Imagining the Unimaginable: Egypt, 10th-12th Centuries

Auteur / Author: 
Miriam ALI DE UNZAGA (Independent scholar)
Friday, August 26, 2011 - 10:45


This paper focuses on specific textiles produced under a Muslim dynasty known as Fatimid (10th-12th centuries) whose capital was Cairo (but also ruled — at times — parts of north Africa, Sicily, Syria, Jerusalem, Mecca and Medina). Many of those textiles included inscriptions (tiraz), which often started with the basmala (Bismillah al-Rahman, al-Rahim: In the name of God The Merciful The Compassionate). But some tiraz textiles (hand woven linen and silk) lack the word “God”, so the phrase reads “in the name of The Merciful The Compassionate”. This is something completely unimaginable in today’s standards. Contemporary analysts simply think that there are mistakes and errors because the weaver was illiterate and did not know Arabic, end of the discussion. The contention of this paper is to go beyond this one-dimensional explanation. In that sense, we should ask: how can be sure these are mere errors, when the weaver is trying to imitate Arabic script, why just do it half way? Is it really due to disinterest in the content of the inscription, or in the recipient or customer? Does it have to do with weavers licence? Or with mere ignorance, and careless execution? Were the merchants who commissioned textile pieces also illiterate? Moreover, is the society around the person who has commissioned this textile (which has silk and therefore not cheap) also illiterate in Arabic so that nobody acknowledged the missing words? And more importantly, the control of the tiraz factories did not reach all these weavers who, incidentally, were heavily taxed for producing these type of textiles. Were they all of them non-Muslim and therefore nobody cared about writing correctly the basmala? Are these unusual inscriptions part of the so-called pseudo-calligraphy? Or is there something else going on? This paper intends to illustrate that thinking trough textiles it is a fruitful activity, and it proposes to use the notion of imaginaire (in professor Arkoun’s parlance of “thinking the unthinkable” or “imagining the unimaginable”) as a heuristic tool to understand certain mechanisms, which also occurred in Islamic medieval societies.