This is a guest post by Lev Weitz, a Kluge Fellow and Assistant Professor of History and Director of Islamic World Studies at the Catholic University of America.
Most visitors think of the Library of Congress as a storehouse for treasures of American history. But the Library is also home to many lesser-known collections that illuminate remarkable histories from other corners of the globe.
A case in point is two unassuming boxes held by the Library’s Near East Section that contain several hundred document fragments covered with the handwritten, cursive scrawling of medieval Arabic. Once thrown away in the desert at the edges of Egypt’s Nile Valley, documents like these were dug up in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and sold on the antiquities market to collectors and institutions like the Library.
These scraps of paper, papyrus, and parchment record the everyday transactions—marriages solemnized, taxes paid, letters mailed to loved ones—of everyday people living in Islamic Egypt as early as the seventh or eighth century. At times, they offer fresh vantage points on the religious history of a region too often and too readily associated with extremism and sectarian conflict.
Take the two documents pictured here. They record what might seem to be wholly uninteresting transactions—two individuals, Baba Boutros and Baba Banila, buy some apartments in a building in the Egyptian village of Tutun, now an archaeological site (with a new name) on the desert edge of rich farmlands watered by canals from the Nile. The documents date from the early tenth century, about 300 years after Muslim armies first took control of Egypt from the Roman Empire and a time when Egypt was growing into an increasingly important center of the Islamic world. When Baba Boutros and Baba Banila decided that they wanted their property titles to their new apartments in writing, they went to a local court where a Muslim scribe versed in the conventions of Islamic law drew up the Arabic deeds that we find in the Library today.
Our story becomes more interesting when we look closer at the identity of our protagonists. Baba Boutros and Baba Banila were not Muslim villagers but Christian monks, members of a monastery called Deir al-Qalamun still in operation today at its desert location some thirty kilometers from Tutun. (‘Baba’ means ‘father’ in Coptic, the Christian version of the same Egyptian language that had been written in hieroglyphics in ancient times; ‘Boutros’ is Arabic for ‘Peter.’) The fact that the monks made use of Islamic law to handle their real estate concerns is noteworthy.
While Islam was the official, dominant religion of tenth-century Egypt, medieval Islamic societies allowed any given religious community to use its own laws and customs in the management of its affairs. Muslims had Islamic law courts, for example, while Egypt’s Jews had rabbinic ones. (The records of medieval Cairo’s Jewish community were preserved in an ancient synagogue and are still being studied by scholars today.) Christianity spread widely in Egypt in the centuries after the life of Jesus, and Egypt’s Coptic Church had a rich tradition of both canon and civil law. Church scribes could well have drawn up deeds of purchase for Baba Boutros, Baba Banila, and the Christian villagers from whom the monks bought their properties. Yet Baba Boutros and Baba Banila, monks though they were, preferred the services of Islamic legal institutions.
Why did they do so? In all probability, the monks would have had an easier time enforcing the terms of an Islamic legal contract because any dispute about it would have been handled by an official, state-appointed judge. Nonetheless, Baba Boutros and Baba Banila didn’t have to deal with Islamic law and its representatives if they hadn’t wanted to. Yet they did; and the routine, unproblematic nature of their transactions can help unsettle any easy images we might have about an eternally sectarian, religiously divided Middle East.
Our two documents are records of a boundary-crossing, of interactions across religious lines that are only more meaningful for how mundane they were. Western publics consume a considerable amount of reporting on sectarian conflict and religious extremism in the contemporary Middle East and North Africa. From ISIS’s atrocities against religious minorities to the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Yemen, the last few years have done much to inspire pessimism. Today’s conflicts can give the impression that religious difference has only ever been a source of tension, that societies with multiple religions existing in the same, often resource-scarce areas are inherently unstable and bound to unravel at some point.
Our documents offer two fragmentary, brief glances into a different, deeper history—not of any paradise of interfaith understanding, but of human societies in which religious difference has been a millennia-long fact of life to be negotiated or ignored on a daily basis. There was simply nothing particularly transgressive about Baba Boutros and Baba Banila heading to a Muslim court to record their real estate transactions. The same holds true for countless other instances of interreligious interaction that have long characterized the history of the Islamic Middle East in quieter moments away from the headlines.
Did Baba Boutros and Baba Banila conduct business at their local Muslim court frequently? How well did they know the Muslim neighbors who signed as witnesses on their deeds? All we can know are the snapshots, the momentary fragments of much fuller lives that the documents show us. (For a fleshed-out, dramatic tale of love and revenge set amid the symbiotic relationship between Muslim villagers and Christian monks in twentieth-century Egypt, interested readers may want to take a look at Bahaa Taher’s classic novel Aunt Safiyya and the Monastery.)
But sometimes the fragments—a few scraps of parchment deposited in the Library of Congress, thousands of miles and hundreds of years from Baba Boutros and Baba Banila’s Egypt—are enough to afford us a different perspective on often-misunderstood histories.