On Law Enforcement And Criminal Justice Throughout History
Professor Hadar Aviram interviews Professor Joel Harrington and PhD candidate Mohammed Allehbi, with an introduction by Symposeum editor, Nissim Lebovits.
Nissim Lebovits: Last year, the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd (and countless others before them) precipitated mass protests—first in Minnesota, then nationally, then across the globe—against police brutality and systemic racism. Facing graphic, incontrovertible evidence of a broken system, Americans began to have unprecedented conversations; after decades of work by activists, debates about defunding or even abolishing the police entered the mainstream, with 39% of Americans in June 2020 in favor of “completely dismantling police departments and giving more financial support to address homelessness, mental health, and domestic violence.” A year later, a large majority of Americans still support at least piecemeal reform of the police, including reallocating funds to social and mental health services.
Yet even as Americans scrutinize the complex entanglements of justice and power, we are too often restricted to a twofold conversation in which law enforcement is depicted by one side as an unqualified force for good and by the other as intrinsically, inevitably oppressive. As Jonathon Booth has written for The Drift, when “deciding which elements of our country’s law enforcement apparatus are necessary, what histories can be unwritten, and what powers must be curtailed or eliminated … we must not simply attack the right-wing ‘thin blue line’ narrative; we must confront our own myths as well.” We can, in other words, advance a reasoned and self-critical vision of better law enforcement and criminal justice without succumbing to reactionary fearmongering.
While the prevailing impulse of thinkers, activists, and politicians discussing this issue has been to turn to the future—tacitly acknowledging that many proposals for change are without historical precedent—this, too, is a form of myopia. To achieve a just system, we must also draw on the counsel of the past—and not just in the West.
Below, we have brought together three scholars of criminal justice and law enforcement, each of whom brings very different expertise to bear on the issue at hand. Guiding the conversation is Hadar Aviram, a scholar of contemporary criminal justice and civil rights in the United States. She is joined by Joel Harrington, a historian who focuses on legal and religious aspects of social history in Early Modern Germany, and Mohammed Allehbi, a PhD candidate researching law enforcement in Medieval Islamic cities. Via email they discussed the diversity of historical law enforcement, and what that means for our contemporary moment.
Hadar Aviram: In criminology—as it is taught in the United Kingdom and the United States—the emergence of a professional, specialized police force is usually dated to the foundation of Scotland’s River Police in 1798. And yet your work finds that law enforcement, in a variety of forms, precedes this period. Tell us more.
Mohammed Allehbi: The institution of law enforcement reaches far back in recorded history, far earlier than eighteenth century Europe. It existed in societies within the premodern Mediterranean and Middle East, such as Ptolemaic Egypt, the Roman and Byzantine Empires, and the Italian city states. In particular, the Islamic world has had a long tradition of policing from its earliest eras into the late Ottoman period. I look at the formation of dedicated and preventive law enforcement, known as the shurṭa, in the Islamic world, a few centuries after the birth of Islam. In the medieval Islamic Middle East and Mediterranean, cities which had populations in the hundreds of thousands, like Baghdad, consisted of a stratified criminal administrative system which included magistrates, district commanders, and captains of the night watch, wardens, and policemen.
Joel Harrington: In contrast to the Islamic world, more interventionist law enforcement evolved gradually in Europe before the eighteenth century. During the Early Modern Period (ca. 1450-1750), the Holy Roman Empire was a highly decentralized entity of some three hundred states of various sizes, each maintaining its own criminal jurisdiction. Emperors attempted to maintain some formal coherence through legal proclamations—most notably the 1532 Criminal Code known as the Carolina—but they had little power over local interpretation and application. The transition in law enforcement during these centuries was a gradual shift from the typical medieval reliance on local custom, lay accusation, and private settlement to a much expanded role for state authorities. In other words, beginning around 1500, we see the foundations for the modern Western model of proactive, bureaucratic, and preventative law enforcement.
