WOMEN ISLAM AND ABBASID IDENTITY – Book Sample
Introduction – WOMEN ISLAM AND ABBASID IDENTITY
Upon the death of the Prophet Muhammad in 11/632, a group of women responded peculiary, they rejoiced. On learning the prophet’s death they dyed their hands with henna and played tambourine.” These six women were then joined by some twenty-odd other women, the harlots of Hadramaut. These women seem to have been ecstatic at the passing away of the Prophet, hoping that his demise would lead to the obliteration of his recently established order.
When the news reached Caliph Abu Bakr, the first successor to the Prophet, he immediately wrote a mis- sive to his commander, stating: “Certain women of the people of Yemen who have desired the death of the Prophet of God . . . have been joined by singing girls of Kindah and prostitutes of Hadramaut, and they have dyed their hands and shown joy and played on the tambourine. . . . When my letter reaches you, go to them with your horses and men, and strike off their hands.”1
Who were these women, and why were they dismissed as harlots (baghaya)? And why such an immediate and brutal punishment? Was Ca- liph Abu Bakr so fearful of these women’s capacity to influence the course of events that he sent a full squadron of warriors to quash their “rebellion”? It is likely that this incident was perceived as challenging belief in the Prophet and as disruptive to the order that Muhammad had introduced; rapid action was hence taken to suppress it.
The episode, which is included in Kitab al-Muhabbar of Muhammad b. Habib al-Baghdadi (d. 245/859), is especially signifi cant for its singling out of a female group that excluded any male presence from the cohort. One potential implication is that of a strong feminine re sis tance to the new order that had been established by Muhammad.
Following the death of the Prophet Muhammad, the system of alliances and conversions that had been developed during his last years disintegrated. The refusal of several tribes to recognize the succession of Abu Bakr led to upheavals known as the ridda (apostasy) wars.
By making a public dis-play of their joy at the death of the founder of Islam, these women in Hadramaut were participating in the ridda, celebrating (if prematurely) the resumption of the pre- Islamic order and doing so by reproducing by-gone be hav ior. Their public singing, dancing, and general defi ance would be contrasted with the Muslim prescriptions for women, namely, obedience, piety, and domesticity. The anecdote, while it centers on women, provokes commentary on larger issues of essential historical signifi cance to the early Muslims, notably, the ominous possibility of reverting to the pre- Islamic order.
The narrative that the Muslims gradually constructed was that the rise of Islam, that original moment of purity, brought about the elimination of the impurity and corruption of the pre- Islamic “time of ignorance” (jahil-iyya). The accepted features of life in jahiliyya that we fi nd in the tradi-tional texts were tribal feuds, lawlessness, sexual immorality, lax marital practices, killing by burial of infant girls, the absence of food taboos and rules of purity, and idolatry.2
Islam was meant to change all of that. The Islamic metanarrative underscored the transformation of the Arabs from the abject, despised people that they had been, governed by passion and vio lence, into a society of mono the ist militants whose defi ning imperative was to command right and forbid wrong, in obedience to the Qur’anic in-junction (3:110): “You were the best community [umma] ever brought forth to men, commanding right and forbidding wrong.”3
A text about the early Islamic conquests includes an anecdote in which a Muslim retorts to a Byzantine who had been denigrating the pre- Islamic Arabs: “We were even more unfortunate than what you said. . . . Among us might was for the strong and power to the many and internecine fi ghting endemic. . . . Blind to the one God, our idols were numerous. . . . During that time it was as though we were ‘on the brink of a pit of fi re’ [Qur’an 3:103], and whoever among us died, died in unbelief and fell into the fi re, and whoever among us lived, lived in unbelief as an infi del . . . then God sent among us a mes-senger.”4 The tone of this narrative refl ects gratitude for the Prophet and his installation of a new order; it also includes a retrospective, “enlightened” voice—an insinuation and ac know ledg ment of one’s past wrongs and a new line of reasoning and sense of morality, which would prove to be power-fully persuasive in the early Islamic period.
The confrontation with jahiliyya and with jahiliyya’s many later incar-nations was crucial for the mainstream Islamic cultural construction of itself as a religious and imperial center. The texts’ formulation of jahiliyya was part of a cultural re orientation that took place over the course of two centuries with the aim of defi ning ever more sharply what it meant to be an Arab and a Muslim.
