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Marriage Money and Divorce in Medieval Islamic Society

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 Marriage Money And Divorce In Medieval Islamic Society
  • Book Author:
Yossef Rapoport
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Marriage, Money and Divorce in Medieval Islamic Society-High rates of divorce, often taken to be a modern and western phenomenon, were also typical of medieval Islamic societies. By pitting these high rates of divorce against the Islamic ideal of marriage, Yossef Rapoport radically challenges the usual assumptions about the legal inferiority of Muslim women and their economic dependence on men.

 He argues that marriages in late medieval Cairo, Damascus and Jerusalem had little in common with the patriarchal models advocated by jurists and moralists. The transmission of dowries, women’s access to waged labour, and the strict separation of property between spouses made divorce easy and normative, initiated by wives as often as by their husbands.

This carefully researched work of social history is interwoven with intimate accounts of individual medieval lives, making for a truly compelling read. It will be of interest to scholars of all disciplines concerned with the history of women and gender in Islam.YOSSEF RAPOPORT is an associated member of the Faculty of Oriental Studies, ersity of Oxford.


Shiha¯b al-D¯ªn Ah. mad Ibn T. awq, a notary in late fifteenth-century Damascus, liked to keep a detailed record of his transactions and other memorable events. This is what he wrote in his diary on S. afar 19, 890 (March 7, 1485):

Monday the 19th. In the last few days the weather was very windy. The gusts broke in half an almond tree in the garden, one of the big ones. The tree fell on a heavy pear tree and trimmed its upper half. Many trees were lost. Let us seek refuge in Alla¯h from the wickedness of our souls and our evil deeds.

I divorced my wife at her request, by mutual consent, after being accused of repudi- ating her and for doing things and not doing others. The witnesses were Ibn Nu¯r al-D¯ªn al-Khat.t.a¯b¯ª and his colleague Ibn al-Dayr¯ª. She became unlawful to me.

In the afternoon we witnessed the remarriage of Yu¯suf ibn Kha¯lid and his divorcee,

the manumitted slave-girl of Amat Sult.a¯n, in the Mosque of Manjak. The marriage gift was 10 Ashraf¯ª gold coins, which remain a due debt upon the groom. The witnesses were the writer of these lines and Ibn Nu¯r al-D¯ªn al-Khat.t.a¯b¯ª. Shaykh Muhanna¯ presided, and Ibn al-Dayr¯ª accepted the marriage on behalf of the groom.1

Divorce was pervasive in late medieval Damascus. As a notary, Ibn T. awq made his living out of witnessing the divorce deeds and the subsequent marriages of other Damascene couples, many of which he then recorded in his diary. Squeezed between the storm that swept through his backyard and his afternoon business in the mosque, Ibn T. awq’s own divorce has an almost casual air to it. The reasons for the divorce remain obscure.

 The relations between the long-time spouses appear to have been good. The only mention of a row came three years earlier, when the two quarreled over the bracelets worn by their daughter Fa¯t.ima, and Ibn T. awq threat- ened to divorce his wife if she let Fa¯t.ima wear them again.2 More recently, there was some domestic tension on account of the slave maid, whom Ibn T. awq felt showed him disrespect. He even records beating the slave-girl with a stick, some- thing for which he felt deeply ashamed.3

There was also the matter of Ibn T. awq’s outstanding debt to a textile merchant called Zayn al-D¯ªn. At the beginning of the month Ibn T. awq swore to repudiate his wife three times if he were to ask Zayn al-D¯ªn for another loan as long as the existing debt was not paid.4 While the diary has no mention of a remarriage, two-and-a-half months later Ibn T. awq’s wife gave birth to their third child, a daughter called ,A¯ ‘isha.5 Only then do we learn that she was in her seventh month when the consensual divorce took place.

The dramatic increase in the rates of divorce over the past several decades has changed the fabric of Western societies: it is associated with breaking away from traditional meanings of family and marriage, of gender relations, and of religion.

Most of all, divorce is associated, for good and for bad, with modernity. The rise of divorce is attributed to diverse facets of modern life: decline in belief, breakdown in family values, unadulterated individualism and pursuit of self-interest, rising expectations about marriage, rising life expectancy, increasing economic independence of women and the empowering effect of feminism. The link between modernity and soaring divorce rates has led many to question the future viability of marriage as a social institution.6

This has been a Eurocentric debate if there ever was one. The outpouring of scholarly and popular works dealing with the rise of divorce in the West all but disregards the historical examples of past societies in which divorce rates have been consistently high.

