A firman (Persian: فرمان farmân), or ferman (Turkish), at the constitutional level, was a royal mandate or decree issued by a sovereign in an Islamic state, namely the Ottoman Empire. During various periods they were collected and applied as traditional bodies of law. The word firman comes from Persian فرمان meaning "decree" or "order".
On a more practical level, a firman was, and may still be, any written permission granted by the appropriate Islamic official at any level of government. Westerners are perhaps most familiar with the permission to travel in a country, which typically could be purchased beforehand, or the permission to conduct scholarly investigation in the country, such as archaeological excavation. Firmans may or may not be combined with various sorts of passports.
In the Ottoman Empire, the Sultan derived his authority from his role as upholder of the Shar'ia, but the Shar'ia did not cover all aspects of Ottoman social and political life. Therefore, in order to regulate relations and status, duties and dress of aristocracy and subjects, the Sultan created firmans.
Firmans were gathered in codes called "kanun" (from the Hellenic word kanon (κανών) meaning rule or rules, as well as the Arabic word qanun (قانون) also meaning rule or law). The kanun were "a form of secular and administrative law considered to be a valid extension of religious law as a result of the ruler's right to exercise legal judgement on behalf of the community."
When issued by the sultan in the Ottoman Empire, firmans' importance was often displayed by the layout of the document; the more blank space at the top of the document, the more important the firman was.
In this firman, Sultan Murad I recognises a decree created by his father Sultan Orhan (ca. 1324-60). He gives the monks all they owned during his father's reign, ordering that no one can oppress them or claim their land.
In this firman, the monks of Mount Athos report that the administrative officials charged with the collection of taxes come at a later date than they are supposed to and demand more money than the value assessed. They also make illegal demands for additional food supplies.
One of the most important firmans governing relations between Muslims and Christians is a document kept at the Saint Catherine's Monastery on the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt. This monastery is Greek Orthodox and constitutes the autonomous Sinai Orthodox Church. The firman bears the hand print of Muhammad, and requests the Muslims do not destroy the monastery for God-fearing men live there. To this day there is a protected zone around the monastery administered by the Egyptian government, and there are very good relations between the 20 or so monks, mainly from Greece, and the local community there.
The term "firman" was used by the archeologist/novelist Elizabeth Peters for official permission from the Egyptian Department of Antiquities to carry on an excavation. A similar authority was cited by Austen Henry Layard for excavations at Nimrud which he mistakenly believed was Nineveh.