Marina Rustow named 2015 MacArthur Foundation Fellow

Marina Rustow_Photo by John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation,  licensed under Creative Commons (CC-BY)

Marina Rustow, photo by John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, licensed under Creative Commons (CC-BY)

Marina Rustow, historian and coeditor of Jewish Studies at the Crossroads of Anthropology and History: Authority, Diaspora, Tradition, has been named a 2015 MacArthur Foundation Fellow!

Commonly known as the "MacArthur Genius Grants" the fellowship consists of a $625,000 award paid out over five years, with no stipulations. Specifically, "There are three criteria for selection of Fellows: exceptional creativity, promise for important future advances based on a track record of significant accomplishment, and potential for the fellowship to facilitate subsequent creative work. The MacArthur Fellows Program is intended to encourage people of outstanding talent to pursue their own creative, intellectual, and professional inclinations."

From the award note:

Marina Rustow is a historian using the Cairo Geniza texts to shed new light on Jewish life and on the broader society of the medieval Middle East. The Cairo Geniza (or Genizah) comprises hundreds of thousands of legal documents, letters, and literary materials—many of them fragmentary—deposited in Cairo’s Ben Ezra Synagogue over more than a millennium. Rustow’s approach to this archive goes beyond decoding documents, in itself a formidable task, to questioning the relationship between subjects and medieval states and asking what that relationship tells us about power and the negotiation of religious boundaries.

In Heresy and the Politics of Community: The Jews of the Fatimid Caliphate (2008), Rustow focuses on the period from 909 to 1171 C.E. and upends long-accepted ideas about the relationship between two rival Jewish communities under Fatimid rule. Prior historians, basing their interpretation on literary polemics, had depicted the Rabbanites and Karaites (or Qaraites) of Egypt and Syria as factions bitterly divided by theological difference, the latter branded as heretics and marginalized. Rustow examined nonliterary Geniza documents (such as letters, legal contracts, and state petitions and decrees) and revealed a wealth of social, economic, and political transactions between the two groups. The finding calls into question the depth of the religious schism, suggesting a higher level of tolerance and cooperation than had been assumed.

Rustow’s current work addresses Geniza documents in Arabic script from the Fatimid caliphate. Using a bidirectional lens—that is, interpreting the material from the point of view of both the Islamic and Jewish communities—Rustow is mining these documents for what they can tell us about how the caliphal state ruled and how Jewish, Christian, and Muslim subjects related to it. In a current collaborative project, Rustow is developing a handbook of medieval legal and state documents from the Middle East never before published or accessible in archives. Deploying her considerable prowess in languages, social history, and papyrology, Rustow is rewriting our understanding of medieval Jewish life and transforming the historical study of the Fatimid empire.


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