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Materiality & Documentary Culture in the Early Islamic World

Panel IV-11, 2023 Annual Meeting

On Friday, November 3 at 11:00 am

Panel Description
In recent decades, there has been an increasing interest in the study of documents from the Islamic world to shed light on the development and functioning of state bureaucracies, economic and taxation systems, legal infrastructures, and the complex ways in which elites, scribes, and everyday Muslims and non-Muslims interacted with these structures. The papers in this panel showcase aspects related to the production, circulation, consumption, and preservation of the rich material and documentary culture in the early Islamic world (e.g., papyri, archeological finds, coins, etc.). The first paper, “Monetary Liquidity & Political Propaganda,” focuses on the curious case of coins minted in the name of the deposed governor in Marv during the Second Islamic Civil War (62/681-73/692). By comparing surviving coins and identifying the dies (i.e., the metallic pieces used to strike coins) employed at the Marv mint, the paper argues for a greater appreciation of market forces, rather than political ones, for producing and circulating a currency during the early Islamic period. The second paper, “To Sue or Not to Sue,” explores how seventh and eighth-century Muslims and Christians sought legal recourse through petitioning, mediation, and arbitration. Adopting a social history lens, the paper argues that “confessional belonging” insufficiently explains how ordinary people navigated the legal infrastructure of post-conquest Egypt, and that personal status, wealth, and anticipated legal outcome were often much more critical factors when selecting judicial forums. The third paper, “A Network-analysis approach to Arabic Papyri from Ṭuṭūn” connects everyday vignettes with a network analysis approach. The paper identifies patterns in the papyrological record, tracing how professional titles, personal names, and place names form temporal and spatial clusters that can enrich our understanding of the personal, administrative, and economic interactions between people. The final paper, “Turning Documents into History and History into Documents,” grapples with two competing paradigms that have affected our interpretation of dhimma. Using epigraphic, papyrological, and literary sources, the paper problematizes the prioritization of a static definition for early Islamic technical terms. The panel contributes to a growing body of literature that creatively employs documentary sources and their material aspects for the study of early Islamic society. Whereas paleography, epigraphy, numismatics, and diplomatics were long thought of as mere Hilfswissenschaften (“auxiliary sciences”), this panel illustrates the impressive potential of these approaches to writing the social history of pre-modern societies.
  • In the year 69/689, a coin from the city of Marv was minted under the authority of a certain Salm b. Ziyād. This was quite the feat, however, as Salm was imprisoned in Mecca some 2000 miles away. Five years earlier, the Zubayrid governor, ‘Abdallāh b. Khāzim, deposed and replaced Salm as governor of the territory. Thus, why are coins still being minted in the name of a deposed Umayyad governor long after his tenure in the region? Islamic coins from the period of the Second Islamic Civil War (62/681-73/692) have drawn a great deal of scholarly attention, especially concerning the changing of the coins’ appearance from Greek Byzantine and Middle Persian Sassanian imitations to aniconic epigraphic coins in Arabic. For many scholars, these evolving slogans and reforms echo a debate about legitimacy and religious identity; thus, the appearance of coins is prioritized rather than the output of a particular mints or the economic output of a region. The curious mint production in Marv, in contrast, provides a unique opportunity to analyze the concern for liquidity (the production and circulation of a currency in a marketplace) over its utility as a vehicle for propaganda. The paper is based on a die study of approximately 100 surviving coins from Marv during the Second Islamic Civil War. The paper brings up two notable questions. First, the paper addresses the various solutions reflected in the die study concerning who continued to use old dies or make new ones in the name of the deposed governor. Second, the paper asks if the continued use of older mint dies by a new governor or rebel coalition suggests that there was a greater concern for the production and circulation of coins—rather than the content on the coin—than has been recognized in scholarship. Thus, I argue that numismatic reforms faced market forces and not just political ones. Answering why coins were minted in Salm’s name after he was deposed is not just about solving a curious puzzle for Islamic numismatists—it reflects the contemporary scholarly dilemma of reconciling regionally diverse material/documentary evidence with often simplistic literary (and even scholarly) explanations for changes in the early Islamic administration. The paper demonstrates that attempts to correlate theological or political ideology with numismatic slogans can lead to misguided interpretations about both the development of Islamic doctrine and the priorities of an empire.
