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  • An Etiquette for Women: Women’s Experience of Islam in Muslim Spain
  • Jessica A. Coope

Due to a production error, volume 29 of Essays in Medieval Studies was released with the incorrect publication date of 2013 on the article title pages. The correct publication date is 2014.

The prevailing version of Islamic law, or Sharī‘ah, in al-Andalus (medieval Muslim Spain) viewed women primarily in their roles as daughters and wives. A woman was a good Muslim if she was obedient and stayed within her domestic role. In addition to those social restrictions, the law limited women’s religious expression by for example discouraging them from going to mosque to participate in public worship, and by making the ḥajj or pilgrimage to Mecca optional for women instead of mandatory as it was for men. The legal sources give us a version of medieval Islam that was intent on limiting women to their function as subordinate family members, and did not provide much outlet for spirituality. Other sources, however, show us a different picture. To begin with, legal rules designed to keep women subordinate to men were not always observed in practice. Notary forms suggest that, in a direct contradiction of Islamic law, a woman could use her marriage contract to impose conditions on her husband, including prohibiting him from taking a second wife. As far as religious expression is concerned, anecdotes in chronicles and literature show us women participating in officially unsanctioned religious events, like public prayer in cemeteries. The tradition of Sufism, or Islamic mysticism, which spread to al-Andalus in the 1100s, was more open to women’s participation than normative Islam, and the Sufi Ibn al-‘Arabī (d. 1240) writes with admiration about women mystics. Muslim women’s experience of Islam in al-Andalus, both as a code of conduct and as an outlet for spirituality, was more complex and flexible than the legal sources suggest.

This essay focuses first on the normative religious discourse about women, and then on other sources that suggest the official rules were not always applied as written. The religious norms are articulated in the two major compendiums of legal opinions from the Mālikī school of Islamic law, the school that was dominant in al-Andalus: the Muwaṭṭa’, and the Mudawwanah al-Kubrā, compiled in the late [End Page 75] eighth and early ninth centuries.1 Another important legal source is a work by the ninth-century Andalusī legal expert Ibn Ḥabīb. His Etiquette for Women, or Adab al-nisā’, presents his interpretation of how women should comport themselves to conform with Sharī‘ah.2 The next part of the essay, which discusses how Sharī‘ah’s official views on women were sometimes undercut, will refer primarily to marriage contracts and mystical texts. Manuela Marín and Gloria López de la Plaza, to name just two scholars of women’s history in al-Andalus, have demonstrated that women’s true experience of Islam in Muslim Spain, although powerfully shaped by Sharī‘ah, was in fact more varied than we might expect from reading only normative sources.3 This article builds on their work by offering some new perspectives on Islamic law, in particular by comparing the status of Muslim women to that of non-Muslim men living under Islamic rule, and by bringing in a number of fresh examples of women’s piety outside of Sharī‘ah.

Part I: Women in Sharī‘ah

Medieval Sharī‘ah’s concept of legal status was similar in its basic assumptions to other pre-modern codes, including Roman and Persian law, which were two of the major sources for Islamic law as it developed in the eighth and ninth-century Middle East. It belongs to a group of legal systems in which only men in the dominant social group (in this case, free Muslim men) enjoyed full legal rights. In Sharī‘ah, only such men were fully “mukallaf,” or legally capable.4 Under Sharī‘ah and other pre-modern codes, groups outside of the fully privileged one--including members of other religions, foreigners (in some societies), slaves, women and minors--had diminished legal capacity, meaning that they had obligations and...


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