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The mysterious power of words: language, law, and culture in Ottoman Damascus (17th-18th centuries).

On February 13, 1763, 'Abd al-Rahman ibn Ahmad walked into the main courthouse of Damascus as a defendant. He had divorced his wife that very day and was now liable for the unpaid portion of her dowry, which according to the provisions of Islamic law, was owed to the wife at the time of divorce or the death of her husband. Abd al-Rahman insisted that his debt came to fifty piasters, but his wife, represented by her brother, was adamant that it was really one hundred. He would admit only that he had divorced his wife, and demanded evidence from the plaintiff to support her claims. When no proofs were offered, well-known rules went automatically into effect: in the absence of any other evidence, the court would take the defendant's word. 'Abd al-Rahman needed only to swear a simple oath. The judge asked for him to come forward, place his hand on a copy of the Quran (1) and formally testify to his innocence. But at that moment, something quite unexpected happened: he refused. The judge asked him twice more, but each time, he would not approach. It was a fateful decision which left the judge with no choice, for reluctance to take this kind of exculpatory oath was regarded as a tacit admission of guilt. The judge immediately ruled against 'Abd al-Rahman and ordered him to pay one hundred piasters to his wife. (2)

Browsing through the voluminous records of the Islamic courts, which operated in provincial centers throughout the Ottoman Empire, one periodically comes across the same mysterious cases. (3) Why would defendants, who had an easy opportunity to acquit themselves, not submit to a seemingly harmless oath? (4) What prompted this inner censorship, this sudden change of heart? The court records tell us nothing about motives and offer few other details, and so we can only speculate. Perhaps these defendants were unusually upright individuals who, in the moment of truth, could not betray their conscience. But if they were really so honest, one would need to explain why they had ever bothered to contest the case--not to mention, why they had not told the truth in the first place. One possibility is that defendants like 'Abd al-Rahman were carrying out the equivalent of a legal bluff, knowing full well that they were in the wrong, but hoping not to be caught. If so, this loss of nerve would be costly as well as embarrassing: the losing side was required to pay all the expenses of the proceedings. They were certainly not trying to conduct the equivalent of a plea bargain; confession of guilt did nothing to reduce the sentence imposed by the judge, which was virtually automatic. (5) More likely, they had practical motives. They may have feared the consequences of perjury and assumed that the truth would eventually come out anyway: better to come clean now than to lose face later. These concerns were not imaginary. Ottoman Damascus functioned as an essentially oral culture, which meant that only a small number of religious scholars and scribes had much facility with the written word. Most people relied heavily on verbal pacts to conduct business, conclude agreements, and enforce contracts. In the weighing of evidence, the legal system itself frequently resorted to oral testimony, which often mattered more than written documents in determining the outcome of litigation. (6) Thus an unblemished reputation was more than a matter of pride and morality; it was a crucial asset in social and economic life, opening lines of credit, easing relations with neighbors, and maintaining credibility in legal and communal disputes. In many ways, people were only as good as their word.

All these reasons undoubtedly played a part in dissuading potential perjurers. But did calculation of worldly interest act as the only deterrent? The courthouse drama which left 'Abd al-Rahman speechless centered around the recital of an oath--a familiar formula, a few perfunctory words. It may seem simple enough to say them, but 'Abd al-Rahman evidently could not bring himself to do it. His hesitation, bordering on awe, suggests that profound beliefs and inhibitions were coloring his thoughts and holding him back. What made words (or at least particular kinds of words such as oaths) seem so threatening and portentous? If we really want to understand these powerful psychological reactions, we need to step outside the courthouse and look beyond its arcane rules and rituals. Wandering into the streets, we need to turn instead to language itself and set the use of oaths among prevailing habits of speech, along with the manners, gestures, and emotions which typically accompanied them and inflected their meaning. Only this broader sociolinguistic background, so obvious to contemporaries but largely invisible to us, can explain the unusual weight that oaths seemed to carry, the situations in which people might resort to them, and the responses that they would be likely to provoke.

At first glance, the study of speech and communication in the Ottoman Middle East--or indeed, in any premodern population--would seem to be foolhardy. We cannot, after all, hear people from the distant past speak; they have left us only written records which contain little more than traces of conversations, expressions, and mannerisms. As historians and sociolinguists have taken pains to point out, spoken language has its own rules of style, syntax, and tone which cannot easily be captured on paper and sometimes conflict with those which govern writing. Narratives of conversations, moreover, cannot by any means be treated as straightforward renditions of what participants actually said. (7) These difficulties, which are numerous and cannot be underestimated, help to explain why the social history of speech remains largely unexplored territory--particularly outside North America and Western Europe.

The task is even more challenging for a society like Ottoman Damascus in which only a small minority of people attained full literacy. Damascenes (who were quite typical of residents in other Ottoman towns) never developed the habit of keeping private journals in which they expressed themselves directly or jotted down the words of others. The literate few devoted their talents mostly to poetry and religious scholarship; they had a preference for an elaborate formalism and a florid style which placed little value on self-expression, emotional intimacy, or anything like individualism. As a further complication, written Arabic was (and remains) quite distinct from spoken dialects, which had their own cadence, idiom, and choice of vocabulary. Authors have therefore preserved few samples of everyday speech apart from random snippets. Official records are equally disappointing. In the absence of a formal municipality, there was nothing like a police force which might have kept transcripts of interviews and investigations. The files of the Islamic courts, which might seem to hold out great promise, limit themselves almost entirely to formulaic summaries of cases, depriving us of verbatim accounts of their deliberations. Litigants and witnesses remain practically anonymous--obscure names without faces or detailed personal histories. It is as if the entire culture was determined to take refuge behind a decorous silence, preferring to keep posterity at a safe and socially respectable distance.

Since direct analysis is virtually impossible, we will have to look for more roundabout methods of examining everyday speech. Despite the extreme reticence and formality of the literature, which widened the linguistic gap between writing and speaking, authors have left many other clues about the use of words. Narratives such as chronicles and biographical dictionaries supply important background details about the manners that speakers used. They can tell us, above all, about the terms of social interaction: tone of voice, facial expression, use of hands, bodily posture and motion. Even more helpful are less educated authors, such as soldiers, who wrote in a crude Arabic which more closely approximated the idioms and vocabulary of the street. They had no scruples about mixing colloquial expressions, Turkish loan-words, and other stylistic impurities into their straightforward prose, which sometimes has an almost conversational tone. Legal writings supplement these observations with explicit discussions of behavioral ideals, found mostly in treatises on ethics and collections of legal opinions (fatwas). So we do not always need to hear people speak or know the exact words that they used. Contemporary accounts can be invaluable simply in reconstructing the linguistic environment in which conversation took place, and in which oaths and other expressions were framed, uttered, and ultimately understood.

A. Self-Restraint and the Ideal of Polite Speech

The most articulate members of Damascene society, who come closest within earshot, were the ulama, the members of the Muslim religious establishment. They provided the city with its scholars, teachers, prayer leaders, and other functionaries at mosques and religious schools. They produced most of the local literature and served as the leading arbiters in all matters of taste, etiquette, and religion. They were also quite aware of their cultural preeminence and took no pains to hide it. A distinguished author, Najm al-Din al-Ghazzi (d. 1651), found it natural that an uneducated Sufi, who worked as a silk weaver, should come up to him in the Umayyad Mosque and apologize for praying improperly. "Please don't take offense," the weaver pleaded, "I'm illiterate, and the manner of praying of illiterates does not please the ulama." (8) Verbal skill was very much part of this refined and superior image that the ulama cultivated. 'Abd al-Ghani al-Nabulsi (d. 1731), one of the most celebrated scholars of the Ottoman period, took pride in "their familiarity with the rules of God Almighty, their knowledge of the aspects of speech, and their expertise in the way of deterring and exhorting in sermons and opinions...." (9) A dexterous tongue was one of the indisputable certificates of learning and good breeding, which set them apart from other townspeople.

The ulama had very clear ideas about the impression that they wanted to create. Muhammad Khalil al-Muradi (d. 1791/2), an eighteenth-century mufti (i.e., the chief jurisconsult, whose job was to issue formal interpretations of Islamic law), collected the biographies of all the occupants of his office from the beginning of the Ottoman period to his own day. As a preface, he put together a sketch of the ideal mufti, listing all the most desirable attributes. (10) He envisioned a man who was conscious of everything that he said and did, and realized that others were watching too. In person, the mufti was to carry himself with an air of serenity, dignity, and patience. Laughing and jesting were out of the question. Gossip, lies, insults, and all kinds of unbridled speech were abhorrent and dishonorable. So too were displays of anger, haughtiness, and bravado. If, while performing his duties, he was approached by petitioners who seemed uncouth or outlandish, he should not gawk or make them feel uncomfortable; rather, he should treat them politely and proceed with business as usual. He understood that his own conduct would serve as a model for fellow townspeople, who ought to see how a good Muslim should properly live.

