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Palestinian Islamic Court Records: A Source for Socioeconomic History*

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  09 March 2016

Beshara B. Doumani*
Georgetown University


The Major Lacuna in Palestinian historiography is the lack of social and economic histories, especially for the Ottoman period.

Sijillāt al-maḥākim airshar‘īya (records of the Islamic religious courts), preserved in the major cities and towns of historic Palestine, are local Palestinian archives which can go a long way towards filling this gap. These records, some of which date from the first decades of the Ottoman occupation to the present, are akin to a people’s history. Literally hundreds of volumes illustrate in a concrete and detailed manner nearly every aspect of daily human interaction – be it in the personal, social, economic, religious, or administrative fields.

Research Article
Copyright © Middle East Studies Association of North America 1985

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I would like to express my gratitude to the Jerusalem Fund and the Arab Research Society for facilitating this research project. Special thanks are due to Faisal al-Husseini, Mahmoud Ali ‘Attalah, Sheikh Asa‘ad Imam al-Husseini, R. ‘Abboushi, Ibrahim Saba, and the employees of the Arab Research Society and the shari‘a courts for their assistance and hospitality.


1 This is in contrast to an abundance of political histories dealing with periods that witnessed direct European involvement, that is, the Crusades and the era of the British Mandate. For a preliminary survey of historical works on Palestine see my “al-Ta’rīkh li Filastīn ma bayn 1880-1967,” al-Kātīb 34 (February 1983) 22-34.

2 I interviewed the following individuals at length: Mahmoud Ali ‘Attalah, instructor, al-Najah University, and coordinator of project to microfilm the sijills for Jordan University; Amnon Cohen, professor, Hebrew University of Jerusalem; Sheikh Asa‘ad Imam al-Husseini; Aharon Layish, professor, Hebrew University of Jerusalem; ‘Adel al Mannā‘, Ph.D. candidate, Hebrew University of Jerusalem; and Bahjat Sabri, Dean of Arts, al-Najah University. All interviews were carried out during the summer of 1984.

3 For more details see Mandaville, Jon E., “The Ottoman Court Records of Syria and Jordan,” Journal of the American Oriental Society 86 (1966) 31119.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

4 There seems to be general agreement on this point. See, for example, Amnon Cohen’s interesting account of the Jewish community’s relationship with the shari‘a court on the one hand, and the military authorities on the other, in his Ottoman Documents on the Jewish Community of Jerusalem in the Sixteenth Century (Jerusalem 1976) xx-xxii; see also Gibb, H. A. R. and Bowen, H., Islamic Society and the West (Oxford 1957) 125.Google Scholar

5 This information is based on my perusal of the sijills over the summer of 1984 as well as interviews with ‘Adel al-Mannā‘, Cohen, Amnon, and Imam al-Husseini, Sheikh Asa‘ad. In addition, I made use of the somewhat generous lists included in Aref al-Aref, al-Mufaṣṣal fī ta ’rīkh al- (Jerusalem 1961) 31215Google Scholar; and in Sabri, Bajat, “Liwā’ al-Quds fī’l-qarn al-tāsi‘ ‘ashar, 1840–1873” (unpublished M.A. thesis submitted to Ain al-Shams University, 1973) 7582.Google Scholar

6 Of course, not every instance of marriage or divorce is recorded. A large part of the local population, especially in the rural areas, settled much of their own affairs without recourse to the court. Inheritance cases are very useful because property is described in detail with each item accompanied by its value in currency.

7 Beginning in 1864, the village sheikh or mukhtar was elected pending approval of the qaimmaqam (governor).

8 It is interesting to note that the shari‘a court was to be informed of all deaths. There was some resistance to this from the non-Muslim communities because, according to Islamic law, the property of the deceased reverts to the state if there are no inheritors.

9 Very controversial was the building or expansion of non-Muslim religious institutions. An interesting example is a case, recorded in 1745, concerning the expansion and renovation of a church in Jifna, a predominantly Christian village located approximately eighteen kilometers north of Jerusalem. The sheikh of Ain Sinya, a neighbouring Muslim village, complained to the qadi that the church was encroaching on the ruins of an old mosque and that the builder did not possess a building permit. A committee was ap pointed to visit the sight and the builder was asked to produce a permit. When he failed to do so he was arrested, the construction was stopped, and a memorandum was sent to Istanbul asking whether the added sections should be torn down or allowed to stand (Jerusalem sijill no. 235, case no. 72).

10 Aref al-Aref and Bahjat Sabri are two such writers. See their works noted above.

11 “Local Leadership and Early Reform in Palestine, 1800–1834,” in Studies on Palestine During the Ottoman Period, ed. Moshe Maoz (Jerusalem 1975) 292. Stanford Shaw makes similar assertions in his History of the Ottoman Empire and Modern Turkey (Cambridge 1977) 135–37.

