Professor Marina Rustow’s note: “Having been asked twice now to contribute to the ILB, I’ve been making my way into the corpus of Islamic notarial documents preserved in Cairo Geniza. In the hope of understanding them better, I taught a PhD seminar on them in Fall 2022. Two of my students, Amel Bensalim and Athina Pfeiffer, kindly agreed to share this series of blog-posts with me.”
Iqrār, or “acknowledgement,” documents record a formal attestation by one party (the declarant, al-muqirr) that another (the beneficiary, al-muqarr lahu) holds a right over them. The declarant agrees that they must provide a payment or property to the beneficiary, and that failure to do so holds some kind of legal consequence. The beneficiary can also suggest the specific timing, manner, and quality of the payment.
Khan’s 1993 monograph, Arabic Legal and Administrative Documents in the Cambridge Genizah Collections (henceforth ALAD) is a good place to begin familiarizing yourself with iqrār documents and their structure and formulae. The Cairo Geniza corpus is another great place to begin searching for iqrārs and other Arabic legal documents, but iqrārs can pop up in other document collections as well. The medieval Persian-language iqrārs found in Afghanistan are just beginning to receive much-deserved scholarly attention. Getting a handle on the genre is an important step towards understanding the history and function of Islamic legal institutions over a wide temporal and spatial context.
Structure and Formula
Medieval iqrārs have a remarkably stable formula. In almost any iqrār composed between the fifth and seventh hijrī centuries, you can expect to find at least three or four of the formulaic elements below.
The open secret in Arabic documentary palaeography is that you don’t start by actually reading a document, but by finding formulas and mapping them out. Khan’s thorough analysis and categorization of iqrār formulae is the best place to start.
Like any good Islamic document, iqrārs begin with a basmala, often reduced to this figure:
The two large loops are an abbreviated form of al-raḥmān al-raḥīm. (Often considered the realm of medieval Latinists, abbreviation is in fact a common occurrence in Arabic legal documents, but it takes the form of abusive ligatures or reduced letter shapes, such as lack of denticles, rather than suspended letters or shortened words.)
The very first word or two following the basmala tell you the document’s genre. Iqrārs always begin with the verb aqarra, followed by an identification of the declarant, al-muqirr, often with their occupation and a physical description. Knowing the genre tells you what formulae to expect, and ultimately how to read the document.
Here is a walk-through of a typical iqrār, using a document edited and translated by Khan in ALAD (Fig. 3).
Iqrār Walk Through (T-S Ar.38.2, ed. and trans. Khan, ALAD, n°35)
Iqrārs in Theory and Practice
In Islam’s medieval legal system, iqrārs were very common. Because they were concerned with the exchange of property, they were drawn up for an array of legal acts, and the existence of a related iqrār is sometimes referred to within other non-iqrār legal documents. They were also involved in marriages and divorces: in one case, an iqrār for a divorce was recorded on the back of a marriage contract.
According to medieval legal manuals, iqrārs could have judicial and extrajudicial functions. But the manuals focus on technical requirements for the validity of an iqrār, or on iqrār categorizations based on idealized legal scenarios. For instance, in al-Suyūṭī’s Jawāhir al-ʿuqūd wa-muʿīn al-quḍāt wal-muwaqqiʿīn wal-shuhūd (The essentials of contracts and an aide to judges, notaries, and witnesses), the section entitled Kitāb al-iqrār covers a range of topics, from the legal soundness of iqrārs to advice for phraseology based on different circumstances.
The ultra-specific phrases and legal language that al-Suyūṭī provides are not reflected in the formulae of actual documents. This is understandable: manuals are concerned with advising legal officials on the finer points of the letter of the law rather than understanding contemporary usage. Al-Suyūṭī discusses how iqrārs should be drafted in certain circumstances, while documents demonstrate how they were actually drafted.
Long-form sources also emphasize the function of iqrārs in legal proceedings with a qāḍī. In the documents themselves, however, I have not seen evidence of a qāḍī’s involvement in the drafting of iqrār documents. The extant iqrārs do not contain the annotations of qāḍīs, such as rescripts or tawāqīʿ (sing. tawqīʿ). Their dense formula and legal validity was instead the work of notaries. Iqrārs invite us to look beyond qāḍīs and their courts and towards the notaries’ ḥawānīt, or booths.
A notary’s job required both a high level of education and judicial literacy. Notaries even gave legal advice. While notaries could often be found wherever judges held audiences, such as in mosques, they also worked independently out of street booths, ḥawānīt al-taʿdīl, or in populous areas. People could therefore solicit notaries to draw up iqrārs, without qāḍī involvement, confident that the notary’s expertise would guarantee a valid document.
