Universiteit Leiden

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Research project

The formation of Islam: The view from below

By examining the impact of Islam on the daily life of those living under its rule, the goal of this project is to understand the striking newness of Islamic society and its debt to the diverse cultures it superseded. Questions will be the extent, character, and ambition of Muslim state competency at the time of the Islamic conquest; the steps - military, administrative and religious - by which it extended its reach; and what this tells us about the origins and evolution of Muslim ideas of rulership, religion and power.

Duration
2009  -   2015
Contact
Petra Sijpesteijn
Funding
ERC Starting Grant ERC Starting Grant

This project aims to write a history of the formation of Islam using the vastly important but largely neglected papyri from Egypt. Until the introduction of paper in the 10th C., papyrus was the Mediterranean world’s primary writing material. Thousands of papyrus documents survive, preserving a minutely detailed transcription of daily life, as well as the only contemporary records of Islam’s rise and first wave of conquests. This project is dedicated to developing the potential of this extraordinary resource.

The prevailing model of Islam’s formation is based on sources composed by a literary élite some 150 years after the events they describe. The distortions this entails are especially problematic since it was in these first two centuries that Islam’s institutional, social and religious framework developed and stabilised. To form a meaningful understanding of this development requires tackling the contemporary documentary record, as preserved in the papyri. Yet the technical difficulties presented by these mostly unpublished and uncatalogued documents have largely barred their use by historians.

This project is a systematic attempt to address this critical problem. The project has three stages: 1) a stocktaking of unedited Arabic, Coptic and Greek papyri; 2) the editing of a corpus of the most significant papyri; 3) the presentation of a synthetic historical analysis through scholarly publications and a dedicated website. By examining the impact of Islam on the daily life of those living under its rule, the goal of this project is to understand the striking newness of Islamic society and its debt to the diverse cultures it superseded. Questions will be the extent, character and ambition of Muslim state competency at the time of the Islamic conquest; the steps – military, administrative and religious – by which it extended its reach and what this tells us about the origins and evolution of Muslim ideas of rulership, religion and power.

The ERC project The formation of Islam: the view from below is to write a history of the formation of Islam using the vastly important but largely neglected papyri from Egypt. Until the introduction of paper in the 10th c., papyrus was the Mediterranean world's primary writing material. Thousands of papyrus documents survive, preserving a minutely detailed transcription of daily life, as well as the only contemporary records of Islam's rise and first wave of conquests.

The prevailing model of Islam's formation is based on sources composed by a literary elite some 150 years after the events they describe. The distortions this entails are especially problematic since it was in these first two centuries that Islam's institutional, social and religious framework developed and stabilised. To form a meaningful understanding of this development requires tackling the contemporary documentary record, as preserved in the papyri. Yet the technical difficulties presented by these mostly unpublished and uncatalogued documents have largely barred their use by historians.

This project is a systematic attempt to address this critical problem. The project has three stages:

  1. a stocktaking of unedited Arabic, Coptic and Greek papyri;
  2. the editing of a corpus of the most significant papyri;
  3. the presentation of a synthetic historical analysis through scholarly publications and a dedicated website.

By examining the impact of Islam on the daily life of those living under its rule, the goal of this project is to understand the striking newness of Islamic society and its debt to the diverse cultures it superseded. Questions will be the extent, character, and ambition of Muslim state competency at the time of the Islamic conquest; the steps - military, administrative and religious - by which it extended its reach; and what this tells us about the origins and evolution of Muslim ideas of rulership, religion and power.

Prof Dr Petra M. Sijpesteijn

Project leader

Phone: +31 (0)71 527 2027 
E-mail: p.m.sijpesteijn@hum.leidenuniv.nl 

Office and postal address: 
Witte Singel 25 / M. de Vrieshof 4, room 109b 
2311 BZ Leiden, The Netherlands

Dr. Jelle Bruning

Within the FOI project, Jelle Bruning has written an historical PhD thesis entitled "The rise of a capital: On the development of al-Fusṭāṭ’s relationship with its hinterland, 18/639-132/750" (defended in 2014). In this thesis, he studied the relationship between Egypt's Arab capital, al-Fusṭāṭ, and its Egyptian hinterland. The main topics addressed are the political, administrative, military, and relationship between Alexandria and al-Fusṭāṭ and the political, administrative and juridical relationship between al-Fusṭāṭ and Upper Egypt.

Dr. Janneke H.M. De Jong

Janneke de Jong works on the edition and study of Greek papyri from the first two centuries after the Arab conquest of Egypt.

Dr. Marie A.L. Legendre

Within the FOI project, Dr M.A.L. Legendre wrote a PhD thesis entitled "Pouvoir et territoire: l'administration islamique en Moyenne-Égypte pré-ṭūlūnide (642-868)", which she defended in 2013. She studied in this thesis the development of the administrative context of the towns of Antinoë/Anṣinā and Hermopolis from the Byzantine to Muslim period. She also studied the relationship between the local administrations and the administrative organization of the province and empire.

Dr M.A.L. Legendre is currently affiliated to Aix-Marseille Université.

Dr. Gesa Schenke

Within the FOI project, Gesa Schenke, a specialist in Coptic Studies and Papyrology, is responsible for discovering and editing new documents from the early Islamic period written in Coptic, the Egyptian language at the time. To obtain this goal, she is consulting material in various European papyrus collections, such as the Berliner and Kölner Papyrussammlung in Germany, the collection of the Bodleian Library in Oxford and the British Library in London.

Dr G. Schenke is currently affiliated to University of Oxford. 
 

Dr. Khaled Younes

Within the FOI project, Dr K. Younes wrote a PhD thesis entitled "Joy and sorrow in early Muslim Egypt. Arabic papyrus letters: text and context", defended in 2013. In this thesis, he edited 43 personal letters written on papyrus, and dating from the 7th through 9th centuries. On the basis of these and other papyri, Dr K. Younes studied emotions related to family matters, feasts and festivities, health, and death.

Dr K. Younes is currently affiliated to Menoufia University (Egypt).

Connection with other research