Tracing the Judicial Infrastructure of a Rural Province

By Lev Weitz

In my last essay on using digitized sources and databases for historical research with Arabic documents, I used the Arabic Papyrology Database (APD) to discern a concentration of contracts of sale originating from the southern Fayyūm Oasis in late ʿAbbāsid and Fāṭimid Egypt. In this essay, I’ll take a look at these contracts alongside an expanded corpus of documents from the same context to see what they can tell us about the region’s Islamic legal infrastructure. How did the provision of Islamic justice and legal services in an out-of-the-way rural province work? It turns out that this infrastructure was impressively thick and widely distributed. The picture of robust judicial institutions in the countryside I’ll offer here is a good example of the views into Islamic legal history we can get only when we turn to documentary evidence.

Let’s return to the APD Documents tab and search for “Contract of sale” originating in the Fayyūm. Notice that the documents begin to appear in the second half of the ninth century and continue through in good number to the end of the eleventh. As Mathieu Tillier has convincingly argued, this sudden emergence is evidence for the new appointment and expansion of trained notaries and other judicial officials in the Egyptian countryside. The documents are the material remains of their work, and of the process that established institutions of Islamic justice in outer provincial areas under the auspices of the Ṭulūnid, Ikhshīdid, and Fāṭimid rulers of Egypt.[1] In the Fayyūm, the communities to which the documents give some amount of access include the villages of Ṭuṭūn, Buljusūq, Ṭalīt, Uqlūl, and Damūya, and, to a lesser degree, Shushhā and Barbanūda. All these villages appear in legal documents as homes of buyers, sellers, creditors, debtors, witnesses, and other participants in legal proceedings. They all lie in the southern Fayyūm, close enough to the edge of human settlement that arid conditions preserved discarded documents over the centuries.[2]

This region and its surviving documents thus provide a rare opportunity to study the operation of Islamic legal institutions in a rural, provincial context. So how did such institutions work? How readily accessible were Arabic notaries to a medieval villager who needed to get a document drawn up? How far did one have to travel to find a judge to rule on a dispute? How extensive was the human infrastructure of the sharīʿa in the countryside?

‘Not very’ was my guess when I first started working on this documentary corpus. My biases as a modern urbanite led me to think it unlikely that scribal literacy and Islamic legal learning were widespread in a medieval rural environment; I presumed that there must have been one center to which villagers from the surrounding region would repair when they needed a contract drawn up or a dispute litigated. Indeed, one document provided good evidence for just such a legal-judicial center: a dispute settlement of 404/1014 that describes itself as having been recorded at the majlis al-ḥukm of Ṭalīt, just four and ten kilometers respectively from the document-rich villages of Ṭuṭūn and Buljusūq. One conceivable model would thus have this Ṭalīt majlis as the lone anchor of Islamic legal practice for its surrounding rural area; we would imagine that all the surviving legal documents from the region were products of this tribunal, its business, and its associated notaries.

But on further reflection, the documentary evidence throws up a number of problems with this interpretation, and points instead to an impressively thick and widely dispersed presence of Islamic scribal and legal knowledge across even this corner of a rural province. Consider first the question of witnesses. As a rule, most legal documents from the southern Fayyūm exhibit plenty of witness signatures, usually more than the familiar two required by fiqh standards. If those documents were the product of a single court setting or hub of notaries, we would expect to find a good deal of repetition in the witnesses’ names regardless of the village the parties hailed from. But this is manifestly not the case. I’ve collated 93 south Fayyūm legal documents on which the witnessing sections are preserved, yielding a total of 448 separate witness signatures. There are plenty of individuals who show up more than once on documents from individual villages—for example, Abū Sahl b. Khalaf b. Ibrāhīm in Buljusūq here and here, or ʿAbd al-Ṣamad b. Yūsuf in Ṭuṭūn here and here, among many others. But no one crosses the document pools—that is, no single witness signs multiple documents belonging to parties from different villages.

