The wikipedia entry about Rashidun Caliphate says:

According to Noah Feldman, a law professor at Harvard University, the legal scholars and jurists who once upheld the rule of law were replaced by a law governed by the state due to the codification of Sharia by the Ottoman Empire in the early 19th century:

The citation provided for the above quote refers to this article which says:

In the early 19th century, the Ottoman empire responded to military setbacks with an internal reform movement. The most important reform was the attempt to codify Shariah. This Westernizing process, foreign to the Islamic legal tradition, sought to transform Shariah from a body of doctrines and principles to be discovered by the human efforts of the scholars into a set of rules that could be looked up in a book.

Once the law existed in codified form, however, the law itself was able to replace the scholars as the source of authority. Codification took from the scholars their all-important claim to have the final say over the content of the law and transferred that power to the state. To placate the scholars, the government kept the Shariah courts running but restricted them to handling family-law matters.

When did (exactly what year) this "codification of Sharia" happen? And how did this affect the rule of law in the Ottoman Empire?

2 Answers 2


When did (exactly what year) this "codification of Sharia" happen?

The right keyword to look up is the Majallah (transliteration variant: "Mecelle", "Medjelle", and many others, the Arabic full name is مجلة الأحكام العدلية). It was a commercial and civil law code based on the Hanafi school of Islamic law. The codification was quite an extensive effort, led by Ahmed Cevdet Pasha, happening gradually from 1869 - 1876 and entering into force in 1877.

And how did this affect the rule of law in the Ottoman Empire?

Before this codification, the Islamic law was applied by Islamic judges - and religious minorities were allowed various autonomy to have their own laws. In addition, with the capitulations to European nations, citizens of those European nations were not subject to the Ottoman courts, but rather a "mixed court" composed of Ottoman and European judges. As you see there were multiple jurisdictions here which might get confusing.

I am not sure how "codified" the religious-based laws were. The Sharia was and is based on the Quran and the prophetic tradition, but there can be multiple ways to interpret and implement them in specific situations. The mixed court was based on a local version/translation of the French commercial code, but its resources were limited and it was unable to take on the rising number of cases.

With the codification, the Empire adopted a "standard" implementation which was published in 16 books comprising 1800+ articles, written in legal language similar to European legal codes. And as your quote noted, it was now governed by the state as opposed to Islamic judges/legal scholars. Another effect of this standardization was that non-Muslims were now subject to the Majallah - which covers civil and commercial law; family and inheritance laws were exempted. Another interesting impact of this is that Majallah lived on long after the fall of the Ottomans, in former territories of the empire. For example, Israel's law was based partially on the Majallah, but it was replaced step by step until abolished in 1984.


  • Wasn't Hanafi law "codified" in the writings of Abu Hanifa and his school? What exactly does "codification" mean?
    – fdb
    Dec 18, 2016 at 12:32
  • @fdb maybe calling it "Codification of Sharia" is a bit ambiguous. It was not writing the entire Hanafi Islamic law, but compiling and writing the civil and commercial laws of the Ottoman empire, which were based mainly on the Hanafi version of the Islamic law.
    – user69715
    Dec 19, 2016 at 6:02

I do not think that Noah Feldman knows anything about the history of Islam. Islamic law was “codified” in numerous manuals, beginning with the Muwaṭṭaʾ of Malik in the 8th century, followed by similar law books of the various schools, all long before the rise of the Ottomans.

  • 2
    This isn't a discussion forum, and this is not an answer to the question. Welcome to History.SE. Please take the tour and visit the help center to see how SE sites work. What you'll need to do is directly address the question with an answer. If you wish to issue a frame challenge (in that you feel that the source is incorrect) you'll need to provide sources and citations to support that frame challenge, not simply your opinion. Back it up with sources: that is how to write a good answer on an SE site. Dec 19, 2016 at 17:08

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