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The Criminal Underworld in a Medieval Islamic Society
Narratives from Cairo and Damascus under the Mamluks

By Carl F. Petry

The Criminal Underworld in a Medieval Islamic Society
Paperback, 373 pages £33.00
Published: 2017
ISBN: 9780991573219
Format: 234mm x 154mm
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Subjects: Arabic and Islamic Studies, Medieval Studies, Middle East Documentation Center
Series: Chicago Studies on the Middle East

The chroniclers of the Mamluk Period (1250 to 1517CE) in Cairo and Damascus made numerous references to criminal activity committed at all levels of society, from its elite military echelons to individuals or groups who occupied its margins. The latter elements, despite their demographic visibility, have in many instances evaded the notice of modern scholarship on medieval Islamic cultures. This study aims at disclosing their impact on society in the two largest cities of the Mamluk State, as depicted by those who witnessed it at close range.

These local chroniclers pursued an agenda when they dwelled on the criminal acts they observed. Rather than offering simple decrials of wrongdoing, their comments collectively targeted the agents charged with policing social interaction and upholding public security. Disclosure of collusion in crime by those formally pledged to suppress it emerged as a covert, yet signal, objective of these chroniclers. The book examines this objective as it was discerned in more than a thousand incidents of criminal activity in Cairo and Damascus during the Late Middle Ages. The complicity it exposed provides insights that revise current views about the working of government under the Mamluks, and the perspectives of groups whose voices have gone largely unheard in the historiography of pre-modern Islamic societies.


I. Introduction: The Criminal Underworld in a Medieval Islamic Society

II. Public Disturbance: From Violence to Opportunism

III. Theft and Brigandage: Predation versus Complicity

IV. Corruption and Fraud: Mendacity Refined

V. Morals and Vice: Policing the Irresponsible

VI. Primordial Criminality: Religious Dissidence

VII. Homicide: Litigating the Intolerable

VIII. "Smart Crime": Conspiracy, Espionage, and Counterfeiting

IX. Managing Crime: Between Principle and Expediency

X. Summary Reflections



from reviews of the hardback edition:

‘Much is to be learned and digested from this massive undertaking by an erudite scholar and lucid storyteller.’

Li Guo (University of Notre Dame), Journal of Near Eastern Studies, Volume 74, Number 2, October 2015

‘Some time ago, the field of Mamlukology ceased being an isolated niche for medievalists, evolving instead as a rapidly growing subgenre of Islamic historical studies in the 21th century. Aided by a growing array of newly-discovered primary sources, Mamlukists continue to develop each year thought-provoking and engaging monographs that manage to shed light even for students struggling to understand the Islamic world of today. A prime example would be Carl Petry's most recent project.
His Criminal Underworld represents an attempt to provide readers with something approaching an objective "performance review" of the Mamluk regime's dealings with transgressions against religion and the public order.
While serving as an introduction to the nature of Mamluk historiographical writing (in translation), the book would also be an excellent assignment for undergraduates interested in the flavour and grit of a pre-modern Islamic society. In addition to contributing to the discourse on crime, authority, and punishment in the Mamluk period, Petry's Criminal Underworld paints a colourful picture and often leaves the reader with the sensation of eavesdropping on salacious court proceedings, or even stumbling onto a grisly crime scene, unable to turn away.’

Mustafa Banister (University of Bonn), Sehepunkte 16 (2016), Nr. 7/8

‘This is a timely book on an important topic by a leading scholar of the Mamluk period. In this well-researched study, Carl F. Petry sets out to explore the arena of crime and punishment in one of the central regions of the Islamic lands before the Ottoman takeover of 1516.’

Boaz Shoshan (Rheinische Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität Bonn), Islamic Law and Society, Volume 22, Issue 1-2, 2015

Carl F. Petry is the Hamad Bin Khalifa Al Thani Professor of Middle East Studies in the Department of History, Northwestern University. His publications include The Civilian Elite of Cairo in the Later Middle Ages and Protectors or Praetorians? The Last Mamluk Sultans and Egypt's Waning as a Great Power. He has edited and contributed to The Cambridge History of Egypt, vol. I: Islamic Egypt, 640-1517.

Publication Details:

 Paperback , 373 pages
 234mm x 154mm

BIC Code:
  HIS026000, HIS037010
 Middle East Documentation Center


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