Histories of the Middle East: Studies in Middle Eastern Society, Economy and Law in Honor of A. L. Udovitch
HISTORIES OF THE MIDDLE EAST – Book Sample
Introduction – HISTORIES OF THE MIDDLE EAST
Abraham (Avrom) Leib Udovitch, leader in the social and economic history of the medieval Middle East, guiding light in the study of the documents of the Cairo Geniza, activist in the search for peace in the Middle East, and teacher of many of the leading young scholars of the current generation, was destined early in his life for the career and research field he chose.
He was born in Winnipeg, Canada, in 1933, to Russian immigrant parents. Yiddish was the primary lan- guage of his home and his parents sent him to a secular Yiddish day school. Later he attended a Lubavitcher yeshiva in Montreal for a few years but left it to continue high school in Winnipeg. He speaks proudly of his Yiddish background to friends.
While in Montreal he became involved in the socialist Zionist youth movement, Hashomer Hatzair (“Young Guard”). He spent a year in Israel on a Hashomer Hatzair kibbutz following high school, returning with solid knowledge of modern Hebrew.
He planned to immigrate with Hashomer Hatzair to Israel in the mid 1950s. However, family reasons combined with the disruption of travel to the Middle East following the Suez war of 1956, prevented him from doing so. One of the planks of Hashomer Hatzair was a binational state in Palestine, in which Arabs and Jews would live side-by-side with equal rights.
Early on the seeds of Avrom’s later activism on behalf of peace and justice in the Middle East conflict were thus sown.
He received his undergraduate education at Columbia University and the Jewish Theological Seminary, a dual-track curriculum in both regular university and Jewish studies. At JTS he was exposed to the great scholar of medieval Hebrew poetry, Shalom Spiegel.
He once told me that hearing Spiegel expound on the symbiosis of Jewish and Arabic culture and the relative harmony between Jews and Muslims in the Middle Ages had a profound effect on him.
It is easy to imagine that Avrom, already influenced by progressive Zionism and its sym- pathetic approach to the Palestinian problem, became engaged by this distant mirror of a possible world of Arab-Israeli co- existence.
Graduate studies led him first to an MA in Near Eastern Languages at Columbia, then his doctorate at Yale. There, he came under the influence of the eminent Arabist Franz Rosenthal and of the great medieval historian Robert Lopez, and became their doctoral student. Lopez was interested in the economic history of medieval Europe, and Avrom wrote his dissertation on the economic history of medi- eval Islam.
One of his acquired interests was Islamic law and he worked with Joseph Schacht after the latter came to Columbia. For his dissertation he investigated the Islamic law of commercial part- nership. The book, Partnership and Profit in Medieval Islam, is a pathbreaking work, in which he shows that what had always been thought to be purely theoretical in classical Islamic commercial law reflected actual reality, as perceived in the documents of the Cairo Geniza.
In this he followed the path of the great doyen of Geniza studies, Shelomo Dov Goitein. The Jewish merchants of the Geniza, Avrom claimed, followed practices almost identical with ones described in early books of Islamic law, particularly Hanafi law. He posited, further, that Jewish merchants and Muslim merchants fol- lowed one and the same “‘Law Merchant’ of the Medieval Islamic World”—the title of one of his early, seminal articles—and that these legal practices became assimilated to Islamic law.
Today, with the recent publication of Arabic letters of Muslim traders from the same period as the Geniza, we have explicit confirmation of what Goitein and Udovitch sensed from the limited sources available to them when they wrote.
The seeds of contact with the Geniza blossomed in his later research. So did his relationship with Goitein, who came to Princeton and the Institute for Advanced Study three years after Avrom arrived on the faculty of Near Eastern Studies in 1967 from a position at Cornell.
It was a relationship of scholarship and friendship that lasted until Goitein’s death in 1985, and the lives of the two men have some striking parallels.
Goitein, too, began his career as an Islamicist, studying at Frankfurt with the great German Jewish orientalist, Joseph Horovitz, and writ- ing a doctoral dissertation on prayer in the Qur’ān. Like Udovitch, Goitein became a Zionist. Like Udovitch he planned at a young age to go to live in Israel; he arrived in Israel in 1923 following the com- pletion of his doctorate in Germany.
