I don't write about non-fiction very often here at Alexandria. Partly this is because, as an academic, reading non-fiction is a large part of my day job (and, to an increasing degree, so is writing it; a final copy of the contract to publish my doctoral thesis is sitting beside me on the desk as I type this). I do read monographs and biographies for pleasure, too, but my hit-rate of writing them up is much lower than it is for fiction. So my new year's blogging resolution is to write more about non-fiction - by which I generally mean, let's face it, history.
As it happens, one of the books that I most enjoyed reading this year - and then gabbling about, to anyone who would listen - was a monograph on late medieval Egyptian social history, Yossef Rapoport's Marriage, Money and Divorce in Medieval Islamic Society (2005). I picked it up to get some background for a topic, new to me, that I was teaching to my third-year undergrads: social history in Mamluk-era (1250-1517) Egypt and Syria. Since it was my first year of teaching the Mamluks at all - or the Crusades, or the Ottomans, or a whole bunch of other periods - I hadn't really been intending to start on the social history just yet, but one particularly forthright student asked, quite reasonably, whether she might look forward to hearing a single woman's name at any point during my course. It was slightly embarrassing, but (of course) also an opportunity, and so off I scurried to learn some more new stuff.
It's fair to say that research on the medieval Islamic world tends to be concentrated on military, political and religious history, and historiography; social and economic history, while not absent by any means, have traditionally attracted much less attention. In part this is a consequence of the available literary sources, whose narratives - inevitably - centre on the great deeds of great men, and not infrequently the perfidious deeds of some really awful ones. But, as has been hashed out at length among scholars of other regions and periods already, it is also about the way we read our sources, the type of sources we look at, and what we expect to find. Work like Rapoport's - and of the likes of Huda Lutfi, Carl Petry, and David Powers - challenges the assumption that it is simply not possible to write substantive history about women in medieval Islam. On the contrary: the women are there, we just aren't looking for them in the right places.
Rapoport's slim (114 pages, discounting bibliography and index), fascinating book builds upon a by-now established methodology for locating women in medieval Muslim society - examining accounts of divorce proceedings, and information on divorce in biographical works - in order to build up a picture of women's life in the Mamluk sultanate (primarily Cairo) that combines statistics and theory with thumbnail biographies of individuals. It is readable throughout, not least because Rapoport's findings subvert expectation at every stage. From a study of the exhaustive biographical dictionary of al-Sakhawi (d. 1497), for example, he finds that three in ten elite marriages in fifteenth-century Cairo ended in divorce.
Biographical dictionaries, I should note, are encyclopaedic tomes which - as the name would suggest - collect together biographical information on very large numbers of people. In Islam, this form of writing had its origin in hadith criticism: that is, the investigation of traditions (hadiths) about the Prophet Muhammad's words and deeds. The idea was that, by scrutinising the background and education of the people who had transmitted a given hadith - information that was contained in the introductory 'chain' attached to a hadith, its isnad ("X told Y who heard from Z that the Prophet said...") - scholars would be able to judge whether a given hadith was authentic or not, and thus whether it had any legal authority. Biographical dictionaries, therefore, were reference works, offering information in a set format: for hadith transmitters, for example, it was necessary to provide the names of the transmitter's teachers, the cities to which they had travelled, and so forth.
Naturally, as the genre became more popular it was put to other purposes. Al-Sakhawi's biographical dictionary is about notable individuals - some hadith transmitters, but also poets, courtiers, historians, and others - who lived during the fifteenth century. It contains entries on 12,000 people, mostly men. From this work, Rapoport has been able to reconstruct the marital histories of some five hundred women of the period. It is, of course, only a sample (albeit a very large one by the standards of our medieval sources), and a restricted one at that, since most of the women in it are from the urban elite. But it is, nonetheless, a very revealing snapshot of medieval life.
As Rapoport notes, divorce in medieval Islamic law was first and foremost a seat of patriarchal privilege. As set out in the Qur'an, men had the legal right to unilateral divorce (talaq), which meant that they could, at any time, end their marriage by pronouncing the formula "I divorce you". The ease of this had some interesting consequences, one of which is remarriage was quite frequent for both men and women; furthermore, remarriage to the same person was also quite common, and it was presumably to limit frivolous and/or abusive use of talaq divorce that the Qur'an also stipulated (2:229-30) that talaq may not be used more than three times in a row on the same woman.
In practice, as the complaints of jurists like Ibn Taymiyya (d. 1328) make clear, people found ways around these restrictions. Jurists (faqihs) were scholars who could issue a legal opinion (fatwa) but did not have the authority (as a judge [qadi] did) to impose any sanctions. One institution that seems - if we take the conservative jurists' complaints seriously - to have become particularly important in this period is tahlil ('making lawful') marriage. After a talaq divorce had been pronounced three times, the only way a couple could remarry was if the women had married and divorced another man in the interim. A tahlil marriage was a quick-fix device to get around this, within the letter if not the spirit of the law: a third-party man was hired to contract a marriage with the woman, consummate it, and then immediately divorce her. (Perhaps unsurprisingly, some men appear to have made a career out of hiring themselves out in this way.) Then the original couple could remarry.
