Rafeq, Abdul-Karim (1931–)

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Rafeq, Abdul-Karim

Abdul-Karim Rafeq (also Abd al-Karim Rafiq) is a Syrian-American historian who pioneered the use of Islamic court records (sijillat) as sources for social and especially urban history. Long affiliated with the University of Damascus, since 1990 he has held the William and Annie Bickers Professorship in Arab Middle Eastern Studies in the Department of History at the College of William and Mary, Williamsburg, Virginia (United States).


Rafeq was born 21 April 1931 in Idlib, Syria, then under French mandatory rule and the chief marketing center of the cotton-growing districts of northern Syria. His mother a Presbyterian; Rafeq attended the British School in Idlib, operated by Presbyterian missionaries from Northern Ireland, from 1937 to 1947. He completed high school and the first two years of his university training at the American College in Aleppo, also a Presbyterian institution (1947–1951).

Rafeq wished to complete his university education by obtaining an American bachelor's degree from the American University in Beirut. His family's financial resources did not permit this, so instead he went to the Syrian University in Damascus (later the University of Damascus). At independence in 1946 the Syrian government sought to expand its pool of secondary-school teachers by covering tuition and living expenses for selected meritorious students. Rafeq was one of the students so chosen, and he enrolled in the Department of History of the Faculty of Letters, earning his license in 1955. Rafeq continued for another year in the Higher Institute for Teachers (al-Ma'had al-Ali li'l-Mu'allimin), obtaining his diplome in 1956.

Because of his outstanding academic performance, Rafeq was named an instructor in the Department of History at his university, where he taught for two years before being awarded a scholarship for graduate study abroad. Several of Rafeq's colleagues in the department also obtained similar scholarships, notably Khairieh Kas-mieh and Ahmad Badr.

Rafeq pursued his graduate studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London, studying with, among others, Eric Hobsbawm, Bernard Lewis, and P. M. Holt, the last serving as Rafeq's dissertation adviser. His 1963 doctoral thesis, "The Province of Damascus from 1723 to 1783, with special reference to the 'Azm pashas," which was published by Khayats publishers in Beirut in 1966 under a slightly different title, explores the emergence of local power brokers, both urban and rural, during a transitional period in Ottoman Syria. In its subject matter and general approach, the thesis and book point to Rafeq's main interests during his long scholarly career.


Name: Abdul-Karim Rafeq (also Abd al-Karim Rafiq)

Birth: 1931, Idlib, Syria

Nationality: Syrian, American

Education: Studies at the American College in Aleppo; License (Department of History of the Faculty of Letters), Syrian University in Damascus, 1955; Diplome, Higher Institute for Teachers, 1956; Ph.D. (history), School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, 1963


  • 1964: Begins teaching at Damascus University
  • 1980: Vice-dean for Academic Affairs, Faculty of Letters, Damascus University
  • 1990: Begins teaching at the College of William and Mary

Returning to Damascus, Rafeq joined the faculty of the University of Damascus Department of History as a lecturer in 1964 and rose through the academic ranks, becoming an associate professor in 1969 and a full professor in 1974. He served twice as department chair (1975–1977 and 1988–1990), and was vice-dean for Academic Affairs of the Faculty of Letters (1980–1981). During his tenure at Damascus, Rafeq held visiting positions at the University of Jordan, the Lebanese University, the University of Pennsylvania, the University of Chicago, and the University of California at Los Angeles. Rafeq left Damascus in 1990 for the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia (United States), where he offers several courses in Middle Eastern history. Rafeq serves or has has served on the editorial boards of several American, British, French, Japanese, Lebanese, and Syrian journals of Middle Eastern studies. He has evaluated for tenure and promotion purposes the work of his colleagues at several American and Arab universities, and has also served on the dissertation committees of several recent Ph.D.s in Syrian history.


Rafeq cites among his principal influences his parents, whose sacrifices made his education and career possible. An early intellectual influence was George Haddad of the Syrian University, who introduced Rafeq to the discipline of history. During his studies in London, Rafeq was influenced by several professors, notably Holt and Lewis, but Rafeq credits Hobsbawm, under whom he studied for a year, with opening his mind to the interpretation of European history and for providing him with a methodology he could apply to Arab history. Rafeq's experiences in London gave him a firm understanding of the importance of archival documents as primary sources for history.

