Islam and the Humanities

Conference 2014

Maya Shatzmiller

Professor of Islamic History, Western University, Canada

Women’s Property Rights in Islamic Law: Their Origins in the Economy, Significance and Impact 

The subject of women’s property rights in the Islamic law is one of those topics, which is frequently, and unjustly, used by the uninitiated to bash and thrash ‘Islam’. In reality it was just the opposite: their property rights were the area of the law, which benefitted medieval Muslim women the most, and by extension the Islamic economy and society. I have outlined in previous work (1) what these rights were and how they were implemented. Women’s rights over property were clearly articulated over the entire period of the formation of Islamic law and regulated by a set of instruments and mechanisms through which property and income flowed to women: the reversed dowry (sadāq), inheritance, gifts, wages, profits from sales, and the acquisition of property rights at the termination of minority status. Islamic law invested property rights in girls from birth and as there was no mandatory common property in marriage, property rights remain theirs for the entirety of their lives. The evidence I examined, court documents and fatwas, shows that the courts regularly enforced women’s property rights.

In this paper my intention is to explore the effect of women’s property rights on economic performance in the light of recent new work by others and myself. I focus on two aspects, women’s wage labour and women’s reproductive behaviour, linking women’s property rights to the economic efflorescence of Islamic societies.

Recent work by Pamuk and Shatzmiller (2) has shown that high wages, which persisted for at least 300 years in Iraq and Egypt, raised standard of living there to a level that regularly was twice the subsistence level. I suggest that income generated by women was part of the picture and could be explained by their employment in the new textile and the garment industry. The new manufacturing industries offered women the possibility to engage in extensive wage labour, and contributed to the rise of income of the household as a whole. All calculations of GDP from now on will have to take into account the income generated by women and the role of women’s property rights in the process.

The second issue is related to population size, rise and decline, equally important component of economic performance.  A considerable amount of statistical evidence points to small Muslim families, with the number of children limited to an average of 2- 1.5 children per family and very few polygamous marriages. I suggest that the low fertility rate of Muslims in the medieval period had to do with women’s standard of living and women’s property rights over their reproductive capacity.

Bassim Musallam has argued for the Islamic context, as others have done for Europe, Herlihy for instance, that fertility rates declined sharply after the Black Death, linking birth rate to issues such as pessimism about the future of mankind. While certainly reasonable explanation, recent literature points in another direction (3). In the case of late medieval Europe it was women working in animal husbandry who had to remain unmarried, lowering fertility rates and leading to lower population pressure and higher wages. The evidence on labor shortages and high wages links this model to reproductive behaviour in the Islamic environment as well. Theory (4) suggests that as women make gains in economic terms and their standard of living rises, their fertility declines. In our case, Islamic law accommodated women’s rising standard of living with a set of property rights over the body. These include the right to either consent or refuse the use of birth control by the husband, which gives them control over the rhythm of births, the right to be paid for breast feeding their babies in marriage, which allows them control over timing and sequence of pregnancies, and the right to be paid for the custody and care of young children. Low birth rate was the result.

While property rights are not the only answer to the ills which plague Muslim women’s status today, a great deal could be learned about the quality and vitality of Islamic law from gaging the role they played in the medieval Islamic society and economy. 


1. Maya Shatzmiller, Her Day in Court: Women’s Property Rights and Islamic Law in Fifteenth Century Granada, Harvard Studies in Islamic Law 4 (Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass. 2007).
2. Şevket Pamuk and Maya Shatzmiller, “Plagues, Wages, and Economic Change in the Islamic Middle East, 700-1500,” The Journal of Economic History, Vol. 74, no. 1 (March 2014), pp. 196-229.
3. Nico Voigtländer and Hans-Joachim Voth, “How the West ‘Invented Fertility Restriction,” American Economic Review, 103 (6): 2227-64.
4. Oded Galor and David N. Weil, “Population, Technology, and Growth: From Malthusian Stagnation to the Demographic Transition and Beyond,” American Economic Review, 90: 806-828, (September 2000).

Maya Shatzmiller, born in Israel, studied Islamic history and political science at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. She received her doctorate in 1974 from the university of Aix-en-Provence, France, with a dissertation entitled ‘Ibn Khaldun et les intellectuels Mérindes’. After taking a break to raise a family, she was appointed professor of Islamic history at Western University, Canada in 1985. Between 1990 and 1996, she held fellowships at the Annenberg Research Institute for Judaic Studies, University of Pennsylvania, the Institute for Advanced Studies, Princeton, the Davis Center for Historical Studies, Princeton University, USA. In 2008-2009, she was a research associate at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, UK and in 2012-2013 visiting scholar at University of California, Los Angeles, USA.

She is on the editorial board of the journals Der Islam (Germany), al-Masaq (UK), Oriens (Netherlands), Miscelánea De Estudios Árabes Y Hebraicos (Granada, Spain), Studia Khaldunica (Tunis), International Scientific Committee of Islamic Law And International Relations (Bihaç), Grupo De Investigación En Arqueología Medieval Y Postmedieval (Barcelona, Spain). Between 1998 and 1999, she was the director of the Center for Nationalism and Ethnicity, and in 2012 founded the Middle East and North Africa Research Group at Western. In 2003, she was elected Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada. Her publications include Her Day in Court: Women’s Property Rights and Islamic Law in Fifteenth Century Granada (Harvard University Press, 2007), Labour in the Medieval Islamic World (E. J. Brill, Leiden, 1994), L’Historiographie mérinide: Ibn Khaldun et ses contemporains (E.J. Brill, Leiden, 1982), and numerous papers. More recently she has been writing on the subject of economic performance and economic growth in the medieval Middle East.