January 7th, 2013
Review of Uriel L. Simonsohn, A Common Justice: The Legal Allegiances of Christians and Jews Under Early Islam. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011. 320 pp. $79.95.
By Marc Herman
If recent historiography has reexamined the “parting of the ways,” challenging scholars to redraw the relationships between late antique religious communities, Uriel Simonsohn questions the extent to which we can recognize these groups as distinct in the early Islamic period. Where earlier scholarship saw discrete, autonomous “national and religious” dhimmī groups (6), Simonsohn’s A Common Justice shows just how hard Jewish and Christian religious elites were fighting to establish these very divisions. A Common Justice portrays a fierce competition for allegiance, one in which law was a significant tool used to delineate porous communal boundaries. On this view, the increasingly loud polemic on the part of Jews and Christians against the courts of non-believers witnessed after the rise of Islam was an ongoing attempt to limit the juridical options in a legally pluralistic society. Jewish and Christian leadership each sought to establish “legal supremacy” (13) within “Islam’s Judicial Bazaar.”
Simonsohn’s primary goal is to reconsider the social structures of the early Islamic period. Here, it is necessary to take a wide perspective of the Islamicate and compare Jewish and Christian sources. This is an admirable achievement of A Common Justice, as Jewish studies is too often limited by comparisons with either non-contiguous Jewish communities or the reigning religious majority. (In the early Islamic period, though, the situation is significantly more complex, as Islam’s numerical dominance was undoubtedly slow in coming). Only by seeing how Jews fared in light of the diverse society in which they lived is it possible to situate them historically. Here, Simonsohn admits that Christian literary remains date from an earlier period than Geonic literature. As others have realized, the early Geonic period is frustratingly opaque. Nevertheless, Simonsohn is justifiably confident that he can tell a compelling story of how confessional leadership utilized law to maintain social authority.
This study is divided into two parts. The first argues that both before and after the rise of Islam, legal authority was diffuse and localized. By reading a wide range of sources—Roman, Sassanian, Jewish, Christian, and Islamic—Simonsohn convincingly demonstrates that law was a site of contention between religious groups. This ongoing and shared “rhetoric of insularity” (47, quoting Albert de Jong) should not blind us to social realities this language both masks and seeks to construct.
Having established that late antique and early Islamic societies were far more inter-confessional than religious leaders would have liked, part two of this study details just how complex the legal realities really were. Simonsohn first shows that even within the eastern churches and Rabbanite Jewry, there was no recognized central legal authority. He seeks to highlight a crucial distinction between the ecclesiastical and Geonic leadership: whereas church leaders actively competed with laymen for control of the judiciary, the Geonim were not in competition with those outside the academies. This was not, however, due to any loyalty to the Geonim. Instead, against Moshe Gil’s interpretation that the lack of conflict between the Geonim and far flung Jewish communities indicates loyalty to the Babylonian academies, Simonsohn argues that this silence shows the very independence of these communities; they simply had no need to struggle with the Babylonian leadership. Here, Simonsohn concurs with Marina Rustow’s conclusion that Jews were loyal to multiple Jewish institutions in this period, claiming that the Geonim had limited authority to govern distant communities.
This diversity was also expressed by Christians and Jews seeking courts which could benefit them the most. Often, this “forum shopping” led them to Islamic courts, used both to take advantage of laws that might be more beneficial to the claimants and as a tool to manipulate the minority’s own judiciary. This weakness of Christian and Jewish institutions is the subject of the last two chapters of part two. Unable to limit the options of their coreligionists, leaders within each community were forced to accommodate Islamic legal practices within their codes.
In the conclusion, Simonsohn brings his study full circle, arguing that the reality of early Islamic legal pluralism is evidence that the lives of non-elites in this period were not solely governed by confessional boundaries. When ecclesiastical and Rabbanite leaders sought to elevate litigating outside of one’s community to the level of dangerous heresy, they were demanding exclusive fealty of those who took advantage of their pluralistic society.
Thus, despite its title, A Common Justice is really about several competing justices. It is an important book, one that will appeal to anybody who studies the late antique and early Islamic periods, as it challenges numerous assumptions about the social realities of those times. In so doing, it forces scholars to reread many texts produced by religious elites of every community in this period. A Common Justice will also appeal to scholars of legal pluralism, who are presented with a case study of how legal orders with various degrees of power compete within a shared space. Simonsohn deserves significant praise for this contribution.