These fine manners could only grow out of a secret discipline, an unwavering self-control, which was the surest anchor to the virtuous life. Careless glances, motions, and gestures were unacceptable and attracted unfavorable comment. (11) Speech did not escape this inner vigilance. The most exemplary ulama were extremely attentive to words and handled them with care. They never raised their voice or used inappropriate or coarse language. (12) Commenting on some of the rituals performed by Sufis, who represented the mystical tradition within Islam, al-Nabulsi was unable to hide his distaste for the most uninhibited worshippers, who babbled incomprehensibly and emitted cries which "resembled the braying of a donkey". (13) Spiritual ecstasy must not come at the cost of dignity. A strict sense of propriety should govern even the most private acts. During sexual intercourse, for instance, it was forbidden to talk or make any other sounds "for good or evil". Silence should also accompany the excretory functions, which produced their own prim anxieties. (14) The pious man was always in command of both body and soul.

Rigid self-control went hand-in-hand with a precise and exacting formality. The ulama were extremely attentive to ceremony and distinction, and actively engaged in what Erving Goffman has famously called the "arts of impression management". (15) From the first moment of every social encounter, they carefully measured subtle gradations of rank, privilege, and power. Greetings could never be casual or indiscriminate. The offhand salutation was a shocking mistake, not to mention an act of bad taste, which could cause great embarrassment. Ibrahim al-Jabawi, head of the Sa'diyya Sufi order in Damascus, used to sit in coffeehouses and "greet the high and low". His loose familiarity escaped censure only because of his reputation for exceptional modesty. (16) In promoting these mundane forms of ceremony, the ulama stood firmly behind the social hierarchy, counseling that followers should listen to leaders, worshippers to preachers, wives to husbands, slaves to masters, and of course, children to parents. (17) In their own circles, they admonished students never to summon a shaykh--far better to wait patiently outside than to knock at his door. They were to refrain from excessive speech in his presence, and out of respect for his knowledge and authority, should never broach learned topics, which brazenly verged on collegiality. (18) Townspeople were expected to show the same courtesy and deference. In approaching the mufti, for example, petitioners were to look upon him "with an eye of respect, veneration, and deference, believing in the perfection of his qualifications". (19) Al-Muradi warned them to avoid familiar forms of address and rude comments. No one should say, "What's the matter with you?" or ask whether the mufti had heard or understood their questions. (20) He was no ordinary acquaintance, and in his presence, lax speech and conduct were inappropriate.

The truly accomplished scholar scrupulously played his own part in this social theater. He was a master of conversation, who knew the rules of polite discussion and refrained from interrupting others. He spoke slowly, clearly, and deliberately, and avoided raising his voice, even during lectures. (21) Above all, he used, or was expected to use, a loftier and more literate register of Arabic (al-fusha), rarely heard outside educated circles. (22) Scholars like Muhammad ibn 'Abd al-Malak, who spoke with a thick Baghdadi accent and made absolutely no effort to elevate his Arabic, were viewed as awkward aberrations. (23) To anyone with pretensions to learning, the ability to speak (and write) well counted for a great deal. Educated men regarded it among their essential social graces and were never averse to flaunting their erudition and eloquence. Direct speech might even offend. When Ibn Kannan dashed off a quick letter to an acquaintance in Tripoli, enclosing money and requesting a "Frankish" lamp that he had fancied, he was puzzled by the lack of a response. He later found out that the brevity of his letter had upset his friend, whom he then had to mollify with a longer and more elaborate message, full of the usual courtesies. (24) The ideal man of learning was adept at these pleasantries and sprinkled them in his everyday speech along with appropriate citations from the Quran and other scriptural sources.

To educated ears, ornate language never sounded overdone; it was a badge of learning and sophistication, even when others seemed not to appreciate it. Mahmud al-Tabib, a preacher at the Umayyad Mosque, used to embellish his readings with all kinds of musical touches. His Friday audience, however, was often resentful; they had to sit through long-winded sermons and "hated and insulted him because of the prolongation." (25) Among the ulama, these grumblings were irrelevant. Beautiful speech was a passion. Teachers, muezzins, Quran readers, and others won renown simply for having precise diction or a pleasant voice. Contemporaries fondly remembered Nuh al-Dimashqi for the musical recitals that he used to stage with the muezzin of the citadel. Though he was only a humble custodian (bawwab) at the Umayyad Mosque, his name appeared among the biographies of the city's most illustrious figures. (26) Poets enjoyed even more prestige. All educated men had at least a passing acquaintance with classical poetry, and as the biographical dictionaries amply testify, many ulama harbored literary ambitions. They composed their own verses (mostly in Arabic, much more rarely in Turkish or Persian), committed the work of the greatest poets to memory, and could explain all the technicalities and nuances of style and meter. One of the highest compliments that biographers could pay to their subjects was to cite samples of poetry. Ulama circulated their work as personal greetings, tributes, condolences, commemorations, even criticism. So integral was poetry to the their collective image that deceased scholars reportedly appeared in dreams, reciting a few lines of verse to former colleagues and students, who struggled to preserve the fragments upon waking. (27)

Many of the ulama's favorite recreations centered around the skillful use of words. They shared puns, jokes, and stories with each other, and had a great appreciation for quick wit and repartee. (28) Their tastes ran towards sedate and intellectual pastimes. The periodic outings to gardens and local villages dutifully recorded in Ibn Kannan's journal featured poetry and scripture, scholarly debates, and the occasional presentation of written work. (29) More carefree entertainments, such as dancing, were viewed as coarse, frivolous, and unseemly. One qadi shocked educated opinion when it was learned that he liked to play ball with neighborhood children (kana yal'abu bihi al-sibyan bi'l-kurra). (30) Returning from a neighbor's party (1736), Ibn Kannan spoke for the strictest moralists, praising the night's respectable entertainments for being "free of singing, music, visiting, and of playing minqala (a child's game) and chess, as is the custom among the people of Damascus". (31) Not every scholar would have objected so strenuously to popular diversions such as singing and dancing, but there was general agreement that social gatherings should have a serious tone.

At the same time, polite company had other rules, discreet and unspoken, which demanded that some topics never be mentioned at all. Biographers held up "purity of tongue" as one of the most admirable traits, which ulama ought to preserve by shunning taboo topics such as sex, defecation, and urination, or if it proved necessary, by couching them in polite euphemisms. (32) To block out offensive speech, one treatise suggested that, as a last resort, they plug their ears with their fingers. (33) The pious scholar would always prefer elevated discourse and turn his thoughts to worthier pursuits. Al-Nabulsi was so disgusted with the popular passion for gossip and business, even in the midst of the Umayyad Mosque, that he stormed out one day and started to hold lessons in his home. (34) More unflappable was the qadi Abdullah Efendi Saidzade, who refused to engage in empty prattle (lam yatakallim bi-qal wa qil), maintaining the dignified reserve that all educated men sought to project. (35) Their self-imposed speech code, practiced by the most austere devotees, offered a constant reproach to colleagues who would give themselves up to excessive worldliness or occupy themselves with social banalities. Through their words, it was believed, people revealed their inner strivings and inclinations. In a staid and sober mien, graced by high-minded manners, contemporaries thus found one of the most visible measures of commitment to the faith.

These virtues did not go unappreciated. All of elite society strove to acquire the polish and refinement of leading ulama, or at least recognized that they set the standards for gentility and respectability. The prestige and appeal of their manners radiated far beyond the exclusive social cliques of Damascus itself. The bedouin chieftain Zahir al-'Umar, who eventually carved out the equivalent of a fiefdom in northern Palestine, had gone to Damascus briefly as a youth and received some instruction there. He later earned fame for his elegant Arabic, and saw to it that all his sons also received an education. (36) Urban society took these ambitions for granted, and so it was no surprise whenever prominent men outside the religious establishment cultivated the same studies, pastimes, and social habits as the ulama. (37) Admiring biographers stressed the seriousness and self-composure that pious and learned officials brought to their duties, enabling them to rise above their passions. 'Abd al-Mu'ti al-Falaqansi was one of the leading scribes of the city and a noted bon vivant. Among his most impressive traits, aside from expertise in good food and music, was the ability to contain his temper at all times. "He never insulted anyone, never revealed his fury against anyone, and never exchanged words; in fact, his speech in a state of anger was like that in a state of contentment." (38) Muhammad Pasha al-'Azm, a longtime governor (r. 1771-72, 1773-83), was an imposing figure who nevertheless enjoyed a reputation for piety and temperance. He had a special skill for bringing disputing parties together, "and looking at the two, he would lead the erring one towards the truth" through deliberate discussion and patient persuasion. (39) So the practice of good manners--or among less educated Damascenes, of simple self-restraint in word and deed--was not merely an idle preference; it brought tangible benefits to the social order that everyone recognized. In the eyes of townspeople, civility and justice were two faces of the same universal ideal.

B. Honor and the Counter-Ideal of Virile Speech

There was nevertheless an inner tension between these two concepts. The main difficulty was that good manners did not evoke the same image to every person, and did not necessarily carry the same meaning in every situation. Perhaps no one spoke more honestly--or crudely--about these variable definitions than the officer (shubasi [sic]) (40) who briefly appeared in Ibn Kannan's journal. He had been on patrol against tribesmen and neighborhood gangs (1706) and later appeared in court on the charge of drowning a peasant whom he had stopped. Asked why he had committed the murder, he responded merely that the victim "had lacked manners". (41) His appeal to etiquette contained not the slightest trace of irony.

