How Tunisian women inspired monogamy in Islam centuries ago

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Many Tunisians have set a rare precedent of monogamy in the Muslim world since the early centuries of Islamic history. Enshrining the rights of women through the instrument of the celebrated ‘Kairouan dowry’, Tunisians have practiced a tradition of according respect and equality to their women through a novel form of marital contract through the ages.

It all began in the eighth century, when the future Abbasid caliph Abu Jaafar al-Mansour was on the run from the Umayyad forces led by Marwan bin Muhammad.

As a fugitive, he eventually found asylum in the Tunisian city of Kairouan at the house of Mansour bin Abdullah al-Humyari. Mansour had a beautiful and intelligent daughter named Arwa and Abu Jaafar eventually sought her hand in marriage.

Her father agreed, but Arwa put one condition for this marriage —Abu Jaafar will not marry any other woman for as long as Arwa is his wife, or else she would have the right to demand divorce. This novel marriage contract later became famously known as the ‘Kairouan dowry’.

Abu Jaafar al-Mansour remained committed to this pre-nuptial agreement even after becoming the Abbasid Caliph, right up to the time of Arwa’s death, after she had given birth to one of his successors, Muhammad al-Mahdi.

‘The Kairouan dowry’ also had other novel provisions of inheritance and endowments. It is stated that Arwa al-Kairouaniya had received a farm by the name ‘Al-Rahba’ from her husband, which she ordered would only be passed on to her female progeny. She is behind what is called the first female Wakf.

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Reverting to the legal provisions of the Kairouan marital contract, the stipulations therein state that the husband should obey his wife and not remarry. He should take a vow to this effect in front of all the witnesses and people gathered at the time of the first marriage. He cannot remarry unless the wife willfully approves of it or else the marriage would automatically stand dissolved, as the husband could not fulfill his commitment to the marital contract.

The provisions also state that the husband cannot take his wife’s sterility as a reason for marrying another woman, which is implied in its clause “do not marry for the mother of a child” or else the divorce will come into effect if the wife wished so.

This amazing marital tradition has been practiced for centuries by the Kairounian people and its famous judges, preachers and scholars have blazed a trail over the centuries in this regard. In fact, since the time of the Grand Imam Sahnoun ibn Said, Kairouan judges and magistrates of Al- Maghreb and Andalusia have accepted and followed this article of marital jurisprudence and traditions.

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In fact, this legislative tradition has strengthened the institution of marriage in Kairouan and the rest of Al-Maghreb countries for centuries, as the entire Kairouan region has adopted the selfsame doctrine and approach.

It is also noteworthy that this piece of historical legislation has facilitated subsequent reforms in marriage and inheritance legislation, particularly when modern Tunisian law abolished the tradition of verbally pronouncing divorce and second marriage, both of which are now considered crimes punishable by imprisonment, according to Chapters 18 and 30 of the personal law.

In fact, some of these provisions have been directly derived from the age-old Kairouanian women’s legislation, which allows a woman to make any of her female descendant inherit her property (mother to daughter or vice versa). This has enabled women in Tunisia to be entitled to their own fortunes.

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Tunisia can also feel proud of having a true champion of women’s rights in the great scholar and social reformer of the 20th century Tahar Haddad. In the ‘Introduction’ to his famous 1930 book Our Women in the Shari’a and Society, Haddad link the rights of women to the very future of humanity, as woman is the progenitor of the human race.

In his book, Haddad notes the West has been in a state of continuous progress and development because of its emphasis on women’s education, liberation and enlightenment.

Largely the same observation holds true to the great enlightenment that Kairouan witnessed between the second and fourth centuries of the Hijri calendar.

Thus, it is rightly noted that greater prosperity and revival of civilizations has a correlation with adherence to basic human rights, empowerment of women and the promotion of humanitarian values.

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