Safavid Dynasty - Legal System

Legal System

In Safavid Persia there was little distinction between theology and jurisprudence, or between divine justice and human justice, and it all went under Islamic jurisprudence (fiqh). The legal system was built up of two branches: civil law, which had its roots in sharia, received wisdom, and urf, meaning traditional experience and very similar to the Western form of common law. While the imams and judges of law applied civil law in their practice, urf was primarily exercised by the local commissioners, who inspected the villages on behalf of the Shah, and by the Minister of Justice (Divanbegi). The latter were all secular functionaries working on behalf of the Shah.

The highest level in the legal system was the Minister of Justice, and the law officers were divided into senior appointments, such as the magistrate (darughah), inspector (visir), and recorder (vak’anevis). The lesser officials were the qazi, corresponding a civil lieutenant, who ranked under the local governors and functioned as judges in the provinces.

According to Chardin:

There were no particular place assigned for the administration of justice. Each magistrate executes justice in his own house in a large room opening on to a courtyard or a garden which is raised two or three feet above the ground. The Judge is seated at one end of the room having a writer and a man of law by his side.

Chardin also noted that bringing cases into court in Persia was easier than in the West. The judge (qazi) was informed of relevant points involved and would decide whether or not to take up the case. Having agreed to do so, a sergeant would investigate and summon the defendant, who was then obliged to pay the fee of the sergeant. The two parties with their witnesses pleaded their respective cases, usually without any counsel, and the judge would pass his judgment after the first or second hearing.

Criminal justice was entirely separate from civil law and was judged upon common law administered through the Minister of Justice, local governors and the Court minister (the Nazir). Despite being based on urf, it relied upon certain sets of legal principles. Murder was punishable by death, and the penalty for bodily injuries was invariably the bastinado. Robbers had their right wrists amputated the first time, and sentenced to death on any subsequent occasion. State criminals were subjected to the karkan, a triangular wooden collar placed around the neck. On extraordinary occasions when the Shah took justice into his own hand, he would dress himself up in red for the importance of the event, according to ancient tradition.

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