The Business of Identity: Jews, Muslims, and Economic Life in Medieval Egypt.

Author:Frenkel, Miriam
Position:Book review

The Business of Identity: Jews, Muslims, and Economic Life in Medieval Egypt. By Phillip I. Ackerman-Lieberman. Stanford Studies in Jewish History and Cultures. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2014. Pp. xvi + 446. $65.

Phillip Ackerman-Lieberman has chosen to examine emotional and social issues, such as self-identity and distinctiveness, through the study of economic life, a field that is traditionally perceived as dominated by rational calculations aimed to maximize material profit. In this sense, he joins a growing tendency in several fields of research (game theory, behavioral economics, and brain research) to blur the traditional rigid boundaries between emotional and rational behaviors. In the book under review, he takes Jewish commercial life in medieval Egypt, as reflected in the Geniza documents, as a case study for examining minorities' self-identity through the lens of their economic life, and argues that Jewish merchants in medieval Egypt conducted their trade in a way that suited and even promoted and buttressed their distinctive Jewish identity.

The book is presented as an ambitious project that aims to revise and reexamine basic assumptions prevalent in Jewish and Islamic studies, the most important of which is that the deep-rooted cosmopolitanism among Jews and Muslims in medieval Egypt resulted in shared practices of daily life. This widely accepted hypothesis led scholars to believe that Geniza documents can be used not only to reconstruct and understand medieval Jewish life, but also to function as a reliable source for Islamic social history, especially in light of the absence of parallel medieval Islamic documentary sources.

The book is very well constructed, with four chapters that address various aspects of its main inquiry, viz., did medieval Jews in Islamic lands conduct their economic life similarly to their Muslim compatriots, and if so, what can Geniza documents tell us about medieval Islamic economic and social history?

The first chapter is a historiographical summary of how the perception of Jewish embeddedness in the Islamic milieu dominated Geniza research and led scholars to use Geniza documents as reliable source material for the history of Muslim life in the Middle Ages. In the second chapter, Ackerman-Lieberman introduces new data from Geniza legal documents and compares them to classical Jewish and Islamic legal sources to show that structures of Jewish economic cooperation did not always follow Islamic law, but rather classical Jewish law. He goes on to show that commercial partnerships among Jews had much in common with other cultural domains, such as marital relations and relations between man and God; in light of this commonality, they constituted a basis for the formation and maintenance of Jewish identity.

The third chapter presents an analysis of the influence of Jewish legal norms on daily practices within the Jewish communities. The author maintains that in such a legally pluralistic environment, the Jewish community's choice to turn to Jewish courts rather than Muslim ones, to which they had free access, should be understood as a deliberate decision to express Jewish communal self-consciousness in the economic sphere...

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