Moreover, the iqrārs that notaries drew up reflected an established and ongoing relationship; a notary might review and update a single iqrār and its related document multiple times. Thus, iqrār documents had to be precisely formulated to be legally valid, and also carefully stored to be available for consultation. Notaries’ work and the notes they left deserve closer inspection.
One curious document from the Cairo Geniza gives us a glimpse into this world of notaries, documents, and archives.
A Notarial Record Book
T-S Ar.39.459 is an unpublished specimen the physical characteristics of which immediately stand out from among ordinary iqrārs.
It is a bifolio comprised of four long, narrow, and meagerly margined pages. Three of the four pages each contain an iqrār involving different people, but each concerning a quittance (barāʾah) for a debt. The bifolio format suggests some kind of record or ledger. The document features two small and equidistant holes, likely the legacy of daftars in which individual bifolio sheets were stacked and then bound (Fig. 4). But the question remains, what kind of record was it?
The contents may help illuminate that mystery. Thematic unity (all are quittances) suggests deliberate organization and categorization. There is also a considerable amount of “missing” content. The iqrār on the recto, left-hand page, begins:
- Bismillah al-raḥmān al-raḥīm
- Aqarra Majd l-ʿArab ibn Muḥammad al-zubdī al-yahū[dī]
- fī ṣiḥḥatin minhu wa jawāz amrihi ṭāʾiʿan ghayr mukrah [wa-lā mujbar]
(“In the name of God, the beneficent the merciful. Majd l-ʿArab ibn Muḥammad, the Jewish butter-maker, acknowledged in sound health, his acts being legal, voluntary, not forced or coerced…”)
Although it begins with the expected aqarra, it skips the physical description of the declarant and shortens the confirmation of his legal capacity. In fact, all three documents do. Looking further down the page, they are all missing the expected witness statement as well. Those formulae were clearly deemed unnecessary for this type of record. The addenda that do exist, however, are worth looking at closely.
If we skip to the bottom section of the bifolio, we see more unexpected elements. Two of the documents bear this same note: ashhadu bi-dhālika wa-kataba [___] ibn ʿAbd Allāh fī tārīkhihi (“I testify to that, written by [___] ibn ʿAbd Allāh on its [the document’s] date”).
In these sections, the ashhadu bi-dhālika means that IbnʿAbd Allāh testifies to the text, yet no standard witness attestation formula appears; thus, the fact that a standard witness attestation and standard iqrār formula are all missing from this bifolio, combined with the format, suggest that this is a notarial record which was not intended to function as a standard iqrār. Other notes corroborate this theory.
Each document in the bifolio features a note written by ʿAbd al-Razzāq b. Aḥmad. Notably, the iqrārs themselves were written in hands different from both Ibn Aḥmad and Ibn ʿAbd Allāh. Ibn Aḥmad was not making these copies himself, but perhaps he wrote the original documents. In Fig. 6, he says “ashhadanī Majd al-ʿArab b. Muḥammad,” or that the declarant Majd al-ʿArab called Ibn Aḥmad to witness, and that Ibn Aḥmad acted as a notary (“kataba”). Ibn Aḥmad leaves a note like this on every document in the bifolio; he was clearly a witness and notary for hire. Like Ibn ʿAbd Allāh’s notes, the wording of Ibn Aḥmad’s signature makes it clear that these are not his official witness statements, as they lack the standard witness formula and the verb form shahada. A final notary leaves a third note on all three documents, saying “shahidtu bi-maḍmūnihi wa katabahu Mūsā ibn Rajā ibn ʿUmar fī tārīkhihi” (“I testified to its surety, written by Mūsā ibn Rajā ibn ʿUmar on its [the document’s] date”).
This notary, unlike the two previous, was not making a note of testimonies; he was quality-checking and certifying the copies, using the technical term ḍamana.
This helps draw back the curtain on notary practice: this bifolio, on which several notaries left a mark, could be an example of what Daisy Livingston calls “archival practices … determined above all by short-term needs.” While the bifolio likely had no probative value, it may have had didactic purposes. These would explain its unusual features and the codicological evidence of its storage. Moreover, this document gives us a real sense of the networks and even hierarchies of notaries, individuals who otherwise seem deceptively independent in their work.
This unassuming document reveals, through both material and textual analysis, a deeper network involved in the world of notaries and the production of legal documents.
