Living at the Margins of Poverty: The Begging Poor in the Ottoman Empire (1550-1750)



Studies on the living conditions of the poor and the attitudes toward them not only expand our understanding of Ottoman society but also provide us with a better picture of the role of charity in Islam. Nevertheless, the history of poverty and the life of paupers in the Ottoman Empire have not been a major concern in modern Ottoman historiography. It is axiomatic that there exist very significant studies on pious endowments. Yet these studies are concerned more with the founders of these organizations than with their beneficiaries. Hence, the main purpose of this study is twofold: first, to offer glimpses of the physical and material conditions of a group that functioned at the margins of poverty: that of beggars; and secondly, to analyze social attitudes and administrative policies toward them. By using primary sources such as the mühimme registers and the court records of the period, I would suggest that The policies followed by the Ottoman state did not seek to marginalize the mendicant poor and in fact provided a definite place for them in the society. This fact is attested to by the existence of state-sanctioned professional guilds for beggars. It can be argued that the existence of such a social space reflected Islamic injunctions to give charity to the poor. That is to say, the recognition of the existence of beggars as an acknowledged part of the society was facilitated by the notion that the more affluent sections of the society could not fulfill their obligations otherwise.

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