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Mothers and Matrilineal Lineages in the Early Islamic World

Session I-06, sponsored by Middle East Medievalists (MEM), 2022 Annual Meeting

On Thursday, December 1 at 3:00 pm

Panel Description
In the predominantly patriarchal society of the early Islamic world, paternal lineages took precedence in most aspects of life. These patriarchal hierarchies began with the private sphere influencing household politics, inheritance, and naming conventions. Patriarchal influences likewise extended into public life where patrilineal and fraternal ties formed bonds that shaped political and economic life. This patriarchal nature of society is reflected in our textual sources, which then shapes the way we understand the social, economic, and political history of the early Islamic world. More recently, the patriarchal view of early Islamic society has been challenged by scholarship focused on matriarchal and enatic lineages, maternal and sororal relationships, and maternal power and authority in both private and public life. Through this research, we see mothers connecting families and lineages through maternal and sororal ties, contributing to the political and economic lives of their households, and promoting their interests and the interests of their children in both private and public affairs. The meaning of these connections are not always clear and a large number of people have been identified with matronymic names to ambiguous purposes. Similarly, the study of divorced and widowed women and their remarriages (both endogamic and exogamic) have revealed the importance of family ties between uterine children across patriarchal lineages, situating these women at the center of complex family networks. The economic, political, and social ties between uterine children then complicate patrilineal hierarchies and narratives in ways that had been previously ignored or had remained hidden under patriarchal assumptions. The papers in this panel focus on the social, political, and economic roles mothers and matrilineal lineages played and the power mothers held in early Islamic society. Further, the papers in this panel approach relations in the early Islamic period through matrilineal connections, exploring enatic and uterine bonds. As demonstrated through the ambiguous position of maternal ascription and the use of matronymics in biographical dictionaries and poetry, the role of matrilineal connections is not always clear and the papers on this panel present innovative approaches to understanding the roles of mothers and matrilineal lines in early Islamic society.
  • Dajjāja bt. Asmā’ al-Sulamī is best remembered as the mother of ʿAbdallāh b. ʿĀmir, the governor of Basra who led the conquests of Fars, Kirman, Khurasan, and Sistan during the caliphates of ʿUthmān and Muʿāwiya. Dajjāja appears in discussions of Ibn ʿĀmir’s governorship, most notably as a patron of major hydrological projects in the growing city including the Umm ʿAbdallāh Canal and a large cistern and wells that provided drinking water to the residents of Basra. Closer readings find evidence of her acting as an advisor to her son as well, particularly in matters of interpersonal relationships between his subordinates. On initial investigation, these aspects of Dajjāja’s life may seem to be outgrowths of her son’s authority. For example, the Umm ʿAbdallāh Canal was built on land originally granted by Ibn ʿĀmir to his mother. Digging deeper though, we find Dajjāja advocating for her interests successfully in ways that go beyond the interests of her son and his patrilineal family. Dajjāja was able to find high ranking positions including governorships under Ibn ʿĀmir for her son by another father, ʿAbdallāh b. ʿUmayr al-Laythī, and her nephew, ʿAbdallāh b. Khāzim b. Asmā’ al-Sulamī, thus creating a political network that reached from Basra to Sistan and Khurasan that was bound together by matrilineal ties. She was likewise able to gift land in Basra to these men as well. This paper will explore the influence of Dajjāja bt. Asmā’ al-Sulamī in seventh century Basra and the provinces that fell under its authority as a means to examine the ways matrilineal connections helped shape the political networks of the early caliphate. While patrilineal and tribal connections dominate discussions of political and military organization under the Rashidun and Umayyad caliphs, the example of Dajjāja provides a window into the role of matrilineal bonds in forming political alliances. This paper will also consider the role of Basra as a garrison city, home to an army that campaigned far into the east, and how this may have contributed to female authority during the period of the conquest of Iran.