The Early Modern notion of “police” was much more closely related to “policy,” meaning ordinances about public health and safety. While many cities had small numbers of dedicated watchmen or soldiers, there was nothing remotely like the concept of “police” as a body or institution. One of the earliest European examples I know of is the first police commissioner of Paris, appointed in the late 1660s under Louis XIV. That said, there was an alternate form of law enforcement very much at work before then.
HA: So, Joel, in pre-modern Europe, there’s no visibility of police officers walking the streets?
JH: In the German city I know best, Nuremberg, there were maybe a dozen constables patrolling a city of forty thousand people. So visible only if you’re looking hard. “Policing” of criminal offenses from the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries relied almost entirely on either private accusations or paid informers (who were popularly reviled). In other words, law enforcement was highly reactive and sporadic, with just the mildest inklings of some preventive measures.
HA: Is this any different in the context of the Abbasid empire, Mohammed?
MA: Medieval Islamic law enforcement combined preventive, investigative, and responsive roles. Muslim rulers needed criminal justice and policing to exert their royal authority over law and their expanding cosmopolitan cities. The overseer of this law enforcement institution acted as the governor of the imperial capital or the sub-governor in a provincial capital. He and his subordinates searched for and prevented crime with their forces, using patrols, arrests, mass incarceration and often brutal punishments. They presided over the whole criminal process.
HA: Were these patrols and arrests in any way reminiscent of today’s stop-and-frisk activities?
MA: Absolutely! In cities like Baghdad and Cairo, a night watch would routinely patrol throughout the city at all hours, while guards were stationed in various neighborhoods, and their activities were constantly supervised by their superiors. If the crime was significant enough, it would warrant the combined energies of the criminal justice system, resulting in policemen hunting down suspects in the usual places, such as taverns, gambling dens, brothels, and abandoned areas—not too dissimilar from the hangouts described in modern criminal fiction and detective stories.
HA: It’s difficult to talk about policing without thinking about law, and in the periods both of you study, religion and law were not always easily separated. What role did religion play in law enforcement?
MA: Similar to European societies during the Reformation and Counter Reformation, imperial Muslim governments used law enforcement to demarcate religious boundaries. Typically, they did so by arresting or punishing individuals—either from rival Muslim sects or other faiths entirely—who acted in a manner that upset the dominant social-religious norm. Similarly, the shurṭa invested and prosecuted heresy or general opposition to the reigning religious orthodoxy.
“The institution of law enforcement reaches far back in recorded history, far earlier than eighteenth century Europe.”
Religious demographics dramatically influenced criminal justice approaches. For example, since medieval Iraqi cities had Muslim majorities, law enforcement was more focused on stamping out heresy or sectarianism. In the Islamic cities of Egypt, however, a large segment of the inhabitants were Christian, which resulted in instances where Egyptian law enforcement severely policed non-Muslims. The shurṭa often acted according to government orders rather than on religious sentiment, as the nature of these policies were at times impromptu and volatile. Ultimately—though religion was an important component of law enforcement—the shurṭa prioritized fighting crimes of a social and economic nature.
A fascinating aspect of criminal justice and policing in the premodern Islamic world is that it epitomizes a secular and sacred divide. While the shurṭa dealt with the political-administrative practices of governmental law, a separate juridical system existed to enforce religious law. These two legal systems clashed from time to time—particularly when the shurṭa enforced non-Quranic punishments as deterrents to crime—but this separation of law enforcement into political and religious components is unique to the Islamic world, and adds a new dimension to the history of criminal law. Its influence can still be seen in the modern world.
JH: As Mohammed mentions, during the European religious reforms of the sixteenth century, many religious and other moral offenses were criminalized and punished by secular legal authorities, such as fornication, adultery, public drunkenness, “bad housekeeping” (usually involving drunken, spendthrift, and violent fathers), and so on. There was virtually no boundary between secular and religious offenses, except sometimes in questions of jurisdiction. Suicide and homosexuality, both considered crimes against God, were typically punished severely, the former through public shaming and property confiscation, the latter through corporal and sometimes capital punishment. This was generally true in both Protestant and Catholic states. Punishment of such offenses became less severe in the eighteenth century, but legal repercussions and social stigma lingered long afterwards, into the twentieth century.
