UCMS lecture Robert Hoyland: The Limits of Freedom


On 29 September, the first lecture in the UCMS Lecture Series 2022-2023 will take place. In this lecture, Professor Robert Hoyland (New York University) will address the subject of freedom in the late antique and early Islamic Middle East. Afterwards, three respondents will react to the lecture: Floris van den Eijnde, Josephine van den Bent (Radboud University) and Robert Flierman will each give a response of about five minutes based on their own research expertise. Kay Boers will open and chair the lecture.

The Limits of Freedom

In his lecture The Limits of Freedom: Self-sale, Indentured Labor and Debt Bondage in the Late Antique and Early Islamic Middle East, Hoyland will address the subject of freedom.

In both Roman and Islamic culture free status was in theory inalienable. The category of unfree was legally restricted to those who were born as slaves or were captured in war, but in reality a variety of circumstances, particularly poverty and debt, might constrain freeborn persons to forfeit their liberty, whether temporarily or permanently.

Roman and Muslim jurists alike display antipathy towards this reality, but they had to recognize it in some measure, and in the law books of both civilizations we find discussions of a whole range of situations involving a free person's loss of their free status: debt defaults, kidnappings, self-sales, forced marriages, and the like.

The phenomenon is so pervasive that it allows us to look into various aspects of these two societies, as well as to assess the similarities and differences in their respective responses to the phenomenon. It also permits us to examine the ways in which the religions of Christianity and Islam came to terms with the existence of unfreedom while trying to mitigate some of its worst features.

Robert Hoyland

Robert Hoyland is Professor of Late Antique and Early Islamic Middle Eastern History at New York University. He studied Oriental Studies at Oxford University, where he subsequently wrote a doctoral thesis on non-Muslim accounts of the rise of Islam ('Seeing Islam as Others Saw It', 1997).

The emergence of Islamic civilization has remained a key focus of his research and is the subject of his book 'In God’s Path: the Arab Conquests and the Creation of an Islamic Empire' (2014). The desire to better understand this phenomenon has led him down many different avenues of study: pre-Islamic Arabia ('Arabia and the Arabs', 2001), epigraphy, papyrology, transmission of knowledge from the late antique Greco-Syriac world, and historiography.

One avenue, archaeology, has become a passion for him in its own right and he has been involved in excavations in Syria, Yemen, Israel/Palestine and Azerbaijan. Most recently, he has turned to social history, looking at the plight of the unfree in the early Islamic Middle East, those who, though theoretically 'free', were compelled by straitened circumstances to sell themselves or their family or in some other way to subjugate themselves to a wealthy patron or institution.

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Drift 21, room 105

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Utrecht Centre for Medieval Studies