Bernard Lewıs

Keywords: Ottoman Empire, Government, State, Governance


In an essay written in about 1837, the Ottoman statesman Sadık Rıfat Pasha uses the phrase düvel-i Avrupa hukûmetleri, in a context where these words clearly mean "the governments of the states of Europe". The words devlet and hukûmet were already in common use at that time, but the formulation in this phrase, with the implied distinction between the state (devlet) as an abstract and permanent embodiment of authority, and the government (hukûmet) as the human and impermanent body of persons exercising that authority, is new in Ottoman and therefore in Islamic usage. The normal word for government in modem Turkish and Arabic is hukûmet, hukûma. Used in much the same sense as English "government" or French "gouvernement", it is standard and common throughout the Arabicspeaking lands and in Turkey at the present time-so common indeed that in word-counts which have been made of modern Arabic prose, hukûma ranks among the words of most frequent occurrence, ahead of several quite ordinary prepositions. The word is old, and is attested in Arabic from the earliest of times; its use in the sense of "government" however dates only from the 19th century. In classical Arabic usage it was a verbal noun meaning the act or office of adjudication, of dispensing justice. It could be used in this sense irrespective of whether the person so acting was a sovereign, a judge, or merely an arbitrator. The frequently quoted hadîth that "an hour of justice in hukûma is better than 60 years of worship" refers clearly to the administration of justice and not -as in some modern interpretations- to the conduct of government.