With support from the University of Richmond

History News Network

History News Network puts current events into historical perspective. Subscribe to our newsletter for new perspectives on the ways history continues to resonate in the present. Explore our archive of thousands of original op-eds and curated stories from around the web. Join us to learn more about the past, now.

Marina Rustow

Basic Facts

Teaching Position: 2003-present Assistant Professor, Department of History, Emory University. Joint appointment in the Institute for Jewish Studies; Adjunct Assistant Professor in the Department of Middle Eastern and South Asian Studies; member of the Program in Medieval Studies 
Area of Research: Medieval Near Eastern history; Jewish history; heresy and methods of exclusion; religious conversion; power, persuasion, hegemony, and political culture among medieval Jews and Muslims; medieval documentary sources in Arabic, Judeo-Arabic, and Hebrew, especially letters, petitions and decrees; archives, genizot, and the afterlife of documents. 
Education: Ph.D. in History, Columbia University, 2004 
Major Publications: Rustow is the author of Heresy and the Politics of Community: The Jews of the Fatimid Caliphate, (Cornell University Press, June 2008) and Scripture and Schism: Samaritan and Karaite Treasures Marina Rustow JPGfrom the Library of the Jewish Theological Seminary. Exhibition catalogue, with the participation of Elka Deitsch and Sharon Lieberman Mintz (Jewish Theological Seminary of America, 2000) 

Rustow is currently working on the following book projects: Patronage and Politics: Islamic Empire and the Medieval Jewish Community A study of Near Eastern empire and political culture in the tenth and eleventh centuries via documents preserved in the Cairo Geniza and literary works composed by Fatimid and Abbasid courtiers; Iberian Conversos in Mamluk Cairo: Religion and Heresy in the Medieval Mediterranean (with Tamer Elleithy), The politics of conversion and heresy in late medieval Egypt and the Iberian peninsula via the story of two dozen Spanish Jewish converts to Christianity who arrive in Cairo in 1465. She is also working on the following edited volume, Tradition, Authority, Diaspora: Jewish Studies at the Crossroads of History and Anthropology, with Ra'anan Boustan and Oren Kosansky. (University of Pennsylvania Press; forthcoming). 
Rustow is also the author of numerous scholarly journal articles, book chapters and reviews including among others: "Literacy, Orality, and Book Culture among Medieval Jews." Jewish Quarterly Review, Forthcoming 2008; "Karaites Real and Imagined: Three Cases of Jewish Heresy." Past and Present 197: 35-74, 2007; "Karaites at the Rabbinical Court: A Legal Deed from Mahdiyya Dated 1073." With Benjamin Hary. Ginzei Qedem: Geniza Research Annual 2 (2006), 9-36; "Laity vs. Leadership in Eleventh-Century Jerusalem: Karaites, Rabbanites, and the Affair of the Ban on the Mount of Olives." In Daniel Frank and Matt Goldish, eds., Rabbinic Culture and Its Critics: Jewish Authority and Dissent in Medieval and Early Modern Times, (Wayne State University Press, 2006) 
Awards: Rustow is the recipient of numerous awards and fellowships including among others:
Book subvention, Institute for Israel and Jewish Studies, Columbia University (for Toward a History of Jewish Heresy), 2007-2008; 
Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Post-Doctoral Rome Prize in Medieval Studies, American Academy in Rome, 2006-2007; 
Short-term visiting fellowship, research group on Charity and Piety in the Middle East in Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages, Institute for Advanced Studies, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, 2006-2007; 
Fellowship, Alexander von Humboldt Foundation and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, National Humanities, 2005-2006; 
Center SIAS Summer Institute "Hierarchy, Marginality, and Ethnicity in Muslim Societies (7th Century to Second World War)," Princeton University, Princeton, NJ, 2005-2006; 
Institute for Comparative and International Studies Travel Grant, Emory University, 2004-2005; 
Institute for Comparative and International Studies Research Grant, Emory University 2004-2005; 
Languages Across the Curriculum Grant, Emory University Language Center, Summer-Fall 2004; 
Course Development Grant, Emory Center for Teaching and Curriculum, Summer 2004; 
Michael R. Steinhardt Fellowship, Center for Advanced Judaic Studies, University of Pennsylvania (fall semester), 2003-2004; 
Maurice Amado Research Grant in Sephardic Studies, Center for Jewish Studies, University of California, Los Angeles 2002-2003; 
Hazel D. Cole Fellowship, Jewish Studies Program, University of Washington, 2002-2003; 
Research Fellowship and Honorary Membership, The Manuscript Society, 2001-2002; 
Summer Research Fellowship, Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, Columbia University, 2001-2002; 
Dolores Zohrab Liebmann Fellowship in Graduate Studies, 1999-2002; 
President's Fellowship, Columbia University, 1999-2000; 
Graduate Fellowship, Center for Israel and Jewish Studies, Columbia University, 1997-2003; 
Irene C. Fromer Fellowship in Jewish Studies, Columbia University. 1996-1997; 
Wexner Graduate Fellowship in Jewish Studies, 1994-1998. 
Additional Info: 
Rustow was an Instructor, Department of History, University of Washington, Seattle, Winter 2003.
She was a member, Advisory Board, The Princeton Geniza Project (Princeton, NJ), 2007; and a member, Editorial Board, The Cambridge History of Judaism, volumes 5 and 6 (The Middle Ages), general editor Robert Chazan, 2006. 