HA: In her book Women, Crime, and Character, Nicola Lacey reminds us that pre-Victorian criminal fact-finding relied on reputation, rather than on forensic evidence gathering; accordingly, juries and other actors in the criminal justice system based their decisions on their preexisting perceptions of the accused. How much did law enforcement in Early Modern Germany and the Abbasid empire rely on reputation?
JH: Extensively! In deciding whether to follow up on criminal accusations, including through the use of “special interrogation” (i.e., torture), German legal authorities always began with the social status and reputation of the accused. The same is true of subsequent punishment. So in a case of adultery between a married householder and a maid, for instance, the man would likely be given a fine and maybe some public penance, while the single, unmarried (and often poor) maid might be publicly flogged, briefly imprisoned, and then banished. Unemployed vagrants were similarly regarded with more suspicion and punished more severely than property-holding citizens. But sixteenth-century Germans by no means invented such hierarchies and in fact based their valuation of mala fama (bad reputation) on Roman legal precedents. So there was a clear and persistent double standard based on gender, social status, and place of origin.
MA: Much like in Germany, law enforcement in the Abbasid empire and the rest of the medieval Islamic world heavily relied on reputation. Some medieval Muslim jurists argued that the shurṭa could, without witnesses, initiate the arrests and/or torture of suspects who were known felons, habitual offenders, or even just came from bad neighborhoods. On the other hand, these same jurists advised that individuals with good family pedigrees and reputations should be merely questioned, and lighter penalties applied.
HA: In the United States, the FBI has long used psychological profiling to identify likely suspects. In the periods that you study, do you see any interest in the psychology of suspects? For example, trying to extrapolate or estimate why people might behave in a certain way?
MA: Honestly, I wish I had more information, as this is a fascinating topic, but sources don’t reveal any interest by law enforcement in trying to understand the behavioral roots of crime. They just wanted to arrest and suppress crime. Perhaps it was still too early in the medieval Islamic period for such ideas to be explored.
JH: Early Modern legal authorities clearly made use of psychological pressure in interrogation, but before the seventeenth century, the emphasis was always more on whether a suspect had committed a crime rather than why. The greater influence of physicians during the later seventeenth and eighteenth century resulted in more successful “insanity defenses,” with a noticeable shift in the attribution of direct diabolical temptation to melancholy and other physical factors in certain crimes, especially infanticide.
That said, there was tremendous popular speculation and curiosity about what motivated some spectacular killers, such as parental child killers or serial murderers. Many colorful pamphlets attempted to get inside the mind of killers, offering some sense to otherwise senseless crimes. The Nuremberg executioner Frantz Schmidt (1554-1634), whose journal I have studied, attempted such explanations during the second half of his remarkable forty-five year career. He theorized about social influences and personal choices among the many criminals he punished. So it’s clearly something that a lot of people thought about, but I’m not aware of it having a significant influence on investigations or punishments before the eighteenth century.
HA: One of our contemporary debates involves the militarization of the police. In the second half of the twentieth century, we’ve seen the migration of military tactics and technology into the domestic law enforcement sphere. Joel, is there any interaction between these two realms in Early Modern Europe?
JH: Some states, like France, had rural military units (the Maréchaussée) specially charged with capturing or killing highwaymen and smugglers, but the function of constables and watchmen in most cities was to raise public “hue and cry” in the event of fire or a fleeing criminal. Some of the latter officials had weapons, but most had no more than a club or other blunt instrument. During the later part of the Early Modern Period, military organization, and, to a certain degree, weaponry, played a key role in the formation of bodies closer to what we think of as “the police.”
HA: Mohammed, do you see any spillover of military techniques into the realm of policing in the Middle East?
