Just Writing: Paradox and Political Economy in Yemeni Legal Documents

Essay Excerpt

This tension in the legal domain between text and testimony, resolved in a decisive but unstable privileging of the latter, is but a specific instance of a far more general Muslim concern with the relationship of writing and speech. With this larger perspective in mind, and with reference to the particular context of thought and practice in Yemen, I want to examine both the evolution of the conceptual status of the legal document and the historical relationship obtaining between actual documents and the concrete human undertakings they supposedly represent. I am interested in the political economic circumstances surrounding both the transformation of the local Yemeni doctrine concerning legal documents and the changes in the form and content of the documents themselves.

How does the broader speech/writing attitude structure the relationship of this specific type of legal text to the human relationships of the world? Later in this discussion, I examine the process of entextualization via a reading of a Yemeni contract of sale. That such texts are humanly constituted goes without saying; just how they are constituted poses the general question of the dialectical relationship of law and political economy, of legal forms and concrete human undertakings. Documents are mediations, their writers mediators, between the enduring text of shari'a law and the particulare vents of the world. I consider the problematic way documents fit the law to the world, and the world to law-rendering form historical and giving form to history. (Messick, 26-27)

About the Author

Dr. Messick is a professor of Anthropology at Columbia University. Writing and reading, considered as cultural and historical phenomena, have figured centrally in my research on Islamic societies in both Arabia and North Africa. This work considers the production and circulation, inscription and subsequent interpretation of Arabic texts such as regional histories, law books, and court records. I have sought to understand the relation of writing and authority, events such as the advent of print technology in the Middle East, hybrid contemporary practices of reading, and local histories of record keeping and archiving. Much of this work dovetails with my general interests in legal anthropology and legal history, and with my specific interests in Islamic law. One current project is an historical anthropology of the administration of shari’a law in an agrarian-era Islamic state, based on close readings of mid-twentieth century court records from Yemen. Another project involves a critical review of anthropology’s early disinclination, as a matter of disciplinary identity, to deal with written sources. -Messick

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