This fact suggests either that Arabic notarial services were available in multiple villages, each with its own citizens acting as witnesses, or that witnesses from one village traveled with the parties to a central court. But the latter would have been impractical and defeated the purpose of a central court with its own corps of professional witnesses. The former must be the case. The upshot of this trawl through the distribution of witness signatures is that knowledge of Arabic letters and fiqh notarial practice was dispersed across multiple villages. Arabic-Islamic document drafting services, at least, were thick on the ground in the late ʿAbbāsid and Fāṭimid countryside.

This observation is all the more notable for the fact that much of that countryside looks to have remained heavily Christian in the period under question. Almost all the parties to transactions, as well as their neighbors mentioned in property boundary descriptions, in the well-attested villages of Ṭuṭūn, Buljusūq, and Damūya bear Coptic names. (The same holds for Barbanūda, near Ṭuṭūn, though we only have three documents concerning it.) This Buljusūq land sale, for example, was concluded between Abū al-Sarī b. Haliya b. Rafrafīl al-Naṣrānī and Thiyudurus b. Kīl b. Halistūs; the neighboring property owners were named Abnīla b. Isḥāq and Yuḥannis b. Bardasana. The succession of Coptic names one finds in the documentary record gives the strong impression that Islamic legal institutions became cornerstones of social organization for rural Egyptian Christians in this period.[3]

Who were the local notaries and other individuals tasked with providing legal services? The documents have more hints to reveal. Village-level Muslim religious functionaries look to have doubled as local judicial officials and likely convened in these capacities at village mosques. Take Buljusūq again. Though Christians made up a considerable part of its population, the village must have had enough Muslims to host the congregational mosque (jāmiʿ) mentioned in one published document. And indeed, the staff of the mosque show up as witnesses and scribes of several contracts. Take a look, for example, at item 26 of this unpublished collection.[4] The first witness in the lower lefthand corner, whose hand and use of brown ink show him to be the scribe of the document as a whole, identifies himself as Idrīs b. Jaʿfar, Buljusūq’s sermonizer and congregational leader (khaṭīb).

Princeton University Islamic Manuscripts, Garrett Additional no. 20 (26) 
shahida Idrīs bn Jaʿfar al-khaṭīb bi-Buljusūq bi-jamīʿ mā (fī) hādhā al-kitāb wa-kataba bi-khaṭṭih
Idrīs b. Jaʿjar the sermonizer in Buljusūq bore witness to all of what (is in) this document. He wrote in his own hand.

The signatory to Idrīs’s right, Dāwūd b. Ibrāhīm, is the village muezzin.

shahida Dāwūd bn Ibrāhīm al-muʾadhdhin bi-jamīʿ mā fī hādhā al-kitāb wa-kataba bi-khaṭṭih
Dāwūd b. Ibrāhīm the muezzin bore witness to all of what is in this document. He wrote in his own hand.

Idrīs the khaṭīb, his son, and muezzins other than Dāwūd show up in other Buljusūq documents, which cements our sense that Buljusūq’s mosque functionaries were also the village’s provisioners of legal services. Their levels of education in Arabic letters must have varied—compare Idrīs’s fluid hand to Dāwūd’s clumsy block letters.

These observations on the organization of the notariate in Buljusūq likely parallel the situation throughout the Fayyūm’s village landscape. Khaṭībs of Ṭalīt, Shushhā, and Uqlūl also appear in the documents as witnesses and scribes, suggesting that the mosques of these villages served as centers for the provision of Arabic notarial services. A prominent family of the Christian village of Damūya contracted its business in the neighboring village of al-Lahūn, where the khaṭīb Muḥammad b. Aḥmad drafted, witnessed, and registered their documents.[5] The Christians of Ṭuṭūn probably did something similar, traveling the four kilometers west to Ṭalīt with its majlis al-ḥukm to have contracts drawn up.[6]

