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Culture and Society in the Medieval Muslim World


Admission requirements

Admission to the MA ‘Middle Eastern Studies’ or the MA ‘Middle Eastern Studies (research)’ is required. Furthermore, students should be able to use Arabic sources, which form the core of the material studied and discussed in class. Please, contact the student advisor, Nicole A.N.M. van Os or the instructor if you are interested in taking this course but NOT a student of one of the above-mentioned MA programmes and/or if you are not certain your level of Arabic is sufficient.


This course will examine the daily life experience of medieval Egyptians through literary and documentary sources, especially papyri and paper documents. Using original documents from the first four centuries of Islam, we will treat such topics as the theoretical framework of documentary evidence; literacy, education and scribal practices; the character and practice of muslim rule as expressed in governmental institutions, such as the court, the law, and the bureaucracy ; the maintenance of law and order through policing, and the prison system; patronage and networks of social dependency – to whom did people turn in cases of conflict or need; family relations and how these were expressed in legal, social and economic terms; economic realities and activities; religion and interreligious relations. The course has two connected goals: to deepen the student’s knowledge and experience of the social history of medieval Egypt and to familiarise him/her with the written sources of this period. These two academic goals are joined in the work with primary sources, such as coins, documents, manuscripts and inscriptions, which is central to this course.

Overview of class topics:

  • Introduction and methodology: why study documentary sources?

  • The formation of Islam: the papyrological perspective

  • Building an empire: Building Umayyad mosques in Damascus and Jerusalem

  • Crime and Punishment

  • A global commercial network: national and international trade

  • Valorization and legalization of documents

  • Christian-Muslim relations

  • Care of the poor and the weak

  • Whom to turn to in times of distress: Petitions

  • Religious feasts and rituals

  • Family life: Marriage, divorce and birth

  • The extended family: Slaves and servants

  • Egypt in the world: a multi-faceted, interconnected society

Course objectives

Objectives of this course are:

  • to allow students to develop a strong and detailed understanding of the pertinent primary and secondary sources;

  • an ability to critically assess prevailing approaches to the subjects covered;

  • to become thoroughly acquainted with the historical debate on the social history of medieval Muslim Egypt;

  • to discuss theoretical approaches to the theme;

  • to become familiar with the main reference works used in the study of medieval and pre-modern Egypt;

  • to become familiar with the tools needed to understand the primary sources (coins, documents, manuscripts) relevant to the study of this period;

  • to develop and carry out a small research project on a well-defined topic, based on primary source texts;

  • to report on research findings orally (by reading a paper) and in writing, in accordance with the basic standards of historical scholarship.



Mode of instruction

Seminar: weekly attendance and participation is required. Each week an assignment will be handed out to be prepared for the next class and to be discussed in class. Students are expected to be able to answer the different issues presented in the homework. The assignment will introduce students to the main reference works and tools of the study of medieval Arabic history.

Course load

Total course load: 280 hours

  • Contact hours: 26 hours

  • Preparation classes, presentation and writing paper: 254 hours

Assessment method

  • Oral presentation: 20%

  • Participation and performance in weekly assignments: 20%

  • Final paper (written; c. 5000 words): 60%

The final paper is written in two stages: a first version which will be commented on and a final version. Students who do not meet the deadline for the first version will lose the right to get comments and will only be graded based on their final version.

In order to pass the course, students must obtain an an overall mark of 5.50 (=6) or higher.

The course is an integrated whole. The final examination and the assignments must be completed in the same academic year. No partial marks can be carried over into following years.



Reading list

  • P. Crone, God’s Rule: Government and Islam. Six Centuries of Medieval Islamic Political Thought, New York: Columbia University Press, 2004 (or the same book with the title Medieval Islamic Political Thought, Edinburgh University Press, 2004).

  • M. Cohen, Under Crescent and Cross, Princeton University Press, 1994.

  • Further readings, indicated in the syllabus, will be provided via Blackboard or the pidgeon hole in the department or will be made available on a ‘reserve plank’ in the university library or the NINO library.

Reading assignment for the first class:
Students should sign up before the first class on Blackboard for this course where the reading and assignment for the first class can be found. Students should bring their completed assignment to class.


Students are required to register through uSis. To avoid mistakes and problems, students are strongly advised to register in uSis through the activity number which can be found in the timetable in the column under the heading “Act.nbr.”.

Exchange and Study Abroad students, please see the Study in Leiden website for information on how to apply.


Prof. Dr. P.M. Sijpesteijn


Students with disabilities

The university is committed to supporting and accommodating students with disabilities as stated in the university protocol (especially pages 3-5). Students should contact Fenestra Disability Centre at least four weeks before the start of their courses to ensure that all necessary academic accomodations can be made in time conform the abovementioned protocol.

Academic Integrity

Students are expected to be familiar with Leiden University policies on plagiarism and academic integrity. Plagiarism will not be tolerated. If you submit any work with your name affixed to it, it is assumed to be your own work with all sources used properly indicated and documented in the text (with quotations and/or citations).