MA: Actually, it was the other way around. A significant portion of the military becomes a policing power. In the seventh century, law enforcement duties were given to the elite corps of the Muslim-Arab tribal armies who had conquered the Middle East and had also enforced government authority over the troops. The government increasingly delegated criminal cases to the shurṭa, at the expense of the judiciary, because the shurṭa had the inquisitorial power and coercive force to search for and catch criminals.
With the rise of city life, the government needed to exert its sovereignty; rulers turned to the shurṭa to maintain public order within this rapid urbanization. Gradually, the shurṭa transitioned from being an elite military corps to the overseers of the criminal justice system. Although the shurṭa were still militarized, and the members taken from army units, they became deeply immersed in municipal law.
Shockingly, the recruitment of members of the local population into shurṭa was necessary because of a loss of control and diminishment of financial resources which meant that the government could not rely on the considerable army forces of the past. As a result, the Abbasid authorities’ “monopoly on violence” declined (to borrow Max Weber’s famous phrase), as did the effectiveness of law enforcement.
HA: We are at a pivotal moment in law enforcement policy, in which cultural and political attention is focused on how much and what kind of policing we want and need. Were these debates “political” in the periods you study? Were people concerned with the political and social implications of the role of law enforcement in their lives?
MA: In the first centuries of imperial Islam (c. 610–1258), the literate elite of the Islamic world debated whether the nature of criminal justice and its effectiveness was rooted in government policy and action, or in religious jurisprudence. Those who favored an empowered government contended that the shurṭa’s use of coercion, discretion, and excessive violence curbed crime and were essential to administrative tradition. On the other hand, those who argued for religious jurisprudence criticized the shurṭa’s lack of oversight, and their ad-hoc judgements and practices. These critics claimed that disproportionate or extreme penalties escalated crime and contravened sacred law. Instead, they proposed reforms where judges and jurists would have dominant roles in criminal law, and the criminal magistrates would act in accordance with Islamic jurisprudence. Outside of these literate elites, the populace voiced their dissent at the shurṭa’s autocratic methods, using riots and even urban militias, which would attack and exile policemen.
When we compare these Muslim elites to today’s conversation around policing, we can see parallels to today’s pro- and anti-reform groups. However, the “masses,” so to speak, actually demonstrated against the police and even fought them. Although there was no movement for less police control, I suspect that, had one existed, many of these people would have gravitated toward it.
JH: Sixteenth-century political rulers in Europe realized very early on that a key part of the price for achieving their extended territorial ambitions was delivering on their promise to improve law and order. Even politicians in non-democratic societies need popular support at some level. Unfortunately the heightened popular and official expectations for better law enforcement remained hampered by pathetically inadequate means, which contrasts with the well-funded Abbasid system that Mohammed describes. Much of this situation owed to the reliance on traditional methods of accusation and enforcement, with the only “innovation” being the increased reliance on judicial torture. As I mentioned before, even in a highly advanced city-state such as Nuremberg, there was no such thing as “the police,” just a dozen or so “archers” and a handful of begging beadles with ill-defined roles.
I joke that the popular cry at the time would have been “Fund the police!” but of course back then no one could even have conceptualized an organized body charged with investigating or catching suspected criminals. They just wanted more robbers and killers caught, somehow. The closest analogy is the American Wild West, where the great majority of offenders roamed freely and when some unlucky perpetrators were actually captured, legal authorities made the most political capital of their success with violent public executions, another hallmark of the age.
HA: Do you see any talk of the excesses of law enforcement? Corruption, violence, abuse of force, and maybe talk of how to prevent this and curb law enforcement overreach?
JH: Corruption, violence, and abuse—yes! Most low-level enforcers were poorly paid and thus relied extensively on bribery and extortion. It was a well-known fact in most jurisdictions, and some individuals were punished on this account, but there were no major reforms until the eighteenth century. It was also common knowledge that many such state officials, especially informers, worked both sides of the law, occasionally resulting in some embarrassing public scandals for their employers.
