- Family Life in the Ottoman Mediterranean: A Social History by Beshara B. Doumani
Doumani's comparative study of the mutually constitutive encounters between property, kin, and gender in the Ottoman cities of Tripoli and Nablus from the early modern to the modern period (1660–1860) is a social history of the family (materially and discursively understood) as constituted by, and reflective of, the legal/spiritual practices and political economies of the two cities. His argument is focused on the family waqf (endowment) that was pervasively used by the propertied urban classes in Ottoman Syria and elsewhere in the period under investigation.
The importance of the family waqf lies in its being the only legal instrument for property devolution in Islam; as crucial, it was flexible, with "a built-in toolbox of options" allowing individuals to "custom-design … long-term property relations between kin, and between the self and God" (103). In addition to being both a "social act" and a "family charter," the waqf was a "capacious institution" that enabled both economic investment and social mobility (96).
Family waqfs were constructed and litigated at the local Ottoman shari‛a courts, the registers (sijills) of which for Tripoli and Nablus represent Doumani's most important sources (he also examines fatwa collections, family papers, and local chronicles). These courts brought together imperial prerogatives and Islamic legal traditions in dynamic interaction with specific political economies; they provided the setting in which propertied men and women engaged in the creation of the familial, cultural, and socioeconomic "building blocks" that bound them into communities, regions, and empire (86). As such, the family waqf stood at the intersection of several material and discursive orders, bringing together family, property, court, and political economies through dynamic processes in different Ottoman spaces and over time.
Doumani's layered, comparative, and multifaceted analysis of the waqf as a "sensitive barometer" of understandings about kin and property in Tripoli and Nablus weaves together a broad quantitative, or macro-, social study of some 15,000 waqf-related court documents with a microtextual examination of select cases (and bundles of related cases) (99). Using numerous tables and charts, he provides powerful evidence for patterns over time and place regarding endowment acts and lawsuits—who endowed (class and gender composition) what kinds of properties and to whom and why (family members/gender and good deeds)—and establishes connections between waqf patterns, on the one hand, and the local political economies of the two cities, on the other.
On the micro-level, he instantiates the social, legal, cultural, and emotive worlds that made the family waqf. The enormity and rigor of the quantitative methodology are matched by the careful and imaginative approach used in the case studies—a case in point being when he describes a large gathering of legal witnesses to a waqf endowment [End Page 524] as "social mobilization akin to a wedding" (138), or comments that the charitable deeds in many family waqfs in Tripoli "give the impression that the religious establishment in the city operated somewhat like a pension management fund for the soul" (23).
Doumani's comparative approach provides evidence for startlingly different iterations of the family waqf in Tripoli and Nablus, expressing distinct notions about relations among property, family, and gender. He encapsulates this difference with reference to the modes and structures of production associated with the orchard (bustan) in Tripoli and the residence (dar) in Nablus, such as land ownership, agricultural labor, and investment strategies. In sum, the political economy of Tripoli gave rise to the conjugal family and family waqfs in which women were both beneficiaries and active founders, whereas in Nablus, the extended family founded on family waqfs gradually excluded women both as participants and beneficiaries.
Doumani's tightly knit argument for the historical dynamism and flexibility of Islamic legal traditions and against monolithic and unchanging notions of family and gender in the Ottoman Mediterranean is a remarkable achievement. It presents a powerful challenge to deep-rooted scholarly assumptions in Ottoman/Islamic studies; it...