  • It is well known that after the Arab conquests of Egypt in the 640s, the gradually expanding Islamic state heavily relied on Greek and Coptic-speaking administrators. Not only had duxes, pagarchs, and bishops overseen taxation, imperial communication, and the provision of food supplies for centuries, but they also inhabited positions equipped with remarkable discretionary powers. While the executive roles of these bureaucrats in the burgeoning Islamic state administration are now relatively well understood, the judicial functions they had as mediators, arbiters, and, at times, judges have elicited few scholarly inquiries. By focusing on how ordinary Egyptians sought legal recourse by petitioning and bringing their cases before these lower levels of jurisdiction, we can refine our understanding of the workings of the Islamic state machinery and, more importantly, complicate existing accounts about the emergence of Islamic justice. Using Arabic, Greek, and Coptic documents, this paper rationalizes the individual calculations ordinary Muslims and Christians in seventh/eighth-century Egypt made when deciding where to seek legal recourse. What propelled al-ʿAllana, a Muslim woman from the Fayyum, to initiate divorce proceedings against her husband with the local ḥakam (P.Michael. A 1346) rather than responding to his request to resolve the issue through conciliation? Why did John the Deacon bring his lawsuit against Philemon for the estate of a deceased family member before arbiters (P.Col. 600) rather than a formal court? Why did the monks of a monastery in Upper Egypt, after one of their brothers illicitly brought a stranger into his cell, decide not to expel him and have him draft a formal legal document declaring that he would submit to the laws of his monastery (P.BL. Or. 9536)? By reading the documentary evidence through a social history lens, this paper argues that “confession” and “communal belonging” constitute insufficient categories to understand how ordinary people navigated the complex legal infrastructure of post-conquest Egypt. Instead, I argue that the papyri present a much different picture: the anticipated legal outcome, finality of judgment, legal procedure, personal wealth, and status were often much more critical factors when picking legal forums. Because Islamic legal studies have paid little attention to documentary evidence, let alone from lower, non-Muslim levels of jurisdiction, this paper offers a fresh perspective on the earliest period of Islamic justice and hopes to contribute to a growing body of literature that accounts for the development of Islamic law as a multilateral and multi-confessional project.
  • For early Islamic scholarship, documentary evidence has become an important resource for recovering the social, economic, and even cultural history of the early Islamic world. However, the plethora of often unorganized material presents scholars with difficulties in tracing broader patterns across space and time. In many cases, the historical context of the 200.000 Arabic documents remains unclear to papyrologists. In my paper, I present the early stages of my research tracing broader social, administrative, and fiscal changes in early Islamic Egypt through a micro-historical analysis of some of the Berlin papyri from Ṭuṭūn in the Fayyūm. The Berlin collection consists of over 1000 Arabic documents, raising the question of how to approach a collection of that size. Instead of focusing on this whole corpus or on single cases, my paper takes a network analysis approach focusing on a mini corpus of 200 documents. I adopt a social history approach to recover the everyday workings of the social, administrative, and fiscal systems. By connecting these everyday vignettes, the paper identifies patterns in the papyrological record, tracing how professional titles, personal names, and place names form temporal and spatial clusters that can enrich our understanding of personal, administrative, and economic interactions between people. I compare the data points derived from the Berlin papyri with already-existing ones in the Arabic Papyrology Database (APD) to excavate and visualize the multi-layered network of Arabic place names, persons, and temporalities. Visualizing this network will contribute to existing scholarship on documentary sources and the everyday aspects of social life in Egypt and serve as a starting point for incorporating aggregated data points on Egypt’s administration, trade, and judicial apparatus in the APD.
  • The dhimma of God and His Messenger is customarily associated with the legal status of non-Muslim subjects of the Islamic polity as a “protected people” or ahl al-dhimma. Treaties that bestow a godly dhimma upon sundry entities are preserved in the Islamic sources, frequently with the claim that the literary medium is secondary to the original form. Thus, kutub issued by the Prophet and the caliphs are related through oral/written channels as traditions that purport to be be faithful renditions of the originals. In a rare instance, namely the Jerusalem 32 inscription unearthed in 1968 and recently deciphered by Moshe Sharon (2018), the contents of a dhimma treaty were commemoratively inscribed onto a building at the Temple Mount. In other cases, documents have been “preserved” as material artifacts, although literary and paleographic criteria frequently point to the forgery of such papyri, presumably by subjects of later regimes who wished to establish an authoritative precedent for certain rights or policies. Finally, we have papyri that speak of the godly dhimma enjoyed by subjects within the context of administrative correspondence of the Umayyad era, such as the Nessana papyrus 77 dated by Robert Hoyland (2015) to the 60s AH/680s CE. I presently question how two interpretive paradigms have shaped our understanding of the √dh-m-m stem and the legal significance of dhimma in the early Islamic polity, as implemented by the Prophet Muḥammad and the early caliphs. In both cases, the interpretation and treatment of the sources is colored by a form of the genetic fallacy, an implicit or explicit privileging of a perceived “original.” On the one hand, we have the tendency of jurists and traditionists at the fountainhead of the literary movement to attempt to reconcile divergent policies of the pre- and post-conquest periods through the subversion of anomalous, pre-classical texts, a feat achieved by either exegetical maneuver or editorial change. On the other hand, we have the tendency of modern scholarship on early Islam to privilege material artifacts over purely literary materials, a phenomenon that has occasionally resulted in a formally similar—if substantially different—back-projection of the post-conquest setting onto the early Medinan period. In this paper, I will take renewed account of the problems of interpretation and provenance presented by the sources at hand and offer some concrete suggestions as to how and why the concept of dhimma was developed across the first Islamic century.