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12.06.35, Zorgati, Pluralism in the Middle Ages

12.06.35, Zorgati, Pluralism in the Middle Ages

When Simon Gaunt, in a 2009 review essay, pointedly asked, "Can the Middle Ages Be Postcolonial?" he was voicing a question on which a decade of work in medieval studies could not agree. [1] At issue throughout that work, and still an ongoing question now, is whether postcolonial terms and concepts developed to discuss one historically specific (postmedieval) period can be appropriately or productively applied to a premodern context. This debate continues to be an active one in the field of medieval Iberian studies, which encompasses multiple religious and linguistic traditions as well as multiple political systems (caliphate and kingdom). In Nadia Altschul's assessment, Medieval Iberia is "enmeshed" in issues of postcolonialism because, "in contrast to the language-based disciplines, the existence of a so-called 'Multicultural' Middle Ages is neither counterintuitive nor new within Ibero-medievalism." [2]

Pluralism in the Middle Ages constitutes the latest contribution along this line of research. It considers legal case studies of the interaction of different religious groups in Iberia, mainly from between the tenth and fifteenth centuries, and compares practices and discourses surrounding that interaction in terms drawn from postcolonial theory. This book has numerous merits: it is both an empirically grounded comparative exploration of Iberian legal opinions and a theoretically suggestive intervention about the integration of a postcolonial vocabulary into the study of medieval Iberia. Although, as I will discuss below, these two aspects of the work seem to operate partly in isolation from each other, only sometimes intersecting and overlapping coherently, the value of the scholarship in the core chapters is certain, and the work will undoubtedly lead to fruitful discussions about the interaction of legal categories and social practice in medieval Iberian societies.

The work is essentially a comparative legal study that weighs the similarities and differences between Christian and Muslim legal discourses about the interaction of different minority groups. As Zorgati explains, the goal of the work is to investigate "the perspectives that Muslim and Christian elites took on the pluricultural character of their societies by analyzing how their texts erected boundaries between religious communities. This book therefore constitutes an investigation into legal texts understood as boundary-maintaining mechanisms" (20). As she clarifies in the conclusion, her intention is not merely to "investigate" this understanding, but to call it into question (171). Zorgati elaborates this comparison of legal texts by looking at how they dealt with two issues of inter-religious contact: conversion (treated in chapters 1- 3) and mixed marriages and sexual unions (chapters 4-6). The documentation and analysis of these two issues take up the bulk of the work.

Chapter one, "Conversion and Apostasy in Al-Andalus and Christian Spain," is a comparative summary of the definition and understanding of "conversion" from a theological and legal perspective in both Muslim jurisprudence (fiqh) and in the Christian law code, the Siete partidas, composed by Alfonso X (ruled 1252-1284). In summarizing the debate between Richard Bulliet and Míkel de Epalza about the period and rate of conversion to Islam in al-Andalus, Zorgati does well to approach this issue carefully, taking for granted that "conversion" is not a clear term of analysis and that it cannot be conceived apart from notions of "apostasy" in both Christianity and Islam. Without taking sides in this debate, she sets out to compare how Muslim and Christian jurisprudence defined conversion and attempted to dissuade and punish apostasy, and her findings are interesting although not entirely surprising: "Islamic and Christian legal discourses...appear to mirror each other when it comes to the issues of conversion and apostasy" (47).

This comparison lays the foundation for the following two chapters, "Conversion, Childhood, and Gender," and "Conversion and Concealment," in which she considers a handful of legal and literary texts about conversion between Christianity and Islam. The bulk of chapter two focuses on one fatwā, or Islamic legal opinion, which Zorgati titles, "The woman whose father might have converted," about a Christian woman who was brought before a Muslim judge named Abū Ibrāhīm around the beginning of the tenth century (the period of the Cordovan Emirate). It was alleged that the woman's father had apostatized from Islam, a fact that could oblige her to be a Muslim as well, depending on her age at the time of her father's apostasy. Through this legal ruling, Zorgati probes the intersection of conversion with varying definitions of childhood, adolescence, and adulthood, and underscores the critical importance of considering gender when discussing conversion and individual agency.

Chapter three is, like chapter two, built on the analysis of a fatwā, but it includes more literary and archival sources beyond this to focus on the question of taqīya, or feigning, from a Muslim and Christian perspective. She includes a brief discussion of Romance sources including the Catalan Llibre de la çuna e xara dels moros and the Castilian Breviario Sunni, two examples of "what one may call hybridity as agency, namely to use a multiple cultural knowledge in order to defend the position of the minority" (89). As in all of her examples, her analysis is most interesting when it considers how "ambiguity always is connected to issues of power and subordination" (91). She shows that the question of crypto-religion and "feigning" or "passing" was, as in more modern colonial contexts, a strategy for maintaining minority autonomy and even sometimes subverting majority power. This chapter in particular will be of interest to many, as taqīya is a subject that continues to generate much heated debate among historians of mudéjar and morisco Iberian Muslims.

