Women in Classical Islamic Law: A Survey of the Sources

By Ali, Kecia | The Journal of the American Oriental Society, April-June 2012 | Go to article overview

Women in Classical Islamic Law: A Survey of the Sources


Ali, Kecia, The Journal of the American Oriental Society


Women in Classical Islamic Law: A Survey of the Sources. By SUSAN A. SPECTORSKY. Themes in Islamic Sources, vol. 5. Leiden: BRILL, 2010. Pp. x + 223. $142.

With this welcome volume, the editor and translator of 1bn Hanbal's responsa (Chapters on Marriage and Divorce: Responses of 1bn Hanbal and 1bn Rahwayh, 1993) has performed another important service for those interested in early Islamic legal development, especially as it pertains to marriage. In a cogent introduction and five chapters, this book surveys formative and classical period Sunni legal discussions of marriage contracts and divorce. Heretofore understudied eighth- and ninth-century texts are brought into conversation with scriptural sources, with one another, and with later major texts from each Sunni school.

After a brief introduction that sketches the scope and historical development of Islamic law, chapter one addresses women in the Qur'an; chapters two and three focus on, respectively, the marriage contract and divorce in legal texts from the formative period; chapter four covers selected topics from the two previous chapters as they are addressed in the classical period; and chapter five treats elements of women's lives unexplored in the rest of the volume.

The first chapter's discussion of Qur'anic "verses particularly relevant to the legal position of women" (p. 4) provides a straightforward and detailed account of the numerous Qur'anic provisions that serve as points of departure for jurists' regulations of the marriage portion, guardianship, prohibited degrees of kinship, divorce, and menstruation. It also touches on witnessing, veiling, children, adoption, and the Prophet's wives. Material from al-Tabari and al-wahidi on the occasions of revelation of some verses enriches the chapter, especially the extended discussion of verses 4:3 (polygamy), 4:34 (measures to deal with recalcitrant women), and 2:228 (men's greater divorce rights and/or "degree" above women). The portrait of women that emerges is that of a "woman who is a member of a patriarchal household [and] at all times under the care and control of a male guardian" until she marries and "passes into the care of her husband" whom she "owes ... absolute obedience" (p. 59). Yet male rights are balanced by women's rights as well as divine scrutiny of men's exercise of their dominance. This emphasis on women's gendered family roles results in part from using only verses specifically about women rather than those concerning "Muslims in general" (p. 1). In addition to laying the groundwork for the discussion of legal texts that follows, this chapter will be of interest to those concerned with scripture and exegesis and perhaps to those interested in women and scripture across traditions.

It is with the material on law, however, that this volume makes its most significant contribution. The formative period--seventh through ninth centuries C.E.--has received a great deal of attention in recent years, but until quite recently very little scholarship has focused on marriage, women, or gender. Spectorsky draws on works by (or attributed to) the eponyms of the Sunni legal schools and their direct disciples, including Muhammad al-Shaybani's polemical Kitab al-Hujja, al-Shafi'i's Umm, Malik's Muwatta' in both its most common recension and that of al-Shaybani, and 1bn Hanbal's Masa'il. Selections from the early third/ninth-century Musannaf compilations of 'Abd al-Razzaq al-San'ani and 1bn Abi Shayba introduce each section of chapters two and three; sections in chapters four and five are preceded by extracts from the canonical Sunni six books. This is unconventional--one expects hadith alongside Qur'an in the first chapter--but effective, especially for the formative period, where the line between hadith and fiqh is much blurrier than it is later. Indeed, the works of al-Shafi'i, Malik, and 1bn Hanbal are aptly characterized as "fiah-hadith works" (p. 18).

Rather than making an overarching argument describing marriage and the roles and rights of individuals in making and dissolving it, Spectorsky proceeds in her chapters on law as the jurists do: from point to point, rule to rule. …

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