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Sources and Contextualizations: Comparing Eighteenth-Century North African and Western European Institutions

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Document pages: 29 pages

Abstract: Our collaborative project originates in an attempt to articulate the intrinsic specificity of cases and contexts within a resolutely comparative approach. We focus particularly on what we believe to be the major limitation of comparison, namely the supposed need to rigidify the objects of comparison, to detach them from their contingent specificities and reduce cases to a set of data homogeneous enough to be compared. Our intent is to start a critical discussion regarding the hypothetical need to let go of specificity as the condition of comparison. With this in mind, we propose a comparative approach focused on sources rather than objects, and we consider them in terms of actions endowed with intentionality. The present study compares two institutions: the droit d aubaine, and the Bayt al-mâl or Treasury, a traditional Islamic fiscal institution found in a number of Ottoman-era governments, whose prerogatives have typically been reduced to managing heirless estates and burying the poor. In theory, the aubaine and the Bayt al-mâl belong to distinct cultural and historical realms. Yet, as we demonstrate here, a careful analysis of the sources produced by each institution helps unpack these “cultural” constructions, produces new contexts in which both can be situated, and sheds light on the process of their construction and their amenability to comparison.

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