Can we therefore conclude that the behavioral ideals of the ulama went largely unnoticed or ignored by other social groups? Did their vaunted code of self-restraint provide only the weakest check on passions and emotions? Despite acknowledging the virtues of civility, Damascenes answered to other values which cannot be explained by reference to etiquette manuals alone. They recognized an alternate code of ethics which accepted, and sometimes demanded, dramatic gestures, harsh words, and if necessary, full-blown acts of violence. It was a sensibility which was far more likely to insist on deference and respect than the niceties of polite company. It was proud, quick to take offense, and deeply rooted in an obsession with "saving face", which has been well documented for all the cultures of the Mediterranean basin. (42)

In the popular imagination, no one fit this rugged stereotype more closely than Ottoman officials and soldiers. These "men of the sword" had their own subculture which glorified courage, generosity, and strength. With their fearless bravado, they celebrated prowess in hunting, falconry, and horsemanship (furusiyya) and sought to project a fierce, intimidating air. (43) Displays of softer sentiments invariably seemed shocking and out-of-character. The sight of the governor openly weeping at the funeral of his eight-month old son (1707) was sufficient for a short entry in the journal of Ibn Kannan. (44) Ibn al-Siddiq, whose earthy Arabic seems to capture the voice of the street, took a dimmer view of such lachrymose spectacles. He snickered that Uthman Pasha, the deposed governor of Damascus, "began to weep, on account of his defeat, like a woman" after the people of Ma'arrat al-Nu'man barred his fleeing entourage from entering the town (1771). (45) Tears implied a shameful weakness and vulnerability. Men of state ought to be made of sterner stuff.

Confirming this verdict, the local literature is full of strutting governors, hotheaded military commanders, and brawling soldiers renowned for their rough-and-ready swagger. (46) The most trifling offenses--a careless word or gesture, an errant glance, the wrong tone of voice--were capable of unleashing dramatic, and sometimes violent, reactions. (47) Because of this potential for aggression and volatility, soldiers ranked among the greatest bugbears of the urban imagination. Speaking for the anxieties of his fellow townspeople, the chronicler al-Budayri recalled imperial Janissaries (qabiqul; Tk. kapikullari), who after a six-year exile, returned to Damascus (1746) and "entered with arrogance, boasting, and impudence. We asked God Almighty for [our] well-being." (48) The military fondness for bluster is quite evident and has to be seen as a deliberate projection of their normal pugnacity. Mustafa Aga Corbaci, leader of the local Janissaries (yerliyya), could not resist bragging that he was the "sultan of Damascus". (49) Such verbal intimidation was a common tactic. Among a social group which often wielded violence, it was part of the wider obsession with strength--or if this was illusory, at least with appearing strong. While besieging the tribal chieftain Zahir al-' Umar at the fortress of Tiberius (1743), Sulayman Pasha al-' Azm received an offer of a large sum of money if he would only lift the siege and go home. The governor snarled that peace would come "only with your head". (50) Diplomatic language need not be so diplomatic; to emphasize a demand or cow an adversary, men of the sword had no qualms about resorting to rough words or crude threats. Interviews among factional leaders might easily end in stormy scenes, full of tirades and tantrums. (51) In the chronicle of Ibn al-Siddiq, whose narrative is unusually vivid, one often comes across a governor, military officer, or tribal chieftain who had "cursed and become enraged (zaff wa ikhtaz [sic])" or "lost his head (tar 'aqlu min ra'su)". (52)

As part of a greater show of strength and power, they might also incorporate verbal lashings into rituals of humiliation, made all the more painful by being staged in public. Muhammad al-Ayubi, a deputy judge, once infuriated the powerful governor, As 'ad Pasha al-' Azm, who attempted an illegal seizure of a religious foundation (waqf); in a fit of revenge, the enraged governor not only fined him, but actually took the trouble of coming to his home and insulting him in person. (53) Most devastating was abuse delivered before formal gatherings in the presence of peers, where the shame and loss of prestige would be most acute and difficult to overcome. In the most extreme cases, invective merely laid the groundwork for more severe measures. 'Ali ibn al-Arnawud, chief lieutenant (Tk. kethuda) of the Janissaries, inherited his father's position as one of the high-ranking officers in the pilgrimage caravan (1673). His downfall came at the instigation of the governor of Damascus, who was angered by his subordinate's "carelessness" and lack of respect. Convening his informal council (diwan), the governor summoned' Ali, publicly "insulted" him, and then ordered his execution; as a final touch of spite, he had the corpse flung outside the gate of his palace. (54) The insertion of public insults was not an act of spontaneous rage; it was a very deliberate decision, meant to magnify the effect of physical or monetary punishment. In a very real sense, words were weapons, and the men of the sword were quick to brandish them.

One cannot speak, however, of a specifically "military" type of behavior. The brash and impetuous bravura of officials and soldiers might also surface among the ulama, who regarded themselves as the living models for polite, serious, and upright behavior. Yet their manners were never so pure or one-dimensional, and in the hurly-burly of daily life, came under constant strain. Most ulama, after all, were very worldly figures who held state offices and engaged actively in trade, industry, or tax-farming. They were constantly rubbing shoulders with fellow townspeople from whom they inevitably drew many of the same mannerisms and habits of speech. The lofty virtues that they championed have to be understood as ethical and religious ideals, which reveal more about their self-image than social performance. In practice, their reactions were as complex and varied as their many social roles.

On the whole, the ulama favored a discreet and decorous sociability. There was always gossip about longtime rivalries and unforgiven grudges, but they were reluctant to air secrets which might tarnish their collective image. For men who took pride in their religious training and knowledge, public scenes were an embarrassment, which might be overlooked only as a response to some intolerable provocation, such as acts of tyranny or negligence committed by officials. (55) Other outbursts were treated as shocking and distasteful spectacles which reflected badly on learned society.

Many breakdowns in etiquette can be traced to the inevitable pressures which built up within their social group. The ulama and their students were forever engaged in intense competition over limited financial resources, appointments to coveted positions, and most intangible of all, the professional esteem of their peers. Tensions lay beneath the most routine interactions, which concealed persistent challenges to status and authority. Even the most staid and neutral forum, like the classroom, might bring hidden conflicts to the surface or call forth sharp words and unpleasant exchanges. Despite the scholarly culture of deference, students were perfectly capable of insubordination, particularly when facing teachers who made errors, suffered from lapses of memory, or spoke clumsily. Trying to rise from the ranks of the students, first-time lecturers had it worse; they might have to appear before listeners who had come expressly to heckle them and disrupt the lesson at the first blunder or sign of hesitation. (56) Their teachers, on the other hand, did not always set the finest example. Following a widely accepted custom, they might beat disobedient students, who were expected to honor age, authority, and religion. (57) Other teachers relied strictly on verbal discipline. Muhammad al-Shams al-Maydani, an irritable and somewhat old-fashioned lecturer, had the merit of quizzing his students regularly, but belittled them as ignoramuses if they tried to challenge his teachings by citing more recent scholars. (58) Some of his prickliness was an expression of offended authority, but much of it also had to do with his own quick temper. High ideals did not make the ulama infallible; as individuals, they had their own foibles and shortcomings, and were perfectly capable of lapses in civility.

Without a doubt, the most passionate disputes centered around doctrine or worship. Normally confined to the arid disputation of legal tomes, these perennial (not to mention insoluble) debates might suddenly burst forth in shouting matches and brawls. Among the most confrontational figures were ultraconservative scholars, who occasionally threw down the gauntlet in public and denounced colleagues for lax or improper observance of the faith. Ibrahim al-Tabbakh, a firebrand renowned for his quarrelsome and extreme views, once succeeded in scandalizing the congregation at the Umayyad Mosque by raising his voice in the middle of the courtyard and accusing a fellow scholar of blasphemy on the grounds that the latter had been reciting the Quran in the style of poetry. (59) Such rows were capable of releasing real heat and fury, and might actually culminate in physical violence, which was greeted with universal horror. In 1818, a huge scandal erupted after the qadi, in the presence of the mufti, struck the latter's secretary in the courthouse. The motive for this assault was the mufti's invalidation of a court ruling. Ultimately, public opinion concluded that the qadi had gone too far and shown a "lack of manners (qillat adab)"--a particularly damning judgment among men who saw themselves as the pillars of civility and decency. (60)

Infusing many of these quarrels were unspoken sensitivities about personal honor, which the ulama, no less than other Damascenes (and perhaps even more so, on account of their high status), were very careful to protect. Even among the most pious, few could afford to neglect appearances. Leading communal prayers for rain in the winter of 1698-99, one desperate shaykh offered a moving plea for mercy. Weeping and grabbing his beard, he implored, "My God, do not humiliate this gray old man in front of your faithful!" According to witnesses, the answer came promptly: dark thunderheads appeared on the western horizon and broke the drought that evening. (61) The ulama were also conscious of their honor as a group and could mobilize vast networks of supporters against perceived affronts. One official (Tk. tercuman, or "dragoman") who had insulted a local student (1711) unwittingly touched off a crisis which gripped the entire city. Exercising their religious authority, the ulama issued a legal opinion (fatwa) which denounced the official as an infidel and legalized his murder. The tumult subsided only after the city's notables began to mediate between the two sides; as a final victory, the official was forced to offer a public apology. (62) So the ulama might codify etiquette in their manuals, strike their sedate and dignified poses, and urge people to bear slander and calumny with patience (or else take their grievances to court); but their primness and propriety were hardly absolute. They tacitly conceded that, in some situations, it might be legitimate to suspend self-restraint--particularly if honor and public esteem were in question. 'Abd al-Ghani al-Nabulsi was quite explicit about recognizing that some taunts--above all, words which mocked intelligence, learning, and faith--were too outrageous to be shrugged off and ignored. (63)

C. Outrageous Words: Insults and Obscenities

How might Damascenes actually express their contempt for others? This was a field of much creativity, which ranged from the crudest slurs to the most subtle insinuations and allusions. In fact, words were unnecessary. The body alone could convey a whole range of insults and reproaches through its own vocabulary of gestures, motions, and postures--or just as effectively, through their timely omission. One might refrain from shaking hands, or in addressing a man of particular esteem, pointedly refuse to kiss his hands. (64) Rising upon the entry of colleagues or social superiors, as everyone expected, was another mark of courtesy which might be intentionally withheld. (65) Some affronts could be as subtle as sitting in an improper position. (66) The most careless and trivial movements were capable of transmitting the rudest and most insolent messages.

