Professional Mobility in the Islamic Lands (900-1600)

by Kenneth Goudie

On the 19th and 20th of March this year, I attended a workshop entitled  ‘Professional Mobility in the Islamic Lands (900-1600): ʿUlamāʾ, Udabāʾ, and Administrators’, which was co-organised by Mohamad El-Merheb (SOAS) and Mehdi Berriah (Paris 1 La Sorbonne University/University of Grenoble‑Alpes) and hosted at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London.

The idea was to approach professional mobility along spatial, horizontal, and vertical axes–that is, how and why ʿulamāʾmoved between different courts, how they climbed the ladder, and how they made lateral moves into administrative and bureaucratic offices–paying particular attention to such processes as the gradual professionalisation, institutionalisation, and adabisation of the ʿulamāʾ. Essentially, we wanted to explore in more detail what precisely professional mobility was and how it developed in the Islamic world over the course of seven centuries. Y’know, something straightforward and easily resolvable in two days.

The ground-breaking ramifications of our new Amazing Workshop format (about which you can read more here) having yet to be widely felt (it’s only a matter of time, though…), this workshop was a conference in all but name. But I won’t hold that against it: it was a fascinating and enjoyable event, whatever you want to call it.

The organisers had managed to arrange an impressive list of attendees whose combined expertise covered the Islamic world from the eighth century through to the end of the sixteenth, and from al-Andalus in the west through to the Deccan Plateau in India. The event was marred only by a strike by staff at Paris’ Gare du Nord Station, which unfortunately meant that many of the attendees from Paris were unable to make it.

Writing this some two months after the fact, I have come to realise that the chronological and geographical range was something of a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it was a great benefit because it meant that I was able to interact with colleagues studying completely different regions and periods, which has put my research into a much broader context and shown me different ways of approaching and understanding professional mobility. On the other hand, it meant that my notes are less than stellar­: I seem to have spent more time listening to the papers–testament to their quality–than writing down comprehensive and comprehensible notes. If anyone can tell me what profound insight I’m supposed to gain from notes like  “mobility vs specific” and “challenging generic designations”, I’d be most grateful.

But I don’t have to remonstrate against myself too hard: many of the papers will be getting reworked for publication in an edited volume, hopefully in the next year or so. My paper, which was entitled ‘Building a Network: al-Biqāʿī’s Marital Manoeuvring’, will unfortunately not be part of that volume. It’s been earmarked for submission to journal, so if the title sparks anyone’s interest they should still be able to read a much expanded version of it in the near future.