"The Garden of Forking Paths": Islamic Legal Transformations in the Ottoman Empire During the Nineteenth Century

John Bugnacki, Providence College


In the popular imagination, misconceptions abound regarding islamic law. Many outside of the Islamic world believe that Islamic law consists of a discrete series of inviolable, unchanging commands. However, both in historical and contemporary contexts, this characterization is false. The different legal schools within Islamic law have evolved and changed over time in response to surrounding conditions and other legal traditions that have existed alongside it. In the Ottoman Empire this process was particularly evident and, during the nineteenth century, its main tradition of Islamic law underwent an unprecedented transformation that would seek to combine Islamic legal principles within statist structures. While the Empire itself was unable to reorganize its legal system on this mixed basis, the new approach was integral for later reformers seeking to find a balance between Western modernity and their Islamic heritage.