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Writing Medieval Middle Eastern History through Geniza Documents I: Islamic Legal Institutions and Arabic Material Instruments

Panel XII-8, 2023 Annual Meeting

On Sunday, November 5 at 11:00 am

Panel Description
This panel asks how Islamic and Jewish legal documents from premodern Egypt allow scholars to reconstruct Islamic legal history from the ground up. Until relatively recently, most legal histories in medieval Middle Eastern studies have been based on top-down approaches that rely on the descriptions of judicial institutions and legal proceedings in the normative works of Muslim jurists. Such scholarship makes little use of documentary sources in part because of the incorrect assumption that the Islamic world did not produce documents as abundantly as medieval Europe. These papers will complement the top-down approaches by working from the everyday legal records that Muslim and Jewish courts produced and looking at the materiality of these documents. The papers all mine a cache of documentary materials known as the Cairo Geniza, which consists of tens of thousands of documents in Arabic and Judaeo-Arabic (Arabic written in Hebrew script) dating from the tenth to the nineteenth century. The verbal content and materiality of court proceedings and legal deeds show how judges, litigants, and scribes shaped the law. The papers substantiate these arguments in different ways. Paper one studies notaries’ notes on Islamic legal deeds to illuminate institutions and practices beyond the purview of legal manuals and even qāḍīs. Paper two examines the lives and afterlives of judicial documents to which further judicial records and addenda were physically sewn, creating a mini-archive. The materiality of these documents reveals what Daisy Livingston has recently argued was a continuum of practices between archiving and discarding. Paper three looks at Ottoman era qāḍī-court records from the Geniza and demonstrates how litigants kept judicial records at home to produce them later as evidence if necessary—a counter to the regnant view that qāḍīs’ dīwāns and state bureaus were the prime loci of judicial archiving. Together these papers shed light on how Islamic judicial institutions actually functioned and how material instruments shaped legal proceedings. They suggest that a bottom-up approach to legal history can allow scholars working across different legal regimes in the medieval and early modern Islamicate world not only to fill gaps in the literary sources, but also to reevaluate their role in juridical discourse.
  • Scholarship on legal documents from the medieval Islamicate world has mostly concentrated on their content and structure (dramatis personae and formulae). The materiality of legal documents, however, opens new perspectives on procedures and people who crafted, used, archived, and discarded them: how and why do extent medieval legal documents look the way that they do? How did people consume them through time and space? Focusing on holes and threads, i. e., sewing practices, in Arabic and Judaeo-Arabic legal documents from the Cairo Geniza, this paper examines the life and the afterlife of legal documents in medieval Egypt during the Fatimid and Ayyubid periods. When notaries, parties, and later actors stitched legal documents, they did so employing different sewing methods according to the status they conferred to legal documents at a given time: (1) instrumental use (2) personal and institutional archiving and record keeping; (3) discarding and reuse for other purposes. Additionally, sewing practices varied according to genres of legal documents. Sewing practices in medieval legal documents nonetheless show continuity. On the one hand, they shed light on the continuum of practices between the instrumental, archiving, and discarding moments. On the other hand, they reveal porosity and parallels with other types of documents and social settings, namely chancery and merchant documentary practices.
  • It comes as no surprise that the people who drew up legal documents in the medieval Islamic world – the notaries – were skilled and knowledgeable legal practitioners, as well as being handy with a pen. Most of our knowledge of their work and profession comes from notary manuals and the notes they left on the scanty extant documents. That latter source, however, offers more than what meets the eye. Using notarial notes in Geniza documents, and especially a fragment of a notarial record book, this paper demonstrates that the work of notaries, and therefore aspects of the legal system more broadly, involved social and institutional relationships and practices that functioned beyond the purview of manuals and traditional legal authorities like judges. The features of the record book fragment, especially evidence of its use within a ledger-like daftar, and the multiple notaries’ atypical signatures, suggest that the documents preserved on the fragment were copies made for a “short-term archive.” Such archives illuminate the relationships between notaries and the lay parties, as well as document production and archiving during legal transactions. The material evidence, as well as textual clues found within the record fragment, are utilized to paint a picture of the social historical role of notaries and reassess their role within the medieval Islamic legal system
  • Legal documents have survived from the medieval Islamic world in considerable quantity, but the mystery of how to unlock them as historical evidence abides. In this presentation, I will offer some strategies for reading them and begin to make a case for why doing so rewards the effort.