Sunday, 8 February 2009

A Place Called Gaza - Part Four

Gaza was now under Uthmani, or Ottoman Rule, and subjected to stability that it had not experienced for some time. This is after the rebellion was quelled, which we saw in Part 3. Since that point, Gaza became an extremely profitable and burgeoning trading town, and a great deal of this reputation and resurgence was linked to the resurgence and benevolence of one of Islam’s greatest rulers of the Ottoman period, Sulaiman I ( or Sulaiman “the Magnificient”).

He was Selim the First’s son and successor, and he would go on to achieve incredible victories throughout the muslim world, as well as conquering new territory from those whom had previously been hostile. He was known as Kanuni, or “The Lawgiver”. This may seem a strange title considering that the Shariah is the law that all muslims follow and this law was given by Allah(swt). However, we must analyse the realities of this to fully understand the title.

Within Shariah, there are certain realities that come into being that have previously not been experienced, owing to either technology or political situations. In this circumstance, a concept known as “ijtihad” is permitted, which relies upon using the existing laws in order to extrapolate a new reality based upon the Islamic law. For example, subjects which would appear now are items such as “Is it permissible to pray Jummah via a tape recording”, or “Is IVF permissible for a muslim”. These are new realities that were not around at the prophets(saw) time, but the foundations to decide upon the permissibility or ruling can be found within the accepted sources of Islamic Law, e.g. The Quran, the Sunnah, the Companions (ra). What Sulaiman was responsible for was appointing Judges who could re-open these doors of Ijtihad and to provide justice within the framework of the Islamic Law. He was also responsible for coding these laws, so that a manual could be provided for judges in an easily referenced form. (This system, incidentally, was later adopted by European systems, including France).

He rigidly adhered to these principles of Ijtihad and Islamic rule, ensuring that any provinces which in the past had begun to preach innovation and misguidance were subdued and made to adopt the Ottoman codes.

One of his first acts was after the rebellion within Syria and Gaza to replace these individuals of the Mamluk dynasty with new Ottoman-influenced governors. He enforced the ottoman code throughout the province, and implemented direct or “home rule”, whereas the previous system by the Mamluks had simply been to exact a tribute. Inspectors for the state were sent to all provinces under ottoman control to evaluate and quantify the provinces adherence to the Ottoman code.

Through this micro-management, he was able to inject the correct amount of resources to enable rejuvenation, as well as to increase spending on infrastructure when it was required. This involved investing in roads, Waterways, a social services program, and in the case of Palestine led to restoring significant landmarks such as the Wall of Jerusalem.

Gaza was made the administrative capital of the province. This meant that trade was re-established between the province, whereas in the years of turmoil it had previously been bypassed. Commodities included Textiles, Silk and sugar from Egypt, Wool and fur from Syria, as well as the establishment of pilgrim markets for those to buy and sell whilst on the way to Hajj. These pilgrims markets were extremely popular, as well as an “Indian” market. The array of goods was astounding, particularly as Gaza had been nearly derelict a mere few years beforehand. Camels, Goat, Horses, Cheese, Yoghurt, Wheat, Barley, Melon, Aubergine and many other goods were instantly available, to which Gaza benefited immediately.

Gaza, through its abundance of raw materials, later led to entrepreneurial ventures, and heavy infrastructure was established in the district. These included flour mills, Dye-houses, Olive presses, and many others. The impact upon Gaza can be seen through the analysis of taxation revenues. Whereas at the start of Sulaimans reign the revenues were 18,000 Acke (the unit of currency), these almost quadrupled in forty years to 63,000 Acke.

The area also became quickly populated, as individuals from around the muslim world sought their fortunes in Gaza. There were just under 1000 males in the town during 1519, yet 30 years later this population had more than doubled to almost 2,500. If we assume that each taxpaying household consisted of four people ( though it may well be higher than this ), this meant that Gaza town had a population of approximately 12,000 people by 1548.

Significantly, of this population the urban majority were muslims. 2000 identified themselves as muslim, from a recorded population of 2,477. This statistic does not included students from the Islamic universities, schools, and academies, nor does it include those soldiers of the Ottoman empire stationed there. The Christian population numbered approximately 280, whilst jews made up 150 persons. This of course makes a fallacy of the claim that Gaza has always been “jewish” land ( as the Zionists frequently emphasise), as this would mean that jews made up 6% of the population. To put this in perspective, this is approximately the percentage of muslims residing in the United Kingdom today, and less that of the muslims of France. The Jews have no more claim to the land from a population perspective than the muslims of the UK have a claim that the United Kingdom has always been muslim. It also proves that muslims resided in this land, as a majority, for significant periods of time.

Perhaps of most interest was the implementation of correct and just Islamic law to the province. A Qadi (or judge) was established, who was meant to be impartial and prevent corruption and exploitation. Though in later years this became nothing more than paper justice, at the time of Sulaiman this was an extremely just system. The Qadi would hear cases from all persons, including non-muslims. Part of the role was to inspect the markets to ensure that no cheating was taking place, as well as publishing a list of “official” prices of goods sold. Though the Ottomans were Hanafi, the Qadi had deputies who could decide upon the relevant school of thought for the area. This impartiality no doubt contributed significantly to sulaiman being known as “the magnificient”, as he asserted rights that citizens had under Islam but which had been neglected for many years in the province.

Gaza continued to be an important trading sector during Sulaimans reign and afterwards, until another period of decline entered in the 17th century. This period we will study in Part 5.

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