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The Making of Ottoman Law (OTTOLEGAL) is about lawmaking in the Ottoman Empire in the early modern period. When one considers the Ottomans at the height of their power, one usually thinks of Mehmed the Conqueror (r. 1451–81) or Süleyman the Magnificent (r. 1520–66), both seemingly all-powerful sultans who conquered new lands and imposed their rule, and their rules, upon them. No one had the power to resist.


We take a different approach, one that challenges top-down conceptions of lawmaking and their applicability to the study of Ottoman legal history by acknowledging the diverse combinations of actors who participated in making the laws. These include interest groups, guilds, merchants, non-Muslim communities, founders of endowments, and others. Lawmaking did not belong solely to the government or jurists.


The Ottoman legal universe was not a single legal unit that displayed the consistency and design of a single actor, but instead consisted of multiple overlapping legal spaces in which diverse groups participated to different degrees in creating legal norms. We study variety and change in these different legal spaces. As time, place, and conditions changed, so too did the combination of actors involved, and the extent of their roles, in the formation of legal norms.


We are undertaking a systematic and analytical study on the primary sources of Ottoman lawmaking: sultanic decrees (kanun) and juristic opinions (fetva). We aim to analyze more than ten thousand sources in detail. We classify them according to a number of categories, including their type, author, addressee, date, language, and place of origin. We place them in time and space and produce measurable data, which we code and record in a database.


The key achievement of the project will be to develop a model of lawmaking that will account for diversity and change across time and space in Ottoman Empire and beyond in the early modern period.

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