The accounts that focus on the original community of believers, the umma, emphasize the ideological distance between this new community and the pre- Islamic order of jahiliyya. Jahiliyya, embodied during the lifetime of the Prophet in the be hav ior of Hind bint ‘Utba, wife of his archrival from Quraysh, Abu Sufyan, continued to be an ever- pre sent danger, as witnessed in the actions of the women in Hadramaut, who readily reverted to their pre- Islamic be hav ior and beliefs as soon as they heard of the Prophet’s death.
The danger of relapsing into the ways of jahiliyya would persist through individuals or groups whose alternative beliefs and be havior would pose a challenge to the in-tegrity and character of the Muslims, both in their formative stages and in the model on which classical Islam would settle— that is, Muslims who professed an established creed and carried out a fixed set of rituals initiated by Muhammad which were distinct from those of the polytheists and the other mono the ists.5
My study singles out, in addition to the pre- Islamic Arabs of jahiliyya, those Muslims who continued to defy restric-tions brought about by the new religion— specifi cally, women’s lamenting as part of death rituals; the heretical Qaramita, whose very proximity jeopar-dized the character of Abbasid Islam; and the Arab Muslims’ Byzantine rivals, whose alternative gender relations and sexuality represented a warning of what the future might hold if Muslim society were to relax its controls.
Gender- related and sexual imaginings play an im por tant function in self- construction projects, and this is especially true in Islamic history. Women’s proper role and the gender systems in which they operated in temporospa-tial proximity to jahiliyya, Byzantium, or the Qaramita were delineated and reinforced by a variety of texts in order to expose fundamental differences against which the new Islamic center was to be defi ned. The way the ja-hilis, the Qaramita, and the Byzantines were imagined and interpreted was expressed most vividly in anecdotes that centered on women, sexuality, and gender relations.
I take a retrospective look at the temporal alien (the ja-hilis) (Chapter 1); the looming “hybrid,” women lamenters (Chapter 2); the heretical stranger within, the Qaramita (Chapter 3); and the geo graph i cal outsider, the Byzantines (Chapter 4). The lesson of prescribed female pro-priety was also to be taught through the sacred stories of the fi rst/seventh- century female exemplars (Chapter 5).
“Islam” is a highly complex phenomenon with constantly evolving di-mensions. It is diffi cult to know what Islam was in the de cades following its inception, since none of the earliest Islamic texts yet existed. By the time the texts were written down, the normative traditions, as well as the com-peting parties within Muslim society, were already almost completely formed. This textual tradition informs us that the emerging community of believers, the umma, was very early on struggling to defi ne itself as a dis-tinct (singular) community.
It was also engaged in debates on questions of leadership. Upon the death of Muhammad, those who thought that he in-tended his family to succeed him in leading the community looked to ‘Ali, Muhammad’s cousin and son- in- law, as the obvious successor. The majority of Muslims did not support this family- centered theory, but ‘Ali and his de-scendants continued to play an im por tant role in the Islamic world, and their supporters came to be known as Shi‘is. While Shi‘ism (and Kharijism, the earliest religious sect in Islam) held strongly defi ned positions on suc-cession, as Roy Mottahedeh suggests, for most other Muslims “events moved faster than theory, and their theory was to a large extent an expla-nation of events and a reaction to the more exclusive po liti cal theories of the Shi‘is.”6 It was only much later on and mostly as a reaction to the development of sectarian movements within the Islamic umma that this initially less well- defined theory became the basis of conscious sectarian self- defi nition, and its upholders came to be called ahl al- sunna (Sunnis).
The early Muslims, therefore, lived in an intellectually dynamic milieu distin-guished by a po liti cal diversity extending from those who endorsed the his-torical caliphate ( later designated as Sunnis) to oppositional groups, such as the proto- Shi‘a and the Khariji, who strove to establish new politico- religious orders.
