The Project ILM: Summary of its achievements (2009-2013)

The project “Islamic Law materialized” (ILM) provides a new perspective on the study of Islamic law by analyzing published and unpublished Arabic legal documents. Throughout history, deeds, immediate manifestations of legal practice, were instruments for assuring the subjective rights of persons who held a copy of them. The fundamental question of the ILM project is this: whether and how notarial practice corresponded and responded to the rules of Islamic law (fiqh), as developed by Muslim jurists over centuries.

The newly created database “Comparing Arabic Legal Documents” (CALD) offers the full Arabic text, images and metadata for each document. Due to its elaborate typology and chronological data, cross queries for precise analytical purposes become possible. This innovative tool facilitates the study of our sources, which are cursorily written, contain technical language, and are often scattered over various collections.

Over the last five years, the ILM research group has constituted a corpus of nearly 2400 legal notarizations on 1659 documents with 4770 images and over 64000 Arabic textual sequences. 979 specimens are published, and many are integrated with the full Arabic text. The verification of published and unpublished documents is ongoing. More than half of our data concerns unpublished documents from under-examined corpuses from al-Andalus, Egypt and Palestine from the 13th to 15th century.

Taken as a whole, CALD constitutes a new type of dataset for the study of Arabic legal documents in Islam that allows for a first-ever survey of specimens from the 7th to the 15th century. Any terminological, chronological and regional comparison is based on Arabic text sequences and typology. From this dataset emerge the contours of a common, trans-regional Islamic law tradition that governed the practice of guaranteeing subjective rights. Documents developed and diversified over centuries. Only now can it be shown how Islamic legal thinking (fiqh) impacted notarizations. Changing terminology of writs, which grew in complexity during the 9th and 10th centuries, corresponded and responded to juridical concepts. Evolving casuistic fiqh laws allowed for new forms of judicial practices, as illustrated with the differentiation between “accepting” and “performing” oral testimony that ruled 14th-century documents on court-procedure. Another important field of interest are the subtle differences and specificities of notarial and judicial documents.

These observations lead us now to reconsider the theory-practice paradigm in pre-modern Islamic law, which is grounded in a supposed incompatibility between (purely theoretical) fiqh casuistry and legal practice. Long seen as antagonistic to legal practice, developed juridical casuistry reveals itself as an effective means of legitimizing procedures and practices. Our concluding conference on “Reconsidering pre-modern Islamic law” in November 2013 was an important step towards aligning ILM findings with a wider, general vision of the historicity of law and its modes of functioning.

Beyond the project: the long-term scientific impact of ILM depends not only on the forthcoming publication of its results, but also on the accessibility of this kind of source material to other researchers. The CALD database, until now limited to internal use by the ILM research-group, protects, in its latest version, “work in progress” for individual private use. Thanks to this, additional researchers may collaborate and use CALD’s facilities for editing legal documents. Given the mass of existing unexploited data, the opening of CALD’s data to a wider public will not happen in the near future. However, to boost research with legal documents, the ILM project provides the technical means to successively publish edited source material online. This includes a full-text research tool, the edited text and an image (if legally possible). (

Principal investigator: Christian Müller