Fetva Diplomacy: The Ottoman Şeyhülislam as Trans-Imperial Intermediary

in Journal of Early Modern History
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This article explores the role of the şeyhülislam, the mufti of Istanbul and the head of the Ottoman religious-legal hierarchy, as a diplomatic intermediary and introduces the concept of “fetva diplomacy.” Anyone of any confession could request a fetva (Arabic: fatwa), a non-binding legal opinion, from the şeyhülislam. From the late sixteenth century, this openness to all comers led foreign powers’ representatives to cultivate close ties with the şeyhülislam, often seeking his intercession and his fetvas to support their interests. Examining the diplomatic aftermath of a 1624 corsair raid on Venetian territories, this essay shows how fetva diplomacy worked in practice and how the legitimacy and religious bona fides of the şeyhülislam were harnessed to give Islamic legal sanction to pragmatic political and diplomatic decisions.

Fetva Diplomacy: The Ottoman Şeyhülislam as Trans-Imperial Intermediary

in Journal of Early Modern History




For an overview see Daniel Goffman“Negotiating with the Renaissance State: The Ottoman Empire and the New Diplomacy,” in The Early Modern Ottomansed. Virginia Aksan and Daniel Goffman (Cambridge 2007) 64-9; for the origins and later history of the ahdname system see Alexander H. De Groot “The Historical Development of the Capitulatory Regime in the Ottoman Middle East from the Fifteenth to the Nineteenth Centuries” in The Ottoman Capitulations: Text and Context ed. Maurits van den Boogert and Kate Fleet Oriente Moderno 22 (2003): 575-604.


Pedani FabrisRelazioni di ambasciatori veneti348; 677-8.


Şükrü Özen“Osmanlı Döneminde Fetva Literatürü,” Türkiye Araştırmaları Literatür Dergisi 3 (2005): 252-3; Imber Ebu’s-Su’ud 57. On Ottoman fetva production and compilation in the post-Ebu Su’ud era see Colin Imber “Eleven Fetvas of the Ottoman Sheikh ul-Islam ‘Abdurrahim” in Islamic Legal Interpretation 141-9.




ImberEbu’s-Su’ud12-15. For brief biographical sketches of all the Ottoman şeyhülislams see Abdülkadir Altunsu Osmanlı Şeyhülislamları (Ankara 1972).


Baki Tezcan“The Ottoman Mevali as ‘Lords of the Law,’ ” Journal of Islamic Studies 20 (2009): 383-407; three of the seventeenth-century şeyhülislams discussed below the Hocazade brothers and Zekeriyyazade Yahya Efendi were sons of şeyhülislams.


Panaite“Western Merchants and Ottoman Law” 45-62.


Joshua Michael White“Shifting Winds: Piracy, Diplomacy, and Trade in the Ottoman Mediterranean, 1624-1626,” in The Well-Connected Domains: Towards an Entangled Ottoman Historyed. Pascal Firges Tobias Graf Christian Roth and Gülay Tulasoğlu (Leiden 2014) 37-53.


White“Catch and Release” 64-5; 102-3.


SalvagoAfrica overo Barbaria4-5; he was however authorized to distribute substantial monetary rewards post-liberation.


Grandchamp“Une mission délicate” 304.


SalvagoAfrica overo Barbaria21-2.


SalvagoAfrica overo Barbaria34-6 39-47.




Pedani FabrisRelazioni di ambasciatori veneti597.


De Groot“A Seventeenth Century Ottoman Statesman” 308.

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