If Arabic-Islamic notarial services were available in an impressive number of villages across the southern Fayyūm, what about adjudication? If you wanted a dispute settled by an official familiar with sharīʿa principles, did you have to travel to a central court in a larger town, or was it possible to stay closer to home? The documents indicate again that the provision of justice, like that of document drafting, was decentralized. A qāḍī sat in the provincial capital beginning likely during the ʿAbbāsid period, and we know that south Fayyūm villagers appealed to him.[7] We also know from the dispute settlement mentioned above that a court convened in the village of Ṭalīt (the document does not mention the title of the presiding judge). But these were not the only options. Interestingly, sale documents from a few other villages, including Uqlūl and Barbanūda, feature signatures by individuals identifying themselves as a mustakhlaf ʿalā l-ḥukm, something like a “representative with the power of judgment,” while a petition to Madīnat al-Fayyūm mentions a khalīfat al-qāḍī, “judge’s delegate,” in Ṭuṭūn.[8]

These references suggest that a host of minor officials were delegated judicial powers of some kind at the village level; these officials made up a layer of judicial authority between rural subjects and the qāḍī of the provincial capital. Whether these individuals held regular or ad hoc judicial sessions, whether they lived in the villages for which they were responsible or just visited them, and other such matters are uncertain. But like Arabic notarial services, the provision of sharʿī justice appears to have been impressively widely distributed across the Fayyūm’s rural landscape. We should imagine that judicial institutions were just as robust in the province’s many villages not located near the major document find spots as in those whose documents happen to have been preserved and discovered.

The landscape of provincial legal practice we’ve explored in this essay is discernible only through documentary sources (and much aided by accessible modern satellite mapping technologies). Islamic legal literature in the form of ḥadīth, uṣūl, furūʿ, and fatwā works offer a point of entry to the minds and commitments of scholars in great urban centers; biographical dictionaries tell us of their worlds of elite sociability. If we want to explore ‘law in action’ for as representative a sample as possible of the population of a pre-industrial society, few resources paint as textured a vista as the documentary records of the notaries, judicial officials, and average villagers of the Fāṭimid Fayyūm.


[1] Mathieu Tillier, L’invention du cadi: La justice des musulmans, des juifs et des chrétiens aux premiers siècles de l’islam (Paris: Publications de la Sorbonne, 2017), 114-35.

[2] Damūya is a partial exception. Though it too was close to the desert, the documents pertaining to it were found in excavations of the nearby Dayr al-Naqlūn monastery. It appears likely that one of Damūya’s prominent seventh century citizens, Jirja b. Bifām, retired to the monastery later in life and brought his documents with him. They are published and studied in Christian Gaubert and Jean-Michel Mouton, Hommes et villages du Fayyoum dans la documentation papyrologique arabe (xe-xie siècles) (Geneva: Libraire Droz, 2014).

[3] See Lev Weitz, “Islamic Law on the Provincial Margins: Christian Patrons and Muslim Notaries in Upper Egypt, 2nd-5th/8th-11th Centuries,” Islamic Law and Society 27 (2020): 5-52.

[4] Mathieu Tillier and Naïm Vanthieghem are preparing an edition and study.

[5] See Gaubert and Mouton, Hommes et villages.

[6] Discussed in Mathieu Tillier and Naïm Vanthieghem, “La rançon du serment. Un accord à l’amiable au tribunal fatimide de Ṭalīt,” Revue des Mondes musulmans et de la Méditerranée 140 (2016): 53-72, at 59-60; Lev Weitz, “The Long Arm of the Provincial Law: A Custody Battle in a Qāḍī Petition from the Medieval Fayyūm,” al-ʿUṣūr al-Wusṭā 30 (2022): 47-78, at 56-59.

[7] See the petition published in Weitz, “Long Arm.” I suggested in this article that the qāḍī in question sat in Ṭalīt, but a forthcoming publication by Mathieu Tillier, Naïm Vanthieghem, and Ahmed Kamal demonstrates that he must have been the qāḍī of Madīnat al-Fayyūm, the provincial capital.

[8] Weitz, “Long Arm.”

(Suggested Bluebook citation: Lev Weitz, Tracing the Judicial Infrastructure of a Rural Province, Islamic Law Blog (Apr. 13, 2023),

(Suggested Chicago citation: Lev Weitz “Tracing the Judicial Infrastructure of a Rural Province,” Islamic Law Blog, April 13, 2023,

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