The Medieval Review 10.02.14

Demiri, Lejla and Cornelia Römer. Texts from the Early Islamic Period of Egypt: Muslims and Christians at their First Encounter. Nilus, 15. Vienna: Phoibos, 2009. Pp. xviii, 53, xiii . $43 hb 978-3-85161-013-0. .

Reviewed by:

David Bertaina
University of Illinois Springfield

In 2007, the Egyptian National Library and the Austrian National Library agreed on a cooperative program that would exhibit texts preserved at the Erzherzog Rainer papyri collection of the Austrian National Library in Vienna with a focus on Muslim and Christian interaction. The exhibition launched in May 2009 at the Dar El Kotob in Cairo, concurrently with the present book, both under the title "Texts from the Early Islamic period of Egypt: Muslims and Christians at their First Encounter." The exhibit from both the Austrian and Egyptian collections included documents selected and introduced by the Director of the Vienna Papyrus Collection, Cornelia Römer, and Lejla Demiri, a research fellow at Cambridge University. The purpose of the book, therefore, is to guide the reader through previously-published primary source materials in English and Arabic, with full-color images, commentary, and introductions in both languages.

Emil Brix, the Austrian Director for Foreign Cultural Politics and Johanna Rachinger, Director of the Austrian National Library, each included a separate foreword outlining the goal of the presentation. Brix recognizes the historical relationship between Austrian Christians and Turkish Muslims, and the combination of fascination and distance between Europe and the Islamic world. Brix values the publication and exhibition of the documents as a tool for creating a common memory that will cultivate dialogue and cooperation between cultures and religions, functioning as a bridge to cross cultural divides. In the second foreword, Rachinger reaffirms its pragmatic purpose of defeating ignorance and intolerance while promoting respectful exchanges and encounters. Whether the selected sources confirm or challenge this perspective is left unspoken.

The introduction (x-xiii in English, ix-xii in Arabic) highlights the notion that early Islamic society employed both oral and written methods to preserve and transmit knowledge, religious or otherwise. Via the theory of Gregor Schoeler in his The Oral and the Written in Early Islam, Demiri and Römer argue that listening, recitation, presentation, and writing complemented one another in the construction of early Islamic learning. Demiri and Römer point out that the papyri selected for the book support the notion that early Muslims utilized many types of written materials in daily life, such as administrative and legal writings, contracts, business transactions, and letters. The compilation includes twenty-one documents, all written on papyri with the exception of a Qur'an fragment written on parchment and an amulet composed on linen. Demiri and Römer selected a diverse collection that demonstrates the value of the Austrian National Library's cache of manuscripts. While there are approximately forty-five thousand known Arabic papyri, more than half of these are located at the National Library. Among the documents presented in the book are five distinct genres: protocols, official documents, legal documents, literary texts, and miscellaneous texts related to everyday life.

The second half of the introduction responds to the "So what?" question about the relative significance of the exhibition and publication. For Demiri and Römer, the Arabic papyri demonstrate the value of primary sources for the early Islamic period in Egypt. As the subtitle suggests, the documents were selected in large part because they reveal the world shared by Middle Eastern Christians and Muslims at all levels, supporting the thesis of Sidney Griffith in The Church in the Shadow of the Mosque that Christians played a significant role in the medieval Islamic world. Their value also lies in advancing our knowledge of the social, political, economic, and administrative history of the region, and shedding light upon the development of Islamic religious literature. Demiri and Römer's selections reveal the legal history of Islamic Egypt and provide glimpses into the social history of the period: "male and female, rich and poor, urban and rural, elite and ordinary alike" (xii). Finally, the documents help to demonstrate the development of the Arabic language and script, along with the various styles, structures, and formulaic practices of scribes.

Two protocols initiate the survey of papyri. Coming from the eighth and ninth centuries respectively, they demonstrate the shift from the Umayyad to the Abbasid period from a bilingual Greco-Arabic culture to a purely Arabic administration. The first scroll, dating to 705-709, alternates Greek and Arabic in announcing the basmala and the title of the Umayyad governor of Egypt, 'Abdallāh Ibn 'Abd al-Malik. The protocol for the Abbasid caliph al-Mutawwakil bears little relation to the earlier style, instead joining qur'anic verses together in a theological confession of God's divine unity. Papyri 3-7 are official documents related to administration and taxation. The first document is a letter of recommendation from the Umayyad governor of Egypt, Qurra Ibn Sharīk (709-714) on behalf of a Christian tax collector named Qūsta. Chronologically the earliest document in the exhibit, the second papyrus is a bilingual, Greek and Arabic receipt written in 643 during the Arab conquest of Egypt. The receipt is notable for naming the Arabs both "Saracens" and "Magaritae" (emigrants, muhājirūn). The next papyrus is also bilingual in Greek and Arabic, containing a fine for the Christian Peter of Ahnās, who did not collect taxes in his city in 707. The final two documents are receipts for the poll tax (a tax imposed on Christians) and the land tax, both dating to the ninth century. Papyri 8-12 include a marriage contract stipulating the woman's dowry and forbidding the bridegroom from marrying another woman; a will leaving gardens to the heirs of the deceased; a shop lease agreement; a written obligation on a debtor; and a guarantee that a certain Muslim would pay two Christian creditors who were owed money by another family. The literary documents numbering 13-15 include an eighth-century fragment of the Qur'an in Kufic script, an eighth-century section of a prophetic tradition belonging to the collection of Mālik Ibn Anas; and a page of a ninth-century copy of the biography of Muhammad written by Ibn Hishām. In the final section on private letters, notes and matters related to everyday life, documents 16-21 are quite varied. These documents include a linen amulet of protection sewn into a garment; a private and informal letter from a wealthy Muslim woman to her Christian business agent requesting certain food items; a recording of the water level of the Nile and prayer for God's blessing upon the water; a letter to a physician from an ill person; a list of wedding expenses; and an equestrian image that praises God on the reverse side.

The value of the book is in its presentation of the papyri images alongside the Arabic transcription and the English translation. The information provides historians with helpful examples of Christian-Muslim economic exchange in the first four Islamic centuries, and provides intrepid students with examples for learning how to do paleography. On the other hand, it would not be sufficient as a source book for any course. As an exhibit book, the text is intended for a general readership that visits the exhibition as it travels from Egypt to Turkey, Northern Africa, and locations in Europe. Moreover, the attractiveness of the book is limited in two ways. First, it is relatively difficult to locate the book except from the publisher ( Second, the fact that these primary source materials have already been published and studied limits its wider application beyond an individual's scholarly interest in Arabic papyri. Also, there is an error with the numbering in the English listing of the documents on xvi and xvii, when it skips the number four and moves to five. In sum, while the work doesn't provide any new information, Demiri and Römer's assemblage of the documents is another step in the process of reconstructing the social world of Christians and Muslims in early Islamic Egypt.