A Friend in Need… part II

Rembrandt - St Paul in prison

Rembrandt – St Paul in prison – Staatsgalerie Stuttgard, Wikimedia

In our first blog in this series we looked at how the powerful friends of the rebel Ibn Dabian b. Sa‘id got him out of trouble after The rebellion of ‘Abdallah b. al-Jarud. This time an imprisoned monk is finding out what his friends are worth…

Writing from prison

by Cecilia Palombo

Among all types of hardship, one that recurs in the sources studied by the EmCo team is loss of freedom. By looking at instances of imprisonment by state authorities we can examine some of the options the inhabitants of the early Islamic empire had when facing crises. The story I discuss below illustrates well the question that is central in this blog series: what did people do to cope with crises they faced because of the state, and how could they use the state’s political and legal structures to their advantage? The story shows us a monk in trouble dealing with state representatives, being aware of political and judicial institutions, and using the legal system’s mechanisms to improve his condition. This person used also another resource that is central to our series, personal connections.

Detention by state authorities in the early Islamic period was a measure often employed to limit an individual’s freedom during an investigation. Thus, it seems to have often preceded rather than followed the verdict (as opposed to punitive incarceration; see the studies by R. Gould, P. Sijpesteijn). People might be arrested for various reasons, including because of debts, tax evasion, or on a relative’s behalf, and generally, when accused of wrongdoings for which an investigation was deemed necessary. From the state’s perspective, a suspect’s arrest might be a temporary answer to a problem, before a decision was reached or a solution found. In turn, somebody under arrest might try to change their situation by preparing a good defense or seeking protection with intermediaries. Appealing to personal connections—a relative advancing payment, or a mighty friend pulling some strings—seems to have been an important strategy for being released. But how to do so from one’s confinement?


A group of letters on papyrus from Abbasid Egypt show us a Christian monk working to obtain his release during an investigation. The letters belong to a dossier of documents excavated near the monastery of Dayr al-Bala’iza by F. Petrie and taken outside Egypt in the early twentieth century. Here, I focus on two documents now kept in the Bodleian Library, which were edited by P. Khale in 1954 (n. 186, 187). One is a letter written by the prisoner to his acquaintances, the religious leaders of his hometown; the other is a letter written to him. In my view, the exchange dates to the early Abbasid period (mid-second century AH).

The letters are fragmentary and difficult to read, but we can still make out enough of the story. The main character (we do not know his name) had travelled to Fustat, Egypt’s capital, on account of some legal issue. Instead of finding a solution to his problem, he was arrested. From the place of confinement he wrote to the monks and the notables of his town, in southern Egypt. At least one letter written by the imprisoned monk is extant, though there are references to a more protracted exchange than we can see. He wrote (or perhaps dictated) this letter by reusing an official Arabic document, which he could maybe find in the same building where he was kept under arrest.

His condition as a prisoner must have been miserable—we learn that he was expecting food from the south—but he was probably not a poor person back home. He was literate in Coptic and perhaps spoke Arabic. He wrote with a somewhat decisive, leader-like tone. In the reply written to him, he is addressed with religious and honorific titles. Rather than a simple monk, he must have been a monastic headman.

In his letter, the arrested monk mentioned the governor and the qadi’s deputy. The latter had investigated and arrested him—a juridical procedure that is known also from other early Abbasid documents (see M. Tillier’s studies). We do not know what the investigation was about, but a mention of “slander” suggests that the monk’s troubles had started with a complaint, leading to litigation. He had beef with somebody; still, it was the state’s representatives who concretely caused his loss of freedom.


Two things are worth pointing out about how this crisis was tackled. First, the writers in this exchange were familiar with the lingo of Abbasid provincial bureaucracy. They used Arabic words, administrative terms, and technical abbreviations. Second, the letters depict two ways in which the situation could be helped: activating personal connections and procuring official documents. The prisoner was familiar with the justice system’s workings. Presumably, such adroitness was not a resource that any arrested person would be able to tap into, but one that might have made the difference between a successful and an unsuccessful plea—if not in the outcome, at least insofar as it allowed the person in trouble to try out different ways and appeal to different relationships.

The imprisoned one had already tried to defend himself. He mentions official papers he had given to the qadi’s deputy. Considering the context, I presume these documents had some legal value: a petition, or something constituting evidence in his favor. He refers also to his inability to find people who could help (witnesses, guarantors? A lacuna in the text leaves it unknown). Writing to his acquaintances back home almost looks like a last resort. But despite his distress, the tone is imperative: the monk seems to know how things should be done.

First, he asks for more documents. His friends should send a letter (a petition?) to the amir, the administrator ruling over their region. Then, more papers should be carried to Fustat by a specific intermediary, called Petros. Interestingly, the prisoner seems to assume that his friends would be able to produce additional, recognizably valid documents for him.

The second mechanism relates to personal connections. Like the creation of official documents, this mechanism also had its rules. The prisoner’s friends should visit the amir at his residence/chancery. Then, a designated person will travel to Fustat and speak to the authorities there. Clearly, not everyone might be able to enter state buildings or obtain an audition. However, as it becomes clear when his friends write back adducing delays and obstacles, the process might require some additional steps: having the opportunity to travel, talking to local officials they know, and finding the right moment to do so, as they explain in the letter.

In the end, the arrested churchman can only wait for the authorities to rule about his case, and for his friends to bring him food. The mechanisms of the justice system determined his arrest and will determine his release. How fast he can become free again seems to depend on his ability to set in motion the right connections and to produce valid documents, based on his knowledge of the system. His acquaintances may help in this. However, he is just as much dependent on their willingness to help him in the ways and at the times he wishes.