SIJILL is an Arabic word which goes back to a Latin origin, and appears in a Koranic verse (XXI, 104) where it means "a scroll" of documents. In classical Arabic it was used for a document that contained the decisions of the kadi, then for a collection of such documents, and it hardly changed over the ages. As early as the second century of the Hijra a kadi was dismissed for failure to keep the Sijill records of his court properly. The keeping of such records became a regular judicial procedure, and the need for the correct formulation of such documents brought about the emergence of a distinct branch of legal literature from the eighth century. In a document from the middle of the 13th century in Jerusalem, the kadi points out the formal duty of the court scribe to count all the pages of the court proceedings and be their custodian (Jerusalem Sijill, Volume 237, page 98).
Scant references in the contemporary literature, as well as an impressive collection of several hundred pages from *Mamluk times recently discovered in Jerusalem, attest to the ongoing practice of registering court decisions by the kadi. However, it was under the Ottomans that this became systematically prevalent throughout the empire; hence, vast collections of court registers have survived to these days. Major towns like *Cairo, *Damascus, *Aleppo, Hamat, and smaller ones like Jerusalem, *Jaffa and Nablus, hold depositories of long series of bound volumes covering chronologically the cases adjudicated by the kadi.
The sijill of the Shar'i court of Jerusalem consists of more than 500 volumes (averaging 500 pages of 28 by 21 cm. mostly) of proceedings covering 400 years of Ottoman rule, up until the World War I. It stretches over a wide spectrum of topics: Civil and criminal litigations, economic and social matters, inheritances and personal status cases, endowments and religious practices, demography and topography, architecture and buildings, coins and prices, Sultanic decrees and taxation orders. Most cases concern the Muslim majority of the population, however, as Christians and Jews, too, came regularly to the court, this source is a trove of information on the realities of these communities. These registers, which are actually the drafts of the court decisions, mirror the precise chronological order in which they were given; hence, the thousands of cases concerning the Jews who resided in Jerusalem or visited it are inextricably mingled with the rest. They may, however, be grouped under the following categories: communal organization and institutions (leadership, *Karaites and other internal divisions, synagogues, ritual baths, cemeteries, communal debts and real estate, pilgrimage, taxation); relations with their neighbors (conversion to Islam, dress code, moral and physical offenses, wine production, thefts and losses, death); economic activities (professions, guild membership, real estate transactions, leasing and renting, financial transactions, loans and debts, waqf religious endowments); legal status (women and the family, guardianship, legacies, slaves and maids). The sijill thus reveals a totally new perspective for our understanding of Jewish life within the Ottoman society: the formal limitations they were subjected to and the occasional molestations they suffered notwithstanding, they enjoyed religious and administrative autonomy and were a constructive element of the local society and economy.
de Blois, Little and Faroqhi, "Sidjill," in: EIS2, 9 (1997); R.Y. Ebied and J.L. Young, Some Arabic Legal Documents of the Ottoman Period (1976); D. Little, A Catalogue of the Islamic Documents from al-Haram al-Sharif in Jerusalem (1984); A. Cohen, A World Within – Jewish Life as Reflected in Muslim Court Documents from the Sijill of Jerusalem (Jewish Quarterly Review Supplement, 1994); idem, Jewish Life under Islam (1984); A. Cohen and B. Lewis, Population and Revenue in Towns of Palestine in the Sixteenth Century (1978); A. Cohen, The Guilds of Ottoman Jerusalem (2001).