Judicial Biases in Ottoman Istanbul: Islamic Justice and Its Compatibility with Modern Economic Life

49 Pages Posted: 2 Aug 2010 Last revised: 23 Mar 2012

See all articles by Timur Kuran

Timur Kuran

Duke University - Department of Economics

Scott Lustig


Date Written: February 2012


The transition to impersonal exchange and modern economic growth has depended on the emergence of courts that enforce contracts efficiently. This paper shows that Islamic courts of the Ottoman Empire exhibited biases that would have limited the expansion of exchanges in the Eastern Mediterranean, particularly those between Muslims and non-Muslims. It thus explains why economic modernization in the Middle East required the establishment of secular courts. In quantifying Ottoman judicial biases, the paper also discredits the view that these courts treated Christians and Jews fairly as well as the counter-view that they ruled against non-Muslims disproportionately. Biases against non-Muslims were in fact institutionalized. By the same token, non-Muslims did relatively well in adjudicated interfaith disputes, because they settled most conflicts out of court in anticipation of judicial biases. Islamic courts also appear to have exhibited biases in favor of state officials. The paper thus refutes the Islamist claim that reinstituting Islamic law (sharia) would be economically beneficial.

Suggested Citation

Kuran, Timur and Lustig, Scott, Judicial Biases in Ottoman Istanbul: Islamic Justice and Its Compatibility with Modern Economic Life (February 2012). Economic Research Initiatives at Duke (ERID) Working Paper No. 52. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1651280 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.1651280

Timur Kuran (Contact Author)

Duke University - Department of Economics ( email )

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Scott Lustig


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