Contracting Trust: An Exploratory Essay on Islamic Institutions and Enforcement Mechanisms in Saharan Trade
By Ghislaine Lydon
Paper given at the conference Before and Beyond Europe: Economic Change in Historical Perspective, Yale University (February, 2011)
Introduction: For centuries partnership agreements have proved vital institutional tools for organizing overseas or overland trade. Written contracts, including partnership agreements, regulated the transactions of merchants and lesser traders who tried their luck at making profits from the trans- Saharan caravan economy of northwestern Africa. Such instruments were commonly used probably as far back as the tenth century when writing paper was being manufactured in North African cities such as Fez (Morocco). Properly witnessed and clearly drafted, contracts served multiple purposes ranging from the transfer of either property, rights to property or powers of attorney. Historians have long recognized to what extent commercial entrepreneurs relied on contracts to coordinate far-flung multi-party and multi-purpose transactions. More than half of the documents featured in the landmark collection of trade records of the medieval Mediterranean published by Roger Lopez and Irving Raymond in the 1950s are contracts of various kinds. The Cairo Geniza, a treasure trove of Maghribi trade records for the early medieval period, contains a fair number of contracts. Saharan family archives, from a much later period, are equally flush with contractual forms, whether directly drafted by merchants on pieces of paper, big and small, or embedded in commercial letters. References to contracts and sometimes elaborate discussions of them can be gleaned from the non-binding legal opinions or fatwas penned by jurists called upon to provide guidance or deliberate on contested concerns.