This article explores the judicial role in the region from the 19th century, focusing on the impact of the Western law to the region with emphasis on the Ottoman legal reforms in the Arab region between 1839 – 1876 and the period following the Ottoman decline in the 20th century. The legal history of the Arab region spans over a millennium and any attempt to cover this in one brief article cannot capture all the historical complexities and will necessarily be limited and to a large degree, superficial. Islamic, non-Islamic, Arab and Western legal developments have been vast and have extended beyond the Arabic-speaking region. In light of this, a core purpose of this article is to provide for a more nuanced insight into the historical development of the judicial role in the Arab region.

“A large number of societies view law with indifference and many, particularly those we term primitive, consider the birth and development of law as a misadventure. In these societies, which set themselves against law, law appears with difficulty, evolves but little, and if one attempts to transfer law born and nourished elsewhere, the result is usually failure”.1

Norbert Rouland


The end of the Arab Muslim Caliphates marked a new beginning for the development of the judicial role. Earlier developments had refined and developed a judicial role that was religiously legitimised, only to undergo further refinements throughout the later centuries. This time, its development would be overseen and authorised by neither ethnically nor linguistically Arab Muslim rulers:

“In the seventh century, the Arabs created a new world into which other peoples were drawn. In the nineteenth and twentieth, they were themselves drawn into a new world created in Western Europe.”2

Secular notions of law and justice from predominantly civil legal traditions made their mark on the Islamic judge. Two important periods are associated with the introduction and eventual synthesis of Islamic laws with ideas from different Western legal cultures. All of this would have a marked effect on the judicial office in Arab societies. The first period relates to the final years of the Ottoman rule (1839-1922), and the second, to the establishment of Arab independence following the British and French mandates (mid-20th century).


The Ottoman dynasty was founded in the late 13th century in north-western Anatolia. Under Selim I (1470 –1520), the Empire rapidly expanded into the Middle East. Following the seizure of the holy Islamic cities of Mecca and Medina, the Ottoman claim of caliphal authority was solidified. The Ottoman stronghold would remain, at least officially, until the Caliphate’s defeat and loss of its territories in the Middle East to the Allied Powers in the aftermath of the First World War.3

By the late 19th century, the Ottoman Empire officially controlled all of the Levant region (Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Palestine) and Iraq. The Ottomans also claimed dominion over most of North Africa, Egypt, and the Arabian Peninsula. In practice, however, the regions enjoyed varying degrees of self-rule. The territory that now corresponds to Saudi Arabia was under the direct rule of Arab tribal leaders. Despite Ottoman claims to the entire Peninsula, the central rule was limited to strategic areas such as Hijaz, the two Islamic sanctuaries of Mecca and Medina. In the 19th century, Egypt was technically an Ottoman province but in practice enjoyed a degree of autonomy.4 Modern-day Lebanon dates back to the Ottoman Mount Lebanon Principality.5 In 1860, Mount Lebanon became part of the Ottoman province, with political institutions based on power-sharing among its various religious groups under an Ottoman-European consortium protectorate.6

The Ottomans began an unprecedented period of reforms between 1839 – 1876.7 The empire sought to reform and modernise its institutions and society in line with the prevailing cultural, legal and political dominance of Europe. Libertarian ideas of the French Revolution found a favourable milieu among educated urban Ottomans, and the empire was called on to give way to the new philosophy of the Age of Enlightenment. Between 1839 and 1876, a series of reforms were promulgated in the Ottoman empire. These reforms, called the Tanẓīmāt, were intended to modernise the empire from an old theocratic system into a modern state similar to European states.8

The Tanẓīmāt reforms would require universality and a direct contact with the Ottoman citizen without regard to religion or ethnicity. As Hanioğlu describes, the vision “was a significant first step toward the transformation of hitherto Muslim, Christian, and Jewish subjects into Ottoman”.9 To achieve this, law and legal administration required substantial reforms, especially the Sharī’ʿa dominated courts which were run by Islamic judges. Mirroring Western legal developments, Ottoman Islamic law and practice would have to move away from natural justice and to emphasise procedure, code and appellate hierarchy. The dominant judicial paradigm was legal formalism, and the Ottomans wished to introduce this to their own empire. This required replacing doctrinal interpretation, custom and, more importantly, judicial discretion with a rigid and mechanical application of a comprehensive set of laws.10 To achieve this, a series of centralised reforms were inaugurated, including the introduction of the Nizamyieh courts chiefly modeled on Napoleonic laws and judicial structures.

