From al-Andalus to Khurasan (Islamic History and Civilization)

From al-Andalus to Khurasan
  • Book Title:
 From Al Andalus To Khurasan
  • Book Author:
Amalia ZomenoPetra M. Sijpesteijn
  • Total Pages
280
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FROM AL-ANDALUS TO KHURASAN -Book Sample

INTRODUCTION – FROM AL-ANDALUS TO KHURASAN

The past is a landscape of darkness. As human experience is devoured by the black hole of time, its echoes dwindle into those small fragments of memory that we usually call “historical evidence.” Such fragments shed some light into the night of oblivion but, as any historian knows, this light can be bright or pale, dazzling or reflective, depending on what the sources tell us and what we can make out of them.

 At best, evidence adds up to discrete pieces of information that can be related to each other, allowing us to draw some illuminating although partial historical interpretations. But in other cases, the picture is rather gloomier, as if confirming the assertion of that ancient Greek poet’s verse which regarded human beings as mere dreams of shadows.

These are the periods in which historical evidence is no more than a conglomerate of sundry textual and material remains, which defy simple explanations and even prevent certain sets of historical questions. The historian’s task becomes then an endeavour which is not very different from weaving: threads have to be followed, tracked as far as possible and finally linked within a comprehensive fabric that sometimes, though, may have too many holes in it.

Islamic history unfortunately has plenty of such difficult periods. Too often the historian who is engaged in elucidating them has at his disposal only a disparate bunch of narratives on political or military events, which provide a wide range of names, anecdotes, rebellions or battles taking place in an opaque context of poorly understood social and economic circumstances.

These narratives are not only intentional, and therefore biased, but also the product of a long process of memory-shaping and reshuffling which we do not always wholly understand.

How to use such murky lamps for attaining knowledge of complex societies extending across broad territories has been the subject of a good number of historiographical controversies, which have confronted positions ranging from the sceptical attitude towards what are labelled as “inconsistent” or “useless” bites of evidence, to more positive approaches which consider that a critical acceptance of these medieval Islamic sources may lead to sound, or at least coherent, historical interpretations.

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Both opinions share, though, the idea that the nature of our evidence is somewhat frag- ile, that we depend too much on a limited number of narrative accounts and that description supersedes explanation on more occasions than it would be desirable in the history of medieval Muslim societies.

All this explains why the contributions gathered in this volume are so important and relevant. They focus on an exceptional sort of evidence: documents from the Islamic Middle Ages, written records witnessing a given action, transaction or exaction which was valued as worth being noted down by those involved in it with the aim of preserving its recollection and effects in the future.

The relative scarcity of these documents for the medieval Muslim world make of them precious primary sources, particularly valued because of their radical contemporaneity to the people who took part in their formulation.

This feature gives them a flavour of immediacy that would be impossible to find in historical narratives, most of which were composed many years or even centuries after the events they attempted to describe. This confers on these documents the quality of scattered and unexpected shinings, sudden beams, which cast light on concrete spots, on concrete characters or on concrete circumstances which can be apprehended as frozen and fragmented scenes apparently recognisable against a misty background full of uncertainties.

Many documents presented and analysed in this volume are unedited and see the light of publication for the first time. They have very different chronological and geographical origins, but all of them share in common their capacity to reflect those social and economic dealings which the accounts of the chroniclers usually overlook, or which the speculative nature of Muslim juridical works makes it difficult to assess. Many people die in the narratives of the historical sources, whereas treatises of law never fail to include solid chapters on partitions of legacies.

However, it is not until we examine a specific will bequeathed by a testator that we begin to understand what economic implications this act had, how it was carried out and how it contributed to reproducing the existing social order.

Taxes and, more generally, the control of resources, were the main reasons behind many struggles for power which are described by the dozens in the available chronicles, but it is impossible to grasp how fiscal exaction was organized or what were its effects upon the daily lives of the tax-payers unless we read the documents produced by the efficient tax-raising machine which medieval Islamic states always managed to set up in one way or another.

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 As sudden bites of written reality, documents reveal a short-lived instant of life, but this is an instant which gathers some of the relations, tensions and contra- dictions prevalent in the social milieu that produced them.

It is not only the valuable new evidence which the different contributions offer to specialists, that makes this volume significant.

Once the reader has finished reviewing its fascinating and novel contents, there is no doubt that he or she will find him or herself asking the nagging question that underlies many of its pages: why have medieval Islamic societies left such a relatively small quantity of documentary evidence, particularly if we compare them with their western counterparts?

Medieval Christian documents have come down to us because there was a certain availability of writing materials, because there were an increasing number of people with enough skills as to allow them to compose and decipher such documents, because these documents were preserved in safe locations and were deemed important by those who held them and, finally, because the social milieu had an appreciation for their contents which justified their safeguarding throughout countless spring cleanings, removals or deteriorations caused by natural elements.

Were Muslim societies so different that these factors were absent or widely ignored in them? The question is critical. It is a commonplace to describe Islamic cul- ture as dominated by orality. The whole framework of the transmis- sion of knowledge is even portrayed as based on personal contacts, as illustrated by the spread of Prophetic traditions through chains of suc- cessive transmitters.

Early Muslim dogma was shaped by the contents of the Revelation gathered in the written verses of the QurxÊn, but also by the dense network of masters and students who expanded the sunna of the Prophet talking to each other. Even important early written works were not ‘published’ in the modern sense of the word, but rather went through a number of different recensions, which were the product of different transmissions in a variety of places.

Texts certainly existed and circulated, but it is commonly agreed that the Islamic theory of knowledge stressed the spoken more than the written word—which was reserved for the Book containing the Revelation—as the rhetoric means which created the basic consensus among the Community of Believers.

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The supposed prevalence of orality in Muslim societies also finds support in the importance given by Islamic law to witnesses and oaths in the resolution of disputes.

Legal Muslim practice seems to have been more inclined to accept this kind of testimonies than written records when proof was needed in trial before the qÊÓÒs.

 Again, the idea is that although documents may have existed, they played a subsidiary role

 which never matched the oral hearings and the depositions taken from reputable men under oath.

 If such was the prevailing mood in the legal arena—the argument goes—it is then small wonder that in medieval Muslim societies documentary evidence never reached the prominent character it acquired in the West, at least until a relatively late date.

For the advocates of this notion, it is apparently easy to link the pervasiveness of oral culture with the original tribal milieu within which Islam was born. The idea is that in such surroundings, social dealings had an ‘informal’ character which prevented the emergence of more ‘official’ formal interactions.

Ties of kinship bound people more than dozens of clauses inscribed on legal documents, whereas observance of the unwritten rules which made up the tribal codes of honour meant stronger compromises than any penalty sanctioned by the pre-emptive sections of written agreements.

Quite naturally, Islam absorbed these existing features of Arab tribal society and integrated them into a social and political culture, which certainly had solid textual references, but nevertheless was keen to articulate itself on the basis of informal bonds, which did not require the endorsement of documentary provisos.

The contributions collected in this volume add a whole array of new evidence, which compels one to revise—or at least to look at them from a different perspective—these notions. All of them show that from a very early date Arab society relied heavily on documents not only as means to present and represent itself, but also as instruments of social control. The organization of the fiscal system, the appointment and removal of

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