Personal Anecdote

History was my worst high school subject. By a longshot. My father and brother are probably to blame, since they subjected me to interminable Sunday afternoon games of Risk and Diplomacy. You have not suffered until you have been a nine-year-old girl attempting to conquer Irkutsk and Kamchatka. 

Somehow, as my brain matured, the long view became interesting to me, not just as a subject but as a way of viewing the world. Still, my early trouble with history has had a lasting impact on the work I do. On the negative side, I studiously avoided any undergraduate history courses, thereby missing out on the outstanding lectures of some of the famous historians of the twentieth century. As a result I have no idea, really, of what it is supposed to mean to give a history lecture, and it has taken me some time not to feel that when I stand before a hall full of undergraduates I am the greatest impostor the world has ever known. 

On the positive side, coming late to the field has given me a keen empathy for students in my class for whom my history course is their first. To encourage their fear to lift and stop clouding their minds, I have told some of them how I used to feel about history courses. I have told some that there are two kinds of historians: those who possess a nearly uncanny ability to memorize events and dates; and those who can't remember a thing unless they manage to attach it to a concept, to some broader notion of its importance and consequences (I belong to the second group). And I have warned still others that what students are asked to do in history courses-digest narratives and causality schemes wholesale and accept them on authority-is precisely the converse of what historians actually do when they make history, which is to begin with disparate and seemingly insignificant glimpses of a period and work outward toward a wider view while questioning everything in sight. 

Being a latecomer has also meant that some of the nuts and bolts of historical inquiry remained opaque to me until I found my own use for them. For instance: what is power and how is exercised (and why should we care)? Why are states important? Early on, I found myself drawn instead to remote and arcane questions about early Jewish scholastic texts, like what it meant to compose and edit them, and who was doing the dirty work and why. One of my graduate school mentors, Richard Bulliet, is a medieval Near Eastern historian who asks very strange questions (for instance: why did wheeled transport arrive so late to the Near East? would an Iranian contemplating conversion to Islam in the ninth century have assumed, wrongly, that giving up his religion also meant giving up his customary boots for sandals?). When I heard questions like this, I thought that I might be able to pull off this history thing. 

The search for the worm's eye view of historical change has continued to animate my work. I am also happiest when I am thinking in terms of paradoxes, or seeming ones. Why did the largest cache of medieval Arabic documents from government chanceries survive not in state archives but in the lumber room of a Jewish synagogue in Cairo? Why did the rabbinic academies of Baghdad succeed in exerting a hold on Jews across the Mediterranean basin beginning not with the Islamic conquest of the seventh century but with the collapse of the Abbasid caliphate in the tenth? Why did the Jews of medieval Sicily continue to speak Arabic for two and a half centuries after the last Muslims were expelled from the island, becoming the sole speakers of Arabic on the island and the only people capable of translating Norman privileges into Latin? All of these questions, in the end, have to do with power and with states. But I found them interesting only once I had entered the field through a side door. 


