Published online by Cambridge University Press: 17 October 2020
The Maẓālim Institution and its Functions
In the ancient Middle Eastern political tradition the monarch was perceived as a lawgiver and dispenser of justice, while petitioning the ruler for justice was a common practice. The monarch's legal functions also symbolised his legitimacy, and these traditions were very much alive in the medieval Middle East. The quest for direct access to the ruler/state in search of justice and personal and communal favours embodies the maẓālim institution. It was, however, a complex institution, with which modern scholars have grappled with some difficulty since it combined both judicial and administrative functions and escapes a neat definition of its true nature. The most extensive discussion of the maẓālim has been offered by Tyan and this, as pointed out by Tillier, relied on the literary sources that were available at the time he wrote. Furthermore, in the case of Egypt, some of the most important of Maqrīzī's writings were not available to Tyan.
Notwithstanding modern difficulties in defining the maẓālim institution, it was a typical medieval institution which reflects a hazy distinction between administrative and judicial spheres and overlapping institutional responsibilities. Furthermore, it was an institution that functioned in states characterised by disproportionately powerful regimes and weak societies dependent on their rulers politically and economically on both personal and communal levels. People and communities petitioned rulers for almost everything: justice, confirmation and maintenance of privileges and livelihood. They also brought their squabbles not only before judicial institutions but also to people of authority, trying to make sense of the intricate maze of power relations characterised by mighty political brokers and governmental institutions. The dependence of people on rulers played into their hands and enhanced their governability. It was in a ruler’s/state's interest to respond to people's complaints and requests and politically emasculate them. From the point view of the rulers, so important was this channel of communication that maintaining the maẓālim institution became an attribute of good governance. This complex web of relations is highlighted by both literary and non-literary sources and is well-documented for the Fatimid period.
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