The Business of Identity: Jews, Muslims, and Economic Life in Medieval Egypt

The Business of Identity: Jews, Muslims, and Economic Life in Medieval Egypt

The Business of Identity: Jews, Muslims, and Economic Life in Medieval Egypt

The Business of Identity: Jews, Muslims, and Economic Life in Medieval Egypt

Synopsis

The Cairo Geniza is the largest and richest store of documentary evidence for the medieval Islamic world. This book seeks to revolutionize the way scholars use that treasure trove. Phillip I. Ackerman-Lieberman draws on legal documents from the Geniza to reconceive of life in the medieval Islamic marketplace. In place of the shared practices broadly understood by scholars to have transcended confessional boundaries, he reveals how Jewish merchants in Egypt employed distinctive trading practices. Highly influenced by Jewish law, these commercial practices served to manifest their Jewish identity in the medieval Islamic context. In light of this distinctiveness, Ackerman-Lieberman proposes an alternative model for using the Geniza documents as a tool for understanding daily life in the medieval Islamic world as a whole.

Excerpt

Are the temptations of the marketplace so powerful that they overcome one’s distinctive cultural preferences? Does “acculturation” necessarily mean “assimilation,” or do subgroups somehow find a way to maintain their unique identities even when they are highly embedded in a larger society? What role do traditional dictates of such subgroups have in shaping behavior, particularly where local custom diverges from traditional law? What can the documentary evidence of subgroups tell us about the life of the whole?

In this book, I examine these questions in the context of the economic and social life of the Jewish community of medieval Egypt. The first study to focus on the commercial life of this community through the legal documents of the Cairo Geniza—the richest documentary source in the study of the medieval Islamic (and Jewish) world—this study reveals a highly acculturated Jewish community that defined itself through confrontation with, rather than acceptance of, Islamic business practices.

Each of the four chapters in the book addresses a distinct question, all connected with the Geniza and how it can be used to describe not only Jewish economic and social history but also the economic and social history of the Islamic milieu from which the Jewish Geniza documents emerged: How have scholars used the Geniza documents as a tool for understanding the social and economic history of the medieval Mediterranean world? What do legal documents from the Geniza tell us about how Jewish merchants cooperated, and what do these modes of cooperation tell us about Jewish culture in general and “Jewish” identity in particular? What role, if any, did the classical . . .

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