In this armory of snubs and insults, spoken words were perhaps the most cutting weapons. But unlike the mute outrages committed by the body, which come to us relatively uncensored in the local literature, it is harder to detect offensive words. Authors rarely record direct speech and leave few clues about the register of abuse--what people found tame and harmless, and what seemed shocking and profane. Obeying the dictates of modesty, they usually preferred discreet euphemisms or a blushing silence. The scholar Muhammad al-Saydawi possessed a booming voice and a short temper; he sometimes lashed out at his students, but his biographer would only say that "he caused them pain with his speech". (67) Though famed for their vulgar tongues, soldiers benefited from the same editorial polishing. In refusing to hand over the citadel (1812), we hear only that the commander of the Janissaries "became very coarse in his speech (aghlaza fi al-qawl jiddan)". (68) Ahmad al-Salami, a soldier and accomplished poet, once served in the pilgrimage caravan, where he made two big mistakes: he first tried to arrange payments of protection money to local Arab tribes without official authorization, and then used "inappropriate words" to talk about the commander of the pilgrimage, who then imprisoned him in the desert fortress of Tabuk (1703/4). (69) Exactly which words led to his downfall? We will never know.

Authors were more forthcoming about nicknames and tamer forms of derision. Some terms were harmless and amusing; others were mentionable simply because they fell short of full-blown profanity. Thus the chronicler al-Budayri reported (1745) that the local Janissaries were openly mocking the governor, As'ad Pasha al-'Azm, as "Lady Sa'diyya" (the feminine form of his name). (70) In literary circles, ridicule might take a more sophisticated turn, involving clever puns and plays on words and names. (71) A whole branch of literature (hija') was devoted to satirical poetry, which enjoyed considerable popularity. (72) Poets might playfully jest with friends and colleagues, or with their most biting comments, deliberately aim to humiliate or defame. Recited in the right circles, well-crafted literary salvos might become the talk of the town. The poet 'Abd al-Hayy al-Khal once turned his talents against a broker who had a taste for unusually tall turbans; public opinion disapproved of this eccentric fashion, but had no effect until the poet's mocking verses began to circulate throughout the markets. (73) Other poems could attach labels to people and turn them into the butt of repeated jokes. Literary wags delighted in teasing Yusuf al-Himar ("the Donkey"), who had earned his nickname because, after years of study, he had failed to acquire much knowledge. (74) Some victims became so incensed that they might try to kill their tormentors. (75)

The most common forms of abuse were much less sophisticated and amounted to little more than vulgar name-calling. Ibn al-Siddiq recreates scenes in which soldiers habitually refer to their enemies as "dogs" (kalb), "jackasses" (himar), or "pigs" (khanzir). (76) Other popular slurs impugned honesty, masculinity, family descent, learning, or religious orthodoxy. (77) Some wits could not resist poking fun at regional origin. 'Abd al-Nafi al-Hamawi, a poet, once joked at the expense of a Sufi from Homs, explaining that "it is known that the people of Homs are crazy due to their deficiency in intellect." His audience laughed. (78) The tradition survives in contemporary Syrian humor, in which one can still hear similar gags about Homs and its inhabitants.

Beyond these humorous barbs lay the linguistic zone of truly offensive speech, covering all the profanities and other shocking terms that Damascenes could hardly bring themselves to utter without some secret pang of shame or guilt. The most unforgivable comments were blasphemous curses or defamatory remarks about religion, the prophets, or other revered figures from early Islamic tradition. These cases were rare, but any individuals unlucky enough to be hauled before the courts could receive the death penalty as punishment. (79) Of a lesser magnitude of horror, though no more acceptable in polite conversation, were references to defecation and other private bodily acts. For reasons of propriety, authors mentioned these vulgarities only with the greatest reluctance--if they dared to do so at all. This does not mean, however, that Damascenes necessarily shunned them in daily speech. As presented by Ibn al-Siddiq, officials and soldiers seem almost addicted to the crudest kind of swearing, drawn from the usual stock of insults, curses, and epithets. Writing in the same vein, the author unashamedly resorts to scatological slang, recalling how one officer "boasted and ate his shit (yufashshir wa yakul kharah)"--the latter phrase representing an Arabic equivalent for "eating crow". (80) Stepping straight out of this mold was the amir Muhammad al-Manjaki, who was memorialized as an arrogant, reckless figure whom the people feared and the poets adored; among his most memorable attributes was an "obscene" tongue. (81) Were these habits typical of everyday speech? We have little more than vague hints scattered widely across time. Jamal al-Din al-Qasimi, a nineteenth-century observer, noted that donkey-drivers and other transport workers had a propensity for using rough language. (82) Can we infer, as a hypothesis, that the incidence of profanity probably increased with social distance from educated circles?

The correspondence is not exact, for some ulama were known to use obscenities as well. Mahmud al-Mujtahid, one of the most brilliant grammarians of his generations, spoke only the purest and most correct Arabic in which he would sometimes recite dirty jokes, creating a hilarious effect. His biographer, al-Muhibbi, was too embarrassed to offer samples. (83) On the other hand, no one seemed to object when Ahmad al-Kurdi recited a scatological couplet in the presence of the mufti himself. The culprit seized the occasion to insult his arch-rival, Ahmad al-Manini, by eliding al-Kharab (the neighborhood where the latter lived) into khara' (i.e., shit). (84) No one should be surprised by these flirtations with the obscene. As noted earlier, the ulama were well-acquainted with popular habits of speech, turns of phrase, and shades of nuance, even if they contrived to sound lofty, elegant, educated--in a word, superior. A learned tongue was not necessarily a chaste one; the ulama simply faced sterner inhibitions in their choice of words. They might occasionally make the descent into lower forms of language, including outright profanity, but paid a higher price for these lapses, which undermined their collective self-image as the paragons of learning and virtue. As with other forms of communication, such as posture and gesture, some social groups could afford to be relaxed and careless, whereas others had less leeway and needed to exercise a constant vigilance.

D. An "Islamic" Pattern of Swearing?

In the repertoire of profane and shocking comments, some of the most common figures of speech were oaths, which were sprinkled in everyday conversation along with the usual array of expletives, curses, and insults. Their use seems to have been widespread, and among some social groups such as soldiers, almost reflexive. People invoked them for emphasis, dramatic effect, or as a pledge of truth or sincerity. The ulama strongly objected to this kind of promiscuous swearing, warning that it took only one intemperate burst of words to place a person in an awkward or even dangerous position. But from the sheer range of utterances preserved by contemporary sources, the population seems not to have been very much deterred. The mildest oaths might promise to free a slave, pay a sum of money, perform a certain number of prayers, or undertake the pilgrimage to Mecca. Al-Nabulsi viewed these utterances as legally suspect, but was willing to tolerate their use on the grounds that they could encourage moral behavior. (85) Far bolder--and less open to doubt--were oaths sworn in the name of God, which made them iron-clad, or on a vow of apostasy, which, if broken, would technically require the death penalty. Though the latter penalty was not frequently applied, the possibility troubled scholars, who carefully probed the law for loopholes which would allow individuals unlucky enough to be dragged into court (usually by enemies) to escape with their lives. (86)

Most vexing to jurists was the popular custom of swearing on a conditional oath of divorce--that is, by declaring that if some event were later to pass, an oath of divorce would formally be triggered. It was often as simple as saying, "if I do such-and-such a thing, my wife is divorced", or some variation on this theme, which could be predicated on nearly anything. The presence of at least two male witnesses would make it operative. As a general principle in Islamic law, the right to divorce was freely available to all men (including non-Muslims), who could put it into immediate effect by uttering the appropriate formula. Ease of invocation, however, did not necessarily make divorce painless. As soon as a husband dissolved his marriage, he had to settle all financial obligations towards his former wife. (87) For this reason alone, a man who uttered the oath in a fit of rage could easily come to regret it. The legal literature is rich in the dilemmas of repentant husbands, who had sworn out an oath of divorce, and then in later moments of desperation, sought loopholes in the law to salvage their marriages and keep their fortunes intact. Clever wives might take the opportunity to drag hot-headed husbands into court, have a rash oath of divorce certified, and thereby escape an unhappy marriage at no expense to themselves. (88) Everyone recognized the instantaneous costs, prompting some men to offer the oath of divorce as the ultimate guarantee of trust. Following the death of Sulayman Pasha al-'Azm (1743), an emissary from Istanbul ordered the confiscation of the deceased governor's estate. He confronted Sulayman's uncle, who swore by divorce that he had no knowledge of any hidden treasure; only threats of torture loosened his tongue. (89) Less convincing was the tribal chieftain Zahir al-'Umar, who sided with the Egyptian forces during their brief occupation of Syria (1771). In a letter to the governor of Damascus with whom he was on bad terms, Zahir pleaded that he was "obedient to God and sultan," but had sworn an alliance by divorce and could not renounce it without bankrupting himself to his four wives. (90) Even as a feeble pretext, his oath highlights pervasive habits of speech.

