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How can we know the "truth" behind documents from the past?

Posted 5/3/2016

Writing the introductory chapter to a book for a general academic public about the history of teaching the "sciences" in various Islamicate societies, I read a few papers and book chapters about physicians and druggists in Mamluk Egypt. All three historians whose works I read believe that the Mamluk sultans tried to "islamicize" medicine, encouraged as well as supported by religious scholars in Syria and Egypt. To them the term "islamicize" means that Muslims were called to study medicine, that Christian and or Jewish doctors should no longer be hired by members of the elites, that non-Muslim patients should not be treated in hospitals donated by the Mamluks, and that Muslim physicians should not teach non-Muslim students. All such demands can be found in donation documents, laments and criticisms of religious scholars, and comments made by Muslim historians and physicians.


But there are other sources that report about the continued existence of Christian and and Jewish physicians until the end of the Mamluk state, about Muslim physicians who taught Christian or Jewish students or healed non-Muslim patients.


Thus, how can we make sense of these conflicting reports? Are the first expressions of intentions, goals, and desires of hardliners? Are they strategies to negotiate acceptance and respect between a new sultan or a sultan in difficulties and the local elites? Are they efforts to push competitors out of lucrative positions and markets? Do the second kind of stories describe the realities of daily life, in particular because they often report indirectly about non-Muslim students and doctors in entries about Muslim scholars or dignitaries? What else do we have to know about a specific moment and place in Mamluk history in order to be able to evaluate such conflicting information with some chance to reliability? 


I think we need to contextualize said documents and stories by researching networks of scholars in a given city or town at the date of a donation document or the composition of a lament about the lack of Muslim doctors. We need to read other stories of complaint to know what was fashionable in a given moment. And we need to know for whom or against whom such religious scholars wrote and Mamluk dignitaries donated hospitals and madrasas. But perhaps all that is not enough for solid evaluations! Fatwas and court cases will certainly also be of help. Maybe some readers of this entry have better ideas. I would be glad to read about them.