 Two major examples are pre-modern Japan and Islamic Southeast Asia. In nineteenth-century Japan at least one in eight marriages ended in divorce.7 In West Java and the Malay Peninsula divorce rates were even higher, reaching 70 percent in some villages, as late as the middle of the twentieth century.8 In these societies divorce was part and parcel of tradition; it was frequent and normative, and did not involve any stigma that would hinder the remarriage of divorced persons.

In direct opposition to developments in the West, modernity brought with it greater stability in marriage and a sharp decline in divorce rates.9 The pre-modern Middle East was another traditional society that had consistently high rates of divorce over long periods of time. Despite some current misgivings over the imminent disintegration of the Muslim family as a result of frequent divorces, the fact is that divorce rates were higher in Ottoman or medieval Muslim societies than they are today.10

 A decade of research on the history of Ottoman families, mostly drawing on the abundant court registers, has shown that divorce was a common feature of family life. In eighteenth-century Aleppo divorce was a “fairly common occurrence,” with at least 300 divorces registered annually, and many more going on unregistered.11  The court of Ottoman Nablus recorded as many marriages as divorces, which shows “relatively high rates of divorce.”12

A similar picture of high divorce rates and a normative attitude to divorce emerges from studies of Ottoman court records in Istanbul, Cairo, Cyprus, Sofia and ‘yAntab.13

Divorce in medieval Middle East societies appears to have been just as com- mon. Due to the general absence of pre-Ottoman court records, the evidence tends to be qualitative rather than quantitative, but several studies based on legal opin- ions (fatwa¯s) from medieval North Africa and al-Andalus give the impression of a pattern of frequent and normative divorce.14

 The prevalence of divorce among the non-Muslim minorities in medieval Islam is an indirect testimony to the fre- quency of divorce among the Muslim majority. In the thirteenth century the Coptic Church of Egypt, which originally regarded marriage as a holy and unbreakable sacrament,  was  forced  to  legalize  limited  forms  of  divorce.  This  legal  change allowed the ecclesiastical law to follow the practice of the Coptic community, undoubtedly influenced by its Muslim neighbors.15  Similarly, the papers of the Cairo  Geniza,  relating  to  the  Jewish  community  of  medieval  Cairo,  show  that

divorce was “abundantly practiced,” with divorce “much more common in these times and places than [it was amongst] the Jewish families of Europe and America until the last generation.” In fact, the earliest fragment of paper found in the Geniza is a divorce deed.16

Yet, despite the acknowledged prevalence of divorce in pre-modern Muslim societies, historians have still to problematize divorce as a social institution. In most accounts, divorces simply happen, like an act of God. In his study of Ottoman Aleppo, Marcus highlights the way divorce and high mortality rates broke up households and dispersed parents and children; but he overlooks the dissimilarity between man-made divorce and the natural causes of high mortality.17

Other his- torians, also drawing on Ottoman court records, outlined the common legal causes for divorces, noting that consensual separation (khul ‘) appears to have been as common as unilateral repudiation by the husband (.tala¯q).18

 But few have asked why divorces were so common, or attempted to identify what social forces made couples separate from each other so frequently, or suggested what it all tells us about pre-modern Muslim societies in general – and in particular about the natureof marriage, family and patriarchy.

However, in a patriarchal society, divorce appears to be a paradox. Though inscribed in Islamic law as a patriarchal privilege, divorce undermines the patriarchal social order by destabilizing households, increasing the number of female- headed households and debasing the ideal of marriage. If the family was indeed the central building block of pre-modern Muslim society, and an institution that was to be protected from the penetrating eyes of the public gaze, then we would expect the incidence of divorce to be as low as possible.

 Indeed, if the ideal family of medieval Muslim societies was the patriarchal household, frequent divorce would surely have resulted in the creation of familial institutions that were less than ideal, as many more women would have had to make a living on their own. Moreover, if medieval Muslim societies looked upon the unattached young female as a threat to morality, and if marriage was so highly prized for both men and women, we would expect to find divorce being used only as a last resort. This was clearly not the case for much of the history of the Islamic Middle East.

This book sets out to explain the economic, legal and social causes of Muslim divorce in the Middle Eastern cities of Cairo, Damascus and Jerusalem in the Mamluk period (1250–1517). The starting point is the emergence of the Mamluk state in Egypt, Syria and Palestine, and the consolidation of a distinct military elite largely composed of ex-slaves (mamlu¯ks), divided by any number of military households, and headed by a sultan residing in the capital, Cairo. The end point is the demise of this state at the hands of the Ottomans, an event that also marked the end of the medieval political and social order. These two-and-a-half centuries

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