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Imperial Government and Authority in Medieval Western Islam

Final Report Summary - IGAMWI (Imperial Government and Authority in Medieval Western Islam)

How language was used to assert imperial power over a diverse population under the Mediterranean Almohad Empire, that united the whole Maghrib and al-Andalus under a Berber rule for the first time in history?
The IGAMWI project has addressed the evolution of chancellery styles, their regional diversity, and the history of this language of authority that was supposed to obey rules definitively fixed by the Prophet or the first secretaries of the Islamic Empire. What were the technical modalities for innovation? On what semantic, lexical, syntactical, and/or graphic levels did it manifest? Rather than on norms, codes, and rules, studies have focused on writing styles, orthographic variants, atypical handwriting, deletion, the transgression of norms, semantic revitalisation, neologisms, and the variety of styles for quoting the Quran or referencing ḥadīth. IGAMWI team has sought to renew the study of a corpus considered not as a fixed and ossified text, technical and off-putting, but as a living, evolving, and diverse ensemble. For this, an inter-disciplinary approach has been necessary, and grammarians, linguists, historians, and literary specialists have be invited to reflect together on the Almohad chancellery texts.
Indeed chancellery writings were the language of power and kuttāb (secretaries-literary scribes). They changed with them and adapted to regional political contexts. Writers who mastered referential texts – Quran, ḥadīth, poetry, grammatical and previous pragmatic texts – developed and elaborated this language according to ideological premises that legitimised a specific political direction. Once the foundational texts had been established and accepted, they were reemployed and reused in the chancellery sajʿ as proof of political and religious orthodoxy. The respect of previous norms, presumedly prophetic, prohibited theoretically any originality or innovation. But in fact it promoted them. Indeed, we noticed that despite its outward conservatism, this form of language constantly evolved and innovated, therefore driving famous kuttāb to be cited as examples and to become models for their successors. This process thus allowed the textual corpus to grow with time and to integrate later texts with tradition and the oldest auctoritates. Up to then, sajʿ had rarely been studied as a specific form of writing with its own codes. Because of disciplinary divisions, its “official” uses (sulṭāniyya) were mostly ignored by literary specialists, while historians neglected them as difficult and hermetic because of their copious use of rhetorical elements. They were less directly applicable than chronicles and geographical works for the political and administrative history favoured in the twentieth century, and so have only been superficially used. Yet, these documents provide direct insight onto the workings of political thought in the Islamic World, from the Middle Ages to the period of colonisation.
Over the six-year duration of the project, the IGAMWI team edited, translated into French and English, about 130 letters of the Almohad diwan al-inshâ’ — the department of correspondence and records of the Caliphal Court — over the 300 that have survived in Morocco, Tunisia, Spain and Italy. The team has published about 70 articles in peer-reviewed journals or chapters of book, six books, and it has five more books to be published. The team members presented about 70 communications related to the project in international conferences. The proceedings of the IGAMWI International conference held in Lyon in November 2013 are to be published in 2017.