10th Cent. Christians in Egypt preferred Islamic law , rather than Christian Courts (which also show they were allowed to exist and operate)

A Christian professor of Islamic history at Oxford University as written a brief, but fascinating case of Islamic multi-faith acceptance, by highlighting a case of a Christian seeking a divorce and preferring Islamic courts to Christian courts (which were permitted under the Islamic Caliphate system).

This is an interesting case of something I’ve mentioned in my lectures on Shari’ah, namely that Christians (and Jews) living in medieval Islamic Egypt (and other lands) regularly preferred going to an Islamic courts to get favourable rulings, despite the fact that they had separate law courts allowed for them to adjudicate their disputes by. This demonstrates that Islam allows different faith groups to live by their own laws (something secular democracies wouldn’t tolerate, believing it better for everyone to be under is misdirected zeal for “one law for all”, whether it is made by the majority and enforced upon the minority).

Furthermore, it demonstrates that non-Muslims regularly believed their rights could better provided by Islamic law, rather than the laws of their own communities.

Christian Sahner, Associate Professor of Islamic History, University of Oxford, wrote:

“If you’re a Christian in medieval Egypt, and the church won’t grant you a divorce, what do you do? Head to the Muslim court! This fascinating papyrus from the Fayyūm is dated to 909 AD. It records the divorce proceedings of a Christian named Sawīrah (Severus).

It states that Sawīrah divorced his wife, Qasīdaq (the daughter of a monk named George) “three times [and] irrevocably.” The divorce was witnessed by a series of Muslim men, who are named in the papyrus (His father-in-law, the monk, could not have been happy!).

The triple divorce refers to the Islamic practice of ṭalāq, whereby a man may repudiate his wife by uttering the phrase “ṭalāq” three times, thereby dissolving the marriage.

What’s interesting here is how a Christian used the mechanisms of Islamic law to gain a more favorable outcome in his divorce proceedings (this less than 300 years after the Islamic conquest of Egypt).

Traditionally, Christian canon law did not permit divorce, whereas Islamic law took a much more permissive stance towards it (at least for men). Interestingly, there is no hint that Sawīrah converted to Islam in order to gain access to Islamic justice.

This is part of a well-known trend in Middle Eastern history, whereby dhimmīs availed themselves of Islamic courts if it turned out they could gain more favorable rulings (on divorce, inheritance, etc.) than they could before their own rabbis or priests.

Muslims were the rulers of Egypt, but most historians would regard Egypt as having a Christian majority at this time [10th century]. Some believe it endured until the 13th or 14th centuries. [However] this [incident mentioned above] happened before the Fatimid period. They finally captured Egypt in 969, sixty years after this papyrus.

The papyrus comes from Khoury, Chrestomathie de papyrologie arabe, 1993, pp. 42-43. I learned about it while reading the fabulous new book of Lev Weitz, Between Christ and Caliph, 2018, p. 133 (read it!!):

For further reading, also see this book by Uriel Simonsohn, A Common Justice, 2011 (also from @PennPress):

And for a comparison with the Ottoman period, see this famous article by Najwa Al-Qattan, “Dhimmīs in the Muslim Court,” IJMES (1999)”:

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