Islamic Law Materialized: A new database for Islamic documents from the Middle Ages

Mainz Professor of Byzantine Studies and specialist in Arabic Studies Johannes Pahlitzsch cooperates with the French research center CNRS to create a new database for historical Arabic documents


Scholars from Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (JGU) in Germany are participating in the creation of a new database for Arabic documents from the 8th to 15th centuries A.D. Legal documents issued or attested by courts across the entire Arabic-speaking world are being collected as part of the project. This material includes documents such as contracts of purchase, estate inventories, debt acknowledgments, marriage certificates, and divorce decrees. Head of the Islamic Law Materialized project is Directeur de Recherche Christian Müller at the French research center CNRS in Paris. As an expert in Byzantine and Arabic Studies, Professor Dr. Johannes Pahlitzsch is taking part in the project on behalf of Mainz University.

The database includes both edited and as yet unedited documents that reflect common legal practice in their respective time periods. "These documents, which were prepared by a court, are often now found in monasteries or libraries. They’re basically equivalent to the notarized documents that we know today," explains Professor Johannes Pahlitzsch. He also notes that "by compiling these texts into a database, we'll be able to collate them with one another so that we can understand them even better." There are often standard phrases that appear repeatedly in these documents. So, when the text is put into the database, such standard phrases are identified and the text can then be compared to others.

According to Pahlitzsch, "most of what we currently know about legal practice in the Arab-speaking world has to date been derived from legal manuals. But, thanks to the database, we will be able to analyze the exact provisions of the decrees and make comparisons between them. This will give us a much better idea of actual practices." The project was launched in 2009 with the support of the European Research Council (ERC). Scholars from Mainz officially joined the project in 2011 and will remain on-board until the end of the project in 2014. They will mostly be entering documents from Christian institutions, such as churches and monasteries, into the database. In cooperation with Christian Müller, they are also planning a conference in Mainz on the topic of archives in Christian institutions located within the Islamic world. Scholars from Madrid, New York, and Vienna are also contributing to the project. At the moment, the database is only available to the scholars involved and not yet to the general public.

Johannes Pahlitzsch was appointed Professor of Byzantine Studies at Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz in April 2009. The regional focus of his research is Jerusalem and, in particular, the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem with its libraries and archives. He has been a scholar of the Byzantine world for many years and is an expert on the archives of Greek Orthodox churches and monasteries in Syria and Egypt. In the Islamic Law Materialized database project, Pahlitzsch will be supported by assistant Naim Vanthieghem of Mainz University.