The Nizamyieh courts were three-tiered and covered civil, criminal and commercial disputes. The civil corpus juris, the Mejelle, was a comprehensive compendium of Islamic law and was also codified in with western structures in mind. The Mejelle was to be administered in the new civil courts and applied by judges trained in secular legal methodologies.11 Penal law, traditionally based on Islamic law (and codified in early 19th century), gave way to an adaptation of the French penal code of 1858, also applied by the new criminal courts. Sharī’ʿah and other religious courts continued to operate alongside the Nizamyieh courts, but their jurisdiction was reduced to adjudicating on endowments and personal status laws particular to each religious denomination.


Despite these centralising reforms, Ottoman suzerainty in the Arab region was implemented in a piecemeal fashion. By the start of the 19th century, Ottoman hegemony ranged from existent to non-existent in the Arab region. The Tanẓīmāt influenced some places profoundly, and others only superficially. For instance, Egypt, technically an Ottoman province, managed to acquire a degree of autonomy in the law throughout the 19th century. Even if the country generally followed Ottoman legal developments, such as the Mejelle, the pace and content of the Tanẓīmāt were largely informed by the country’s own juridical developments.12 The foreign establishment of the Egyptian Mixed Courts in the 19th century had an international dimension that went beyond the modeling of the Nizamyieh courts. Dictated by foreign powers, the Mixed Courts were a hybrid series of courts, particularly established to deal with disputes between foreigners and Egyptians. Judges sitting in the Egyptian Mixed courts had considerable experience and came from a variety of nations, including France, England, Italy, Scandinavia, and the USA, as well as Egypt. The increasing number of British and American judges serving in the Egyptian courts, especially after the British Occupation in 1882, resulted in the, albeit limited, introduction of Anglo-American common law elements which came to be a source of influence on Egyptian judicial decision-making in later years.13 Central Arabia (present-day Saudi Arabia and Yemen) and rural areas inhabited by Bedouin tribes also saw little of Ottoman legal influence. Instead, Shari’a, tribal law and custom remained in full practice, and an Islamic version of Ḥakam remained the intercessor in disputes.

Despite the varying degrees of influence of the Tanẓīmāt, the Ottoman reforms had – directly or indirectly – made an influence in the Arab region in one important respect: the Mejelle. The Ḥanafī-based Islamic law had been the official school of law throughout the centuries-long Ottoman rule, and by the late 19th century this school acquired a new status once it became codified. Legal norms were no longer valid merely because eminent Muslim jurists had developed them. In the new context, the validity of Islamic jurisprudential norms “came to depend on the fact that they were state law, legalized by state legislation.”14

Some regions, however, managed to evade this development completely. It was wholly rejected in parts of the Arabian Peninsula. Prior to the conquest of Hijaz in 1926, the judicial systems of the various ruling regimes in the Arabian Peninsula were simple and largely based on the Ḥanbalī school of Islamic law and tribal custom. On the verge of extinction, the Ḥanbalī school was revived in the 18th century with the help of a religious and political movement brought together by a tribal alliance headed by a judge, Muhammad ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab and Muhammad ibn Sa’ud (this alliance eventually led to the creation of the Saudi Arabian Kingdom).


In the pre-modern period, Islamic judges had jurisdiction over an entire gamut of legal norms.15 Following the Ottoman caliphal claim, Islamic judicial practice would be conceptualised according to the Ottoman favoured Ḥanafī school of Islamic law for centuries. With the diminishing of Islamic law in favour of secular laws in the 19th and 20th century, the Islamic judge’s jurisdiction was reduced and replaced by those of secular Ottoman judges. The Ottoman embrace of modernism, inspired by European thought, envisioned that law and the judiciary would eventually move away from the “old” and make way for the “new”. Instead, a certain duality of legal culture ended up characterising the legal system across the region. The Western-modelled civil courts in many areas of the region came to coexist uneasily side-by-side with the traditional Islamic law courts, a phenomenon that would later imbed itself in many Arab jurisdictions.16 The dual character of religious judges and secular judges also continued to serve as a framework for, and inform the development of, the judicial role in several Arab states following their independence.


In the late 19th and early 20th century, following the fall of the Ottoman Empire, the Arab Middle East underwent critical changes that affected the region’s legal systems. Ottoman rulers were replaced by Europeans. Territories taken from the Ottomans were divided between the United Kingdom and France as per the “Asia Minor Agreement” in 1916 (also referred to as the Sykes-Picot Agreement). Although the extent of European colonial hegemony in Arab legal systems varied across the region, the imposition, adoption, and imitation of European models of legislation varied across the region. For instance, the British applied a diverse body of laws during their mandate in Iraq (1920 -1932), which was culled from Ottoman, French, and Anglo-Indian colonial laws, while tribal customary law was applied in the countryside.17 In Transjordan and Iraq, Ottoman legislation remained partly in effect. In Palestine (1922-1948), English judges applied the Mejelle and a colonial version of British law.18