Scholars disapproved of frivolous divorces and might help by disallowing oaths if evidence showed that the man had been temporarily insane or in some way mentally deficient, or that he had pronounced an incorrect formula. (91) These were the rare men who might get a second chance. Most cases proved far more difficult, and never escaped the tangle of legal complications that surrounded the issue. Much of the confusion arose from uncertainties about the exact words which would activate an oath of divorce. Jurists could agree only on the principle that any formula recognized as valid in custom would be treated as binding before the law as well. (92) Their debates raise intriguing questions about broader linguistic habits in Ottoman Damascus, and for that matter, throughout the "Islamic world". Every culture, of course, has its own stock of oaths that people use to punctuate their conversation and give emphasis to words. Like other peoples of the Mediterranean region, Damascenes favored a relatively dramatic style of self-presentation which made plenty of allowance for swearing and other flamboyant forms of expression. Did Islamic law have a role in shaping these preferences? Can one begin to talk about "Islamic" patterns of swearing?

The law did not necessarily encourage swearing so much as it seems to have shown an unusual sensitivity to language. In the first place, it made oaths easy to use, and thereby reinforced a relatively high standard of verbal literalism, which spilled into everyday speech. People could apply oaths to a wide range of social situations, from business to family affairs, and attach them to nearly any condition, which further facilitated their circulation. This literalism also had its costs. By setting a low threshold of activation, which upheld the validity of even the most flippant or hot-tempered oaths, legal authorities virtually ensured that swearing could cause an unusual degree of social disruption, which varied from the minor nuisance of having to pay financial indemnities to the personal disaster of a marriage ending in sudden and unintended divorce (to say nothing of the much rarer cases of apostasy and its attendant death sentence). This intrusion of the law into everyday speech is all the more striking because the use of oaths seems to have been far more restricted in other legal codes. In Western Europe, for instance, oaths gradually disappeared from medieval legal procedure, and afterwards seem to have functioned mainly as a form of political speech. (93) Individuals might be "sworn" into office or called upon to take vows of loyalty to particular leaders or movements. In ordinary conversation, speakers were far more likely to treat oaths as colorful vulgarities, occasionally liable to prosecution for blasphemy, than as inviolable commitments. In Ottoman Damascus, by contrast, swearing was never so innocuous. People had to mind what they said.

But do the provisions of Islamic law really explain the binding force that oaths seemed to exert on speakers? This would be an overly hasty conclusion, for the very history of the oath of divorce hints at a much greater complexity. Islamic law certainly had a role in perpetuating and reinforcing the sanctity of oaths, but drew much of its efficacy from deep-seated attitudes which lay well beyond the domain of religion. In defining the rules for the conditional oath of divorce, jurists had to admit that they were not even sure about its origins. Though quite familiar in Ottoman times, it had no basis in scriptural sources or early scholarship. The standard theory was that it began its career as a rural custom that the legal system had gradually assimilated and recognized in later generations; from the tongues of peasants, it had leapt into the debates of legal experts, who in the face of persistent folk traditions, were almost certainly helpless to check its spread. So law did not always take precedence over custom. To maintain its relevance, even a legal system which regarded itself as God-given and immutable, like Islamic law, had to make tacit compromises with popular usages. (94)

In this case, legal practice evolved from very deep roots in a culture which shrouded oaths in powerful taboos. Even without the sanctions imposed by law, people were very reluctant to commit violations. The social pressure was intense. Throughout Damascene society, broken promises brought shame, dishonor, and various forms of ostracism and censure. The merest hint of deception or back-sliding was enough to cause loss of face within the community at large. To restore their credibility (and thereby win back social standing), individuals might have to resort to dramatic shows of good faith, which as other students of "Mediterranean" society have noted, had to be staged in front of the widest possible audience. (95) Ahmad al-Manini, an amorous scholar, once provoked such a scene by composing flattering verses for a youth with whom he had become infatuated. Upon hearing them, the young man swore that he would kiss the feet of the poet; after further investigation, he discovered that al-Manini was the author, found him in the marketplace, and actually tried to carry out his vow. Al-Manini would not allow it, slyly protesting that "I composed the poem not with my feet, but with my mouth". (96) The youth, who knew what al-Manini meant, withdrew in embarrassment, but only after going through the motions of honoring his word: better a spectacle in a busy market than a blemish on his name. It was not necessarily an overreaction. The social costs of an unfulfilled vow could be very high, leading to jokes, poems, unpleasant nicknames, and other expressions of public scorn and exclusion. (97)

Damascenes did not keep their word merely to avoid scandal and derision. Oaths could be very practical. They brought trust and stability to social relations, and in the political life of the city, served as an instrument of diplomacy which could bring rivals together, cement alliances, and on the assurance of a single intermediary, calm passions and restore order. In 1804, the governor 'Abdullah Pasha al-'Azm found himself in a standoff with the imperial Janissaries, who had barricaded themselves inside the citadel. To coax them into surrendering, the pasha offered a safe-conduct, but only if they would hand over Urfali Mustafa Aga, the head of their corps, who was accused of fomenting the insurrection. The scheme worked. They soon grew tired of the siege, bound their commander, and lowered him down the walls of the citadel to a summary execution. Having kept their part of the bargain, they then marched out under the eyes of their enemies. (98) They had little to fear. The governor had achieved his larger aim of restraining the Janissaries and had no wish to plunge the city into deeper strife. He also had to think about his credibility, which was too valuable to be squandered on gratuitous retribution. His tactics were borrowed from a centuries-old tradition in the Middle East which bound leaders to truces or alliances with nothing more than a pledge of honor. As Roy Mottahedeh has shown, violations produced reactions of horror and disbelief as far back as tenth-century Iraq (and probably earlier). (99) A broken oath was more than a gaffe or a shameless act of treachery; it destroyed the possibility of trust and cooperation, and hastened the descent into ever deeper social disorder.

E. Conclusion: Speaking as Doing

More ominously, a broken oath was treated as a downright dangerous act that filled people with fear and apprehension, as if the misuse of sanctified speech carried its own invisible penalty. One catches a glimpse of this psychology in the biography of Muhammad ibn al-Rajihi, a deputy judge at the main courthouse. He was credited with an almost preternatural ability to sniff out perjurers and false witnesses, who "regarded him with awe and would not approach his presence to give oaths." (100) How can we explain such a belief, which sounds so incredible to modern ears? Contemporaries found no reason to be incredulous, and readily accepted that someone could possess such an extraordinary talent. Implicit in this belief was an additional premise: in using oaths improperly, perjurers must have somehow marked themselves and made it possible to be identified. In some hidden and mysterious way, words continued to reverberate and touch speakers' lives long after their actual utterance. For the people of Ottoman Damascus, the act of speaking was more than a simple means of communication, more than the transmission of sounds from mouth to ear. In its deepest nature, speech held the potential to transform reality itself.

It was assumed that some people, especially those of extraordinary piety or godliness, could harness this power better than others. Most eccentric were the local folk saints, who wandered the streets ragged and disheveled and lived in apparent oblivion to social conventions. Having no explanation for their bizarre antics, which today might be attributed to mental disorders, Damascenes believed that many of these holy men (and women) were somehow "charmed" (majdhub) by the hand of God, which suffused their bodies with divine grace (baraka) and lent a special efficacy to their prayers. Faith in their strange marvels and esoteric knowledge was widespread and unshakable. Some people hung on every word, which might be taken as cryptic comments and prophecies. As figures who stood close to God, the speech of saints would necessarily contain bits of truth and revelation.

From the religious mainstream, the most pious scholars and Sufis could also achieve fame for having magical tongues. Like the folk saints, they might be celebrated for performing small miracles, foretelling the future, or offering unusually beneficial prayers. (101) Members of the Banu Sa'd al-Din, a prominent Sufi family in Damascus, made talismans and charms which could reportedly heal the sick and cure the insane. They activated their devices by uttering the basmala, "In the name of God, the Compassionate and Merciful". (102) The words of such spiritual adepts carried a force that, in the popular mind, could knock people off their feet or even raise the spirits of the dead. (103) Prayers and passages from holy books had the greatest potency. To treat a local Christian woman (1749) who had lost her mind due to "a magician who had written spells," the Greek Orthodox patriarch ordered her bound in iron chains and brought to the church of Mar Niqula. Eighteen priests began to administer a regimen of continuous prayer (zar). "The devil in her addressed us from her mouth," reported the priest Mikha'il Burayk, but after several days the possession abated. (104) In placing their faith in these verbal remedies, non-Muslims were no different from their Muslim neighbors.

