The Curious Case of Bughaybigha, 661–883: Land and Leadership in Early Islamic Societies
Justice and Leadership in Early Islamic Courts, Edited by Intisar A. Rabb and Abigail Krasner Balbale (2017); ISBN 9780674984219
26 Pages Posted: 30 Nov 2017
Date Written: November 24, 2017
During the lifetime of the Prophet Muḥammad and the expansion of the young Islamic empire immediately after his death, a number of land tracts were distributed to his Companions and Family members. One of them was a fertile farm called Yanbuʿ, located northwest of Medina. Having acquired the land, the Prophet’s cousin, son-and-law, caliph-to-be ʿAlī b. Abī Ṭālib discovered a spring that he named Bughaybigha, which fed what was to become a much-coveted date-palm orchard. He immediately turned it into a charitable endowment to be managed by his heirs. But when ʿAlī was killed in a struggle for the caliphate, chaos and confusion ensued—one feature of which was a generations-long battle over the land. For the next one hundred fifty years, Umayyad and ʿAbbāsid rulers episodically wrested the land from ʿAlī’s descendants each time the latter succeeded in securing its return. At one point in the midst of the political contestation, the affair ended up in court. There, the case turned on the judge’s creative interpretation of and choice between conflicting procedural rules. The outcome was a split decision that gave only a partial win to the caliph and a partial win to the ʿAlid descendant who had been cultivating the land. Judicial discretion and procedure, it turns out, was instrumental to resolving hotly contested issues of Islamic law, land, and legitimate rule. In fact, the case vividly displays how judges like the one at the center of this case helped construct Islamic law through their interpretive approaches to such issues that lay at the heart of disputes like Bughaybigha.
Keywords: Islamic law, property, legal canons, legal maxims, 'Ali, 'Abbasid, early Islamic courts, interpretation
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