How Sultan Süleyman became ‘Kanuni’

How Sultan Süleyman became ‘Kanuni’

Niki GAMM ISTANBUL – Hürriyet Daily News
How Sultan Süleyman became ‘Kanuni’

Between the reigns of Fatih Sultan Mehmed and Suleiman, the empire had greatly expanded and had to face different legal systems and traditions. The Hanifi system of jurisprudence made it easier for the Ottomans to cope with these differences.

The first written, complete code of laws is nearly 4,000 years old, from the time of Hammurabi, the king of Babylon (r. 1792 B.C. to 1750 B.C.), although fragments of legal codes from other cities in the Mesopotamian area have been discovered. Hammurabi is still honored today as a lawgiver. In the Bible, it was Moses whom the Jews singled out as a lawgiver and among the ancient Greeks, Draco and Solon. Law in Byzantium and later in the West rests on the law as laid down by the Emperor Justinian in the sixth century C.E.

Prior to the adoption of Islam, the Turkish tribes of Central Asia would have relied on custom and the rules laid down by their rulers. But the advent of Islamic law in the form of the shariah added a different dimension since in many instances it was supposed to supersede traditions and arbitrary rules. The laws laid down in the shariah are based on the Qur’an and in what could be determined from traditions based on the life of and sayings attributed to the Prophet Muhammad. Over the centuries Islamic jurisprudence expanded as the religion spread from culture to culture, requiring that the laws in these communities be changed to conform to the shariah and/or the interpretation of the shariah be expanded to cover new instances. But the latter was deemed impossible, except by analogy, since shariah law was laid down by Allah. The four main branches of Islamic jurisprudence, Hanifism was the most inclined to accept analogy and was the branch that the Turks followed in making decisions.

When the Turks entered the Anatolian region, they were confronted by people who lived under Byzantine law, that is, the laws of Justinian. The impact that this may have had on subsequent Turkish law has been little studied since little was written down at the time. Later Turkish practice however permitted that the peoples in conquered communities be allowed to keep following their own law at least for a time. Uriel Heyd writes in Studies in Old Ottoman Criminal Law: “In some Muslim countries annexed in the early sixteenth century, the Ottomans at first confirmed existing secular law, which mainly dealt with fiscal matters such as taxes, tolls, customs duties, etc. They did so in order not to uproot local usage and, above all, not to disorganize the economic life of the new provinces.” This was certainly in the case in the Balkan region of Semendre where local Christian law was left in place from 1468 until 1506 when it was abrogated in favor of shariah law and Ottoman civil law. Jewish and Christian communities in Istanbul however were governed by their own religious laws with the exception of instances involving Muslims.

Only in the reign of Fatih Sultan Mehmed (r. 1451-1481) was there any codification of existing laws, and three codes of law (“kanun-name”) were brought into being. Stanford Shaw, in his book, History of the Ottoman Empire and Modern Turkey, distinguishes them as followed: “The first, promulgated in 1453-1456, concerned the conditions and obligations of his subjects; the second, in 1477-1478, concerned the organization of the Ottoman state and Ruling Class; and the third, introduced late in his reign, concerned economic organization, landholding, and taxes. Thus the laws, practices, and traditions developed during the previous centuries were brought together and institutionalized, marking the initial stages of a process that culminated a half-century later during the reign of Süleyman the Magnificent (1520-1566).” In fact Fatih was particularly interested in organizing the state. In line with this, he also had drawn up state protocol so that every member of the state administration knew what his responsibilities were and his position vis-à-vis others. Even protocols for holidays were determined.

Sultan Süleyman becomes Kanuni

Between the reigns of Fatih Sultan Mehmed and Suleiman, the empire had greatly expanded and had to face different legal systems and traditions. The Hanifi system of jurisprudence made it easier for the Ottomans to cope with these differences. The first years of Süleyman’s rule were spent in consolidating his empire and fresh conquests so it wasn’t until 1539 that he had a chance to spend time in Istanbul and work on further codification of the laws. To this end, he appointed Lütfi Paşa who was known for his military, administrative and legal expertise to be grand vizier. Unlike Fatih, Süleyman directed his attention to justice and finance. Over the next two years, Süleyman oversaw the codification of a new general code of laws. Not only were previous codes of law taken into account, new cases and analogies were added. Fines and punishments were regularized and some of the more severe punishments were mitigated.

The kanunnames are collections of kanuns or statutes that are basically short summaries of decrees issued by the sultan. The decrees in turn were made on the basis of a particular individual, place or event but when issued, these particular details were not included. The publication of such a general kanunname throughout the empire was the responsibility of the nişancı, an official whose duty it was to attach the sultan’s imperial signature on the decrees issued in his name.

The role of the sheikhulislam among the Ottomans is somewhat ambiguous. He was supposed to be responsible for the application of shariah law and for the entire system of courts and judges who were educated in its contents and used it in cases brought before them. The most famous of these judges was Ebu ‘s-Su‘ud, whom Sultan Süleyman appointed to the position in 1545 and who held it until he died in 1574. He was part of the sultan’s efforts to codify Ottoman laws (the kanuns) and bring them into line with shariah which even the sultan was required to obey. Prior to his appointment, judges had been free to interpret shariah law as they wished to but now this was no longer the case. The sultan held the judicial power and judges had to follow what he decreed. Although it is commonly believed that an imperial decree could only become a law after it had been approved by the sheikhulislam as the judge of final appeal, Heyd pointed out that there is no proof of this. In many cases, the sheikhulislam issued fatwas (decrees) long after the imperial decree went into force.

What Kanuni Sultan Süleyman did to earn his sobriquet as “lawgiver” has often been compared to the just ruler King Solomon, from the Old Testament. Certainly after the codification of Ottoman law under Kanuni, no attempts were made to make changes until the 19th century, when Ottoman westernizers wanted to adopt European law.