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Orality and Literacy in Early Islamic Administrative Practice

Lucian Reinfandt

Early Islamic administration mixed oral and written aspects: the document was both a symbolic representation of the messenger’s authority, and a medium for transmission of information, which the messenger’s testimony was intended to supplement.   As a result, Arab administrative communication was more oral than written. The explanation stems from the important role of oral communication among Pre-Islamic Arabs (especially in trading cities like Mecca), even though they had recourse to writing and written documents.

Features of Islamic culture that are reminiscent of the traditional dominance of orality include the oral passing-on of historical accounts (isnād), and the preference for oral testimony over the written document in a legal context (šahāda). Even the Qur’an oscillates between oral preaching on the one hand, and the high esteem allotted to its written form and to the physical book, on the other. In the case of administrative communication, there are indications – disturbing and fascinating at the same time – that Arabic official letters, from the first 150-200 years at least, do not reflect actual administrative practice, which was in essence conducted orally. This would apply to all documents aiming at future action (letters, edicts) rather than at conveying or storing information about the past (lists, notes). The (modern) assumption of Aktenmässigkeit, which is to a certain extent justified for the Roman and Byzantine state, seems anachronistic for the early Islamic administration. Although the relationship between messenger and letter, as well as between the oral and written portions of the message, have not been systematically studied for the early Islamic period, preliminary analysis outlined in this paper suggests that the situation was analogous to what has been established for medieval Europe.

For the analysis of early Islamic communication, the following points are to be noted as important:

  1. Contrary to what might be expected on the basis of Greco-Roman parallels, early Islamic administration did not produce a particularly dense “papyrus trail.” Thus the correspondence of the governor Qurra ibn Sharīk with his pagarch Basilius in Aphrodito, in both Greek and Arabic, seems at first sight to be a dense exchange of letters documented for the narrow time span from December 25, 708 to February 4, 711, but in fact Basilius’ chancery received, on average, just one letter per week from the governor.
  2. The importance of messengers, as opposed to documents, in diplomatic exchanges of the 7th and 8th centuries between Arabs and Byzantium.
  3. The unrefined character of early Arabic letters when compared to the Greek material. The complexity of Arab letters gradually increased over the centuries, until in the later Middle Ages a streamlined letter – without a courier – sufficed. This development is reflected in chancery manuals (e.g. Qalqašandī), and underscores the relative simplicity of early Arabic administrative letters and their dependence on additional human intervention.
  4. Stylistic and grammatical features of the letters point to their oral character.
  5. A comparison of the Greek and Arabic letters in the multilingual Qurra archive suggests that they were presented in different ways. For a similar argument, the paper draws on the evidence of two additional archives: of Apollonos Ano (Edfu, late 7th c, Greek), and Nāǧid b. Muslim (Fayyum, middle 8th c, Arabic-Greek). Arabic letters simulated direct (oral) encounters and exhibited few specifically ‘textual’ qualities.

These peculiarities of early Islamic administrative epistolography, and the administrative system that produced its letters, are thrown into sharp relief by a comparison with Ancient Near Eastern and Greco-Roman data.

Session/Panel Title

The Power of the Written Word: Cross-Cultural Comparisons

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