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Upcoming Conference: Arabs, mawlâs and dhimmis, December 11-12, 2013

Arabs, mawlâs and dhimmis: Scribal practices and the social construction of knowledge in Late Antiquity and Medieval Islam

WHO: Convened by Hugh Kennedy and Myriam Wissa; Organised by Myriam Wissa
WHEN: 11 and 12 December 2013
WHERE: the Warburg Institute, London

In the past few years criticisms have been levelled at the restriction of high-ranking or low-ranking “scribe”, secretary, copyist or calligrapher to produce or reproduce texts. Thus, recent studies have focused on evidence of scribal activity in the writing and transmission of knowledge in tangible media, more significantly manuscripts. There is a great merit in these claims but there are some difficulties. Neither the Late Antique nor the medieval Islamic worlds should be considered homogeneous. They consisted of a diverse set of cultures, religions and societies where Arabs, mawlâ(non-Arab Muslim converts) and dhimmis co-existed. There may be similarities in concept but there are likely to be differences in practices due to regional traditions. Trade connections and exchange also created fluidity in the construction of knowledge. When knowledge and writing are juxtaposed from across the Empire, they suggest very different directions for research in specific time and space. In addition one can identify linguistic, political, administrative, legal, historical and geographic categories of knowledge whose potential is triggered by certain needs and values. In the majority of cases, the craft of writing was merely used as a state-sponsored tool of control. The contact between different social and cultural groups resulting in the transmission of ideas leads one to a number of questions that might be asked. Was knowledge constructed only via patrons, via makers or via both patrons and makers? Was it constructed through social pressure? To what extent was the process of transmission via writing a representation of available knowledge? How does this knowledge appear in the terminology and tone of writing? Positing these questions in the context of Late Antiquity and Medieval Islam from al-Andalus through North Africa, Egypt, and Syria to Iraq, Persia and Bactria as far afield as Turfan and Ethiopia, the workshop will address linguistic (lexical and grammatical), political, rhetoric, legal and religious classes of knowledge. By focusing on the relationships between the processes of composing, copying, transcoding, archiving, the “construction of meaning” and the transmission and reception of scribal lore within the core of society, it offers a different perspective on the treatment of scribal practices.  This workshop is organised by Myriam Wissa in the context of her Leverhulme funded research project “Bridging Religious Difference in a Multicultural Eastern Mediterranean Society: Communities of Artisans and their Commercial Networks in Egypt from Justinian to the ‘Abbasids (6th-10th centuries)” undertaken in co-operation with Hugh Kennedy. The project seeks to study various trades. “Arabs, mawlâs and dhimmis. Scribal practices and the social construction of knowledge in Late Antiquity and Medieval Islam” will bring together scholars of Late Antique, early and medieval Islamic history and linguistics. Arabists as well as an Egyptologist, a Hittitologist, a Second Temple’s Jewish historian and a Byzantinist are concerned with defining more clearly how written knowledge was constructed and accessed within elite (al-khāssa) and non-elite (al-‘Amma) communities and how scribal practices converged from al-Andalus to Khurasan.

The program of the conference can be found on the Warburg Institute website.

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