MA: In the Abbasid era, we see a similar outcome to what Joel is describing, but for very different reasons. Due to the shurṭa’s high ranking position and their complete control of criminal justice, their activities were rarely supervised by the central government unless they were not producing adequate results in their law enforcement. Corruption, abuse of power, and even callous killings happened regularly. There are a few notable cases where these law enforcers would arrest someone on false charges, steal the accused’s money, and even kill the accused to try to cover up their actions. These law enforcement agents would then even escape retribution with the complicity of the authorities.
Such actions provoked resentment in the local population and resulted in the formation of urban gangs to enact reprisals against these hated policemen. Furthermore, since some policemen and informers were recruited from former criminals, they were known to engage in criminal activities while in government service. Although there were a few attempts to reform the system, corruption habitually reasserted itself.
HA: How was policing funded, supported, and legitimized, and what were the effects of this?
MA: The legitimacy of the shurṭa, as enforcers of criminal law and policing, emerged from both their prestigious origins as the elite military corps, as well as from pragmatic governmental need of their services. In the eighth and ninth centuries, the shurṭa was salaried by government funds, as they were a recognized extension of imperial sovereignty. However, financial crises caused some governments to give the shurṭa additional duties as urban tax collectors, which allowed members of the force to take a substantial cut of the proceeds, as a substitute for their lack of a salary. This role caused the shurṭa to further lose its respectability in the eyes of the public.
JH: Again, the situation was almost the opposite in Early Modern Germany. Since there was very little ex officio policing, there were virtually no costs. This is one of the reasons there was always such a gap between Early Modern aspirations for better law enforcement and actual achievements. I would credit both the stronghold of traditional thinking among authorities and their reluctance to spend more money on something that had long been so cheap. Most systems relied on unpaid and untrained amateurs, local notables, which political leaders attempted to counterbalance by providing law codes and other written instructions—which were often ignored.
The very notion of proactive, preventive policing remained an alien concept in this time. Everyone was expected to share in the responsibility for “good public order,” but of course political authorities shouldered the blame for failures. As always, frustrations with perceived rising crime rates led to more severe punishments but relatively few procedural or institutional changes.
HA: Both of you study the complex interactions between urban and state development and law enforcement, which brings up one of the major questions in the history of criminal justice. On one hand, some thinkers (like Norbert Elias and Emile Durkheim) contend that things are getting better as interpersonal violence fades away, people feel safer over time, and social change fuels a shift from repressive to restitutive law. On the other hand, we have the more pessimistic perspective that power has become more pervasive and pernicious, more aimed at the soul (think of Michel Foucault’s work). How do your works illuminate this debate?
MA: What I found in my research is that these modernization theories—rooted mainly in generalization of Western legal history—do not fit neatly to the developments of criminal justice in the premodern Islamic world. On the one hand, Muslim narrative sources indicate that militarized control over law enforcement introduced stability and expanded authority over burgeoning cities. Conversely, these autocratic methods (particularly in periods of social and economic crises) in Baghdad only escalated resentment among a substantial portion of the population and actually perpetuated more violence and disorder to the detriment of public order. In essence, the use of coercion and excessive violence by criminal magistrates sometimes had the ironic impact of undermining their overall mission, so ultimately, I believe the diversity of human developments in history demands flexibility in understanding the varied ways in which these social, legal, and political dynamics come about.
JH: Right. Like Mohammed said, these theories often lack nuance and aren’t applicable to many non-Western contexts. Personally, I react very poorly to most modernization theories—whether progressive or negative—not just because they are ahistorical, but because they are teleological. Too often, such theories also seem designed to serve current political or philosophical agendas. That said, I think that both Elias and Foucault were on to something, just not in the totalizing way they argued. Clearly physical violence has declined in some ways over the past eight centuries of Western history, mainly as measured by the homicide rate. However, I’m less convinced about other areas (such as domestic violence), and in some respects it has increased dramatically (especially suicide rates among the young).
What does this all mean for criminal law? I think that it lays bare the persistence of human violence in a variety of forms, as well as the consistently severe limitations of policing, even in a modern society with extensive technological and personnel advantage. I also believe that it does indeed point towards the need for more restitutive approaches—which, ironically, is what European societies had before the Early Modern Period!