Lively discourses revolved around issues that were pivotal to the fashioning of the umma, most critically the attributes of God, the source and nature of authority, and the defi nitions of true believers and sinners.7
After their success in the ridda wars in Arabia, the Muslim armies con-quered Syria, Iraq, and Egypt. By 101/720 the Arab empire reached its maximum extent, incorporating North Africa, Spain, Transoxania, and Sind. As early as 41/661, the capital was moved from Medina in the Hijaz to Damascus in Syria by Mu‘awiya, who founded the Umayyad dynasty, which ruled until 132/750, the year it was overthrown by the Abbasids.
The textual tradition, which derives from materials produced in the Abbasid pe-riod, tends to be unsympathetic toward the Umayyads, and particularly their founder, Mu‘awiya. Representing them as corrupt and godless, this unsympathetic representation was used to provide a justification for Ab-basid rule. The hostility of the Abbasid sources vis- à- vis the Umayyads is an im por tant consideration to bear in mind and is expounded on further in Chapter 1.
The Abbasids established a new capital, Baghdad, in Iraq, in 145/762, and from there they ruled the greater part of the Muslim world for about fi ve centuries. Under the Abbasids, a pro cess of sociocultural symbiosis along with economic integration took place, leading to a new society that was characterized by “the cohesive powers of a common language and cur-rency and a unifying religio- political center.”8 The early third/ninth century saw the flowering of the doctrine of the Mu‘tazila, which, while focusing on the question of whether the Qur’an was created or eternal, also repre-sented an effort by several Abbasid caliphs to establish their claims to legal absolutism.
It was left to the caliph al- Mutawakkil (r. 232–47/847–661) to reject the rational approach of the Mu‘tazila school and support the adop-tion of the literalist Ash‘ari approach. This decisive factor in Islamic his-tory signaled the triumph of Sunni ideology, which was able from then on to direct and construct not only the orthodox canon but also a complete narrative of Islamic history, so that the superiority of the jama‘a (commu-nity) was justifi ed; the jama‘a became the locus of religious authority. One consequence of the new policy had polemical dimensions, since boundaries were now drawn more rigidly between Muslims and non- Muslims and be-tween Sunnis and Shi‘is.9
The late third/ninth centuries saw the gradual emergence of a Sunni scholarly elite that secured its religious authority through its command of prophetic traditions defending traditionalist culture against the views of the Mu‘tazila rationalists.
The fourth/tenth century witnessed the be-ginning of the disintegration of the Abbasid Empire. Provincial governors became in de pen dent, and the caliphal administration in Baghdad fell into the hands of the Shi‘i Buyids.
The fourth/tenth century has been called the Shi‘i century because a considerable number of prominent scholars and literateurs were Shi‘i and because several dynasties and rulers were of the Shi‘i tendency— namely, the Buyid rulers of Baghdad, the Ham-danid princes of Aleppo, the Fatimid imams in Cairo, the Zaydis in Yemen, and the Qaramita in the rural regions of Syria, Iraq, and eastern Arabia. The most signifi cant ideological challenge to the Abbasid caliphate arose from developments in Shi‘ism, and this Shi‘i resurgence marked the Sunni metanarrative in a variety of ways.
Scholars differ on how the rise of Islam affected women’s status. Ju-dith Tucker has delineated three main interpretations. In the positive view, the previous age, that of jahiliyya, comprised a gender system in which women were subject to the arbitrary power of the tribe or their husbands and lacked basic human rights. Islam provided new rights and security for women.
Not only were women able to exercise an im por tant level of reli-gious authority in the first/seventh century, most notably through their role in transmitting the words and deeds of the Prophet, but broader improvements in women’s status as revealed in the Qur’an outlawed female infanticide and guaranteed women’s rights to personal property and to their husbands’ economic support. A second, opposed interpretation considers that many of the freedoms and much of the power accorded to women in jahiliyya were stifled by the rules and regulations of Islam.
In this interpretation, the women of the early Muslim community, such as Muhammad’s fi rst wife, Khadija— along with a number of female followers who risked their lives by embracing the new religion— are vital fi gures precisely because they are not fully Muslim, having lived most of their lives as pre- Islamic ja-hili women. Moreover, both scripture and practice subordinated women to men, granting them lesser rights in divorce and inheritance and as legal witnesses.
A third interpretation offers a more nuanced reading, one that minimizes the Islamic impact on the prevailing gender system. This view emphasizes that much of what came to be called “Islamic” was rooted in pre- Islamic cultural traditions and customs, the novelty of the Islamic gender system residing in the mixing of the tribal peninsular tradition with that of the newly conquered settled states.
