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A World Within Part Two
A World Within Part Two
Jewish Life As Reflected In Muslim Court Documents From The Sijill Of Jerusalem

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Author:Amnon Cohen

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Number of Pages:377

Paperback

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Amnon Cohen, an American Jewish historian, studied the 16th century documents stored in the archives of the Shari’ah religious court of Jerusalem (commonly known as sijill), whereby he found 1000 Jewish cases filed from the year 1530 to 1601 CE. Cohen published his research in 1994 during which he made some astonishing discoveries, as he himself states:

‘Cases concerning Jews cover a very wide spectrum of topics. If we bear in mind that the Jews of Jerusalem had their own separate courts, the number of cases brought to Muslim court (which actually meant putting themselves at the mercy of a judge outside the pale of their communal and religious identity) is quite impressive[1]…The Jews went to the Muslim court for a variety of reasons, but the overwhelming fact was their ongoing and almost permanent presence there. This indicates that they went there not only in search of justice, but did so hoping, or rather knowing, that more often than not they would attain redress when wronged…The Jews went to court to resolve much more than their conflicts with Muslim or Christian neighbours. They turned to Shari’a authorities to seek redress with respect to internal differences, and even in matters within their immediate family (intimate relations between husband and wife, nafaqa maintenance payments to divorcees, support of infants etc.).’[2]

Cohen further elaborates upon the Jewish condition in the 16th century Ottoman Jerusalem:

‘Their possessions were protected, although they might have had to pay for extra protection at night for their houses and commercial properties. Their title deeds and other official documents indicating their rights were honoured when presented to the court, being treated like those of their Muslim neighbours[3]…The picture emerging from the sijill documents is baffling. On the one hand we encounter recurring Sultanic decrees sent to Jerusalem – in response to pleas of the Jews – to the effect that “nothing should be done to stop them from applying their own law” regarding a variety of matters. There are also many explicit references to the overriding importance of applying Shari’a law to them only if they so choose. On the other hand, if we look closely at some of the inheritance lists, we see that the local court allocated to female members of Jewish families half the share given to male members, exactly as in Islamic law. This meant, ipso facto, a significant improvement in the status of Jewish women with respect to legacies over that accorded them by Jewish tradition, although it actually meant the application of Islamic law in an internal Jewish context [4]…he [the Muslim Judge] defended Jewish causes jeopardized by high-handed behaviour of local governors; he enabled Jewish business people and craftsmen to lease properties from Muslim endowments on an equal footing with Muslim bidders; more generally, he respected their rituals and places of worship and guarded them against encroachment even when the perpetrators were other Muslim dignitaries.[5]’

And finally Amnon Cohen describes the effectiveness of Islamic law for Jewish interests:

‘No one interfered with their internal organisation or their external cultural and economic activities…In a world where civil and political equality, or positive social change affecting the group or even the individual were not the norms, the Sultan’s Jewish subjects had no reason to mourn their status or begrudge their conditions of life. The Jews of Ottoman Jerusalem enjoyed religious and administrative autonomy within an Islamic state, and as a constructive, dynamic element of the local economy and society they could – and actually did – contribute to its functioning.’

Pennsylvania State University