I hope this introduction to iqrārs and the issues and questions they raise has given you an appetite to read more of them. Iqrārs are chock-full of information for scholars to salivate over: economic and financial agreements, marriages and divorces, and physical descriptions of individuals! There are a host of other details offered in iqrārs and, importantly, a host of iqrārs waiting to be studied. Above all, the genre stems from the fecund world of legal document production. Considering the notarial document above has convinced me that we are only just beginning to peel back the layers of complexity. A history of Islamic law that truly utilizes these extant documents is begging to be written.
 See also Michael Thung, “Written Obligations From 2nd/8th to the 4th/10th Century,” Islamic Law and Society 3 (1996): 1–12.
 See, for example, Princeton University Special Collections, Michaelides collection, Islamic Manuscripts, Third Series no. 584e, Oversize, items 2–5, 8, 14, and 32. There are also iqrārs in the cache of documents dubbed the “Afghan Geniza.” See Ofir Haim, “What is the ‘Afghan Geniza’? A short guide to the collection of the Afghan Manuscripts in the National Library of Israel, with the Edition of Two Documents,” Afghanistan 2 (2019): 70–90.
 Ofir Haim, “Acknowledgement Deeds (iqrārs) in Early New Persian from the Area of Bāmiyān (395–430 AH/ 1005–1039 CE),” Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society 29 (2019): 415–46.
 See the forthcoming blog post here by Athina Pfeiffer, “Documents to Sale as Living Objects.” See also Princeton University Library, Special Collections, Islamic Manuscripts, Garrett Additional no. 20, Item 26, line 3.
 Khan, ALAD, 195. The divorce iqrār itself is faint and too difficult to read. Yvon Linant de Bellefonds, in an Encyclopedia of Islam II article, says that iqrārs related to marriage are “non-patrimonial,” but whether or not that is reflected in actual iqrār documents related to marriage and divorce requires further study. See Yvon Linant de Bellefonds, “Iḳrār,” in Encyclopaedia of Islam II, eds. P. Bearman, Th. Bianquis, C.E. Bosworth, E. van Donzel and W.P. Heinrichs (consulted online on December 13, 2022).
 Christian Müller, “Acknowledgement,” in Encyclopaedia of Islam III, eds. Kate Fleet et al. (consulted online December 13, 2022).
 Having said that, it is important to note that there was not necessarily a strict binary between notaries and qāḍīs, and qāḍīs could also be notaries. See Emile Tyan, Histoire de l’organisation judiciaire en pays d’Islam (Leiden, 1960), 349. Some documents also mention, in passing, qāḍīs who were also shāhids, but these references require further study. For examples within Khan’s edited corpus, see Khan, ALAD, n°s 23 and 41.
 Tamer el-Leithy, “Living Documents, Dying Archives: Towards a Historical Anthropology of Medieval Islamic Archives,” al-Qantara 32 (2011): 410.
 Khan, ALAD, 7.
 I am currently preparing an edition for the Princeton Geniza Project database.
 See, for instance, S. D. Goitein’s index card on this document, and Marina Rustow, The Lost Archive: Traces of a Caliphate in a Cairo Synagogue (Princeton University Press, 2020), 343 and chs. 3 and 12.
 This phenomenon is attested in other Geniza documents. See S. D. Goitein, A Mediterranean Society (University of California Press, 1988) 1:206, and Rustow, Lost Archive, 98.
 Usage of the non-past first person (ashhadu) within a witness statement is attested in at least one other iqrār document. See Khan, “An Arabic Document of Acknowledgement from the Cairo Geniza,” Journal of Near Eastern Studies 53, no. 2 (1994): 117-124.
 Daisy Livingston, “The Paperwork of a Mamluk Muqṭaʿ: Documentary Life Cycles, Archival Spaces, and the Importance of Documents Lying Around,” Al-Uṣūr al-Wusṭā 28 (2020): 358.
 To this end, see Christian Müller, “Les actes notariés en droit musulman (VIIIe-XVIe siècles),” Studia Islamica (2022): 1–23.
(Suggested Bluebook citation: Amel Bensalim, Getting to know iqrārs, Islamic Law Blog (Jan. 24, 2023), https://islamiclaw.blog/2023/01/24/getting-to-know-iqrars/)
(Suggested Chicago citation: Amel Bensalim, “Getting to know iqrārs,” Islamic Law Blog, January 24, 2023, https://islamiclaw.blog/2023/01/24/getting-to-know-iqrars/)