This court record, from the Islamic court of Tripoli (Lebanon) in April 1679 revolves around the fate of a female slave in the household of a recently deceased provincial Janissary. In short, the enslaved woman (Raziya bt. Abd Allah) successfully wins her manumission through the legal norm of “umm walad,” in which an enslaved woman who bears her master’s child should be manumitted after his death. This case is remarkable because, as Raziya explains, she miscarried after carrying the fetus for four months. Based on a fatwa and some rather extraordinary witness testimony, the judge agrees that Raziya holds the status of umm walad, even though she was never visibly pregnant and did not give birth to a baby.
This case offers a view into Islamic laws of slavery, manumission, sexuality and reproduction in a middling-elite, early modern household. In particular, it illustrates forms of exploitation endured by female slaves within the household, but suggests that enslaved people could be empowered by the shari’a court system and had knowledge of the legal strategies available to them under Islamic law. In this case, a female slave successfully wins her manumission after her master’s death. According to the record, she is exploited first by her master for sexual purposes, and subsequently by her master’s widow who attempts to keep her as part of her late-husband’s estate. Ultimately, the case offers an example of how the sharīʿa court could work in favor of the socially weaker party at the expense of more politically and economically powerful actors. At the same time, the case highlights several ways in which the formulaic structures of the sijills obscure crucial aspects of motive, consequence, and interpersonal relationships between legal actors joined together by blood, affection, and misfortune.