While these interpretations seem to contradict one another, they all recognize the centrality of gender to an Islamic vision.10 The historical narrative that has been constructed is that Islam presented a new value system that at once consolidated some pre- Islamic behaviors and modified others.
The Arab Muslim conquests and the organization of the expanding empire produced profound changes in Muslim political, social, and intellectual culture, including major consequences for women and families. The narrative presents a reading to the effect that while the early Muslims had allowed women to participate in public life and had empowered them in their personal lives, the late Umayyad and the Abbasid periods ushered in conditions that debased the position and the conception of women.
The new circumstances included the incorporation into the empire of a large non- Muslim population, the assimilation of Persian customs, and the acquisition of vast wealth and large numbers of slave women, leading to the widespread practice of concubinage. The sources highlight the importance of slavery in shaping the mores of Abbasid society and reshaping the Abbasid family, and scholars have suggested that their presence led to a role reversal affecting the position of free women.
This resulted particularly from the overwhelming passion that the slave girls stirred in the hearts of men, as famously expressed by the third/ninth- century humanist al- Jahiz in his Rislalat al- Qiyan (Epistle of the singing slave girls). It has conse-quently been suggested that the concubine became a sort of “antiwife,” her presence profoundly affecting the position of the free woman on the actual and affective levels. It is under these ever- evolving conditions that the jurists worked out a legal system to regulate both family and property relations.11
An anecdote from the later Abbasid period illustrates the infl uence of the presence of female slaves, mostly foreign, on the emotional and sexual world of the Homo islamicus.12 Al- Diyarat, attributed to Abu al- Faraj al- Isfahani (d. 356/967), tells of a wandering group of Muslim ascetics (zuhhad) who came into the vicinity of the town of ‘Ammuriyya (Amorium).
One of their members saw a Christian slave girl in the market selling bread. She was extremely beautiful, and he immediately fell in love with her. He deci ded to stay in the town in spite of the pleading of his companions. He spent his days staring at her and ultimately confessed to her his infatuation. The girl reported him to her family and neighbors, who sent a deputation of young men to beat him. They threw rocks at him, causing serious injuries to his head and face; but he was not dissuaded. The girl fi nally told him that she would marry him if he would convert to Chris tian ity, but he refused the idea, and got a second beating by the neighborhood band. The beating was so severe that the protagonist died.13
What does this account tell us about Christians and Muslims, women and men? How can we read this tale and make sense of interactions and fantasies, attractions and desires? This scene takes place in ‘Ammuriyya, a Byzantine city that gained its greatest fame in Islamic history when Caliph al- Mu‘tasim (r. 218–227/833–842) captured it in 223/838.
This conquest was immortalized by the victory ode of the celebrated poet Abu Tammam (d. 231/845 or 232/846), which both refl ects and validates Muslim male domination and Byzantine Christian female submission to convey one of the im por tant meanings of this victory. The story related by al- Isfahani tells of the desire of a Muslim man for a Christian female slave from Amorium— a desire so irresistible that the man abandons his fellow Muslim ascetics to fall prey to an uncontrollable attraction. Such was the hold of the Christian maiden, such was the pull of her magnetism, that although he received repeated beatings, he persevered in his longing as if he were in a trance.
The Christian woman’s appeal imperils the harmony of the Muslim male- centered universe to such an extent that even an ascetic (zahid) like our protagonist could not resist the temptation. Women’s sexual allure poses a danger in general, and that of a Christian woman in par tic u lar, and serves as a warning for Muslim men, cautioning them against the temptation to cross religious boundaries to satisfy their desire. The warning is clear: Christian (slave) women are extremely seductive, and Muslim men would do well to keep away from them, as involvement with them ends in a sure road to perdition.
As with the rogue women who rejoiced at the death of Muhammad, here again women and their perceived roles and character are used as a major organizing principle to articulate cultural differences, draw socioreligious boundaries, and formulate identities. It is with this mode of questioning and analy sis that this book is concerned: I investigate the ways in which the discourses on women, gender relations, and sexuality and those on identi-ties intersect and are informed and constructed by each other in the Ab-basid texts.
