Islamic History Sourcebook:
Colonel L. du Couret:
Justice in Arabia, c. 1890
AFTER the evening prayer, I took my way to the Tower, calling by the way on Seid-Ahmed,
with whom in our late ramble I had arranged for an early meeting. "Sidi," said
I, addressing him, "I was going to avail myself this evening of your invitation to
visit you whenever convenient to myself; but Seid-Abd' el-Rahman having sent word that he
expects me after the evening prayer, I called to say that I must defer that pleasure until
another time." "It so happens," rejoined Seid-Ahmed, "that I, too, am
going to the Tower; for tonight the Nagib sits there in judgment. Every second night after
the last prayer, the Nagib dispenses justice to the Marebeys, and this is an evening for
the session of a messhouar [tribunal]."
I proceeded with him to the Tower, where we found the Nagib seated upon his cushions at
the door of the vestibule. There, surrounded by his chiefs and a crowd of retainers, he
rendered important decisions while smoking his chicha. The audience was a large one, for
Seid-Abd' el-Rahman was very popular with his people, owing in great measure, to his
accessibility to all. Mussulman, Sabian, or Jew, provided only he was of the country,
enjoyed the privilege of access to him at all times to state his case, on which the Nagib
at once rendered justice by a decree based upon equity as well as common sense. Seid-Ahmed
took the place reserved for him among the members of the tribunal, while for myself, after
the interchange of the usual compliments, the Nagib ordered a chibouque to be
brought, which he lighted and presented to me with his own hands. Curious to witness an
example of the justice of the country, I took up the most convenient position for seeing
and hearing, as the audience commenced.
There were women who complained of ill treatment on the part of their husbands; men who
accused their wives of frailty; divisions of inheritance to adjust; thefts and frauds to
punish; among all which cases there were two particularly remarkable for the judgments
rendered upon them. The first of these cases was one between a katib and a fellah,---that
is, a writer and a peasant,---the wife of the latter having been taken away from him by
the former, who maintained that he had a claim upon her. The woman declined to acknowledge
either the one or the other of them as her husband, or, rather, she acknowledged them
both---a view of the case which rendered it decidedly embarrassing. Having heard both
sides and reflected a moment, the Nagib said, addressing the claimants, "Leave this
woman here, and return in half an hour"; on which the katib and fellah made their salutations and retired.
The second case was between a fekai and a zibdai, or, in other words, a
fruiterer and a butter merchant---the latter very much besmeared with butter; the former
clean. The fruiterer said, "I had been to buy some butter from this man, and drew out
my purse full of money to pay for the butter he had put in my goulla, when, tempted
by the sight of the coins, he seized me by the wrist. I cried "Thief!' but he would
not let me go; and thus have we come before you---I squeezing my money in my hand, and he
grasping my wrist with his. And now, by Mohammed, our great Prophet, I swear that this man
lies in saying that I have stolen his money, for that money is truly mine."
The butter merchant said, "This man came to buy a goulla of butter from me,
and when I had filled it he said, "Hast thou change of an abumathfa [Spanish
piaster]?' I searched my pocket, from which I drew out my hand full of money, which I
placed upon the sill of my shop, from which he snatched it, and was going off with my
butter and my money, when I seized him by the wrist and cried, "Thief!' but in spite
of my cries, he refused to return my property to me, and I have brought him hither in
order that you may judge between us. And now, by Mohammed, our great Prophet, I swear that
this man lies in saying that I have stolen his money, for that money is truly mine."
The Nagib caused the complainants to repeat their charges twice, but neither of them
varied from his first statement. Then said he, after a moment's reflection, "Leave
this money here and return in half an hour"; on which the fruiterer, who had all
along kept his hold of the money, deposited it in a wooden bowl, brought by one of the
guards---and both complainants, having made their salutations, retired.
When they were gone, the Nagib quitted his seat at the door of the vestibule and went
up into the fourth story of the tower, taking with him the woman and money in dispute. At
the appointed moment he returned with them, and went calmly back to his seat. The parties
interested were all present, and the katib and fellah were called up.
"Here," said the Nagib, addressing the katib, "take thy wife and
lead her away, for she is thine truly." Then, turning to his guards and pointing to
the fellah, he said, "Give this man fifty blows of a courbash on the
soles of his feet." The katib walked off with his wife, and the guards gave
the fellah fifty blows of a courbash on the soles of his feet.
Next came the fruiterer and the butter merchant in their turn. "Here," said
the Nagib to the fruiterer, "here is thy money; verily did you take it from your own
purse, and never did it belong to him by whom are you accused." Then, turning to his
guards and pointing to the butter merchant, he said, "Give this man fifty blows of a courbash on the soles of his feet." The fruiterer walked off with his money, and the guards
gave the butter merchant fifty blows of a courbash on the soles of his feet.
When the court had risen, I asked the Nagib how he ascertained that the woman was the
wife of the katib, and the money the property of the fruiterer. "Nothing more
simple," replied he. "You saw how I went up into the fourth story with the woman
and the money. Well, when we arrived there, I ordered her suddenly to clean my inkhorn,
when, like one accustomed to that work, she at once took it, drew out the cotton from it,
washed it properly, replaced it on the stand, and filled it with fresh ink. Then said I to
myself, "If you were the wife of the fellah, you never could have cleaned an
inkhorn like that; you must be the wife of the katib.'" "Good!" said
I, bowing in token of assent. "So much for the woman. And how about the money?"
"The money was quite another business," replied the Nagib, smiling with a
self-satisfied expression, as he leered at me with a look full of artfulness and craft.
"You must have remarked how buttery the butter merchant was and how greasy his hands
were in particular. Well, I put the money into a vessel of hot water, and upon examining
the water carefully I could not find that a single particle of grease had come to the
surface. Then said I to myself, "This money belongs to the fruiterer, and not to the
butter merchant; for, had it belonged to the latter, it must have been greasy, and the
grease would have shown on the surface of the water.'"
At this I bowed very low, indeed, and said: "In good faith I doubt whether the
great King Solomon himself could have rendered a decision with more sagacity and
wisdom." Until then I had always looked upon the tales related to us in the
"Arabian Nights" as mere fictions; but on witnessing the delivery of these two
judgments, I felt convinced that some of them at least were founded on facts. Of course
they are worked up into romances, but they have a basis of reality.
From: Eva March Tappan, ed., The World's Story: A History of the World in Story,
Song and Art, (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1914), Vol. III: Egypt, Africa, and Arabia,
Scanned by Jerome S. Arkenberg, Cal. State Fullerton. The text has been modernized by
Note: Many Western sources about Islamic countries exhibit what has
come to be known as orientalism. The terms used ("Mohammedan" for
instance rather than "Muslim"), and the attitudes exhibited by the writers need
to be questioned by modern readers.
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© Paul Halsall, November1998