A Common Justice: The Legal Allegiances of Christians and Jews under Early Islam. By URIEL I. SIMONSOHN. Divinations: Rereading Late Ancient Religion. PHILADELPHIA: UNIVERSITY OF PENNSYLVANIA PRESS, 2011. Pp. ix + 306. $79.95, 52 [pounds sterling].
In this study of the practices and regulations related to the use of extra-confessional and non-confessional courts by Jews and Christians in early Islam, Uriel Simonsohn covers a broad swath of time extending from late Roman and Sasanian times to the 'Abbasid period. He focuses on East Syrian (Nestorian) and West Syrian (Jacobite) Christian communities and on Near Eastern Rabbanite Jews, and argues that the early Muslim era offered Jews and Christians (as well as Muslims) a plurality of judicial fora and that this diverse and dynamic legal landscape was a measure and a reflection of broader social and cultural webs of affiliation linking individuals and groups across communal boundaries. At the same time it gave rise to varied efforts made by formal legal authorities to tame or contain this legal landscape and to equate judicial transgression with communal transgression. Both the reality of pluralism and the responses it evoked should invite us to revisit older notions regarding the extent of the legal and communal autonomy enjoyed by Christians and Jews in early Islam and to debunk the view that dhimmi status was predicated on rigid legal and communal segregation. Instead, Simonsohn adopts Victor Turner's fluid concept of "communitas" to suggest that those were "semiautonomous communities" in which religious affiliation was important but not the sole marker of communal membership (p. 214).
The book is comprised of an introduction, six chapters in two parts, and a conclusion. Part one, "Legal Pluralism in Late Antiquity and Classical Islam: Survey and Analysis," consists of two chapters. In the first, "A Late Antique Legacy of Legal Pluralism," Simonsohn surveys the respective legal landscapes of late Roman and Sasanian times in the three centuries leading to the Arab conquest, arguing that the Jewish and Christian communities of the Near East had multiple legal fora at their disposal before the advent of Islam. Although we lack evidence as to the extent of legal pluralism, there is enough evidence regarding its reality and, by extension, social and cultural pluralism.
In the Eastern Roman empire a plethora of secular and religious, formal and informal judicial institutions, authorities, and practices coexisted. Simonsohn argues that the blurring of lines between state and church legal institutions as well as the multiplicity of legal avenues were less a measure of waning imperial control and more a testimony to adaptation to new realities. For example, episcopal tribunals (iepiscopalis audientia), already formalized by the fourth century, were legitimized not only on account of their spiritual authority but also because they were sanctioned by the state and as such were one more means of extending state authority. In addition to imperial magistrates and bishops, there were also legal arrangements that stood outside the church: Christian holy men, broadly understood to include local clergy, monks, and solitary stylites. Simonsohn contends that people had choices: they went "forum shopping" among institutions that often overlapped and sometimes collaborated...