  • In his 2011 book, The Religious Elite of the Early Islamic Hijaz, Asad Q. Ahmed demonstrated the importance of maternal kinship ties to the functioning of elite society in early Islamic Arabia. As Ahmed only focused his attention on the descendants of five Companions of the Prophet Muḥammad, many opportunities remain to investigate further how maternal kinship ties operated in this context. This paper will analyze Muḥammad Ibn Sa‘d’s (d. 230/845) Kitāb al-Ṭabaqāt al-Kubrā to trace the prevalence and importance of kinship ties between uterine brothers (half-brothers from the same mother) in early Islamic Arabia. First, this paper will mine Ibn Sa‘d’s data to reveal the prevalence of divorce/widowhood and remarriage for women, the practice of exogamy vs. endogamy in these remarriages, and the overall prevalence of uterine brotherhood. Second, it will conduct a close reading of the biographies of five mothers and their children from different fathers, to determine how Ibn Sa‘d presents the relationships of motherhood, childhood, and uterine brotherhood. These case studies are Sumayya bint Khayyāṭ, Jamīla bint Thābit, Umm Sulaym bint Milḥān, Khawla bint al-Manẓūr, and Asmā’ bint Salāma, and their respective children. Finally, traditional patrilineal representations of descent fail to illustrate maternal and sororal kinship ties. This paper will use the digital network analysis software Gephi to visually represent both the paternal/fraternal and the maternal/sororal kinship ties of the five case studies mentioned above, to illustrate the importance of female-based kinship ties in early Islamic history.
  • The most striking image of Hind bint ‘Utba (d. 636) in early Islamic history is perhaps the infamous role she played in the Battle of Uhud, where she urged on Meccans who were fighting against Muslims and viciously mutilated her opponents’ corpses. Less emphasized is her eventual conversion to Islam and her role as the powerful mother of Mu‘awiyya, the fifth caliph and the founder of the Umayyad dynasty. Yet exploring how Mu‘awiyya’s ties to his mother are portrayed in historical chronicles and biographical dictionaries written between the eighth and tenth centuries can help to complicate our understanding of lineage and motherhood in early Islam. For example, despite the prevailing idea that early Islam was relentlessly patriarchal and patrilineal, texts often ascribe Mu‘awiyya to his mother rather than to his father, calling him Ibn Hind (“Son of Hind”) or, more pejoratively, Ibn ākilat al-akbād (“Son of the Liver-Eater”) in a reference to the Battle of Uhud. Though this ascription is sometimes uncomplimentary, it nevertheless elucidates the importance of matrilineal ties in Islam’s first centuries and the uses to which they could be put, both positive and negative. In this paper, I explore several instances in poetry and prose in which Mu‘awiyya was ascribed to his mother, and analyze the purposes this ascription served. I also compare these examples to others in which matrilineal ascription was downplayed or denied, including one involving Mu‘awiyya’s own daughter, Ramla. Finally, I draw comparisons between depictions of Hind as mother and those of a far more idealized mother whose children were also sometimes ascribed to her in early Islamic texts -- Fatima, daughter of the Prophet Muhammad. In undertaking this study, I build on previous research demonstrating that maternal ascription was not unusual in early Islam, as well as emphasizing the frequent ambiguity of such ascription; and consider its implications for the status of women in these societies. Ultimately, I aim to show that recognition of matrilineal descent, both positive and negative, imputed a certain power to women in early Islam that belies the stereotypical view of them as mere vessels.
  • The adoption of patrilineal succession by Muʿāwiya b. Abī Sufyān (d.680) and the subsequent production of Abbasid era texts after nearly two-hundred years of patrilineal legitimising rhetoric means that the available sources are not invested in representing the role of matrilineal kinship ties. However, recent prosopographical work focused on kinship and genealogy in early Islam confirms the importance of the matrilineal line amongst the early Islamic elite as visible in the nasab tradition. The proposed paper shall build on this and make a case for using matrilineality to study Marwānid (685-750) succession by investigating and identifying the mothers of caliphs and heirs. Firstly, the appeal to matrilineality is visible in onomastics and naming practices, such as in the case of Hishām b. ʿAbd al-Malik (r. 724-743) whose mother ʿĀʾisha bt. Hishām b. ʿIsmāʿīl al-Makhzūmī is remembered as explicitly naming him after her own father, governor of the Ḥaramayn under ʿAbd al-Malik. Umayyad poetry also eulogised maternal kin relations and referred to caliphs by their maternal nasab, e.g., ʿUmar b. ʿAbd al-ʿAzīz (r.717-20) appears nearly exclusively in the poetry of al-Farazdaq as Ibn Layla - his mother was Laylā bt. ʿĀṣim b. ʿUmar b. al-Khaṭṭāb. Finally, by incorporating the matrilineal line into the wider discussion of early Islamic legitimacy the paper shall demonstrate overlooked aspects of succession, stressing maternal relations across heirs and intermarriage amongst the Marwānids. Mothers should not be viewed exclusively for childbearing, but also their role in establishing and maintaining dynastic rule through their unions. Overall, I intend to demonstrate that we cannot understand a succession system in which a pool of heirs can only be selected from agnatic relations without factoring in the most fundamental of distinguishing features, who their mothers were.