Freedwomen in ʿAbd al-Razzāq’s al-Muṣannaf

By Elizabeth Urban

Scholars who have studied manumission in early Islamic contexts have usually focused on male freedmen (mawālī).[1] Conversely, scholars who have studied unfree women have usually focused on women who are still enslaved, most notably “elite” enslaved women such as courtesans (qiyān) and concubine-mothers (ummahāt awlād).[2] These two bodies of scholarship often fail to consider the legal questions raised by freedwomen (mawlayāt, singular mawlāh). In this essay and my next essay, I want to begin to address this oversight by sharing some of my recent preliminary research into early Islamic freedwomen. While my current research spans a wide range of genres, for the purposes of these two essays I will focus on my research into early Islamic legal sources.

The previous scholarly neglect of mawlayāt is somewhat understandable, given their extreme paucity in the sources. The term mawlāh appears more rarely than many other terms relating to enslavement/unfreedom (see the third essay in this series), and the plural term mawlayāt is very rare indeed, though it does occasionally appear in historical sources.[3] But in other ways, the oversight is glaring. First, mawlayāt are the most obvious female counterpart to mawālī, and neglecting them means we are failing to fully understand how gender intersected with enslavement, manumission, and other issues involved with walāʾ (the legal bond that was created upon manumission). Second, precisely because they are so rare, one can fairly easily get a comprehensive understanding of what any given author has to say about mawlayāt, and we thus can fairly easily compare what different authors working in different times, places, and genres have to say about them. That is, freedwomen can provide a small set of case studies, a focused lens through which to view early Islamic legal thinking.

For this essay, I used the word-searchable digital repository al-Maktaba al-Shamela to locate references to the term mawlāh/mawlayāt in an early legal compendium, al-Muṣannaf by ʿAbd al-Razzāq al-Ṣanʿānī (d. 211/827). (And in my next installment I will do the same thing for the Muṣannaf of Ibn Abī Shayba (d. 235/849)). I searched the singular and plural forms of the term, in both their definite and indefinite forms, and also with various prefixes (such as wa- and li-) and pronoun suffixes (such as –ī and ka) attached.

I have not yet double-checked these numbers so they should not be considered unimpeachable, but after my first round of searches I found that ʿAbd al-Razzāq’s text contains twenty-six references to the term mawlāh/mawlayāt. Five of these freedwomen appear in the isnāds—the chains of oral transmission that precede many early Islamic historical reports—as the initial transmitter who heard the account from Muḥammad or one of his Companions. The other twenty-one freedwomen are found in the texts of the accounts. Some of these freedwomen set important legal precedents and are found in several other sources I consulted. For instance, an unnamed mawlāh of the prominent early Muslim thinker ʿAbdallāh ibn ʿUmar (d. 73/693), tacitly accepted this practice.[4] Or for another instance, Zabrāʾ the mawlāh of the Banū ʿAdī ibn Kaʿb (a sub-clan of the Quraysh, the tribe of the Prophet Muḥammad) was given the choice to divorce her enslaved husband at the moment of her manumission.[5] These women appear in several other sources.[6]

However, one aspect of ʿAbd al-Razzāq’s presentation of mawlayāt seems unique, at least compared to the other sources I consulted. Unlike others, ʿAbd al-Razzāq often uses freedwomen as “tricky” hypothetical inheritance cases. By doing so, he highlights both their liminality and the difficulty of navigating their complicated legal statuses as freedwomen, wives, mothers, daughters, and sisters. In classical Islamic law, the manumitter of an enslaved person automatically inherits part of the freed person’s estate.[7] Therefore, ʿAbd al-Razzāq considers who should inherit from a deceased freedwoman when her heirs include both her former enslaver and other complicated relations. For instance, he relates:

Ibrāhīm [al-Nakhāʾī, d. 96/714] told me, on the authority of ʿAlqama [ibn Qays al-Nakhāʾī, d. 62/682], that a mawlāh of his died. She was survived by the son of her maternal half-sister [ibn ukhtihā li-ummihā, i.e. her nephew], and she was survived by ʿAlqama [i.e. her manumitter]. So ʿAlqama handed over the inheritance to her nephew. Then a mawlāh of Ibrāhīm’s died, and she was survived by the daughter of her paternal half-brother [bint akhīha li-abīha, i.e. her niece], and [Ibrāhīm] gave her the entire inheritance. She said: God bless you! And he said, if it had belonged to me, I wouldn’t have given it to you.[8]

In another elaborate scenario, reported on the authority of the early jurist Sufyān al-Thawrī (d. 161/778), ʿAbd al-Razzāq considers the case of two sisters, one of whom purchases and manumits their enslaved brother, who then purchases and manumits their enslaved father. When the brother dies, the father inherits his estate, and when the father dies, the two sisters both inherit equally as his daughters before the “manumitting” sister inherits the rest of her father’s estate, not as his daughter but as his mawlāh (manumitter).[9]

In still another account, a deceased mawlāh’s inheritance was being claimed by her patrons, when a man arrived on the scene and was able to demonstrate that the mawlāh used to call him “my brother,” at which point he was awarded the entire inheritance instead.[10] All these accounts serve to reinforce the idea that all natal kinship ties—even those that are distant or dubious—supersede the pseudo-kinship ties created by manumission, at least in terms of inheritance.

