Formal and informal Patronage among Jews in the Islamic East: evidence from the Cairo Geniza

Formal and informal Patronage among Jews in the Islamic East: evidence from the Cairo Geniza

By Marina Rustow

Al-Qanṭara, Vol.29:2 (2008)

Abstract: This paper investigates the political culture of the Islamic East under Fatimid and Buwayhid rule (tenth-twelfth centuries) via relationships between patrons, clients, protégés, and partners. The main body of evidence I utilize are letters and petitions from the Cairo Geniza that employ the same specialized vocabulary of patron-client relationships one finds in Arabic histories of the period: idioms referring to the exchange of benefit, reciprocal service, protection, oversight, patronage, and loyalty.

The Geniza letters, written without regard for posterity, suggest that these idioms were used well beyond the courts and were understood and deployed by men and women, the literate and illiterate, the important and the inconsequential. Yet the use of certain terms in Judaeo-Arabic also differs from their use in Arabic: some reflect devaluation over time, while others hardened into formulaic phrases. These differences suggest that some forms of patronage did not thrive beyond the hothouse of the court; viewed from another perspective, they also suggest that even outside courtly literature, one can retrieve fossils of older forms of patronage in the terms used to describe relationships between leaders and their followers as well as among people more nearly equal in station.

A society’s use of social metaphors reveals something of what its members value, what they choose to retain and perpetuate from the past, how they function in moments of crisis, and how successfully their rulers have managed to convince them of the legitimacy of the social and political order. Conversely, the vocabulary of patronage was a social technique that allowed Jews to conduct business, engage in politics and communal regulation, and to amass and retain followers in a variety of spheres, including that of the rabbinic academies who proffered the construction of Judaism that became hegemonic over the course of the Middle Ages.

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