Damascenes saw prayer as a kind of all-purpose medicine; it was the best insurance against every catastrophe and the most soothing balm in the teeth of misfortune. In times of public emergency, such as droughts and earthquakes, the authorities eagerly turned to local scholars and Sufis to organize communal prayers, hoping that the pleas of the most God-fearing residents would secure divine mercy and relief. Official recourse to these figures grew out of popular practices. It was said that Hasan al-Munir, a scholar, had such a knack for obtaining divine favor that people in the streets and markets would rush up to him, kiss his hand, and ask for prayers on their behalf. (105) More common was the strategy of turning to holy men from the past. Damascenes of all ranks, including the learned, sought divine intercession at the tombs and shrines of famous scholars, Sufis, and folk saints, where they recited prayers and left votive offerings.

To tap the power of prayers and holy words, townspeople uttered sacred formulas to accompany the most mundane acts. Al-Nabulsi recommended that they mention the name of God when closing the door of their home, extinguishing a lantern, or sealing a jug or water vessel. Every meal should begin and end with the invocation, "In the name of God". When people sneezed, they should say, "Praise be to God"; companions should immediately reply, "May God have mercy on you." (106) People used these incantations mainly as a form of protection and benediction. The popular imagination saw the world as a menacing place full of hidden dangers. Among the biggest sources of mischief were evil spirits and sprites (jinn), who lurked everywhere unseen and ready to wreak havoc. To defend themselves, people turned to the usual battery of magical charms and talismans. Also effective were spells and holy words, such as the ninety-nine names of God in the Quran, which were believed to generate their own protective barrier. (107)

If words were capable of much good, they held an equal and opposite potential for harm. Formulaic curses and imprecations, often sealed with the name of God, were widely feared for their long reach and sure aim. Citing a long line of Islamic scholarship, al-Nabulsi admonished the faithful not to swear at people or animals, and took the injunction so seriously that he extended it to inanimate objects such as rocks. (108) His contemporaries had no doubt that malicious words could wound, debilitate, even kill. Solemn curses were unnecessary. Among the jottings for his private journal in October 1715, Ibn Kannan reported that a local merchant, famed for stinginess, had thrown a celebration for his children. Disappointed with the festivities, or perhaps still resentful at his history of parsimony, some of the people from his neighborhood cursed him as they left the home. They did not have to wait long for an answer; on the very next day, news came that he had died. The story reminded him of an earlier episode in which a local girl had borrowed one of her mother's headcloths without permission. "God willing," the mother swore, "I'll wrap your mouth with it!" (referring, it seems, to a burial shroud). Her daughter then caught a fever that carried her off within twenty-four hours. (109) Ibn Kannan sounds no note of skepticism, raises no objections to the popular accounts, and offers no alternative explanations. Indeed, he was only repeating folk wisdom which held that vituperative speech of any kind--quarrels, insults, slanders, even something as seemingly innocuous as neighborhood gossip--could produce very real consequences. Some victims suffered sudden death, or in despair, took their own lives; in others, the damage was more insidious, leading to bouts of depression, dementia, or prolonged illness and enervation. (110)

The speaker's intentions did not always matter. The most innocent or careless speech could bring about totally unforeseen results. In a treatise on the causes of forgetfulness, a distinguished scholar like al-Nabulsi could gravely warn his readers against excessive laughter, listening to gibberish, or telling a lie. (111) More serious were curses or oaths that inadvertently rebounded back on speakers themselves, much like self-inflicted wounds. When Yusuf al-Ayubi, a scribe at the main courthouse, lost his sight late in life, his peers attributed it to a particularly terrible oath that he had uttered in enmity (halafa yaminan fajiratan fi khusuma). (112) His misfortune was held up as an example to anyone who would use rash or violent language, which could carry much the same force as physical blows. This slippery slope from speaking to doing helps to account for the enduring appeal of good manners, which acted not merely as a proof of gentility, but as a means of self-protection. A polite tongue provided a shield of tactful silence and banal pleasantries that staved off needless provocation and harm.

So it was only a short step from fleeting words to irrevocable deeds. "The common people say that the tongues of the people are the pens of fate (tuqulu al-'amma inna alsinat al-khalq aqlam al-haqq)," declared Ibn Kannan in confirmation. (113) Or as sociolinguists might put it today, Damascenes viewed their pronouncements as "performative utterances", in which the distinction between words and deeds almost imperceptibly melted away. Much of this mentality was intimately bound up with an essentially magical view of the world, which endowed words with an incantatory quality. Anthropologists long ago pointed out the persistent link between language and magic, but have tended to confine their discussions to "primitive" cultures, usually located in remote corners of the globe. Like the Trobriand islanders immortalized by Bronislow Malinowski, Damascenes imagined a world which was constantly subject to the manipulation of words, whose power could make itself felt everywhere. (114) But can we really assume that these beliefs were any less prevalent elsewhere in the great agrarian civilizations of Eurasia? Or did the people of Damascus, and more generally of the Middle East, have a truly heightened sensitivity to the spoken word? Real differences have already emerged in the handling of oaths, which in the early modern period seem to have enjoyed a more prominent role in the social and legal affairs of the Middle East than in those of Europe. A fuller answer awaits further research on literature, law, manners, and popular culture within the requisite global framework. For the present, the comparative history of speech and communication has hardly begun.


1. The rituals were slightly different for non-Muslims, who in spite of their minority status, routinely took their business and litigation to the Islamic courts. Christians swore over the Gospels, Jews over the Torah.

2. al-Mahkama al-shar'iyya li-dimashq [The Islamic Court of Damascus], Center for Historical Documents, Damascus, Syria, 168: 277.

3. It is difficult to estimate the frequency of these cases, except to observe that, by the eighteenth century, they had become exceedingly rare. The low count may have been part of a broad historical trend. Uriel Heyd noted that, in Ottoman Anatolia, the number of refusals in sixteenth-century court records was "amazingly large", but declined rapidly thereafter. The primary reason, he theorized, was the abandonment of judicial torture, which under sultanic law (Tk. kanun) lay at the discretion of the judge. By the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the Ottoman judicial system was more fully and consistently applying Islamic legal procedure, which strictly forbade the practice. Uriel Heyd, Studies in Old Ottoman Criminal Law, (ed.) V.L. Menage, (Oxford, 1973), 252-54.

4. Haim Gerber has noted the same phenomenon in the court records of 17th-century Bursa. See Gerber, State, Society, and Law in Islam: Ottoman Law in Comparative Perspective (Albany, 1994), 49.

5. Heyd, Studies, 244-45.

6. For a discussion of the evaluation of evidence in Islamic courts, see Gerber, State, Society and Law, 48-50.

7. See the helpful discussion in Peter Burke, "Introduction", in The Social History of Language, eds. Peter Burke and Roy Porter (Cambridge, 1987), 9-10.

8. Muhammad Amin al-Muhibbi, Khulasat al-athr fia'yan al-qarn al-hadi'ashar (Beirut), 4: 144-45.

9. 'Abd al-Ghani al-Nabulsi, al-Hadiqa al-nadiyya: sharh al-tariqa al-muhammadiyya (Lahore, 1977), 2: 292.

10. Muhammad Khalil al-Muradi, 'Arf al-basham fi man waliya fatwa dimashq al-sham (Damascus, 1988), 21-23.

11. See for example, al-Muhibbi, Khulasat, 1: 35-36; 4: 159-60; Muhammad Khalil al-Muradi, Silk al-durar fi al-qarn al-hadi 'ashar (Beirut, 1988), 1: 32-33, 41, 82-83; 4: 38.

12. For a summation of this attitude, see the biography of Najm al-Din al-Ghazzi in al-Muhibbi, Khulasat, 4: 196.

13. al-Nabulsi, al-Hadiqa, 2: 520. As a practitioner of Sufism himself, he was sometimes willing to take a more moderate position. The shouting and commotion that sometimes attended Sufi ceremonies might be permissible, but only on condition that the participants were genuinely carried away by the experience of the meditative trance. Silence, he reiterated, was always most appropriate. See al-Nabulsi, Kashf al-nur 'an ashab al-qubur, Suleymaniye Library, Esad Efendi 3601, 70a-b. For an example of Sufi excesses which disturbed contemporaries, see al-Muhibbi, Khulasat, 1: 283.

14. al-Nabulsi, al-Hadiqa, 2: 311-12.

15. Erving Goffman, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, (New York, 1959), 208-37.

16. Ahmad al-Budayri, Hawadith dimashq al-yawmiyya, (ed.) Ahmad 'lzzat 'Abd al-Karim, (Cairo, 1959), 192-93.

17. See for example al-Nabulsi, al-Hadiqa, 2: 352-53, 415-16, 542-43.

18. al-Nabulsi, al-Hadiqa, 2: 303.

19. al-Muradi, 'Arf, 5.

20. al-Muradi, 'Arf, 9. al-Muradi explicitly demanded that petitioners not use secondperson pronouns in relating the speech of others, so that it might not seem as if the mufti himself were being addressed.

21. al-Muradi, 'Arf, 12; al-Nabulsi, al-Nadiqa, 2: 292, 350-51.

