Contrary to the current revivalist discourse in Islamic thought, sharia has never existed as a monolithic ideal; its interpretation and application have always been tempered by its time and place. During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, in the Ottoman Empire, a process of bureaucratization led to the decline of local custom as a factor in Islamic jurisprudence, as the central government sought to apply the legal standards and traditions of Istanbul to the rest of the empire. The rise of written legal documents, and of permanent repositories (sigills) for them, encouraged this process. This led to a blurring of the previously sharp distinction between sins (the ‘rights of God’), traditionally left to purely religious law, and crimes (the ‘rights of humans’), which came under the jurisdiction of civil law. This leveling process tended to free the individual Ottoman subject from the grasp of local religious custom and transform the individual into a ‘proto-citizen,’ subject to a broader national law.
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