The Ottomans

Glossary


kanun

   The word, kanun, means "law" but has a very specific reference in Islamic political theory, particularly in relationship to the Ottoman state. In Islamic tradition, the Shari'ah, or laws originally derived from the Qur'an , are meant to be universally applied across all Islamic states. No Islamic ruler has the power to overturn or replace these laws. So what laws was Suleyman "giving" to the Islamic world? What precisely does kanun refer to since it doesn't refer to the main body of Islamic law, the Shari'ah ?

   The kanun refer to situational decisions that are not covered by the Shari'ah . Even though the Shari'ah provides all necessary laws, it's recognized that some situations fall outside their parameters. In Islamic tradition, if a case fell outside the parameters of the Shari'ah , then a judgement or rule in the case could be arrived at through analogy with rules or cases that are covered by the Shari'ah . This method of juridical thinking was only accepted by the most liberal school of Shari'ah , Hanifism, so it is no surprise that Hanifism dominated Ottoman law.

   The Ottomans, however, elevated kanun into an entire code of laws independent of the Shari'ah . The first two centuries of Ottoman rule, from 1350 to 1550, saw an explosion of kanun rulings and laws, so that by the beginning of the sixteenth century, the kanun were a complete and independent set of laws that by and large were more important than the Shari'ah . This unique situation was brought about in part because of the unique heritage of the Ottomans. In both Turkish and Mongol traditions, the imperial law, or law pronounced by the monarch, was considered sacred. They even had a special word for it: the Turks called it Türe and the Mongols called it Yasa . In the system of Türe and Yasa , imperial law was regarded as the essential and sacred foundation of the empire. When this tradition collided with the Islamic Shari'ah tradition, a compromised system combining both was formed.

   The Sultanic laws were first collected together by Mehmed the Conqueror. Mehmed divided the kanun into two separate sets or laws. The first set dealt with the organization of government and the military, and the second set dealt with the taxation and treatment of the peasantry. The latter group was added to after the death of Mehmed and the Ottoman kanun pretty much crystallized into its final form in 1501. Suleyman, for his part, revised the law code, but on the whole the Suleyman code of laws is pretty identical to the 1501 system of laws. However, it was under Suleyman that the laws took their final form; no more revisions were made after his reign. From this point onwards, this code of laws was called, kanun-i 'Osmani , or the "Ottoman laws."

Richard Hooker



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1997, Richard Hooker
Updated 10-8-97