"The law says you must be married to a prince by your next birthday."
- The Sultan of Agrabah
I am not about to claim that Disney put any significant time or effort into constructing a self-consistent universe for its retelling of Aladdin. This article is meant more as an exercise of Law in Literature, of deriving a consistent system from observation of behaviour, than a definitive statement of fact.
Real world systems have only a passing relevance to the Aladdin universe. The story takes place in the fantasy medieval sultanate of Agrabah. Apparently in the Arabian desert, and somewhere east of the Jordan, but with heavy central Asian and Indian influences, it is as far removed from an actual time or place as King Arthur's Camelot. It appears to follow Islamic traditions, with frequent references to Allah, and minaretted mosques prominent, but the government appears to be broadly secular. There are incidental references to a brutal legal system in which petty theft is punished summarily by amputation and, in the original version at least, other mutilations are carried out capriciously. This is, of course, a parody of Sharia law, but should not be seen as any more offensive than Monty Python's portrayal of Christian justice in their search for the Holy Grail.
Overall, the atmosphere is anarchic and laissez faire. There is great inequality of wealth, and civic enforcement takes the form of a band of city guards, seemingly empowered to mete out justice arbitrarily as they see fit. However, there is apparently some law. It is a crucial plot point that the Princess Jasmine must marry before her next birthday, and the person she marries must be a prince. It is implied that this law is very ancient and that the Sultan's own wife was married under it; he self-deprecatingly laments that his daughter is much more fussy than her mother. At one stage Jafar, the grand vizier, presents the Sultan with a written scroll, claiming he has discovered that in the absence of other suiters the law entitles him to marry the princess.
It appears then that the law in Agrabah is something that is permanently fixed. Moreover, it is binding on everyone, including the Sultan. His powers, it seems, are predominantly executive. He can pardon prisoners or commute their sentencing, but he cannot simply refuse to obey the law or apply it to his family. This is very much like the old Common Law system that existed in England before the industrial revolution; both the monarch and parliament were supposed to consider themselves bound by the ancient laws of the realm that had existed since time immemorial. Monarchs such as John, Charles I and James II all found themselves in serious, even fatal, political trouble when they tried to overstep their constitutional boundaries. Admittedly, with the relatively recent acceptance of complete Parliamentary Sovereignty it has been possible for the ruling body to make frequent changes to the law but even this does not amount to being above it.
But I digress. At the end of the film, the foregoing seems to be contradicted. The Sultan, having noticed Aladdin's prowess, determines that he is in fact a suitable husband for his daughter. He issues a proclamation that from that day forward, the princess may marry whoever she wants. If he has this power, one might ask why he did not simply do this at the beginning of the film, saving a lot of heart-ache all round. However, it must be remembered that there are two clauses to the problematic law, one that says the princess must marry by her next birthday, and another that it must be to a prince. It is only the first of these that is a problem at the beginning of the film; Jasmine does not want to marry unless it is for love. It is not until she meets Aladdin that the second law becomes the impediment.
It can be assumed that there are good, pragmatic reasons for this law to exist. One can envisage a troubled history of minority reigns and warring viziers, even crises of succession. Insisting on an early marriage goes some way to alleviating the threat of dynastic uncertainty. The Sultan may well be aware of this, and whilst it is unkind to Jasmine, changing the law to let her marry whenever she likes would be a highly risky proposition for the sultanate. In fact, whilst he is clearly troubled by its consequences, the Sultan never seriously considers changing this law, even when it would mean Jasmine being forced into a highly unpleasant marriage to Jafar. Although Machiavellian, this decision is arguably good kingship; the Sultan refuses to allow his personal feelings to come before the good of his realm.
Similarly, when the Sultan does change the law, it is more justified. The prohibition on the princess marrying a commoner appears to be in place due to some form of Salic Law in which women may not themselves ascend to the throne and instead their husbands become sultans. Allowing commoners to attain supreme office through marriage would be controversial and could lead to a succession crisis where the reigning sultan is challenged by someone with obscure, but pure royal blood. Consequently, the Sultan is thrilled when Aladdin, disguised as Prince Ali, successfully woos the princess, as he believes Ali's undoubted pedigree will make him an excellent Sultan one day. It is only after witnessing Aladdin's impressive prowess and force of character that he agrees to change the law. It is possible that Aladdin will be a popular and powerful enough ruler to see off any challengers without destabilising the realm.
The words the Sultan uses immediately before issuing his proclamation are intriguing. “Well,” he says, drawing himself up, “am I the Sultan or, or am I the Sultan?” It would probably be a mistake to read too much into a light-hearted remark, but it is possible that it hints at that the Sultan feels some level of frustration with his limited powers. This is a common lament of national leaders who discover, having reached the top, that they are not as powerful as people imagine them to be. Whereas the quasi-monarchs of today are limited by their parliaments and congresses, he is limited solely by his duty to the law and his realm. One might wonder whether the impulsive, emotionally driven Aladdin and Jasmine will consider themselves under similar restraints.
There is some indication that they might not. At the beginning of the film, Aladdin does not believe those who live in the palace to be as trapped as he is as a street rat. It seems likely that he would assume the power of the monarchy is effectively absolute. After-all, he has suffered extra-judicial imprisonment and has frequently been threatened with summary execution. Furthermore, whilst Jasmine may have some appreciation for the mechanics of government, she, arguably more than Aladdin – whose imprisonment was probably illegal – has suffered the effects of archaic laws. For all the constitutional justifications, it is undeniably that the Sultan seems to do little for his people. Children beg in the streets, and young men such as Aladdin are forced into cycles of crime where they have to steal to eat. Aladdin and Jasmine's reign might see efforts to deliver social justice and mobility to the street rats. However, this might only be possible by creating a more absolutist, less accountable monarchy.
Although unintentional, Disney's Aladdin introduces some of the basic constitutional problems with autocratic regimes, but also hints at their resolution. It presents a thoughtful, if relatively weak monarch, obeying the legal traditions of his realm, doing little harm, but perhaps little good. By the film's conclusion, Agrabah may be on the brink of a reformation. The future is not necessarily bright however; both history's greatest and most reviled monarchs have been those who ignored the traditional checks on their power. Some, such as Louis XIV of France or Ivan the Terrible of Russia were monumentally successful, building strong, wealthy nations and were loved by their subjects for doing so. Others were less so; and history is littered with the corpses of over ambitious despots who paid too little heed to the traditions of their office. However, speculating on the political future of the world of a Disney cartoon is probably a little too far from reality to be a serious topic for discussion.
Aladdin, 1992, Walt Disney Pictures