The Business of Identity: Jews, Muslims, and Economic Life in Medieval Egypt
by Phillip I. Ackerman-Lieberman
Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2014. 446 pp. $65.
Reviewed by Norman A. Stillman
University of Oklahoma
Middle East Quarterly
The Cairo Geniza documents have rightfully been seen as the richest source of information about the intellectual, social, and economic history of the Jews in the medieval Islamic world, and indeed, for Islamic socioeconomic history more generally. In this erudite and sophisticated work, Ackerman-Lieberman, who holds degrees in rabbinics, economics, and Near Eastern studies, reexamines the evidence of commercial and legal documents found in this Egyptian trove and revises the conclusions of earlier scholars who pioneered the field of Geniza studies.
The book opens with a summary and critique of the outlook and main themes of S.D. Goitein, the doyen of Geniza studies, and of several of his protégés, historians of the so-called Princeton School. Ackerman-Lieberman, who also trained at Princeton, notes the humanistic approach of Goitein and others and how many of their assumptions were absorbed to a greater and lesser degree by the subsequent generation of scholars. The author concludes that many of these assumptions and conclusions on the convergence between Muslim and Jewish business practice, as well as social practice, are "tentative at best."
Next, he analyzes evidence in the sources that was not always used by his predecessors. Examining the institutions of commercial partnership from legal documents rather than business correspondence, Ackerman-Lieberman concludes that the documents "actually reflect the models of commercial cooperation outlined in the Talmud and subsequent Jewish legal materials" and not those of their Muslim neighbors. He then demonstrates that Jewish religious and cultural identity constituted "an important component of economic decision-making." This finding differs from the Princeton school, which views the Jews of the Geniza world as thoroughly embedded within Islamic society and its commercial legal system.
Ackerman-Lieberman then asks how typical were the merchants and the practices revealed in the Geniza and how representative were they of their co-religionists? Taking a more skeptical approach than his mentors and colleagues, he marshals evidence for "a stratum of Jewish partnership practice" that diverges from the Islamic legal codes cited by A. L Udovitch and others, and which calls into question "the assumption of commonality of practice between Jews and Muslims." The author bolsters his views with a valuable appendix of legal documents that includes many agreements along with an explanatory introduction and annotation.
Ackerman-Lieberman suggests that his findings will herald "a sea change in the study of Geniza documents away from the commonalities ... in favor of complex social forces." This remains to be seen, but the author has made a serious and scholarly effort to change the focus of the field.
Related Topics: Egypt | Norman A. Stillman | Winter 2016 MEQ
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