “The Shura Councils” Ziade notes that the ulamā’ were closer to the Mamluks than to the Ottomans, but after the French departed Egypt, the Mamluks were no longer the sole or most prominent force among groups contesting power there, and as their influence waned, ties linking the ulamā’ to them atrophied. Although the ulamā’ might have preferred to return to their religious careers at those critical moments of transition, they found themselves amid the chaos of conflicting factions and forces. In exchange for preserving their privileges, the ulamā’ tended to abandon participation in public affairs, handing authority over to Muhammad Ali, who then excluded them from their previous mediating civil role. However, distancing of the ulamā’ was felt by the public: “Society lost the body that continued to voice people’s hopes and demands, to which they could turn in a crisis. The ulamā’ always expressed their rejection of injustice and placing the interests of people in jeopardy, even in the moments when they themselves risked jeopardizing those of the peasantry, while Muhammad Ali Pasha eliminated this aspect of the opposition”. Policy tried and tested in Egypt was then implemented in the Levant with the aim of establishing a central administration to which all military and economic affairs would conform. This brought about implementation of a policy reducing the influence of ulamāand clerics – who subsequently were stripped of their privileges, especially in the judiciary and religious endowments (awqāf).

Sultan's Scribe

In Chapter Four, “Katib al-Sultan” (Sultan's Scribe) Ziade says that throughout the seventeenth century scribes and others in related occupations “moved from professional tasks demanding expertise in calligraphy, arithmetic, and composition to formulating views on the conditions of the state they served as advisers to ministers and sultans. The opinions they presented took on the nature of suggestions and recommendations enhanced by new knowledge obtained from new sources not traditionally relied upon. It is noteworthy in Ziade’s view that persons who cared about issues of problems and crises of state were the same people who turned to Ibn Khaldun’s muqaddimah and showed an interest in modern European sciences: “This has dual significance: it indicates the vitality enjoyed by these writers and it demonstrates their openness to new knowledge." He adds: “In the Sultan’s struggle with the military, the scribes naturally sided with the Sultan and his reformist policy (that was of their own making). Throughout the eighteenth century until the early nineteenth century the suggestions drawn up by the scribes targeted the Janissaries, who represented the Sultan’s traditional opponent".

Read Also