12 Interview with Amnon Cohen. Professor Cohen based this observation on his knowledge of sixteenth-century sijills.

13 Cohen, Ottoman Documents, p. x.

14 For this and further examples of this process, especially as it affected Nablus, see al-Ramini, Akram, Nablus fī-’l-qarn al-tāsi‘ ‘ashar (Jordan University, 1978) 36.Google Scholar

15 For this and other examples of how this process worked itself out in Jerusalem see Sabri, Liwā’ al-Quds, pp. 52–62.

16 It is revealing that many property owners insisted on continuing to register their transactions in the shari‘a courts. Finally, a compromise was reached whereby such transactions were not allowed to be entered into the shari‘a court sijills unless they were registered in the tapu office first. For further details on how this process affected the Syrian provinces in general, see Awad, Abdel-Aziz, al-Idāra al-‗Uthmānīya fī wilāyat Sūrīya, 1864–1914 (Cairo 1969) 11138.Google Scholar

17 Ibid., 128–29.

18 The collection kept at Professor Aharon Layish’s office at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

19 There was no longer a shari‘a court in Tiberias after 1948.

20 It is reported that “under the Turkish government there were shari‘a courts, each presided over by a qadi in Jerusalem, Jaffa, Hebron, Gaza, Beersheba, Ramleh, Nablus, Jenin, Tulkarm, Nazareth, Tiberias, Safad, Acre and Haifa” (The Handbook of Palestine [London 1930] 217). For one pre-Mandate sijill from Gaza, see n. 45, below.

21 This and all the following sijill counts do not include marriage registers, which were kept separately after World War I.

22 See Cohen, Amnon, Jewish Life Under Islam (Cambridge 1984) viiGoogle Scholar; and Sabri, , Lawā’ al-Quds, p. 6.Google Scholar

23 For a description of the Jerusalem qadi’s authority and jurisdiction, see Gharaybi, Abdel-Karim, Sūrīya fī’l-qarn al-tāsi‘ ‘ashar, 1840–1876 (Cairo 1961) 5265Google Scholar; also Sabri, , Liwā’ al-Quds, p. 19Google Scholar; and al-Ramini, Nāblus, p. 32.

24 Porath, Yehoshua, “The Political Awakening of the Palestinian Arabs and Their Leadership Towards the End of the Ottoman Period,” in Studies on Palestine (supra, n. 11) 35657.Google Scholar

25 The missing years are 1571–74, 1594–99, 1605–11, 1620–23, 1635–39, 1643–47, 1652–56, and 1660–74.

26 On the importance of the Jerusalem evamir series see Cohen, Ottoman Documents, pp. x-xii.

27 Mastering sijill handwriting may take anywhere from one to six months for those who already have a working knowledge of Arabic. Professor Amnon Cohen teaches a one-year course on how to read sijill handwriting.

28 Haj Amin al-Husseini, former mufti of Palestine, ordered the Jerusalem sijills collected and bound in 1923.

29 For example, there is a total of 81 sijills for the eighteenth century as compared to 206 sijills for only eight decades of the twentieth century.

30 Al-Ramini, Nablus, pp. 34–35.

31 Ibid., from an appendix listing the qadis of Nablus during the nineteenth century, pp. 182–83.

32 This process is described in Aharon Layish, Women and Islamic Law in a Non-Muslim State (New York 1975) 1–2.

33 The following years are missing: 1809, 1810, 1820–24, 1847, 1862–64, and 1885–87. Of course, scattered documents from these years may be found in the other sijills, but it is not possible to determine the extent unless one examines each and every sijill thoroughly.

34 One such opening remark, roughly translated, reads as follows: “This blessed sijill contains all the shari‘a decisions, notices, and reports in addition to inheritances and marriage contracts as recorded in a chronological order … under the supervision of al-ḣākim al-shari‘ al-sayyid Ahmad Afandi al-Madani” (Jenin sijill no. 7, 26 September 1887–12 January 1890).

35 The two largest are 1874–87 and 1894–1901.

36 Professor Layish kindly supplied me with a detailed list of the Nazareth sijills under his disposal.

37 Only one Gaza Ottoman sijill is known to exist. See n. 45 for details.

38 The Gaza shari‘a appeals court was established in 1949.

39 In 1967 all contents of the Qalqilya shari‘a court were destroyed as a result of Israeli bombardment.

40 Three years ago, Mr. Khader, head of al-Aqsa Library, put the entire Jerusalem collection on microfilm. Copies are available in al-Aqsa Library, located on the grounds of Haram al-Sharīf, and Jordan University.

41 See also his article “The Closing Phase of Ottoman Rule in Jerusalem,” in Studies on Palestine (supra, n. 11) 334–40.

42 The author is currently the Dean of Arts of al-Najah University.

43 He published The Ottoman Province of Damascus in the Sixteenth Century (London 1972), which was originally a Ph.D. thesis for the University of London.