Finally, like Goitein, Udovitch became a foremost scholar of the historical documents of the Cairo Geniza.
In Princeton, the lives of these two men became intertwined. Avrom made one of his greatest (and largely unknown) contributions to Islamic and Jewish studies by making sure, through his own con- nections with funding sources, that Goitein and his work were sup- ported for the fifteen productive last years of Goitein’s life.
Avrom’s appreciation of Goitein in the introduction he wrote to the final, posthumous volume of Goiten’s Mediterranean Society is a tribute, not only to the great man, but also to the influence he had on this younger scholar, who substantiated Goitein’s conviction about the importance of the Geniza for Islamic history in new ways.
Avrom has devoted most of his professional life to the Geniza. But he would not call himself a Jewish historian. Rather, he would say he is a social and economic historian of the medieval Islamic world (a world that embraced Jews). His many articles contain nuggets of insight into this world, based largely on the Geniza.
One of these insights is his description of Islamic society as being marked by a large measure of informalism, in contrast with the more tightly organized, corporate society of the medieval Christian West. In this he joins hands with medieval Islamic social and urban historians, who have pointed to the lack of formal organization in the Islamic city and to the prevalence of informal ties in social relationships in general.
One of Avrom’s many seminal contributions is his work on banking. “Bankers without Banks,” one of his many characteristically catchy titles, tells it all: the Geniza points to a well-established medi- eval banking system, marked by informal relations rather than by buildings.
Here the Islamic world, as in so many other ways, pio- neered economic institutions known in the Christian West only much later. Another alluring (and alluding) title, “A Tale of Two Cities,” introduces a study of commercial relations between Islamic Cairo and Alexandria and shows how intimately tied they were to one another in the eleventh century.
In other articles, as well, he sought to rescue sorely neglected Alexandria for history.
One of his signature studies is “Formalism and Informalism in the Social and Economic Institutions of the Medieval Islamic World,” in which he introduced the subject to generalists, presenting a fascinat- ing merchant’s letter illustrating what, for European historians, would have seemed a strange way to organize commercial life.
His earliest publication, written while he was a doctoral student at Yale, is a famous article that compares Islam, the Jewish world, and Byzan- tium in search of “The Origins of the Western Commenda.” The comparative view also marks his “Law Merchant” article mentioned above.
The evocative (and provocative) title, The Last Arab Jews: The Communities of Jerba, Tunisia, written with his wife, Lucette Valensi, introduced a new aspect to his work. Lucette influenced him to adopt a social-anthropological approach (the anthropologist Clifford Geertz at the Institute for Advanced Study also had an affect on his interest in this respect).
The Jerba research, which they undertook together as a team of anthropological observers among the Jewish community of that island off the Tunisian coast, touched on Avrom’s main field as a medievalist. He understood new things in the Geniza world as a result of watching these traditional Jews—merchants and authentic believers—going about their daily affairs, interacting without friction with Muslims, while at the same time preserving their distinct Jewish identity.
Here again, a fascinating parallel with Goitein emerges, whose study of the Geniza world had been deeply informed by his earlier field work in Israel among Yemenite immigrants, whom he called “the most Arab and the most Jewish of all Jews.”
Another of Avrom’s major scholarly achievements is his co-editorship of Studia Islamica, a major journal in the field. Similarly, he collaborated with Joseph Strayer on the thirteen-volume Dictionary of the Middle Ages. Unusual for such an undertaking, the Islamic world was given full representation (as was Byzantium).
Even more unusual for such a project, Avrom was given the task of overseeing entries on the Jews. He farmed that responsibility out to the present writer. As a Jewish historian I embraced the task gladly, and Avrom permitted me to commission many more entries than were to be found in any comparable general work on the Middle Ages.
The results are a tribute to Avrom’s commitment to make Jewish studies part of the academy and a response to the justified complaint of medievalists like Gavin Langmuir about the omission of the Jews from medieval European history.
Pioneering again, Avrom was an early promoter of the field of the economic history of the Middle East. He organized a ground-break-
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