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MUHTASIB. A holder of the office of al-hisbah, an executive function falling roughly between the offices of qadi (judge) and wdli al-mazdlim (mazdlim court magistrate), the muhtasib was charged with enforcing public morality, overseeing the public welfare, and supervising the markets, fulfilling thereby the community’s collective obligation to command the good and forbid evil (“al-amr bi-al-ma’ruf wa-al-nahy `an al-munkar”). The muhtasib had no jurisdiction to hear legal cases per se but only to settle common disputes and well-known breaches of the law in which the facts were obvious or where there was an admission of guilt. He was also vested with certain discretionary powers through which he could intervene in such matters as commercial fraud and public nuisances. In addition, he could levy discretionary punishments (ta`zir) up to but not equaling the prescribed shari `ah penalties (hudud) for such indiscretions as private intermingling of the sexes or abuse of pack animals.

Early manuals on al-hi sbah lay out precise (and extremely broad) jurisdictional boundaries. According to Ibn Taymiyah (d. 1328), however, the muhtasib’s actual function was determined in large part by the time and place in which he operated as well as local custom and the political agenda of the particular ruler under whom he served. What belonged to the police (shurtah) or to the courts in one place could fall under the jurisdiction of the muhtasib in another. Prominent scholars and jurists are known to have held the office, but it was also known to have been occupied by merchants and other persons of surprisingly little legal training.

Later sources reflect a gradual evolution in the muhtasib’s function from matters connected with public morality to a more restricted emphasis on policing the markets and overseeing the activities of merchants and artisans. In this capacity, in addition to his traditional duties of standardizing and inspecting weights and measures, the muhtasib was often called on to collect certain taxes, for example, import and export duties, or to impose penalties on artisans and other guild-members found in violation.

By the nineteenth century, the office of the muhtasib had all but disappeared in most parts of the Muslim world, its many functions being redistributed among various modern, secular jurisdictions. The Ottomans formally abolished the office in Istanbul in AH 1271/1854 CE, and it appears also to have disappeared in Persia around the same time. In the Indian subcontinent, the office had been in steady decline since the sixteenth century and enjoyed only a brief but futile revival under the Mughal ruler, Awrangzib. Little is known about the impact of colonial rule on the office of the muhtasib.

There remains today a few possible vestiges of the medieval office of the muhtasib in certain parts of the Islamic world. In Morocco, for example, the ra’is al-masalih al-iqtisadiyah (chief of economic welfare), appears to be a possible descendent of the nineteenthcentury muhtasib, who, because of his intrusive tendencies, had acquired the nickname, al -fuduli (busybody). The nizdm al-tilbah (system of appropriations) or halaqat al-`azabiyah (discipline corps) found among certain Ibadi communities in Algeria might also be considered a modern descendant of al-hisbah.

[See also Hisbah.]

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Cahen, Claude, et al. “Hisba.” In Encyclopaedia of Islam, new ed., vol. 3, pp. 485-493. Leiden, 196o-.

Ibn Said, Ahmad. Kitab al-taysir ft ahkam al-tas’ir. Edited by Musa Laqbal. Algiers, n.d.

Ibn Taymiyah, Ahmad. Al-hisbah ft al-Islam. Beirut, 1387/1967.

Laqbal. Musa. Al-hisbah al-madhhabiyah ft bilad al-Maghrib al-`Arabi. Algiers, 1971.

Mawardi, Abu al-Hasan `All ibn Muhammad al-. Al-ahkam alsultaniyah. Edited by Muhammad `Abd-al-Qadir. Bulaq, Cairo, i88o. Translated into French by Edmond Fagnam as Les statuts gouvernementaux, ou, Regles de droit public et administratif. Paris, 1982.

Shayzarl, `Abd al-Rahman ibn Nast. Nihayat al-rutbah ft talab alhisbah. Edited by Sayyid al-Baz al-`Arini. Cairo, 1946.

SHERMAN A. JACKSON

Azhar Niaz Article's Source: http://islamicus.org/muhtasib/
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  • writerPosted On: August 30, 2014
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