Publication Spotlight: Marriage in the Tribe of Muhammad: A Statistical Study of Early Arabic Genealogical Literature

Blog written by Dr Majied Robinson

The first problem you face when studying the life of Muhammad is the lack of contemporary evidence. There is the Qur’an, and possibly a political agreement he made with the tribes of Medina, but aside from that no written sources whatsoever. What we do have however are thousands and thousands of stories about his life written centuries later.

The discipline of early Islamic history has (thankfully) moved on from either believing or disbelieving this material in its entirety. These days, academic historians sift through these stories looking for oddities, connections, and patterns, some of which may tell us something about the period in which they were composed.

One such process is undertaken in my book Marriage in the Tribe of Muhammad. The focus here is the Nasab Quraysh (tr: The Genealogy of the Quraysh), a book that stabilised into a written format at some point in the 830s CE. It purports to record the child-bearing marriages of Muhammad’s tribe of the Quraysh, and over the course of some 400 pages details hundreds of these relationships, linking together nearly 3,000 named men, women, and children.

I began my research with the idea that some sort of statistical analysis of these relationships would be useful. At this early stage, my assumption was that the book was of late composition and the pattern of relationships recorded would reveal the author’s context of 9th century Medina. What I found, however, was something startlingly different: the patterns I was uncovering were clearly correlated to events occurring during the life of Muhammad and the first Muslims, and in some instances went against later orthodoxies of Islamic origins. I eventually concluded that these records were not a later imagining of the past – they were the actual marriage records of people living at the time of Muhammad.

Key to this study was the concubine, the nameless, non-Arab slave woman who is referred to only as umm walad (tr: mother of a child) in the text. By structuring the data generationally and tracking the occurrences of slave mothers over time, I was able to show that the concubine was completely absent before the time of Muhammad yet when with the arrival of Islam we find that more and more children are being born of these slave women. This gets to the point in the middle of the 8th century that they eventually account for the majority of children born amongst members of this tribe, and they remained the predominant form of elite marriage right into the 20th century.

On one level this is understandable: the time of Muhammad coincided with the Islamic conquests which brought with them enormous numbers of slaves as booty. We would expect this to change marriage behaviour. But this finding is based on a source that is of late composition using novel statistical methodologies. By proving the early provenance of the data and the efficacy of the methodology we are now able to read not just this source in a new fashion but apply our findings to other Islamic historical sources that use genealogical literary forms. It also allows us to look within the Nasab Quraysh at marriages between men and free Arab women. I discuss some of the directions that this could take us in the later chapters of the book.

About standrewshistory
With over forty fulltime members of staff researching and teaching on European, American and Asian history from the dawn of the Middle Ages to the present day, the School of History at the University of St Andrews has one of the finest faculty and diverse teaching programmes of any School of History in the English speaking world. The School boasts expertise in Mediaeval and Modern History, from Scotland to Byzantium and the Americas to South Asia. Thematic interests include religious history, urban history, transnationalism, historiography and nationalism. The School of History prides itself on small group teaching, allowing for in-depth study and supervision tailored to secure the best from each student. Cutting edge research combined with teaching excellence offer a dynamic and intellectually stimulating environment for the study of History.

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