44 His major work is al-‘Arab wa’l-‘Uthrnānāyūn, 1516–1916 (Damascus 1974); see also his “Economic Relations Between Damascus and the Dependent Countryside, 1743–71,” in The Islamic Middle East, 700–1900, ed. A. L. Udovitch (Princeton 1981) 653–86. This pioneering study is based entirely on the shari‘a court sijills of Damascus. Like Bakhit, he received his Ph.D. from the University of London.

45 “Gaza, 1857–1861: Dirasa ‘Umranīya wa-iqtisadīya min khilal al-watha’iq al-shar-‘īya,” submitted to al-Mu’tammar al-Duwali al-Thālith li Ta’rīkh Bilād al-Sham (Filastīn). It is based on Gaza sijill no. 471. It was found in Damascus, but it is not clear how it got there or what happened to the rest of Gaza’s Ottoman sijills.

46 Formerly published in Hebrew as The Jewish Community in Jerusalem in the Sixteenth Century (Jerusalem 1982).

47 Written in Hebrew but contains a brief summary in English.

48 Other works by Amnon Cohen that use the sijills as a primary resource are: “On the Realities of the Millet System in Jerusalem in the Sixteenth Century,” in Christians and Jews in the Ottoman Empire, ed. Braudex and Lewis, vol. 2 (New York 1982) 7–18; “Local Trade, International Trade and Government in Jerusalem During the Early Ottoman Period,” Journal of Asian and African Studies 12 (1978) 5–12; “Sixteenth Century Egypt and Palestine: the Jewish Connection as Reflected in the Sijills of Jerusalem,” in the memorial volume to Omer Lutfi Barkan, edited by Robert Mantran (Paris 1980) 57–64.

49 The author was Deputy Advisor to the Israeli Prime Minister on Arab Affairs in the early 1960s, and was in charge of matters relating to the religious community and waqf administration.

50 Other works by Aharon Layish that use sijills as a primary resource are: “The Sijills of Jaffa and Nazareth for the History of Ottoman Palestine,” in Studies on Palestine, pp. 525–33; Marriage, Divorce and Succession in the Druze Family: a Study Based on Decisions of Druze Arbitrators and Religious Courts in Israel and the Golan Heights (Leiden 1982). Another pioneering work is Judith Tucker’s “Women and the Family in Egypt, 1800–1860: A Study in Changing Roles and Status” (Ph.D. dissertation, Harvard 1981), a social history of peasant and lower class urban women, based on the sijills of Cairo and Mansura. Though this study is not concerned with Palestinian sijills, it is included in this discussion for three reasons. First, the methodology is unique in that Dr. Tucker, instead of reading through all of the sijills for the period under study, selected one calendar year per decade as an arbitrary sample. The major advantage of this approach is that it considerably reduces research time, yet allows the historian to investigate a relatively long period. Second, this study is holistic—it charts the changing economic roles, power, and status of Egyptian women within the larger historical context. Third, it is similar to Layish’s work in that it investigates the relationship between legal theory and actual judicial practice—an extremely important but little-studied topic. An important contribution to this topic is Galal El-Nahal, The Judicial Administration of Ottoman Egypt in the Seventeenth Century (Minneapolis and Chicago 1979).

51 By Sheikh Asa‘ad Imam al-Husseini (Jerusalem 1982).

52 This community was displaced and its neighbourhood razed to the ground shortly after the Israeli occupation of East Jerusalem in 1967. See Benvenisti, Meron, Jerusalem: The Torm City (Minneapolis 1976) 3057.Google Scholar

53 This and other points concerning the importance of the sijills are detailed in Mandaville, Jon, “The Jerusalem Shari‘a Court Records: A Supplement and Complement to the Central Ottoman Archives,” in Studies on Palestine, pp. 51725.Google Scholar

54 An example is a case I read in Jerusalem sijill no. 235. Briefly summarized, eight sheikhs from the village of Beit Jala, along with a number of witnesses, appeared before the qadi on 7 Zu al-Qaada, 1158 H./1745 A.D. The sheikhs admitted that they were two years late in paying their annual share of the haska sultana waqf but promised that, despite their poverty, they would repay their debts in full within two months. Their share, incidentally, was listed as fifty sacks of barley, fifty donkey-loads of wood, fifty chickens and four sheep.

55 Hütteroth, Wolf-Dieter and Fattah, Kamal Abdul, Historical Geography of Palestine, Transjordan and Southern Syria in the Late Sixteenth Century (Erlangen 1977).Google Scholar

56 Cohen, Amnon and Lewis, Bernard, Population and Revenue in the Towns of Palestine in the Sixteenth Century (Princeton 1978)Google Scholar.