Narratives of defect and defensiveness: interpreting the persistence of an illiberal tradition in Ottoman land law
The field of Ottoman history, and Middle Eastern history more generally is currently caught up in producing revisionist narratives that reject older characterizations of the Middle East’s past. The latter focused on the failure of the Middle East to modernize and posited the reasons for this failing. Perhaps chief among these reasons has been stasis; a general proposition that the Middle East did not change, could not change or disliked change and hence was not up to the challenges facing peoples and governments in the modern era.
Responding to such critiques, revisionist narratives have staunchly defended the capacity of Middle Eastern peoples and communities to change. But as we all know, it is not enough to simply show that things changed. Rather, historians have sought to show that certain kinds of change, historically significant changes, the right kinds of changes, have been taking place. What is the right kind of change? Change that is consistent with dominant narratives of modernization. In particular, we have seen narratives focusing on the growth of governmentality emphasizing new techniques of discipline and control. We have also seen narratives about changes in social groups and commercialization that proximate transformations associated with modernization in Europe.
Such studies have been very valuable and I do not mean to suggest otherwise. My concern, however, is that we are missing an opportunity. Our revisionist narratives are largely reinforcing the dominant paradigms for thinking about the process of modernization, when it seems to me that we might wish to use the Middle East’s experience to revise the grand narratives about modernity rather than argue that the Middle East conforms to such narratives and is capable of progress.
We might usefully consider the significance of the Ottoman 1858 Land Code with such a goal in mind. This legislation was a centerpiece of nineteenth-century reform, and has rightfully been at the center of discussions about the face of modernity in the Ottoman Empire. In evaluating what the Code was supposed to accomplish and/or what it did accomplish, scholars have mostly fallen into two camps: those who see in it an attempt to institute a regime of private property in land, and those who see in it an attempt of the state to (re)gain control over the land and to curtail the rights of private individuals upon it. Roughly fifteen years ago, an article by Huri Islamoğlu appeared arguing that these seemingly contradictory positions were in fact both correct. Islamoglu stated that private property and state centralization were processes that proceeded hand in hand, as private property–the assigning of exclusive legal title and taxation responsibility—was a far more effective way to raise revenue than the complex systems of usage rights that existed previously . In other words, a newly assertive state control over land did not impede the growth of private property; rather, it was the drive for revenue of the former that produced the latter.
Islamoglu’s work was a significant contribution to the discussion, and yet it left intact a narrative that was in essence a familiar story of transformation: the slow yet steady rise of a sovereign, administrative state and a regime of private property. For Islamoglu, the 1858 Land Code represents a step towards both. Many historians, myself among them, have nevertheless been struck by the number of provisions in the Code that simply do not fit with the spirit of private property. The Code places a number of restrictions on those who possess title to what is deemed miri land. This category, whose meaning is clearly in flux by the nineteenth century, represented the majority of the empire’s cultivatable lands. A title holder could not sell the property, build on the property or use the earth to make products like bricks without a state agent’s permission. The state decreed which family members or other interested parties were eligible to inherit title to miri land and in which order, as partible inheritance was largely precluded. Most importantly, any land that was left fallow for three continuous years was subject to confiscation and title could be given to someone else.
If we are determined to see the Code as a story that begins the implementation of private property, then we must take the position that these measures are vestiges of the past that, while preserved in this text, are there principally to prevent the Code from introducing too much novelty at a single interval. They do not represent the trajectory of the Code, they represent the past that the Code is only starting to overcome. Yet this explanation is not satisfactory. While many of these restrictions were significant features of the land law prior to the reform era, some of the restrictions are new or revised. It is difficult therefore to see them as simply representing a continuity with past practice and a sign of the partial and as yet incomplete nature of Ottoman modernization.
What if we did not view these provisions as bumps in the road on the way to a fully realized institution of private property? I suggest that we see them as a strategic response to the quandary that has been a defining feature of modernity in so many parts of the world: the struggle of a state whose sovereignty is increasingly being undermined by treaty to compensate by instituting a new and unheralded degree of control over its natural and productive resources. Such a narrative would allow us to avoid seeing the modernization process as a uniform series of transformations. It also would allow us to see parallels with the future: there is an argument to be made that the land tenure regime of the 1858 Land Code was similar in spirit to the nationalizing of industries and oil fields in the twentieth century. In short, examining the relationship between property and sovereignty is extremely useful, but we should not expect that relationship to reproduce a specific path in order to be accounted historically significant and evidence of the capacity for meeting the challenges of modernity.
Compelling intellectual interest, theme, or question:
I’m interested in constellations of religious and political authority. I’m interested in why Islam is so frequently pigeon-holed as allowing only a narrow range of (dysfunctional) political formations to emerge in places where it is the dominant religion.
Provisional sketch of essay:
A broader question that interests me right now is how people regard change within what they consider to be their traditions (whether political, economic, religious or artistic or what have you). I would like to compare understandings of what tradition is and how it evolves in the period before 1800 versus after 1800.