As for Foucault, I believe that he is absolutely right about a significant internalization of disciplining methods around 1800, representing a big change from previous reactive, externalized approaches. But I also think that his interpretation of all social interactions as fundamentally aimed at domination (especially “progressive” and “Enlightened” ones) is a gross mischaracterization of humanity as a whole, based more on his own political, polemical stance than a serious attempt to understand people of the past (or present).
HA: Much of the work I’m familiar with on Early Modern Europe highlights a power exchange whereby violence is transmuted from an interpersonal problem-solving mode to something that is inflicted, top-down, by the state. Is this idea confirmed by your work?
MA: Yes. At the start of the Abbasid empire, the government monopolized the control of violence through the shurṭa, at the expense of the elite families as well as the rest of the civilian population in the major cities. As a consequence, interpersonal violence diminished. In fact, the shurṭa would hunt down anyone who took the law into his or her own hands.
The Abbasids shifted criminal law from a local Arab tribal form to a vertical, imposed hierarchy exerted by the state over the city. However, the decline of imperial projects resulted in the Abbasids’ successors giving jurisdiction over criminal law to judicial bodies, such as judges, rather than solely to the military enforcers. This change came about because the rulers’ legitimacy now depended on the support and cooperation of both non-military notables and legal scholars.
JH: Like Mohammed, I also find a transmutation of violence, although this was a very gradual process in Early Modern Europe. It began in the fifteenth century and became more firmly entrenched by the eighteenth century, but was never absolutely established. Nor did it go uncontested—especially in the gun-loving US.
The goal of state monopolization of violence is one of the reasons that capital punishment rates spiked from 1550-1620 in Europe, and that the state campaign against feuds and dueling was so intense, even into the Modern period. Notions of personal honor and the perennial “crisis of masculinity” have always been at the heart of resistance at the grass-roots level—even today!
HA: And of course, it’s impossible to consider violence as state power (especially during the challenging times we are experiencing here and now) without thinking about its main targets. Who do you see as the main targets of state power? Were outsiders—members of marginalized groups—targeted more? Less? Differently?
MA: Although there have been recent works examining the influence of ethnic prejudices and hierarchies in the shaping of Muslim societies, the sources I have read haven’t revealed ethnic biases as playing a decisive role in criminal justice. Instead, narratives and treatises on criminal magistrates tended to view criminals and their crimes through a social-economic lens. One text refers to a financially marginalized part of the city as a breeding ground for crime.
Perhaps the Abbasids viewed things this way because the populations in these Muslim metropolises were multi-ethnic. Although non-Muslim populations could be persecuted by the shurṭa—as could heterodox Muslim sects—they were not the usual targets of state power. In fact, non-Muslim communities generally policed themselves with regards to internal matters, unless there was a need for corporeal punishment of one of their members, whom they then would give up to Muslim authorities. Records from Medieval Egypt reveal that some individuals of the Egyptian Jewish community actually worked actively with the shurṭa, while others were persecuted by them.
JH: Since criminal law enforcement, in my opinion, always mirrors the larger society to some extent, it’s unsurprising that a given society’s marginalized individuals and groups are always the most vulnerable to arrest and punishment. In Early Modern Europe, this generally meant “foreigners” (which could include someone from a village thirty miles away), beggars, vagrants, and locally unpopular individuals. With the coming of the Reformation, the distinction often applied to people of other Christian denominations, which I suppose means that religious persecution was more common in Early Modern Germany than under the Abbasids. Jews, of course, were always outsiders, as were Roma, and thus always vulnerable to popular suspicions and accusations. The modern notion of race, based primarily on skin color, was common in American colonies early on—clearly as a means of domination—but was slower to take root back in Europe. So yes, there was always some kind of insider/outsider filter operating, which could be exacerbated at times by law enforcement.
