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Palestinian Peasants and Ottoman Officials: Rural Administration Around Sixteenth Century Jerusalem.

Reviewed by Mahmood Ibrahim

This book explores the relationship between Ottoman provincial officials and the local peasants of the sanjak of Jerusalem. The aim of the study is to gain a perspective on the imperial administration from the point of view of the peasantry.

Aware that peasant studies in the Islamic world are not fully developed and that, more often than not, these studies are written within a comparative framework usually with European peasants, Singer minimized the use of external sources and concentrated her references to primary internal sources such as the Tapu Tahrir Defterleri, Qadi sijillat, and the Muhimme defierleri.

Her skillful use of the sources allows Singer to debate Inalcik's claim that the agrarian regime of the Ottoman Empire is best described as a compromise between the peasants and the imperial administration. Singer counters that there were no negotiations between the two parties. Rather, the settlement was imposed from above. Also, abuse of the system and unrest were to be found at the opposite ends of the spectrum in this relationship. Singer devotes the better part of her book addressing the second point.

She discusses the structure of the Sanjak's administration and describes the function of the various ranks of officials and the garrison of Jerusalem with its various military officials and varied duties. Studying court records, Singer then describes the relationship of the peasantry of sample villages with various officials. From petitions, other court cases, judgments and directives, one learns of the tax structure, the system of revenue collection and revenue distribution for the payment of officials and the various Waqfs. This was a complex structure that included various intermediaries who were hired by tax recipients, such as the Sipahis, to facilitate the working of the system. As the author shows, adverse conditions of instability, famines, droughts and other calamities notwithstanding, the peasants seem to have toiled in their fields to generate produce in which everyone had a cut, except the peasant himself.

Singer's book is an important contribution that informs, clarifies and adds to our knowledge of peasants and their conditions in the Ottoman empire, even though the discussion is set within narrow geographic and time limits. Clearly, more studies at this level are needed so that generalizations and theorization on the nature of the system can be adequately achieved.

Despite those contributions, a few points of criticism can be raised in this limited space. Written with the aim of gaining a peasant's perspective on the administration one finds, however, that the discussion is primarily focused on the relationship of the heads of the villages. The peasants are generally represented as unidimensional passive subjects whose sole function in life, it seems, was to pay taxes, and who sometimes petition the Sultan to redress their grievances. But when they become active and take matters in their own hands to redress flagrant abuses and exploitation, the peasantry is described as engaged in petty theft, petty pilfering, fraud, and other criminal activity, "to attain the rather pedestrian goal of secure subsistence" (pp. 118, 124, 126). If this study was to gain a bottom-up view, how could the peasants' struggle for survival be presented in these terms? Their resistance, Singer says, was an individual endeavor. Yet, Singer hastens to add that their separate actions helped shape the empire. When the focus shifts, those actions become more meaningful! Thus, it is not only the use of primary sources and the wealth of information available in them that makes a dynamic study, it is also the approach and the framework in which the information is placed.

In conclusion, one might say that this study is on the ground floor of a building the completion of which is yet to come. In that context, it is however a welcome addition to the field.

Mahmood Ibrahim is Chair, Department of History, California Polytechnic University, Pomona.
COPYRIGHT 1997 Association of Arab-American University Graduates
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Copyright 1997, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Ibrahim, Mahmood
Publication:Arab Studies Quarterly (ASQ)
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 1997
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