The Muhtasib as Guardian of Public Morality in the Medieval Islamic City
By Abbas Hamdani
Digest of Middle East Studies, Vol.17:1 (2008)
Introduction: the ancient institution of market supervision, as under the Greek, Agoronomos and the Roman, Aedile continued to be an important governmental function in medieval Islamic cities. We begin to hear of a sāhib al-sūq (the Master or Inspector of the Market) in the eighth century when the Islamic empire stretched from the frontiers of France to those of China, resulting in tremendous commercial activity, proliferation and expansion of cities, and consequently of their sūqs, or marketplaces. In the late ninth century, we find that the office of the Market Inspector begins to be regarded as a religious office and the Inspector is now called Muhtasib, a person who takes count of the right and wrong deeds of the people and brings them to book.
In his previous role as Şāhib al-sūq, the market inspector had mainly material, not spiritual considerations. He looked after the maintenance of standard weights and measures; he checked whether the coins used were genuine or counterfeit; he saw to it that the buildings, walls and streets were kept in good condition and that the water was supplied unpolluted; he supervised the maintenance of public baths and places of entertainment. Additionally, he performed the functions of a nightwatchmen (‘asas or ţuwwāf al-layl) in which he was concerned with preventing crimes that usually occured at night, such as theft, burglary or murder, drunkenness, adultery, prostitution and homosexuality. Some of these functions did border on questions of morality and religion, yet on the whole his role remained secular.
When, later, the Market Inspector was transformed into a Muhtasib, his office was described as a dīnī (or religious) office concerned primarily with the Qur’ānic precept of “enjoining the good and preventing the bad” (al-amr bi’l-ma‘rūf wa’n-nahy ‘an al-munkar). His material functions of market inspection remained, but they were looked upon as steps toward a religious goal.
The question arises whether this change in the market inspector’s role stemmed from the general policy of the ‘Abbāsid Caliphate to Islamicise all institutions, or whether it had a more practical purpose of suppressing religious and political opposition. It is to this question that this paper will address itself. The crucial period is the tenth and eleventh centuries, although it took time in order to explain the change. Baghdad and the ‘Abbāsid Caliphate will be the focus of our attention, although what happened there could not be understood without the background of what was happening in the western lands of Islam. Moreover, since the market inspector was concerned with the life and activity of the market-place it would be useful, by way of brief introduction, to say a few words about the commercial and artisan classes in early Islam.