Historians have examined other periods and geo graphical entities in this way, but the early Islamic period down into the Abbasid period has predominantly been left untouched. Postcolonial historians have, for instance, analyzed the sexualization of cultural difference and the ways in which the gender constructs of the dominant imperial culture were used to explain the “uncivilized” nature of the colonized. Studies on nationalism have similarly stressed the uses of the categories women, gender, and sexuality in national self- defi nitions.14
Such analyses have demonstrated that depictions of women, gender relations, and sexuality are at the heart of the cultural construction of identity and collectivity. Historians of early Islam have yet to adopt a similar approach in scrutinizing Islamic texts. I hope to drive the fi eld in a new direction, bringing in a methodology and an aware-ness to bear upon the early traditional Islamic texts.
Recent developments of scholarship on early Islam have shifted the focus away from notable female fi gures, giving way to new analytical methods that explore different historical categories. An assessment of the fi eld, published in 2010, listed, among others, publications pertaining to social rank, personal status, veiling and seclusion, women’s visibility in public spaces, women’s role in dynastic policies, female slaves and concubines, women’s ownership of property, women’s piety, and attainment of religious knowledge.15
One im por tant development has occurred in sexuality studies. The pioneering monograph of Salah al- Din al- Munajjid on the sexual life of the Arabs, published in 1958, represented a first attempt to give a comprehensive account of sexual desires and practices in Arab society from pre- Islamic times to the end of the Abbasid period. Im por tant works that relate to the early Islamic period have since been published; they range from studies on birth control to Islamic attitudes toward homosexu-ality and concubinage.16 The most im por tant contributions to the history of women, gender, and sexuality in Arab Muslim socie ties, however, have been produced by historians of the Ottoman Empire and the modern Middle East who created theoretical breakthroughs and rereadings for their respective periods and geographies, thanks in large part to the richness of the archives.
An edited volume published in 2008, for instance, explores different genealogies of sexuality in order to determine the boundaries of Islamic dis-courses on male and female sexuality and desires, while one of the historians at the forefront of theorizing gender has reread the history of Ira nian mo-dernity through the lens of gender and sexuality.17
This scholarship has generated models of analy sis that can inspire new approaches to rereading the early texts. However, the fundamental historical differentiation between these diverse eras, compounded by the variant nature of the sources— notably the absence of archival material for the early period— precludes direct methodological and even conceptual borrowings.
Manuela Marin confi rms that for the earlier period, the lack of archival evidence drives scholars to produce historical analyses based on literary works, chronicles, biographical dictionaries, and juridical writings.18
Since access to the medieval Islamic past is dependent upon its texts, and history is conditioned by them, it is necessary to shift attention from the narrative and the descriptive toward an analytical approach that studies the texts while considering the ideologies behind them, the possible patron sup-porting their execution, the potential audience to whom they are ad-dressed, their relationship to other sources, and inquiries into their genre.19
It is imperative not to read literary texts as if they were windows to the past, but rather to realize that they require a methodological “turn” to the textual mechanisms of ideology construction and repre sen ta tion. This is precisely what I seek to achieve, by adapting and employing methodologies that dis-tinguish institutional, cultural, and discursive mechanisms of inclusion and exclusion, using techniques to interpret from silence and to write “a history in confrontation with the extant sources rather than in conformity with them.”20
I explore the ways in which identities were negotiated in the Abbasid textual production by analyzing how women were produced dis-cursively as a means to embody communal and sectarian identities through the affirmation of difference. The goal is to tease out the role of women, but also of sexuality and gender relations, in order to reveal the degree to which mainstream Islamic repre sen ta tions of other groups served to defi ne Islam itself.
I begin Chapter 1 by exploring the accounts of Hind bint ‘Utba, mo ther of the Umayyad caliph Mu‘awiya b. Abi Sufyan, within two different tem-poral axes: Hind as a construction of jahiliyya, and Hind’s function in anti- and pro- Umayyad rhe toric.
Jahiliyya constitutes one of the central axes around which Muslim self- defi nitions are posited. Hind’s excessive be hav ior, as it was portrayed in the Abbasid texts, constitutes a prototype of jahil-iyya be hav ior. It is an intentional construction, and tracing it allows us to begin to understand the elaboration of the jahiliyya concept. But while Hind symbolizes jahiliyya, she also has a function in anti- Umayyad rhe toric. Hind was central in the campaign to vilify her son Mu‘awiya, founder of the Umayyad dynasty.
