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Valerie: The muhtasib was the title of the official in charge of inspecting the markets as well as maintaining the morality of the general populace in medieval Islamic cities. Technically, the muhtasib was the Inspector General of Weights and Measures, though his reach extended far beyond simply regulating the economic activity of the markets (see also suq). Appointed by the sultan or caliph, he was charged with overseeing the cleanliness of public spaces as well as the conduct of people within them, a responsibility that often extended beyond the market to schools and the medical sector.
Regulation of the markets through the muhtasib was a way for the government to exert control over daily economic activity as well as ensure that all taxes were properly collected. Yet there was also a religious element to the position in that Islam values the cleanliness of food, drink, and body. The muhtasib was charged with ensuring that goods in the market met Islamic standards. These standards, such as covering unsold meat at butcher shops and confining the slaughtering of animals to specific spaces, helped to prevent the spread of disease in a cramped city like Cairo.
This far range of responsibilities meant that the muhtasib was an extremely powerful figure, one who had the right to exact punishment for crimes (butchers who were repeatedly caught selling bad meat could be exectued by the muhtasib), one who could affect the price of any type of product in the market on a daily basis, and one who had the abliity to police the public (and sometimes suspected private) morality of the citizens.
Posted at Dec 06/2010 03:47PM:
ian: In this way he was very palpable in the lives of the ordinary citizens as part of a government apparatus that might simultaneously protect and exploit them.