We shouldn’t take these accounts as straightforward social history, as they seem more like hypothetical scenarios or legal gymnastics. However, they nevertheless give us some insight into the complex social positions that freedwomen could inhabit. A freedwoman was legally tied to her former enslaver’s family, but she could also retain ties with enslaved relatives, and she could create her own family and household after manumission. Ultimately, we see here ʿAbd al-Razzāq grappling with the complexities of mawlāh identity as a form of kinship tie, not as a separate ethnic category characterized by foreignness.


[1] The term mawlā/mawālī can also be glossed as “convert to Islam” or “non-Arab Muslim,” though I would argue that in most early Islamic texts the term often carries connotations of servility rather than foreign ethnicity. See Patricia Crone, Slaves on Horses (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980); idem, Roman Provincial and Islamic Law (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987); Jamal Juda, “Die sozialen und wirtschaftlichen Aspekte der Mawālī in frühislamischer Zeit” (PhD diss., University of Tübingen, 1983); Monique Bernards and John Nawas, eds., Patronate and Patronage in Early and Classical Islam (Leiden: Brill, 2005); Ulrike Mitter, Das Frühislamische Patronat (Würzburg: Ergon, 2006); and Elizabeth Urban, Conquered Populations in Early Islam (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2020).

[2] See Jonathan Brockopp, Early Mālikī Law: Ibn ‘Abd al-Ḥakam and his major compendium of jurisprudence (Leiden: Brill, 2000); Kecia Ali, Marriage and Slavery in Early Islam (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2010); Fuad Matthew Caswell, The Slave Girls of Baghdad: The Qiyān in the Early Abbasid Era (London: Tauris, 2011); Matthew Gordon and Kathryn A. Hain, eds., Concubines and Courtesans: Women and Slavery in Islamic History (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017).

[3] For instance, Ibn ʿAsākir describes the mother of the 10th-century Iraqi judge Aḥmad ibn Sayyār as “one of the mawlayāt of al-Maʾmūn.” Tārīkh Madīnat Dimashq (Beirut: Dār al-Fikr, 1995–1998), 71:166.

[4] ʿAbd al-Razzāq al-Ṣanʿānī, Al-Muṣannaf, ed. Markaz al-Buḥūth wa-Taqniyat al-Maʿlūmāt (Cairo: Dār al-Taʾṣīl, 2013; 2nd printing, 10 vols.), 6:501.

[5] Ibid., 7:201–02.

[6] For instance, on the woman who was divorced with only the clothes on her back, see Ibn Abī Shayba, al-Muṣannaf (Riyadh: Dār Kunūz Ishbiliyā lil-Nashr wa-al-Tawzīʿ, 2015), 10:293–94, where she is described instead as a mawlāh of ʿAbdallāh ibn ʿUmar’s wife, Ṣafiyya bint Abī ʿUbayd al-Thaqafī; and al-Ṭabarī, Jāmiʿ al-Bayān (Mecca: Dār al-Tarbiya wa-al-Turāth, n.d.), 4:577 and 4:579. On the issue of the manumitted wife’s choice to stay married or get divorced, see al-Sarakhsī, Al-Mabsūṭ (Egypt: Maṭbaʿat al-Saʿāda, 1906–1913), 5:98-99.

[7] For details about the manumitter’s share of inheritance according to different legal schools, see Crone, Roman Provincial and Islamic Law, 36–38; and idem, Mawlā, The Encyclopedia of Islam, 2nd ed.

[8] ʿAbd al-Razzāq, al-Muṣannaf, 8:231.

[9] Ibid., 8:245.

[10] Ibid., 8:383.

(Suggested Bluebook citation: Elizabeth Urban, Freedwomen in ʿAbd al-Razzāq’s al-Muṣannaf, Islamic Law Blog (Nov. 9, 2023),

(Suggested Chicago citation: Elizabeth Urban, “Freedwomen in ʿAbd al-Razzāq’s al-Muṣannaf,” Islamic Law Blog, November 9, 2023,

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