Sarah Mirza is an Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at the College of Wooster (Ohio). She is a cultural historian of pre-Islamic Arabia and early Islam, and interested in theorizing and developing a historical methodology for a material culture of writing. She has published on the Prophet Muhammad’s documents as relics.
Shoes, Writing: recycled leather in the material culture of writing in pre-Islamic Arabia and early Islam
According to medieval Islamic literature, some eighth and ninth century figures were known for an excessive zeal in recording religious knowledge which lead them to take notes on their leather sandals. More fundamentally than the learned debate on the merits of memorization that these accounts participate in, these shoes matter because they are leather, the most plentiful writing support available. Although they uniquely attract pietistic ire, the shoes were not unusual and can be seen in relation to accounts of legal and religious documents used to patch up leather buckets. The collapse of material categories through writing is also featured in the motif of the “ruined abodes” in the pre-Islamic ode, in which writing speaks but says nothing and is undifferentiated from camp remains, animal droppings, and traces left by water. Recycled leather from pre-Islamic and early Islamic times can thus reveal what Bernhard Siegert and Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht call “cultural techniques” and “materialities of communication”: the culturally and historically circumscribed material conditions for semantics. In these examples, the written object is always something else at the same time; writing is what it is depending on where it is and is never abstract text. Collapsing the categories of text, trace, household object, and apparel, these examples encourage historians interested in materiality to centralize the actual material of objects and not merely the fact of their being objects as opposed to literature. We may thus see these shoes more clearly if they are categorized with drinking vessels and documents rather than clothing.