|My primary role in the proposed roundtable “Histories of Slavery in Medieval Islamic Societies” is to highlight the opportunities for scholars that abound in juxtaposing underutilized medieval Arabic documentary sources with the literary works (chronicles, geographies, etc.) that have long served as the evidentiary bedrock for historiography of the premodern Middle East. |
There are thousands of unpublished medieval Arabic documents scattered across collections in Europe, the Middle East, and North America. In general, scholars of Islamic history have paid less attention to these sources due to the paleographic and other challenges inherent in rendering them legible as historical records.
Yet Arabic papyrologists have in fact published many documents—such as bills of sale for slaves and merchant letters—that shed light upon the quotidian practices of slave owners and traders. In addition, scholars working on the Judaeo-Arabic sources from the Cairo Geniza (primarily pertaining to the period between 950 and 1250 CE) are publishing documents that illustrate how Jews, Muslims, and Christians in Egypt and beyond used domestic slaves; these studies also show how slaves themselves navigated legal systems and household structures.
Thus, in response to the roundtable organizer’s first question about sources for the history of slavery, my main contribution will be to demonstrate how scholars can use published documents alongside Arabic literary and legal sources such as chronicles and market-inspector manuals. Historians can draw evidence from documents and literary sources to write histories of Muslim societies that integrate the “view from the ground” with the normative prescriptions found in these literary and legal texts.
The roundtable will also focus on how slavery was a constituent element of Muslim societies. As an example, I will show how documentary sources reveal the nature of social relationships between free women and their domestic slaves—a topic about which Arabic legal and literary sources are largely reticent. Documentary sources indicate how free women relied upon their slave women as practical kin and, after manumission, as clients and proteges. In this sense, domestic slavery provided some free women with social capital and also undergirded their most effective social networks. Further, free women then used the idea of the female owner-slave relationship to conceptualize and articulate idealized notions of kin relations between free persons.