Leveling the Field

By Omar Khaled Abdel-Ghaffar

This post is part of the Digital Islamic Law Lab (DILL) series, in which a Harvard student analyzes a primary source of Islamic law, previously workshopped in the DIL Lab.


Ibn Taymiyyah (d. 1328/728) was a prominent Ḥanbalī scholar of the Mamlūk period. His position on sharecropping (a contract where one party offers to labor on a designated piece of land in exchange for a portion of the harvest) is aligned with the dominant opinion of his legal school. However, Ibn Taymiyyah chooses analogical reasoning to justify his legal opinion. This post follows his logic in order to argue that in positioning his claim through analogical reasoning, Ibn Taymiyyah attempts to emphasize the equal status of the sharecropper and the landowner.


When Ibn Taymiyyah was asked for his legal opinion (​fatwā​) on the legality of the sharecropping cropping contract, particularly the role of seeds therein, he endorsed the contract as a whole as well as the practice of having the sharecropper own the seeds. Sharecropping, where one party offers to labor on a designated piece of land in exchange for a portion of the harvest, was essential to the functioning of the Mamlūk polity (1250-1517). The harvest fed subjects while tax revenue from the land funded the Sultanate itself. Sharecropping was also controversial; of the four schools of Sunnī law that functioned for most of the Mamlūk period, only the Ḥanbalī school permitted sharecropping with the laborer’s ownership of the seeds. Most non-Ḥanbalī jurists feared that the contract was inherently unfair and placed the parties at risk. For this reason, Ibn Taymiyyah had to argue in his opinion that there is nothing unjust or exploitative in the sharecropping contract.

Ibn Taymiyyah did not simply offer an answer that cited Prophetic practice. Rather, he embarked on a complex process of deduction to demonstrate how the sharecropper’s ownership of the seeds is fair to both the sharecropper and the landowner. In this post, I explore how Ibn Taymiyyah constructs his ​fatwā​ on two concepts: a theory of permanent and impermanent goods, and a conception of sharecropping as cooperation rather than compensation. In doing so, I argue that Ibn Taymiyyah attempts to diminish the discrepancy in social status between the sharecropper and the landowner by theorizing labor as the contribution of irretrievable impermanent goods.

Background: Ibn Taymiyyah and the Three Elements of Sharecropping

Ibn Taymiyyah defines three distinct elements in any sharecropping (​muzāra​ʿ​a​) contract. First, he describes what he calls the permanent foundations (uṣūl bāqiya) of cultivation; the land, the body of the laborer, the bodies of his livestock, and the tools.[1] These are foundations that, at the end of the term of the contract (typically one year), return to each party.[2] Second, there are the impermanent portions (​ajzāʾ fāniya​) necessary for cultivation. These are material parts of the various foundational sources that are lost in the process of sharecropping. According to Ibn Taymiyyah, they are: the nutrients of the soil that seeds consume, the seeds themselves, and “parts of the laborer and his livestock.” Finally, he informs us that there is a third element, named impermanent goods (​manāfi​ʿ​ fāniya)​. This is the labor of the laborer, as well as the means of maintaining this labor, namely his own food and shelter. These three elements, according to Ibn Taymiyyah, are necessary for any cultivation to take place. Both the land and the body of the laborer must give up some substances in order for cultivation to take place.

To illustrate the threefold elements of cultivation, Ibn Taymiyyah draws an analogy between sharecropping and the Qurʾān 2:223, particularly the section of the verse that reads “women are your tilth.” Ibn Taymiyyah claims that, because God makes such an analogy, it must be taken as an accurate description of the cultivation process. He says that a human child appears like his mother, and that when an animal gives birth, the owner of the mother is legally the owner of the offspring. However, a human child takes the state of freedom of his father, not his mother. For this reason, he argues that neither the seed nor the land has monopoly over the cultivation process, and that, in the case of crops, like in the case of children, “there is no doubt that it [the harvest] is a creation of both of them” (“​lā rayb annahū makhlūq minhumā jamī​ʿ​​.”) Ibn Taymiyyah argues that crop cultivation requires effort from both parties, making the contract one of cooperation, not employment. Payment cannot be in the form of set compensation (​mu​ʿ​āwaḍa) but rather must be a portion allotted to each party of what is produced.

In drawing a parallel between sharecropping and procreation, Ibn Taymiyyah places the sharecropper and the landowner on an equal footing, even placing the sharecropper in the position of the male partner in a marriage. Ibn Taymiyyah surely was aware of the social and political realities that regulated the relationship between Mamlūk amīrs and the farmers that tilled their land. By articulating the legal relationship through such an analogy, Ibn Taymiyyah seeks to place the parties on a more just footing. Ibn Taymiyyah effectively claims that, just as the landowner has agency over the land, the laborer has agency over his body. The landowner needs the laborer—who is an independent agent—to enter into a contract ​with his body ​in order for cultivation to take place. Ibn Taymiyyah’s theorization then creates two parties that are mutually dependent on each other; the laborer is not depicted as a propertyless peasant, but an owner of a permanent and essential foundational source of cultivation: his body.