22. See for example al-Muhibbi, Khulasat, 1: 280-81; 2: 51, 149; 3: 17, 234, 278, 286, 317, 409, 422, 436; 4: 14, 63, 73, 409; al-Muradi, Silk, 1: 11, 222; 3: 9, 64-65, 89, 246, 257, 258; 4: 50; Ibn Kannan, Yawmiyat, 181, 255, 314, 348-49. Having no knowledge of the local dialect, Ottoman governors and judges sometimes used formal Arabic as a direct means of communication with local ulama, who in general, lacked fluency in Turkish. See al-Muhibbi, Khulasat, 2: 213; 4: 223.

23. al-Muhibbi, Khulasat, 4: 31. When scholars persisted in using non-Damascene dialects, it was considered worthy of comment. Ibid., 1: 166; 4: 385. Closer to the ideal was the famous muezzin Ba'thullah al-Misri, originally from Egypt, who recited poetry in the most scrupulously correct Arabic. In meeting these standards, non-native speakers might face a stern test. Husayn ibn al-Sha''al owed his position as a prayer leader in the Umayyad Mosque to the uproar created by his predecessor, a Turk ("Rumi"), who had publicly mispronounced the opening verse (al-fatiha) of the Quran. See respectively al-Muhibbi, Khulasat, 1: 453; 2: 98.

24. Ibn Kannan, Yawmiyat shamiyya, (ed.) Akram al-'Ulabi, (Damascus, 1994), 170.

25. al-Muhibbi, Khulasat, 4: 327.

26. al-Muhibbi, Khulasat, 4: 459. For other examples of enchanting voices, Ibid., 1: 46, 178, 280, 453; 2: 64; 3: 414; 4: 324, 459, 493, 509.

27. See for example al-Muhibbi, Khulasat, 2: 167; al-Muradi, Silk, 1: 232.

28. For a sample of famous raconteurs, see al-Muhibbi, Khulasat, 1: 10, 46; 2: 51; 3: 122, 437; 4: 34, 317, 385, 488; al-Muradi, Silk, 1: 173, 222; 2: 231; 4: 40

29. See for example, Ibn Kannan, Yawmiyat, 295-96.

30. al-Muhibbi, Khulasat, 3: 364.

31. Ibn Kannan, Yawmiyat, 474-75.

32. See for example al-Muradi, Silk, 1: 187; 2: 327; 3: 37, 166-67; 4: 218; Ibn Kannan, Yawmiyat, 428-29. On the need to speak indirectly about delicate topics see al-Nabulsi, al-Hadiqa, 2: 239-40.

33. al-Nabulsi, al-Hadiqa, 2: 405-06.

34. al-Nabulsi, al-Hadiqa, 2: 317.

35. al-Budayri, Hawadith, 152. See also the biography of' Abd al-Rahman al-Safarjalani, who never allowed any talk of business around his colleagues in spite of his family's immense wealth; Ibn Kannan, Yawmiyat, 485.

36. Mikha'il al-Sabbagh, Tarikh al-shaykh Zahir al-'Umar al-Zaydani, hakim 'akka wa bilad safad, ed. Qastantin al-Basha al-Mukhlisi (Harisa, Lebanon), 21, 50, 156. Other bedouin chieftains won similar renown for the high quality of their Arabic. See for example, Mikha'il al-Dimashqi, Hawadith al-sham wa lubnan, aw tarikh Mikha'il al-Dimashqi (1782-1841), ed. Ahmad Ghassan Sabbanu (Damascus, 1982), 44.

37. For other examples of refined officials and soldiers, see al-Muhibbi, Khulasat, 1: 29; 2: 81; 4: 108; Ibn Kannan, Yawmiyat, 60, 110-11, 234; al-Muradi, Silk, 1: 22, 48, 107, 274; 2: 199; 3: 90.

38. al-Muradi, Silk, 3: 135.

39. al-Muradi, Silk, 4: 97. For other very explicit connections between self-restraint and justice, see Ibid, 3: 90; Ibn Kannan, Yawmiyat, 142; Ibn Jum'a, al-Bashat wa al-qudat, in Wulat dimashq fi al 'ahd al-'uthmani, ed. Salah al-Din al-Munajjid (Damascus, 1949), 56; Hasan Agha al-'Abd, Tarikh Hasan Agha al-'Abd, ed. Yusuf Nu'aysa, (Damascus, 1979), 163-64, 165.

40. The term is probably a corruption of the Turkish title subasi.

41. Ibn Kannan, Yawmiyat, 107.

42. J. G. Peristiany, ed., Honor and Shame: The Values of Mediterranean Society (Chicago, 1966); David D. Gilmore, ed., Honor and Shame and the Unity of the Mediterranean (Washington DC, 1987).

43. See for example, al-Muhibbi, Khulasat, 3: 427; 4: 434.

44. Ibn Kannan, Yawmiyat, 127. Scholars, too, might attract attention for shedding tears, which were treated as an alarming breakdown of self-composure. See for example al-Muhibbi, Khulasat, 1: 30; 2: 296.

45. Ibn al-Siddiq, Ghara'ib al-bada'i' fi'aja'ib al-waqa'i', (ed.) Yusuf al-Nu'ayasa, (Damascus, 1988), 89. See also his comments about public weeping, for which he used the same disparaging tone. Ibid., 20, 26, 34, 63, 73, 100.

46. See for example the amir Muhammad ibn Furukh (d. 1638/9), a commander of the pilgrimage caravan, who built such a terrifying reputation that the bedouin used to quake at the mere mention of his name; al-Muhibbi, Khulasat, 4: 108.

47. See for example Ibn Jum'a, al-Bashat, 45-46; al-Muhibbi, Khulasat, 4: 294

48. al-Budayri, Hawadith, 159.

49. al-Budayri, Hawadith, 67.

50. al-Budayri, Hawadith, 46. For other examples, see Ibn Kannan, Yawmiyat, 41, 43, 158-59.

51. For references to officials losing their tempers, see Ibn Jum'a, al-Bashat, 43-44; Ibn Kannan, Yawmiyat, 90; al-Qari, al-Wuzara', 81; al-Budayri, Hawadith, 214; al-Dimashqi, Tarikh, 12.

52. Ibn al-Siddiq, Ghara'ib, 20, 21, 28, 29, 33, 34, 37, 39, 40, 45, 50, 50, 52, 54, 54, 55, 56, 58, 58, 60, 60, 60, 61, 61, 62, 64, 66, 67, 74, 74, 74, 79, 83, 88, 99.

53. al-Muradi, Silk, 4: 24.

54. al-Muhibbi, Khulasat, 3: 156. For cases of insults being administered by judges, Ibid., 3: 276; Ibn Kannan, Yawmiyat, 283.

55. See for example al-Muhibbi, Khulasat, 1: 200; 4: 201.

56. See for example al-Muradi, Silk, 2: 292; 4: 10. 'Abd al-Rahman al-Qari, one of the least competent teachers of his day, was saved only by his students' willingness to correct his lectures beforehand. They were motivated not so much by personal fondness as by the generosity of his family, which had earned considerable goodwill; Ibid., 2: 282.

57. al-Muhibbi, Khulasat, 4: 485; al-Muradi, Silk, 3: 189.

58. Among the newer scholars who stoked his wrath were Khayr al-Din al-Ramli and Ibn Hajr al-Haythami; al-Muhibbi, Khulasat, 4: 170. For other temperamental ulama, Ibid., 1: 20, 153, 281; 2: 213; 4: 115; al-Muradi, Silk, 1: 14; 2: 324; 3: 144; 4: 30, 58, 210, 225.

59. al-Muhibbi, Khulasat, 1: 32. See also Ibid., 3: 386; 4: 115; al-Muradi, Silk, 2: 31.

60. Hasan Agha, Tarikh, 164. The qadi of Aleppo, who could not contain his fury, once threatened to cut off the fingers of a scribe (allegedly slandered by people at the courthouse, who had the qadi's ear). See al-Muradi, Silk, 3: 181. In another case the qadi of Damascus conspired with the mufti to have one of the latter's adversaries convicted on trumped-up charges and flogged at the courthouse. Ibid., 1: 206. Underhanded tactics were not always successful. During a brief revival of strength on his deathbed, Muhammad ibn' Abd al-Malak grabbed the beard of a deputy judge and slapped him on the head for trying to steal his fortune; al-Muhibbi, Khulasat, 4: 31.

61. al-Muradi, Silk, 1: 68.

62. Ibn Kannan, Yawmiyat, 182. For another example of ulama legitimizing violence (1743), see al-Budayri, Hawadith, 50-51.

63. al-Nabulsi, al-Hadiqa, 2: 237-38.

64. See for example al-Muradi, Silk, 4: 245-46.

65. See for example al-Muhibbi, Khulasat, 1: 493.

66. al-Sabbagh, Tarikh, 155. For some of the rules on proper sitting, see al-Nabulsi, al-Hadiqa, 2: 506

67. al-Muhibbi, Khulasat, 4: 36.

68. al-Dimashqi, Tarikh, 52. The shouting of abuse routinely accompanied sieges. See for example al-Muradi, Silk, 3: 185; Hasan Agha, Tarikh, 76.

69. al-Muradi, Silk, 1: 184. See also the interview between the notorious governor Ahmad Pasha al-Jazzar and the mufti, Muhammad Khalil al-Muradi, which deteriorated into an exchange of "inappropriate words (mukalamat ghayr layiqa)"; Hasan Agha, Tarikh, 9-10. For cases of notables being murdered after speaking intemperately, see Ibn al-Siddiq, Ghara'ib, 55-56; al-Dimashqi, Tarikh, 18-19.