HA: What about gender? In my own work with Malcom Feeley, I’ve studied how thinking about female transgressions during the Victorian era transitioned “from bad to mad”—their actions were no longer seen as crimes, but rather as pathologies.
MA: The role of gender in medieval Islamic criminal justice is opaque because authors rarely discuss female crime besides prostitution and fornication, but a few details can be surmised. In Baghdad, there were separate prisons for men and women with a penitentiary built solely for women, but the sources provide little information. Some texts mention murders and robberies committed by women, but these mentions are rare. However, Muslim authors extensively discussed sexual crimes and the government’s attempts to curb and punish them. Conversely, given the lucrative enterprise of brothels, the chief law enforcers of Baghdad in the tenth and twelfth centuries would often “oversee” brothels as a source of revenue.
Despite the sharp focus on women and sex in the accounts of crime, one administrative treatise hints at a broader picture: in it, the head of the shurṭa is told to consult with female informants from the criminal underworld, which indicates that there was a greater variety of crimes committed by women than the literary sources would indicate.
JH: In contrast to the Abbasids, gender played a very big role in Early Modern law enforcement, although the notion of pathology was really a much later development. Infanticide and witchcraft were the leading causes for executions of women into the eighteenth century. Lyndal Roper has written a fascinating book about the psychology of witchcraft accusations (Witch Craze), and argues that anxieties about the female body and fertility in general played outsized roles in accusations of witchcraft (and of course, infanticide). So there is definitely something going on there.
The most common non-capital female crimes were similarly focused on women’s bodies and sexuality: prostitution, fornication, and adultery. By contrast, men (then and today) are much more likely to be accused of violent crimes. Obviously the latter statistic has more to do with incidence than perception, but it is interesting to interrogate how the two aspects are intertwined in a society’s criminal law enforcement.
HA: Finally, historians are rightly cautious about suggesting oversimplified lesson-drawing from historical periods that were very different from what we experience today. But is there anything in the periods you study that can illuminate some of the central dilemmas we face now regarding policing? Mohammed, what can we learn from Muslim rulers about the sustainability of this amount of police power?
MA: The period I study reveals an intrinsic link between the emergence of militarized police and the need to extend political authority over huge urban centers, whether they were empires or substantial polities. Furthermore, it highlights the antiquity of the belief that suppression of crime relies on a law enforcement that can effectively dominate cities.
Yet visions for an expansive authority over streets and human lives always gave way to the limitations of reality, no matter the era and the society. In fact, this level of control could never be sustained, and when combined with the duress and violent constraints that the shurṭa exerted over society, it ironically led to the unravelling of the very order it was attempting to establish. Though it might be a small comfort, our effort to align law enforcement with our own sense of justice is not a new phenomenon, and premodern Muslim rulers, magistrates, bureaucrats, and jurists continually wrestled with this very tension.
HA: Joel, is it too facile to draw conclusions from Early Modern European policing to today’s world?
JH: Right, no easy lessons! But I do think that analyzing both the similarities and differences of past societies to our own can be instructive.
For me, there are two big insights from the Early Modern Period. The first is that despite modern societies’ much greater legal sophistication and various powerful new technologies (forensic, surveillance), criminal law enforcement itself remains largely reactive to problems caused by deeper individual and collective ills. I personally believe that some kind of policing will always be necessary, but we should unburden ourselves (and members of law enforcement) from the expectation that some refinement of our detection and punitive methods can eliminate the deep social dysfunctions underlying most crime.
Second, on a related note, I see the modern reliance on prisons (which Early Modern officials deemed a cruel and unusual punishment—this from the people who practiced drawing and quartering!) as merely the latest example of short-term political solutions to long-term and deep social issues. Meaningful law enforcement reform should obviously thoroughly reconsider our society’s sad dependence on this “remedy,” as well as ways to curb the police violence, but it should also adopt a broad and holistic approach that considers not just restorative justice, but needs in mental health, education, social work, etc. Obviously this is far from a new or unique opinion, but I’m hopeful that finally running out of punitive options (or at least discarding our illusions about them) has made such a monumental social shift possible.