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Cambridge University Library

Throwback Thursday: Arabic manuscripts in the Genizah

T-S K2.96
Detail from T-S K2.96 (verso): a petition to Saladin reused for a work on the Hebrew calendar.
Author: 
Melonie Schmierer-Lee
Thu 23 Sep 2021

Our Throwback Thursday this week is taken from issues 10 and 11 of the printed edition of Genizah Fragments, published in October 1985 and April 1986, by Geoffrey Khan while he was a Research Associate in the GRU:

The vast majority of Genizah fragments are written in Hebrew characters. This is not surprising, since reverence for the Hebrew script was the chief motivation for placing manuscripts in the Genizah. The language of well over half of them, however, is Arabic rather than Hebrew. The proportion of fragments penned in Arabic script is very small, but, given the vast size of the collection, there are a fair number of them.
I have calculated that there must be some 7,000 fragments in Arabic script in the Cambridge Genizah collections, which would be 5 percent of the estimated total of 140,000. Predictably, the language of most of these is Arabic, though a few are Hebrew in Arabic transcription. The latter, mainly biblical and liturgical texts, are generally thought to have been written by members of the Karaite sect.
The presence of manuscripts in Arabic script in the Genizah is rather unexpected. They were probably originally kept in a family archive or library together with Hebrew writings, and when the collection was discarded, some were accidentally mixed up with the manuscripts in Hebrew script which were consigned to the Genizah.
Like the majority of the Genizah papers, the fragments in Arabic characters are mostly datable to the High Middle Ages (eleventh to thirteenth centuries). They are of a very varied content. Some of them are legal documents which were written by Muslim notaries for settlements or contracts (especially of sale and of lease) between a Jew and Muslim or a Christian, or even between two Jewish parties.
Although the Jewish authorities frowned upon members of their community who applied to non-Jewish courts, the Genizah shows us that Jews sometimes brought a lawsuit before the Muslim authorities in order to seek more favourable terms after they had lost in their own court. In other words, they used the Muslim judiciary as a kind of court of appeal. On the other hand, the motivation of two Jewish parties to have contracts of sale and of lease drawn up by a Muslim notary was that the conveyancing of immobile property was taxed and had to be certified by a Muslim authority.
A number of fragments are petitions which were sent by Jews with grievances to the Muslim ruler or a high government official in order to seek redress. These were returned to the sender with a decree written on the back. If the decree was of considerable length, it was put on a separate sheet of paper. Several fragments of such independent decrees are found in the Genizah, as well as other types of documents which emanated from the Islamic Chancery, such as official reports to the ruler and letters of appointment. Of particular value are the numerous Fatimid chancery documents which have been preserved, since only a very small number of these is known to be extant elsewhere.
A large proportion of the manuscripts in Arabic script are literary, philosophical and scientific works. Many of these were probably used by Jews who trained for government service or for the medical profession. Several of the philosophical and scientific fragments are from texts which were previously thought to have been totally lost.
The education which was received by the majority of Jews in mediaeval Egypt was based principally on Jewish tradition. Non-traditional education, the prerogative of a small minority, was broadly divided into two major disciplines: Arabic language and literature, which was studied by Jews who were training for government service, and science-philosophy, which was studied mainly by those who were preparing for the medical profession.
A large proportion of the books used by students of these disciplines must have been in Arabic script, particularly those relating to Arabic language and literature. Many fragments of such books have survived in the Genizah.
The fragments of literary works include proverbs, belles letters (ʿadab), and poetry. The poetical texts are more numerous than the rest. They include several leaves from the Diwan of Tarafa, poems by al-Mutanabbi, and, true to the loyalist spirit of the Jewish community in mediaeval Egypt, fragments of a compendium of poems written in eulogy of the Egyptian Sultan Saladin (reigned 1169–1193). Also preserved are several small snippets of anonymous ghazals and of other genres of poetry which were roughly jotted down in notebooks or on scraps of paper.
There are a number of fragments of Arabic philosophical texts. They are mainly from works of the Aristotelian philosophers of Baghdad or commentaries written by them on the Aristotelian corpus. Also preserved are a few leaves of Arabic translations of Greek commentaries on Aristotle and of various pseudo-Aristotelian works.
A substantial number of the fragments in Arabic script are leaves from medical works. These found their way into the Genizah from the libraries of Jewish physicians. The majority of the texts relate to materia medica (description of drugs and treatment) and therapeutics (preparation of drugs and treatment).
There are also works of symptomology, especially ophthalmology and fevers, and a few works on surgical procedures such as phlebotomy and lancing. A great many of the texts are Arabic translations of the works of Hippocrates (especially the Aphorisms) and of Galen, or commentaries on these works.
The Genizah shows us that certain elements of the mediaeval Jewish community attempted to solve problems through various occult practices. Several fragments relating to these are written in Arabic script. They include astrology texts, horoscopes, almanacs, and various types of magical charms. Many of the charms belong to the field of paramedicine and frequently employ verses from the Qurʿan in their formulation. There was a popular belief among the Jews that the addition of passages from Muslim scripture gave extra potency to magical texts.
Finally, there are several leaves of what appear to be mediaeval scrapbooks. These contain all manner of items which attracted the interest of the writer and which he hastily jotted down for future reference. Of especial interest is one leaf containing a description of games, together with several illustrations.
The Arabic manuscripts in the Genizah are qualitatively representative of the material written in Arabic script which circulated in the mediaeval Jewish community in Egypt. The quantitive proportion of those that have survived vis-a-vis the documents in Hebrew script, however, probably does not reflect the original state of affairs. This is because fragments in Arabic characters found their way into the Genizah by accident rather than by design. It is very fortunate for us that these accidents occurred!

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