I posit that the image of Hind is a construct of Muslim ideologues interested in defi ning, by opposition, the ideal Muslim ways of be hav ior as well as furthering Abbasid legitimacy in opposition to the Umayyad dynasty.
Chapter 2 focuses on women’s role in death rituals. Rituals are always crucial in demarcating boundaries between communities and religious identities, and so it is hardly a surprise that early Muslims strove to create new, uniquely Islamic practices for death rituals. Often these changes were evidenced in the very different comportment expected of Muslim women at funerals.
The “Islamization” of death rituals implied the stifling of emotional outburst, specifically of wailing, niyaha. However, many women resisted total assimilation, indicating the survival of jahili mourning be hav ior, in the guise of women’s wails of lamentation; this inability to conform to the new standard meant an incomplete transition from one cultural norm to another.
The disruptive presence of the “alien” arises not only in the ways people imagined groups of people temporally and geo graph i cally distant from them, but also as they viewed groups close to home. Chapter 3 analyzes the mainstream textual output on the Qaramita, a Shi‘i sect that emerged in the third/ninth century.
The Qaramita were viewed as heretical extrem-ists and were accused of preaching and practicing communism of goods and women. Such representations of heretics are a rhetorical construction and reveal how these (re)imagined dissenters were perceived, described, and categorized in order to defi ne sociopo liti cal borders and secure in- group identities.
The Qaramita dwelled within the geographic confi nes of early Muslim society but outside its ideological framework, its models of com-portment, and its institutional cadres. Such ideological conflict between a majority and its minorities sparks perhaps the greatest fear in transitional socie ties that are in the pro cess of consolidation. Whenever the majority feels threatened by the existence of minorities, it tends to demonize them, depict them as “monstrous,” and use them as a catalyst to identify and char- acterize its construction of itself as justifi ably contra and superior to the minorities.21
Chapter 4 examines geo graphical outsiders— specifically, the Byzantines. Here again the Arabic Islamic repre sen ta tions of Byzantine women and men and gender relations served as a polemical focus for the belittlement of Byzantine culture, one salient theme of which is Byzantine women’s threatening sexuality.
Gendered and sexualized representations of Byzantium fulfilled a par tic u lar function in the process of Islam’s self- definition, as the vision presents an ominous picture of what Muslim women would become if they were to exceed the bounds set for them by their normative Islamic culture. Rejecting the moral and ethical systems of the Byzantines as de-based and indulgent, the Abbasid texts reinforced adherence to what was believed to be a superior moral system.
The fi nal chapter, Chapter 5, focuses on the wives and female companions of the Prophet, projected as exemplary Muslim women, and their tex-tual uses in the pro cess of defi ning the new Muslim identity. The Arab mono theists who had coalesced around Muhammad became the Muslim umma through the articulation of a distinct narrative of its own past, placing themselves within the history of late antiquity and elaborating on their own specific character.
Muslims were trying to defi ne what it was to be a true Muslim and to identify and safeguard the bounds of comportment that defi ned the Muslim umma.22 The formulation of a distinctive identity required an array of opposites, centering as much on what it meant to be jahili, Byzantine, or Qarmati as it did on what it was to be a “Sunni” Muslim. It was the search for validation that made the construction of these categories necessary and provided an affirmation of the new identity brought forth by the establishment and consolidation of Islam within the new umma.
The historical framework of this study stretches from the fi rst/seventh century to the fi fth/eleventh century. I have consulted a wide array of Arabic Islamic sources, both religious and secular prose texts, to discern how Muslim society marked its internal and external boundaries through the categories of gender and sexuality. Texts of a highly literary, rhetorical, and ideological nature participated in the construction of this gendered realm, shaping the modalities of social reality and accommodating the writers and readers, the performers and audiences, to assume multiple and ever- shifting subject positions within the world that they themselves constituted and inhabited.
The “generation of 800,” that is, the narrators, authors, and compilers of the Abbasid period, were those who fashioned the texts that we still consult. While not all conform to the Abbasid agenda, each has been shaped
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