70. al-Budayri, Hawadith, 62, 66; al-Qari, al-Wuzara', 79.

71. See for example al-Muhibbi, Khulasat, 1: 167-68.

72. For other masters of this genre, see al-Muhibbi, Khulasat, 2: 160; 3: 456; 4: 34.

73. al-Muradi, Silk, 2: 253. Working in the same tradition, Husayn al-Qusayfi used to "satirize the people" with his poetry. He composed it with such relish that, after incurring the wrath of his father, he even took aim at himself; Ibid., 2: 47.

74. al-Muhibbi, Khulasat, 4: 505. In another case, a local doctor, though acknowledged as a leading expert in his field, somehow became known as "the camel"; contemporaries referred to his rival as "the raven". Ibid., 1: 21.

75. 'Abd al-Nafi' al-Hamawi had to flee his position as mufti of Hama after offending the chief judge and writing defamatory poetry against a powerful amir and his clan. He took refuge in the coastal town of Tripoli under the protection of the governor, but never really succeeded in reining in his pen, which had an uncanny knack for satire and invective. He soon fell into local politics and aimed mocking verses at another amir, who later sent an assassin as his own reply. Our poet emerged from the scrape with his life, moved on rather hastily to Aleppo, and then finished his career in uncharacteristic tranquility in the small town of Idlib. See al-Muhibbi, Khulasat, 3: 90. For specialists in hija' who paid with their lives (including the famous Ottoman poet Nefi), see Ibid., 1: 197; 3: 228.

76. Ibn al-Siddiq, Ghara'ib, 18, 22, 26, 30, 31, 34, 40, 41, 42, 44, 54, 63, 70, 73, 76, 77, 78, 85, 87, 88, 89, 96, 99. For other forms of abuse, see al-Sabbagh, Tarikh, 61; al-Dimashqi, Tarikh, 26.

77. See for example al-Muhibbi, Khulasat, 2: 79; 3: 399, 463; 4: 451; al-Muradi, Silk, 4: 3; Ibn al-Siddiq, Ghara'ib, 20, 22, 26, 31, 35, 36, 39, 42, 57, 58, 59, 60, 63.

78. al-Muhibbi, Khulasat, 3: 90.

79. For examples of the complications that might ensue, see al-Muhibbi, Khulasat, 3: 436, 465; 4: 331.

80. Ibn al-Siddiq, Ghara'ib, 70. Direct references to excrement are rare, but do turn up in other Ottoman-era sources. For an Egyptian example, see al-Damurdashi (d. 1755?), al-Durra al-musana fi akhbar al-kinana, unpublished manuscript, British Library, 528-30; also cited in Jane Hathaway, The Politics of Households in Ottoman Egypt: The Rise of the Qazdaglis (New York, 1997), 91.

81. al-Muhibbi, Khulasat, 4: 229.

82. Muhammad Sa'id al-Qasimi, Qamus al-sana'at al-shamiyya, ed. Zafir al-Qasimi (Damascus, 1988), 69.

83. al-Muhibbi, Khulasat, 4: 317. Al-Muhibbi had a similar reaction to the obscene hija' composed by 'Abd al-Nafi' al-Hamawi, who got into a long poetic feud with al-Hasan al-Burini, the renowned scholar and biographer; Ibid., 3: 90.

84. al-Muradi, Silk, 3: 275-76.

85. al-Nabulsi, al-Hadiqa, 2: 321. He reasoned that these lesser oaths, though problematic from a legal point of view, might help to promote moral behavior by creating a sense of honor-bound obligation.

86. The penalty for apostasy might actually be applied. See Burayk, Tarikh, 110, for a Christian youth who converted to Islam (1773), tried to change his mind the next day, and paid the ultimate price. For a lengthy discussion of oaths of apostasy, see Khayr al-Din al-Ramli, Risala fi al-jawab 'an mas' alat man qala inn fa 'altu kadha fa-huwa kafir, unpublished manuscript, Suleymaniye Library, Hekimoglu 322, 295b-306b.

87. Every man who had married under Islamic law (including non-Muslims who might opt for Islamic legal arrangements) would have to pay the remaining portion of the dowry owed to his wife. In most marriages, a part was given in advance at the time of the wedding, and the rest was kept in reserve as a kind of insurance in the event of death or divorce. Together with this basic requirement, a husband who resorted to this kind of divorce would also have to pay back any money that he had borrowed from his wife, who was entitled to receive all her debts at once.

88. The fatwa literature best illustrates the range of these oaths, the elaborate conditions on which they might be predicated, and the tragi-comic scenarios in which some claims of divorce might be pressed. See for example Khayr al-Din al-Ramli, al-Fatawa al-khayriyya li-naf' al-barriyya 'ala al-imam al-a'zam Abi Hanifa (Beirut, 1974, 2nd edition), 1: 36-57; Hamid al-'Imadi, al-'Uqud al-durriyya fi tanqih al-fatawa al-hamidiyya, ed. Ibn 'Abdin (Beirut, 1974, 2nd edition), 1: 35-51.

89. al-Budayri, Hawadith, 57-58. For another example, see also Ibn Kannan, Yawmiyat, 91.

90. Ibn al-Siddiq, Ghara'ib, 82.

91. Judith Tucker, In the House of the Law: Gender and Islamic Law in Ottoman Syria and Palestine (Berkeley, 1998), 181-82.

92. For a discussion of the history of this legal debate, see 'Abd al-Ghani al-Nabulsi, Fath al-inghilaq fi mas'alat al-talaq, unpublished manuscript, Suleymaniye Library, Celebi Abdullah Efendi 385/289b.

93. On the decline of purgative oaths in medieval Europe, see R. C. van Caenegem, Legal History: A European Perspective (London, 1991), 93.

94. This flexibility belies the older stereotype of an Islamic legal tradition which had slowly ossified and lost its vitality and creativity during the medieval period. One historian has observed that muftis in Ottoman Syria issued rulings on family law in a very pragmatic spirit which often held the interests of family and society above rigid applications of legal doctrine. See Tucker, In the House of the Law, 181-82.

95. See the discussion in Peter Burke, The Historical Anthropology of Early Modern Italy (London, 1987), 9-14.

96. al-Muradi, Silk, 1: 142. For similar stories, see al-Muhibbi, Khulasat, 1: 105; al-Budayri, Hawadith, 112.

97. See for example al-Muradi, Silk, 3: 275-76.

98. al-Dimashqi, Tarikh, 24. On the sanctity of oaths sworn by mediators, see al-Budayri, Hawadith, 117-18; al-Qari, Wuzara', 87-88; Hasan Agha, Tarikh, 18.

99. Roy Mottahedeh, Loyalty and Leadership in an Early Islamic Society (Princeton, 1980), 41-62.

100. al-Muhibbi, Khulasat, 4: 143.

101. See for example al-Muhibbi, Khulasat, 2: 78; 4: 63, 78, 320.

102. al-Muhibbi, Khulasat, 1: 34. Amulets and other written formulas, which were usually taken from the Quran, functioned for some doctors as a supplement to conventional prescriptions. See the biography of Ibn al-Hakim, who once treated the sultan himself by writing out a customized charm. Ibid., 1: 96. As a cure for forgetfulness, 'Abd al-Ghani al-Nabulsi recommended the use of various verses of the Quran in charms and potions. See al-Nabulsi, al-Kashf wa al-bayan 'amma yata'alliq bi'l-nisyan (Damascus, n.d.), 35-47.

103. See for example al-Muhibbi, Khulasat, 1: 34, 152; 3: 243.

104. Burayk, Tarkih, 37.

105. al-Muhibbi, Khulasat, 2: 64. See also Ibid., 1: 356; al-Muradi, Silk, 1: 273.

106. See respectively al-Nabulsi, al-Hadiqa, 2: 460, 477, 393.

107. See for example al-Muhibbi, Khulasat, 2: 118.

108. al-Nabulsi, al-Hadiqa, 2: 230-32. Among the exceptions who were eligible to be cursed: a man who ignored the call to prayer; a woman who refused to come to her husband's bed; one who offers, or receives, a bribe; and a person who makes or drinks wine. Ibid., 2: 233.

109. Ibn Kannan, Yawmiyat, 244-48. For another reference to lethal curses, Ibid., 375-76.

110. See for example al-Muhibbi, Khulasat, 1: 114; 2: 306; 3: 386; 4: 145, 214; al-Muradi, Silk, 1: 8-9; 3: 11; 4: 222.

111. He also warned against bringing down a curse on a father or child, on the caliphs Abu Bakr and 'Umar (an overt reference to Shi'ite traditions), or even on a natural force like the wind; al-Nabulsi, al-Kashf, 28-32.

112. al-Muhibbi, Khulasat, 4: 508.

113. Ibn Kannan, Yawmiyat, 244.

114. Bronislaw Malinowski, Coral Gardens and Their Magic: A Study of the Methods of Tilling the Soil and of Agricultural Rites in the Trobriand Islands (New York, 1935). For another important discussion of magic and speech, see S. J. Tambiah, Culture, Thought, and Social Action: An Anthropological Perspective (Cambridge, MA, 1985), ch. 1.

By James Grehan

Portland State University

Department of History

Portland, OR 97207-0751
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