This doctoral research project investigates and compares the portrayal of domestic slaves in early Islamic texts (those written in third century AH / ninth century AD) that interpreted the Islamic past.
In the regions of Near East, North Africa, and Spain, Muslims quickly became the ruling elite of a society that had inherited its social practices from the Roman Empire. Within that Roman world, people had been enslaved within domestic contexts in order to fulfil more than just those tasks necessary for the quotidian operation of the household. Domestic slaves, who were mostly (but not exclusively) women and children, had also fulfilled what might be called ‘superfluous’ or ‘luxury’ tasks that ultimately served to display and confirm the status of the free members of the family. This aspect of slave ownership often included the use of enslaved people for sexual purposes, creating a powerful dynamic within the home that impacted wider society. As the Roman order transformed into the Early Middle Ages, the household became ground zero for the reorganisation or preservation of wider social hierarchies and group identities. When Islam established itself in these regions, early Muslim authorities inherited, altered, resisted, supported, shaped, and criticised existing social practices, including those relating to people enslaved within the home. Interpretations of the past, and the origins of the Islamic community in the Near East, North Africa, and Spain developed as part of this broader transformation of what had once been a Roman world.
Scholars have often struggled to interpret early Islamic texts in a way that speaks to this dynamic process of change. Often they have approached Arabic historical works as mines that contain the raw ore of the past, which need only be extracted to provide a historical reconstruction of early Islamic society. Yet without placing these texts and their authors within the context of the greater world of Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages, a distorted image of the social practices of the early Islamic community results. Likewise, the process of remembering the past, with its contested issues and differences of interpretation, can be lost.
Your doctoral research will investigate this topic as an essential part of a larger research project funded by the European Research Council’s Horizon2020 programme: Domestic Slavery and Sexual Exploitation in the Households of Europe, North Africa, and the Near East, from Constantine to c. AD 900 / AH 287. As part of a team of scholars, under the direction of the Principal Investigator (PI), Erin Thomas Dailey, you will research early Arabic works of history (tarikh) and Quranic commentary (tafsir) that concern domestic slaves. You will investigate and compare the portrayals found in authors such as al-Tabari, al-Yaqubi, and ibn Hisham / ibn Ishaq, with a focus on specific matters of concern, for example the status of Maria al-Qibtiyya, the proper public attire of enslaved women, questions of lineage and legitimacy, the interpretation of scriptural passages about Ibrahim and Hajar, and others. You will share your findings with your fellow researchers as the team collectively seeks to reconstruct the motivations and justifications behind the sexual exploitation of domestic slaves, to identify how the lived experience in the household shaped the content of our sources, to reveal how a common Roman inheritance impacted later practices, and to explain the similarities and differences found within Muslim, Christian, and Jewish communities across the greater Mediterranean world.
You will be guided and supervised by the PI, and supported by the research team, to help you achieve individual success and to contribute meaningfully to the success of your colleagues. Your completion of your PhD, and your career success, will be prioritised as one of the project’s outcomes.