Cooperation Rather than Compensation

Ibn Taymiyyah begins his ​fatwā​ by saying that a common misconception among scholars is that ​muzāra​ʿ​a​ is a contract of compensatory employment (​mu​ʿā​waḍa) rather than one of cooperation (sharika)​.[3] On the controversial point of who owns the seeds to be cultivated, Ibn Taymiyyah argues that seeds do not count as property and are not analogous to land or cattle. According to him, this analogy is false because seeds cannot be retrieved; they, like labor, are contributed to the process of cultivation and can never be retrieved. For this reason, Ibn Taymiyyah argues that seeds are closer to labor than they are to land, and that proper analogical reasoning would yield a decision wherein the laborer should contribute the seeds, because they are closer in nature to his labor than to the land itself. In his ​fatwā​, Ibn Taymiyyah claims that the seed “goes [into the process of cultivation] irretrievably, as does the labor of the laborer and the labor of his cattle, and for this reason it is within the category of [impermanent] goods, not of [permanent] property, and so stipulating that [the seeds] come from the laborer is closer to analogy.”[4]

Here, we see that Ibn Taymiyyah refers to the three categories previously mentioned: permanent foundations, impermanent portions, and impermanent goods. Neither the laborer’s labor nor the seeds can be retrieved if the contract is dissolved, so they come to be understood analogously. Just as the land offers its nutrients to the crops, the body of the laborer offers its labor. By conceptually alienating the laborer from his body, Ibn Taymiyyah allows for there to be a discussion about the abstracted body (​badan al-​ʿmil​) and the land (a​l-arḍ) as two permanent foundational sources owned by the two parties that are privy to the contract: the laborer and the landowner, respectively. Each source “loses” some substances, and so the ownership of the two parties of the crop is a function of this cooperative investment. By mentioning the loss of nutrients in the soil due to processes of cultivation (ḍ​aʿ​f al-arḍ), Ibn Taymiyyah allows the body and the land to be analogous, and so the landowner and sharecropper are equal contributors to the cultivation process.

Sharecropping: Better than Employment

Ibn Taymiyyah, in closing his ​fatwā​ remarks that ​muzāra​ʿ​a ​is preferable to compensatory employment.[5] This preference is due to Ibn Taymiyyah’s observation that when a set compensation is established, one party or the other may feel wronged if the endeavor undertaken by the parties does not yield the anticipated results. This creates a type of social danger (​khaṭar), because such relations can grow into resentment. However, by splitting the harvest into ratios, muzāra​ʿ​a​ satisfies both parties as they ultimately share the same fate. Here too, Ibn Taymiyyah conceives of sharecropping as a form of comradery between landowner and farmer, this time by dividing the crops in ratios.

This “shared fate” logic is Ibn Taymiyyah’s final plea for why ​muzāra​ʿa​ ​is not only permissible, but favorable, even if not explicitly mentioned in the Qur’ān. He argues that because the harvest is split, the contract is one of cooperation rather than renting or employment. There is no purchase of labor in the contract, but rather a cooperation between two equal parties. The landowner cannot stipulate that the farmer cultivate a specific crop, and the farmer cannot stipulate that the land yield a specific amount. The joint venture is one between two who must have mutual trust in each other. The prosperity of one is a condition of the prosperity of the other. This equity in outcome is how Ibn Taymiyyah justifies his school’s opinion despite the opinion being contrary to that of other major legal schools of the period. Ibn Taymiyyah concludes by implying that not only is the sharecropping contract absolved from any type of injustice, fairness is in fact the foundation that the relationship between landowner and laborer is built upon. In order for this type of relationship to be sustainable, there must be an underlying sense of justice, and for this reason Ibn Taymiyyah ends his ​fatwā​ with the pithy statement: “​muzāra​ʿ​a​ is built upon justice”: “​al-muzāra​ʿ​a mabnāha ‘alā al-‘adl.​”


[1] Taqī al-Dīn ibn Taymiyyah, ​Majmū’ al-fatāwā​, ed. ʿĀmer al-Jazzār and Anwar al-Bāz (Mansoura: Dār al-Wafā`, 2005), 29:68.

[2] Sato Tsugitaka, ​State and Rural Society in Medieval Islam: Sultans, Muqta’s and Fallahun​ (Leiden: EJ Brill, 1997), 189

[3] Ibn Taymiyyahh, ​Majmū’, ​30:61.

[4] Ibn Taymiyyahh, ​Majmū’, ​30:65: ​“​yadhhab bi-lā badal kamā yadhhab ‘amal al ‘āmil wa ‘amal baqarih bi-lā badal fa kān min jins al-nafʿ lā min jins al-māl wa kān ishṭirāt kawnihī min al-ʿāmil aqrab fī al-qiyās.

[5] Ibn Taymiyyahh, ​Majmū’, ​30:66.

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