Bringing Texts to Life

Bringing Texts to Life

Brinkley Messick, The Calligraphic State: Textual Domination and History in a Muslim Society.
Studies on Muslim Societies, 16.
Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993. xii, 341 pp.

Reviewed by Daniel Martin Varisco

Yemen Update 36(1995):24-25

In 1993 MESA awarded the annual Albert Hourani Award to Brinkley Messick for his ground-breaking study entitled The Calligraphic State. Reading through this book it becomes readily apparent why this particular book was chosen for such an honor. Messick has built on his ethnographic fieldwork among Yemeni jurists to provide a commentary on how Islamic law is applied in context. We are brought into the world of the qadi, themufti and the hakim and the textual universe they navigate. In highlighting the discourse of fiqh in a Yemeni context, we are left with a much fuller appreciation of Islamic law than a textual reading by itself could provide. Here we see a prime example of how anthropology, at the cutting edge, can contribute to a subject once the exclusive domain of reclusive Orientalists. Perhaps the highest compliment that can be given this book is that the often dry subject of the history of law is presented in a refreshing way that is sure to wet the appetite of a wide range of scholars interested in the history of Islam.

What is this book all about? The author (p.1) states it clear and concise at the start:

"This book examines the changing relation between writing and authority in a Muslim society. Its backdrop is the end of an era of reed pens and personal seals, of handwritten books and professional copyists, of lesson circles in mosques and knowledge recited from memory, of court judgements on lengthy scrolls and scribes toiling behind slant-topped desks. As understood here, the calligraphic state was both a political entity and a discursive condition. My aims are to reconstruct one such textual polity and detail its gradual transformation in recent times."

The polity here is highland Yemen,particularly the traditional town of Ibb where Messick originally did fieldwork in the mid-1970s. Ibb lies along the main road up the central axis of Yemen linking Sanaa' and Ta'izz. Messick notes that after this road was paved in 1975, the traditional six-day trip to the capital only took three hours. But this is not just a book about Ibb, as the author makes clear his intent to broaden the discussion to the application of law in Yemen as a whole and indeed to the"textual concerns of broader civilizational and comparative relevance" (p. 3).

The organization of the book follows closely the main components in what might be called the textual context of Islamic law. We begin with "Authority," specifically what defined the authoritative structure of the legal genre; one could even say what legitimized some texts over others. "Authority in a text," writes Messick (p. 16) "depended on a combination of attributes both ascribed and achieved: there were the built-in features of textual ancestry and authorship as well as an acquired reputation and record of dissemination." Particular attention is paid to the genres ofmatn, a basic text often memorized by a student, andshar'ia, the elucidating commentary. The matn is a difficult text to understand since it is a "kind of stripped-down,subconventional prose" (p. 30), perhaps in this regard not unlike the medieval agricultural almanacs I have been trying to make sense of. Messick shows the connections and intricacies of various textual traditions in Yemen, including the Shafi'i, Zaydi, Ottoman and more modern Republican.

The next section of the book is devoted to"Transmission." Messick begins here with the recollections of Qadi Muhammad al-Akwa', the well-known Yemeni scholar and historian, who spoke of his own fears as a youth in going to Quranic school (which he once thought of as a 'slaughter house'). What follows is a superb discussion of what it was like at the starting end of a scholar's progress in traditional Yemen. I was especially struck by the comments of an Ibb scholar who noted his own rebellious youth with the observation that "when a boy is full of jinn (spirits) asa youth he will have great intelligence as an adult" (p. 76). This is a line I quickly committed to my own meager capacity for memorization to recite the next time my 10-year old son prefigures his"intelligence." We are shown the impact on schooling of the printing press, brought to Yemen for the first time in 1877 by the Ottomans(p. 115). Print culture was one of the stimuli to the eventual downfall of the imamate system and Messick notes that the role of young scholars (such as Muhammad al-Akwa') in this revolutionary effort has been overshadowed by the more obvious political acts of the military.

We now reach the stage of "Interpretation,"the application of law to the everyday life of Muslims. The focus ison the Mufti of Ibb, with details on how legal judgements, particular the fatwa, were made and how courts operated. Of particular value is the discussion of the difference between a mufti and aqadi. Unlike the case for judges, Messick (p. 143) shows that the main requirements for a muft£ are simply moral uprightness and intellectual attainment. "Muftis," Messick (p. 151) continues,"were the creative mediators of the ideal and the real of the shari'a."

The final resting point of Messick's analysis is "Inscription." This part begins with a long quotation from the Quran (2:282-284), which passage Messick states is the principal source for approved use of documents in Islam. A number of interesting ideas about Islamic texts as texts are explored in these final two chapters and conclusion. Among these are the implications of the transmission from speech to writing (p. 205), the importanc eof the witness (pp. 206-208), the relevance of registration of documents (pp. 222-223), and the relation between physical and conceptual space. The short conclusion sums up what Messick calls the condition of the "calligraphic state." "In this regard," he (p. 255)writes, "the 'calligraphic state' is itself a construct, referring neither to a specific polity and its dissolution nor to a particular discursive moment and its transformation. It is instead a composite of historical materials and must finally give way to the phenomena out of which it was built."

To assist the reader, the book includes a brief biographical guide to the historical figures mentioned and a glossary. The notes are extensive and should not be neglected. The author chose not to use transliteration, a rather costly act tha tmost publishers hate with a passion. It would have been nice,however, if the few pages of the glossary had been transliterated. Ionly noticed a few printing errors (for example, 'possesions' on p.48 and 'parlimentary' on p. 71), but the most glaring is the mispelling of Paul Dresch's name as Dresh in the text and bibliography, while properly spelled on the back of the flyleaf. I also wonder why some first names in the bibliography are spelled out and others are not, but I am probably one of the few people who would even take note of such obvious trivia.

If The Calligraphic State does not already grace your private bookshelf or reside expectantly on the shelves of your nearest university library, it should. If your interest is in Yemen, I would go so far as to say it must.

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