Passing without transition into a discussion of mixed marriage and union between different religions in Iberia, the last three chapters offer an interesting counterpoint to the initial analysis of conversion. As in the first half, the discussion centers on an initial fatwā presented as a paradigmatic example, which Zorgati here calls the case of "the man who converted twice and married in the meantime" (98). This case (dated uncertainly either to the eleventh or the fifteenth century) concerns a Muslim man who apostatized, married a Christian, and then returned to Islam with his wife, who converted with him. This curious case is used as a way to raise central issues about Christian and Muslim legal views on "mixed" marriages. Comparing Muslim ideas with an extensive reading of the Visigothic code Fuero juzgo, local codes, and Siete partidas, parts 4 and 7, Zorgati finds that Christian and Muslim legal opinions shared much in common, but that Christian rules of marriage and divorce were more restrictive and demanding than Islamic law. This conclusion is further elaborated in the fifth chapter, "Concubines, Slaves, and Illicit Interfaith Relationships," in which Zorgati shows that in contrast to the treatment of marriage, concubinage was an area in which Muslim and Christian laws were more similar in their permissiveness. At the same time, looking at three different fatwā rulings and comparing them to Christian legal codes, she concludes that "the rights of female slaves, especially those who became mothers, were considerably better within the Islamic cultural orbit of medieval Iberia than in the Christian kingdoms"(142). Zorgati offers an original explanation for the reasons for bans on mixed unions in her final chapter, which is one of the most critically sophisticated and least descriptive of the book.

These six core chapters are framed by a theoretical apparatus setting up the terms through which the examples of each chapter are explained. Although these theoretical remarks are concise and could be elaborated in more detail without redundancy, they nevertheless raise some interesting points. The conclusion drawn from all the examples is that the common notion "that legal discourses on conversion and intermarriage may be used as boundary-maintaining mechanisms" (171) is too simple. While Zorgati fruitfully explores the meaning of hybridity (or the other terms she uses, also drawn from modern cultural studies, such as métissage, acculturation, transculturation, and most prominently, pluralism) in the introduction, she does not often pause in her analysis to consider the theoretical complexity of the examples, instead confining such theorization to the introduction and conclusion only. For example, in her discussion of the case of "the woman whose father might have converted," we read, "The available information in the fatwā suggests that the woman is a Muslim, but that she has lived her entire life as a Christian. Therefore, her identity appears hybrid" (51). I find this sort of labeling clumsy and partly misleading because it treats "hybridity" as a category of analysis whose meaning is stable and somehow transhistorical. Zorgati's own introduction has already shown that the issue is more complex than this. Indeed, her most useful intervention is to question "conceptions of pre-modern identities as static, only filling in predetermined social roles" and to show that such identities were often "multifaceted, changing, kaleidoscopic entities" (176). The impression this leaves is of a nagging dissonance between the scholarship in the core chapters and the theoretical criticism in the introduction and conclusion. The key issue in the case of the "woman whose father might have converted" is to whom cases like this would "appear" to reflect hybridity, and Zorgati does a good job using the details of each fatwā to show how the cases looked to the jurists. What receives less attention in the chapters is how that perspective is different from a modern historical perspective based on different notions of selfhood, autonomy, and identity, and how that difference affects the reach of modern theoretical explanations. Her work would be stronger if the individual discussions in the chapters shared more of the theoretical depth and careful nuance of the introduction.

This criticism does not by any means nullify the value of either the ideas or examples presented in the book. Zorgati's book is an original approach to Iberian legal sources and she should be commended for her effort to raise the register of her discussion above the punctilious descriptiveness that comparative legal scholarship could so easily succumb to. Zorgati seems to recognize the stakes of her approach when she mentions in her introduction a "tension" she sees in work on this subject between a "'realistic' or positivistic" methodology--one that points "to the reality behind the text"--and a "discursive" one, "focusing on how texts reflect representations of reality" (19). Although she claims to embrace the latter, her discussion, in my reading, falls somewhere between the two, sometimes treating hybridity and pluralism as discursive formations or shifting products of representation and interpretation, meaning different things in different historical periods, other times treating them as immutable characteristics possessed by the individual subjects and societies described in her sources. While this makes for a sometimes uneven tone in her analysis, which still has a few of the rough edges and infelicities of a dissertation, this is more than made up for by the soundness and range of her scholarship, which moves with deftness and erudition between Muslim and Christian legal sources. On the whole, this book deserves recognition as a well-grounded and original intervention into the study of medieval law, one that will generate fruitful debate about the nature of Iberian society and the usefulness of postcolonial theory as a lens through which to view the past.



1. Simon Gaunt, "Can the Middle Ages be Postcolonial?" Comparative Literature 61.2 (2009): 160-176.

2. Nadia Altschul, "The Future of Postcolonial Approaches to Medieval Iberian Studies," Journal of Medieval Iberian Studies 1 (2009): 5-17 at 9.