The reason for the rise of this dubious institution in the Mamluk period was a change in the tone of political and public life, with the increasing use of the 'divorce oath'. This type of oath traded on men's absolute patriarchal authority within marriage to boost his standing in the public sphere. A man would pledge himself to an undertaking - in commerce or politics, say - on the pain of a talaq divorce ("May I be divorced from my wife if I do not do X"). If he broke the oath, his marriage would be over, automatically and without appeal; amongst other things, sex with his (now ex) wife was instantly illegal. Because these things always escalate to silly proportions, men in very high-stakes situations were forced to increase their oaths to "May I divorce my wife three times if I don't do X". Which, of course, meant putting your wife through a tahlil marriage - that is, sex with another man - if you broke the oath, and wished to resume the marriage. Ibn Taymiyya opposed this (even to the extent of getting himself imprisoned), deploring a state and society that effectively prostituted women and forced men to pawn their marriages for political advancement.
A woman, if she wanted a divorce, had two options. The first was to seek a divorce with her husband's consent. To judge from the cases discussed by Rapoport and others, this sometimes went smoothly, being a simple recognition of a lack of compatibility and affection between the two parties; but in many cases the woman gave up some or all of her property in order to bribe her husband into agreeing. Unlike in Christian Europe in this (or later) periods, medieval Muslim women were entitled to hold their own property, even when married. They could inherit from their birth family (but were legally forbidden from inheriting as much as their brother(s), if they had any), and they also gained two types of property upon marriage: the dowry (jihaz) from their parents or guardian (which remained inalienably the woman's, not her husband's), and the marriage gift (sadaq), pledged by the husband in the marriage contract. The man's and the woman's respective property stayed separate; the man was obliged to meet all the costs of running the household, and the women was obliged to obey him.
The levels of sadaq and jihaz were, of course, expressions of the family's and the husband's social status, and vary considerably in the surviving evidence. Both of these entitlements - which generally consisted, at least in our period, of textiles, jewellery, and utensils (women were much less likely to own land than men) - offered women protection in the event of widowhood or unilateral divorce, allowing them to support themselves for a prolonged period without needing to remarry. Huda Lutfi, examining women's lives in the same period in Jerusalem, found that a large proportion of women in the city were self-supporting, often undertaking salaried work (usually in trade or textiles), and that most of these salaried women were unmarried.
The second option open to a woman seeking divorce was to get a ruling from a judge (qadi) terminating her marriage. For this she had to prove grounds for divorce, generally with the sworn testimony of witnesses: abandonment, abuse, or - in a fact that scandalized a number of European observers - the failure of the husband to financially support his wife to a level deemed adequate by the judge. The husband's failure to pay in full the contracted marriage gift was also, increasingly in the fifteenth century, cited as legally valid grounds for divorce.
One of the things Rapoport demonstrates is how canny individuals could use knowledge of the law to get themselves a better settlement. For example, there were - and still are - four main schools of Sunni law, and Cairo had a chief judge in each of them; some schools were known to be more favourable to women in divorce cases, and others to the men. If a woman divorced by talaq went to see a Hanafi judge, for example, her husband would find himself under orders to pay for her upkeep during the idda (the six-month 'waiting period' imposed by the Qur'an, during which the divorced woman may not marry another man).
One of Rapoport's subjects for case study is Zumurrud, a manumitted slave girl who improved her financial and social status considerably, by making three strategic marriages over two years. (Notably, she also represented herself in her marital negotiations, having no guardian to oversee the contract for her.) Her first marriage ended, consensually (on the condition that she gave up her marriage gift), after a year and three months. She then married another man, negotiating both a bigger marriage gift than for her first, and a guarantee of support for her child. Six months later, a talaq divorce left her with full upkeep during her idda and her larger sadaq intact. She then married again, two months later, adding a still larger marriage gift to her existing property.
Nothing is known of her life after this; but she had certainly come up in the world, in only two years. As ever, it is the individual human stories that make the history: people negotiating their way through society, making their lives as comfortable as they can with the tools - often unexpected to them - available to them.
The book is a little uneven in places; a couple of the chapters were first published elsewhere as individual articles, and the stitching isn't always concealed as well as it might be, leaving behind some repetition of analysis. But overall I thoroughly enjoyed this, and highly recommend it as a nuanced, detailed and often surprising discussion of life in a medieval Islamic society.
Oh, and, in the random fascinating facts column, I learned from this book that, due to the scarcity of wood in Cairo in this period, many families could not afford to cook at home, and thus subsisted largely on pre-prepared food bought from market stalls.