By Marina Rustow

  • Most scholarship on Qaraism has styled it a "sect" of Judaism, a judgment that agrees with its condemnation as a heresy by medieval rabbinic religious authorities but does little to explain its role in the wider Jewish community. The term "sect" represents a commendable attempt to remove the stigma of judgment from groups whose coreligionists have deemed them heretics, but it still implies their marginalization. It also tends to reduce the complexity of the relationships between religious groups and make them appear static, substituting a sociological typology for a theological one and in so doing, bypassing the contingency and specificity of historical events. 
    Heresy and the Politics of Community: The Jews of the Fatimid Caliphate JPG
    I began writing this book to investigate whether the use of the term sect is justified in the case of Qaraism. Did the marginalization of Qaraite ideas and practices in the writings of certain rabbinic authorities entail their marginalization in politics, administration, economy, and physical space? ... The process of writing this book has convinced me that the shape of the Jewish community in medieval Egypt and Syria cannot be understood without accounting for the Qaraite role in it, a conclusion that may be suggestive for other historical periods and religious configurations as well. The question with which I began my research, then, whether the Qaraites were a sect, has led me to the wider problem on which this work focuses: What would the history of the Jewish community look like if viewed without the presumption that Qaraites were a sociologically separate group? -- Marina Rustow in "Heresy and the Politics of Community: The Jews of the Fatimid Caliphate"
  • About Marina Rustow

  • "Beautifully written and brilliantly conceived, this book is more a voyage of discovery than an academic monograph. It takes us to a time—the Middle Ages—and a place—the Middle East—in which there were many different visions of Judaism’s future, and it teaches us that this future emerged out of an infinitely richer dialogue than most of us thought possible. Marina Rustow shows us how the jostling of many peoples has shaped our understanding of the history of rabbinic Judaism’s emergence. Her crowd of characters ranges from the sages of Babylon and Palestine to the Sultans of Cairo, from desperate captives pleading for ransom to the proud princes of rival Jewish communities, from pillaging crusaders to modern manuscript hunters. The result of their polyphonic interactions is an extraordinarily learned yet lyrical book that transforms our knowledge of how the various different visions of Judaism dealt with their differences in the distant past, and thereby gives us a new sense of how they might do so in the present." -- David Nirenberg, Committee on Social Thought and Department of History, The University of Chicago reviewing "Heresy and the Politics of Community: The Jews of the Fatimid Caliphate"
  • "Heresy and the Politics of Community is a fine piece of historical scholarship, presenting the new and exciting idea that the sectarian divide between Rabbanites and Qaraites in the tenth and eleventh centuries in the Middle East not only was not as deep and antagonistic as usually assumed but also hardly existed at all in certain areas. Marina Rustow substantiates this claim through the judicious marshalling of evidence in a book that is highly professional, well conceived, and well executed. It will have a definite impact on the study of medieval Jewish history and is an important contribution to our understanding of Jewish religion and life." -- Daniel J. Lasker, Norbert Blechner Professor of Jewish Values at Ben-Gurion University of the Negevr eviewing "Heresy and the Politics of Community: The Jews of the Fatimid Caliphate"
  • "Estrangement and rift between medieval Rabbanite and Qaraite Jews is a commonplace of modern scholarship. Through a detailed analysis of documentary sources from the Cairo Genizah, Marina Rustow brilliantly challenges this view. She proposes fresh insights into intellectually diversified Jewish life in Fatimid times. -- Judith Olszowy- Schlanger, Professor of Medieval Hebrew Palaeography, Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes, Paris reviewing "Heresy and the Politics of Community: The Jews of the Fatimid Caliphate"
  • "Heresy and the Politics of Community is a superb book that indicates the remarkable value of the documentary materials in the Cairo Geniza. Using these materials, Rustow brilliantly revises the traditional picture of Rabbanite- Qaraite relations, which was based entirely on literary-polemical sources. In the process, she also amplifies considerably our understanding of Jewish communal functioning in the medieval Mediterranean world and contributes notably to the broader issue of mainstreams and so-called schisms on the medieval scene." -- Robert Chazan, Scheuer Professor of Jewish History, New York University reviewing "Heresy and the Politics of Community: The Jews of the Fatimid Caliphate"
  • "Relying on meticulous research of Genizah documents, Marina Rustow rewrites the history of the Jewish communities of the eastern Mediterranean during the eleventh and twelfth centuries. Her nuanced assessment of the tripartite communal structure of the Jews of Egypt, Palestine, and Syria places the Qaraites at the very center of Jewish life and redefines the frequently shifting relationship among Babylonian, Palestinian, and Qaraite congregations and communities of that time and place. Heresy and the Politics of Community is a rich and brilliant study of the complex power relations within a minority religious community." -- Ross Brann, Cornell University reviewing "Heresy and the Politics of Community: The Jews of the Fatimid Caliphate"
  • "[Professor Rustow] is a great lecturer … very engaging, a great storyteller."... "She did a great job of teaching us how to examine history, not to look at it in too much hindsight."... "Perhaps my favorite lecturer at Emory yet. She was very engaging."... "I learn history and all subject better when there is a conceptual focus, the course did just that." -- Anonymous Students