Freedwomen in Ibn Abī Shayba’s al-Muṣannaf

By Elizabeth Urban

In my previous essay, I wrote about how ʿAbd al-Razzāq’s (d. 211/827) al-Muṣannaf features freedwomen in “tricky” inheritance cases; in this essay I turn to Ibn Abī Shayba’s (d.235/849)  al-Muṣannaf. After my first preliminary round of searching this text for the term mawlāh (and its permutations), it appears that Ibn Abī Shayba includes more freedwomen overall than does ʿAbd al-Razzāq, with the grand total coming in at thirty-seven mentions. However, most of these mentions are either in the isnāds (chains of oral transmission), or they refer to the “upper mawlāh” (mistress, enslaver, or patron) rather than the “lower mawlāh” (enslaved person, freed person, or client). As I will discuss further in my next essay, a complicating factor when trying to collect large data-sets for the vocabularies of enslavement is that the term mawlā(h) can refer to either party in the manumitter-freedperson relationship, just as the word “spouse” can refer to either party in a marriage. Luckily, the context usually clarifies which party is meant in any given passage.

While ʿAbd al-Razzāq focused on texts grappling with inheritance questions involving freedwomen, Ibn Abī Shayba instead considers cases wherein a freedwoman’s word contradicts that of a freeborn person. These cases imply that a freedwoman’s word might have been considered less trustworthy than that of a freeborn person, or that the general social tendency was to elevate the concerns of freeborn people over those of freed people. Ibn Abī Shayba’s examples intervene in this situation by insisting that the freedwoman’s word should be accepted, or at least that a freedwoman’s word can raise enough doubt about a subject to render it legally inadvisable.

For instance, in one account, a mawlāh (or enslaved woman) who worked as a wet-nurse intervenes to stop a wedding:

ʿUqba ibn al-Ḥārith [ibn ʿĀmir ibn Nawfal] told us: I was engaged to the daughter of Abī Ihāb [ibn ʿAzīz ibn Qays] al-Tamīmī,[1] and when it was the morning of her marriage (milkihā), a mawlāh of the people of Mecca came and said: “I have breastfed you both.” So ʿUqba rode to the Prophet—peace and blessings of God be upon him—in Medina, and he mentioned that to him and said: “I asked the girl’s family (ahl al-jāriya), and they denied it.” He [Muḥammad] said: “But how [could you still marry her], when it has been said?” So [ʿUqba] separated from her and married someone else. [2]

If this mawlāh had indeed breastfed both the bride and the groom, they would be milk-siblings and thus ineligible for marriage. While the wording of the account implies that the mawlāh was mistaken about having breastfed both parties, even the possibility that she was right prevents the marriage from happening. We learn little about who the “girl’s family” may have been, but it seems likely that the account is referring not to her natal family, but rather to her enslaver’s (or former enslaver’s) household; that is, the “family” here seems likely to be an elite/free family who owned or employed this servant. The fact that this text refers to the same person once as mawlāh and once as jāriya also highlights the ambiguity of our sources; jāriya literally means girl, but it is often used to refer to enslaved women. It is therefore unclear whether jāriya is used here to indicate the legal status of this woman or her age, but in either case, her position as an unfree servant seems clear.

In another case, we also see that the Prophet Muḥammad reportedly accepted the word of a freedwoman who had been slandered by a free man:

Māʿiz ibn Mālik [an early Medinese Muslim] came to the Prophet—peace be upon him—and he admitted that he had committed adultery (zinā). “With whom?,” the Prophet asked. [Māʿiz] said, “With So-and-so, the mawlāh of Ibn So-and-so (fulāna mawlāt ibn fulān).” So [the Prophet] sent for her, and she denied it, so he let her go. He punished [Māʿiz] for what he had admitted, but he did not mention that he had flogged him for lying about her [rather than for committing adultery].[3]

There are several variant accounts of this story; in many of them, Māʿiz insists four times that he has committed adultery, until the Prophet grudgingly declares that he should be stoned to death. In this particular account, Māʿiz is flogged rather than stoned, and the crime he is punished for is apparently qadhf (slander) rather than zinā (adultery/fornication). In my interpretation, the nameless, faceless mawlāh in this account represents a “nobody,” someone on the margins of society whose own sexual ethics might be questionable, someone whose legal testimony might not carry a lot of weight. And yet, this unnamed freedwoman’s claim of innocence raises enough doubt about Māʿiz’s case that he is cleared of the charge of zinā (though he is still punished for the lesser charge of slander).[4]

Both of the previous two accounts highlight the idea that the word of a lowly freedwoman is worthy and should be taken seriously even when it contradicts the word of a free Muslim. The accounts seem to highlight the ideal that justice should depend on truth, not on social status or political power. These accounts should again not be naively accepted as narrating straightforward historical reality, but they do give us hints about the expected role or stock image of freedwomen in this society: they were connected to free/elite households, did menial labor such as wet-nursing, and were suspected (fairly or unfairly) of sexual impropriety.


[1] ʿUqba ibn al-Ḥārith ibn ʿĀmir ibn Nawfal was an early Meccan Muslim of the Quraysh tribe and a Companion of the Prophet Muḥammad. He had previously been an enemy of Muḥammad’s, and he is most famous in the sources for killing the early Muslim Khubayb ibn ʿAdī in 625 CE. Abū Ihāb al-Tamīmī was a relative of ʿUqba’s—Abū Ihāb’s grandfather Qays and ʿUqba’s grandfather ʿĀmir were half-brothers through the same mother. ʿUqbā and Abū Ihāb reportedly jointly purchased Khubayb and held him prisoner in the house of Māwiya, the mawlāh of Abī Ihāb’s son Ḥujayr. See Ibn Saʿd, Kitāb al-Ṭabaqāt al-Kubrā, ed. Muḥammad ʿAbd al-Qādir ʿAṭā (Beirut: Dār al-Kutub al-ʿIlmiyya, 1991; 9 vols.), 8:233; al-Ṭabarānī, Al-Muʿjam al-Kabīr, ed. Ḥamdī ibn ʿAbd al-Majīd al-Salafī (Cairo: Maktabat Ibn Taymiyya, 1994; 25 vols.), 5:259.

[2] Ibn Abi Shayba, al-Muṣannaf, ed. Saʿd ibn Nāṣir ibn ʿAbd al-ʿAzīz Abū Ḥabīb al-Shathrī (Riyadh: Dār Kunūz Ishbīliyā lil-Nashr wa-al-Tawzīʿ, 2015; 25 vols.), 9:284 and 20:233.

[3] Ibn Abi Shayba, al-Muṣannaf, 15:515. For an extended analysis of the case of Māʿiz and the legal disputes it engendered, see Intisar A. Rabb, Doubt in Islamic Law: A History of Legal Maxims, Interpretation, and Islamic Criminal Law (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014), 25–47.

[4] Again, there are many different versions of this account; this freedwoman is usually not mentioned, but rather the Prophet Muḥammad investigates Māʿiz’s case in other ways and still hesitates to punish Māʿiz for adultery. For references to many different versions of this account, and for an extended analysis of Māʿiz’s case as foundational to the “jurisprudence of doubt,” see Intisar Rabb, Doubt in Islamic Law, 26–27 and 39–41.

(Suggested Bluebook citation: Elizabeth Urban, Freedwomen in Ibn Abī Shayba’s al-Muṣannaf, Islamic Law Blog (Nov. 16, 2023),

(Suggested Chicago citation: Elizabeth Urban, “Freedwomen in Ibn Abī Shayba’s al-Muṣannaf,” Islamic Law Blog, November 16, 2023,

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