- The Business of Identity: Jews, Muslims, and Economic Life in Medieval Egypt by Phillip I. Ackerman-Lieberman
A quick perusal of the titles of new monographs and journal articles in medieval studies illustrates that the question of identity is a popular subject. A reflection of our own modern preoccupation with cultural belonging, this trend in medieval scholarship has led to new considerations of how [End Page 327] members of past societies presented their individual and communal identities. Phillip Ackerman-Lieberman's recent book, The Business of Identity: Jews, Muslims, and Economic Life in Medieval Egypt, focuses on Jewish identity through a selection of legal and economic documents from the Cairo Geniza, with a particular emphasis on partnership contracts. Although Geniza documents have largely been used by scholars to illustrate the medieval Islamic world, Ackerman-Lieberman takes the opposite position. Rather than seeing these documents as evidence of mainstream Muslim society, he "reveals a highly acculturated Jewish community that defined itself through confrontation with, rather than acceptance of, Islamic business practices" (vii). Indeed, in opposition to the standard scholarship established by S.D. Goitein's A Mediterranean Society (Berkeley, 1967), Ackerman-Lieberman argues that the Jewish community in Egypt based their contracts and legal agreements almost exclusively in Jewish law, thus reflecting a particularly Jewish identity.
Ackerman-Lieberman begins the book with a chapter entirely focused on historiography. "Jewish, Islamic, or Mediterranean? Historiography and the Cairo Geniza" is a critical examination of the scholarship of the "Princeton school" (27), which was established by Goitein and his students. Ackerman-Lieberman sees much of their work as a denial of any distinctive Jewish identity in the mercantile world of medieval Egypt, a supposition he argues cannot be supported because "it is not clear that the boundaries or contours of the approach are native to the societies being expressed" (42). Rather, he sees more useful theoretical approaches based in ideas of "embeddedness," as opposed to "assimilation" (43) — concepts expressed in more recent scholarship such as Jewish Life in Renaissance Italy, by Robert Bonfil (Berkeley, 1994).
The second chapter, "Partnership as Culture: Jewish Law and Jewish Life," works on the premise that, rather than basing the mercantile practices visible in the Geniza documents in a Jewish acceptance of Islamic law as part of their assimilation into that society, the Jewish community deliberately looked to Jewish law for their contractual and financial agreements. Indeed, Ackerman-Lieberman illustrates very clearly that in many of the extant contracts, the actions in the documents would stand in contradiction to mainstream Hanafı law, and in fact have a clear basis in Halakhic law (50; ˙ 75–79). Given Ackerman-Lieberman's understanding of the Jewish legal tradition, I found his arguments here particularly convincing, although I would have liked further information on why he focused on the particular documents used in the book.
By illustrating that Jewish law was used in the construction of relationships among various merchants and their associates (75), Ackerman-Lieberman argues in his third chapter, "Commercial Forms and Legal [End Page 328] Norms in the Jewish Community of Medieval Egypt," that the contracts reflect a deliberate choice that a particular class of Jewish merchants made to use Jewish legal avenues, as opposed to Muslim ones (174). He uses unpublished contracts from the Geniza (transcriptions and translations of which are located in the substantial appendices for this book) to argue that, in using Jewish law, these merchants were making deliberate claims about their religious and cultural identity within mainstream Islamic society.
In his final chapter, "The Geniza, Jewish Identity, and Medieval Islamic Social and Economic History," Ackerman-Lieberman uses these texts to theorize different ways of understanding larger Islamic society. By allowing them to be representative of a particularly religious stratum of the Jewish community in medieval Egypt, these texts then become reflective not of the integration of an entire society, but rather the way at least some of the Jewish community lived embedded in medieval Egypt. Using a theory he terms the "specular-relational...