Rafeq's specific focus on the Islamic court records grew out of an encounter after his return to Damascus with Jon Mandaville, who had examined the shari'a (Islamic law) court records of Syria and Jordan for his own research ("The Ottoman Court Records of Syria and Jordan," JAOS 86 (1966): 311-319). Rafeq wished to study the socioeconomic structure of Ottoman Syria and its political impact, and the court records appeared to be promising sources. Rafeq's first publication based on these documents was his article "The Local Forces in Syria during the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries" (in M.E. Yapp and V.J. Parry, eds., War, Technology, and Society in the Middle East, Oxford, 1975). From the mid-1970s onward Rafeq published numerous articles focusing on the social history of Ottoman Syria as reflected in the Islamic court registers (sijillat).

Rafeq's principal contribution has been to develop a corpus of social, economic, and urban history whose distinguishing characteristic is an emphasis on internal developments. Prior to the pioneering work of Rafeq and his French colleague, André Raymond, whose work focuses on Egypt as well as Greater Syria, economic and social historians of the Middle East relied almost exclusively on foreign consular reports and travelers' narratives rather than indigenous documents. Such a reliance had resulted in a historiography that, in addition to being dependent on necessarily incomplete and partial sources, viewed the region as largely passive in the determination of its own fate.

Rafeq's and Raymond's creative use of the Ottoman shari'a court registers, together with the contemporary paradigm shift occasioned by the publication of Albert Hourani's influential "Ottoman Reform and the Politics of Notables," had several results. A new appreciation of the social forces at play in the Ottoman provinces was made possible both by Hourani's emphasis on the notables as the crucial intermediaries between the central Ottoman state and the provincial populace and by Rafeq's exploration of the archival collections in which the notables' actual behavior was detailed. As well, the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, previously seen as dormant periods of decline between the heyday of Ottoman power in the sixteenth century and the restructuring of the region under European influence in the nineteenth century, were now reassessed as complex periods of continuity and change. Finally, Rafeq's opening up of the court registers made these sources available to new generations of social and cultural historians whose interests went beyond the traditional concerns of political, social, and economic historians.


Rafeq is highly regarded among scholars throughout the world for his pioneering work in Syrian urban history and use of Islamic court records. In May-June 2004, an entire conference was held in Beirut and Syria to commemorate his work titled "Homage to Abdel-Karim Rafeq: Recent Research on Bilad al-Sham under Ottoman Rule (1517–1918)." Also, in recognition of his contributions, as a scholar, a teacher, and an inspiration for other researchers, in 2002 the Syrian Studies Association recognized Rafeq as its first honorary member.


Rafeq's legacy extends well beyond his own work—much of which has been published in Arabic but not yet in Western languages—and its detailed explication of Ottoman Syrian social life, especially in the Damascus province, and of the nature of the sijillat. Perhaps most significant is that a new generation of historians has used his method to explore a range of themes and issues in Middle Eastern history. For instance, Abraham Marcus adopted Rafeq's approach in his detailed portrait of eighteenth-century Aleppo (The Middle East on the Eve of Modernity, 1989), while Dina Rizk Khoury has similarly approached Mosul (State and Provincial Society in the Ottoman Empire, 1997) and Beshara Doumani has made use of the same methods for nineteenth-century Nablus (Rediscovering Palestine, 1995). Islamic court records have also been used to go beyond local histories to explore Muslim-Christian relations (the work of Najwa al-Qattan) and, significantly, as prisms through which to examine gender relations (Leslie Peirce's work on Aintab).


Doumani, Beshara. Rediscovering Palestine: Merchants and Peasants of Jabal Nablus, 1700–1900. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995.

Khoury, Dina Rizk. State and Provincial Society in the Ottoman Empire: Mosul, 1540–1834. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

Marcus, Abraham. The Middle East on the Eve of Modernity: Aleppo in the Eighteenth Century. New York: Columbia University Press, 1989.

Peirce, Leslie. Morality Tales: Law and Gender in the Ottoman Court of Aintab. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003.

Rafeq, Abdul-Karim. "The Law-Court Registers and Their Importance for a Socio-economic and Urban Study of Ottoman Syria." In L'Espace Social de la Ville Arabe, edited by Dominique Chevallier. Paris: CNRS, 1979.

――― ―――. The Province of Damascus, 1723–1783. Beirut: Khayats, 1966.

Sluglett, Peter, ed. The Urban Social History of the Arab Middle East c. 1750–1950. Syracuse, Syracuse University Press, 2008.

                                          Geoffrey Schad