Carter Findley’s Enlightening Europe on Islam and the Ottomans: Mouradgea d’Ohsson on Law and the State

Carter V. Findley is Humanities Distinguished Professor Emeritus in the History Department at Ohio State University. He studies the history of Islamic civilization, with emphasis on the Ottoman Empire and Turkish studies.

Carter V. FIndley

Findley’s other books include Turkey, Islam, Nationalism, and Modernity: A History, 1789-2007 (Yale University Press, 2010), and The Turks in World History (Oxford University Press, 2005), as well as two earlier books on late Ottoman administrative reform, both published by Princeton University Press. These books have won numerous prizes. Findley also co-founded Ohio State University’s World History Program. The World History Association honored his contributions with its Pioneer in World History Award (June 2019). His contributions to world history include the textbook Twentieth-Century World (7th edition, Cengage, 2010), originally coauthored with the late John Rothney.

Ed. Note: The Docket recently asked Carter Findley to give our readers a brief overview of his new book on the life and work of one of the most important but neglected legal thinkers, diplomats, and men of letters of the Enlightenment: Mouradega d’Ohsson.

Carter Vaughn Findley, Enlightening Europe on Islam and the Ottomans: Mouradgea d’Ohsson and His Masterpiece, Brill, Leiden, 2019, xv + 398 pages.

What did the enlightened despot of the eighteenth century need to know about Islamic law and the state to get along with the greatest Muslim ruler of the age?  If Mouradgea d’Ohsson could have published his entire work before the French Revolution, his Tableau général de l’Empire othoman would have been recognized then and since as providing precisely that guidance.  As its long subtitle states, his work has two parts:  the larger part on Islamic law, the final part on the state.  This was the most authoritative work ever yet published on Islam and the Ottomans.  Profusely illustrated with 233 engravings, the work also offered the century’s richest collection of visual imagery on the Ottomans and opened deep insights into the processes and politics of illustrated book production in this period.  D’Ohsson wrote for powerful and prestigious readers.  The demand for this work sprang from an episode unique in the annals of European states’ relations with the Ottomans:  a reigning European monarch, Sweden’s Charles XII’s five-year residence with a large entourage at Bender in Ottoman Bessarabia (1709-1714).  Demands for a Linnean taxonomy of practical information about Islam and the Ottomans began then.  No one could complete the full array until d’Ohsson, the brilliant secretary-interpreter of the Swedish mission in Istanbul, did seventy-five years later.  So high were his princely patrons’ expectations that the entire Tableau was published simultaneously in two different editions:  3 fully illustrated folios (Paris, 1787-1820) for rich collectors and 7 partially illustrated small volumes (Paris, 1787-1824) for the wider public.

The Grand Vezir’s Judicial Divan at the Sublime Porte (folio vol. 3, plate 177). Drama could occur, as the grand vezir presided from his dais, flanked by bailiffs who read the pleas. Lines of attendants formed a human “fence” to create separate spaces for the litigants, Muslims on one side of the room and non-Muslims on the other, females inside the fence and males outside. (photo C. V. Findley)

My book contributes to comparative legal history in two respects.  One of the greatest obstacles to analyzing d’Ohsson’s work, addressed in chapter six, is to understand his intentions in presenting Islamic law as a “code” that encompassed the “universality of religious legislation.”  In our day, no serious Islamicist thinks that sharia law can be codified.  In his day, legal codification was an aspiration, but no major European state yet had a codified legal system that applied throughout the land.  What was d’Ohsson trying to accomplish in asserting that the Ottomans had achieved a level of legal systematization that Europeans had not?  Empirical answers to this question emerge from contexts as far apart as those of Swedish jurists, Ottoman medreses and consular courts, Armenian merchants at Astrakhan, and Jewish legal scholars in Ottoman Safed.  Conceptual answers to this question emerge from perceiving that d’Ohsson did not distinguish codification from canonization of what the Ottomans knew as “books of high repute.”[1]

View of Mecca (folio vol. 2, plate 45). The engraving shows the Holy City during the pilgrimage on the first day of Kurban Bayram (‘Id al-Adha), with pilgrims streaming in and out to perform required rites outside the city. The legend identifies 64 numbered sites, marked by numbers in the engraving. Sharia law focuses first of all on correct performance of religious obligations. D’Ohsson elaborated the requirements for the hajj extensively, following Ibrahim al-Halabi’s Multaqa al-Abhur. (photo C. V. Findley)

D’Ohsson financed his lavish illustration program by spending a fortune that he had made in Istanbul in trade, both on his own account and as homme d’affaires for the Swedish envoys whom he served officially.  D’Ohsson’s business dealings, both in Istanbul and with the leading Parisian engravers, seldom failed to generate acrimonious disputes, typically settled by arbitration.  Voluminous documentation survives about these disputes, including one that was pursued all the way to royal arbitration in Stockholm.  As a result, the sources for this study offer extensive insights into the reliance on arbitration in the lex mercatoria in this period.[2]

A European Envoy’s Reception Audiences at Topkapı Palace (folio vol. 3, plate 232). Treaties and international law partook in Ottoman practice of both the sharia and the law of the state (kanun). D’Ohsson’s decades of experience as secretary-interpreter to the Swedish envoys made him intimately acquainted with scenes like this. To present his letters of credence, a European envoy had two audiences at the palace, first this ceremonial dinner with the grand vezir in the divan hall, and then the formal presentation to the sultan. (photo C. V. Findley)

[1] Index entries for “codes” and “codification” on page 394 identify relevant passages.  

[2] Index entries under “arbitration” identify relevant passages.