Al-ghazdli, bar hebraeus, and the 'good wife'.

Author:Weitz, Lev
Position:Essay - Critical essay


Abu Hamid al-Ghazali's (d. 505/1111) Ihyte ulum al-din has long been recognized as a landmark work in Islamic intellectual history. Weaving together disparate Islamic disci-plines--legal. theological, Sufi, and others--into a kind of practical guidebook to Muslim piety, the thyii) is highly regarded by Muslims and scholars of Islam for its incisive spiritual guidance and its influence on later developments in Sunni Islamic tradition. In the medieval Middle East its impact extended across religious boundaries as well. This is evident most tellingly in the work of the West Syrian polymath Bar Hebraeus (d. 1286), who took the Ihyd) as a blueprint for his Ethicon, a Syriac treatise for a Christian audience on the practices of the pious life.

The Ethicon's dependence on the Ilya' has been noted by scholars since the early twentieth century at least. (1) In a vein similar to several studies published in recent years,(2) this article will undertake a close comparative analysis of a parallel chapter in each of the two texts. The chapters in question take as their subject the qualities most desirable in a wife, and my interest in them will be twofold.

First, my point of general interest will be to examine the textual strategies by which Bar Hebraeus appropriates this section of the /kjyti', formulated in an Islamic idiom, and incorporates it into his own Christian tradition. I will investigate not only the Ethicon' s dependence on the MA', but al-Ghazali's own sources as well. In doing so I will argue that al-Ghazali built his textual profile of the "good wife" on a Muslim jurisprudential one framed with reference to the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad, but that he added reasoned arguments tying the desirable wifely qualities to spiritual and social benefits. It was precisely these reasoned arguments that positioned al-Ghazali's text as a useful model for emulation for other religious traditions, and so we find that Bar Hebraeus largely reproduced its list of qualities in the Ethicon. Bar Hebraeus, however, illustrated these qualities with proof texts drawn from biblical wisdom literature, thus constructing the MA's image of the good wife as authoritative for his Christian audience.

Second. I will consider the significance of the fact that this particular profile of the good wife circulated among multiple scholarly religious traditions in the pre-Ottoman Middle East. What kind of cultural work does this image do?(3) What can the fact of its basic intelligibility across religious boundaries tell us about the scholarly cultures of the premodern period and their normative notions of gender difference? I will argue that by offering congruent profiles of an ideal feminine type, the Ilyyd' and the Ethicon in fact propagate a broader, gendered category of male piety resonant in the general confessional milieu of the medieval Middle East.


One of the most significant and influential Sunni Muslim scholars of the premodern period, al-Ghazali was born near the city of Tris in Kthurasan.(4) He achieved initial fame as a teacher and scholar of the Shaffi legal tradition and Ashcari theological school at the Nizamiyya madrasa in Saljuq-ruled Baghdad. It was during his subsequent "spiritual crisis" and withdrawal from public life, however, that al-Ghazali wrote the spiritually investigatory works for which he remains most renowned. Though he composed in a wide variety of genres over the course of his life, much of his prominence rests on the Myer'. A rich and wide-ranging work, the Ihyti) is divided into four treatises of ten books each that integrate the various streams of Islamic tradition into a program for disciplining the self into the most pious. God-oriented life possible.(5)

This program consists of a wide range of practices covering all aspects of daily life that, over time, inculcate an enduring, truly submissive disposition toward God.(6) Within this program, the proper conduct of (men's) married life receives a book of its own.(7) In Kitiab Adab al-nikah (Book of the Etiquette of Marriage) al-Ghazali covers a series of topics: whom marriage is recommended for, the benefits and harm it does to a man's devotion to God, the proper method of contracting a marriage, the qualities desirable in a bride (my focus in this article), and the rights and duties of husbands and wives. All the book's admonitions concerning these themes seek to facilitate marital harmony, the ultimate aim of which is a peace of heart and mind conducive to worship of God.(8)

Some century and a half after al-Ghazali, Gregorios Bar Ebraya, known in Arabic as AbU 1-Faraj Ibn al-Ibri and in Latinized form as Bar Hebraeus (d. 1286), was on his way to achieving a status within West Syrian Christianity that exceeds in many respects al-Ghazali's posthumous reputation in Sunni Islam.(9) Born in Melitene in the frontier region of northern Mesopotamia, Bar Hebraeus spent his life traversing the shifting political boundaries of the thirteenth-century Middle East, living at various times under the Saljups of Ram, Crusaders, Ayyubids, and finally the Mongols. He was ordained a bishop in 1246 and from 1264 until his death became the West Syrian maphrian in which capacity he was the chief prelate of his church's eastern dioceses, with jurisdiction principally over territories in the Jazira, Iraq, and Persia.

The breadth of Bar Hebraeus's scholarly output accounts for much of his high standing in West Syrian tradition. Literate, by all accounts, in Syriac, Arabic, and Persian, he studied and composed in the theological, poetic, and exegetical genres of his own Syriac Christian tradition; in the Aristotelian and Neoplatonic philosophical traditions so integral to the educational and scholarly cultures of the premodern Islamic Middle East; and in various other genres including law and historiography. (10) Many of his works remain important intellectual touchstones for present-day Syriac Orthodox and Syriac Catholic Christians.

Bar Hebraeus's Ethicon (Syr. Itiqon) was likely written in 1279. (11) In broadest strokes, it is a guide, modeled on the Ihya), to the practical knowledge necessary for Christians--including socially embedded laymen as well as monks and clergy--to live piously in all domains of life. (12) The Ethicon appropriates the overall structure of al-Ghazali's work: a division into four treatises that address, in order, matters of worship, social interactions and customs, human characteristics destructive to the pious self, and good qualities that aid the soul in securing salvation. (13) Its basic dependence on the /1,7ye is further evident within each treatise, where Bar Hebraeus often follows closely the Ihyd's chapter layout and even appropriates its basic categorical breakdowns of the material at hand. As one of numerous examples, the Ethicon's chapter on bodily purity follows al-Ghazati's on ritual purity in dividing the subject into four -degrees of purification: of the body, from dirt; of the organs, from sin; of the soul, from wicked thoughts; again of the soul, from any worldly concerns." (14)

The Ethicon, however, is not simply a Syriac translation of the Ilya'. Significant differences between the texts remain, and Bar Hebraeus musters much from biblical, patristic, and monastic sources of West Syrian Christianity to support and illustrate his points. The particular interest of the Ethicon lies therefore in how it appropriates the material laid out by al-Ghazali and either alters it or filters it through Christian sources to claim it as authoritative within a Christian tradition.(15)


In both the lhya' and the Ethicon the second book of the second treatise is devoted to marriage (adab al-nikah, "the etiquette of marriage," in the Ihya', and sawtaputa namosayta , "lawful marriage."in the Ethicon). Each includes a section on the qualities desirable in a bride, the basic substance of which is mostly congruent. Al-Ghazali lists eight such characteristics, which he explains will be .conducive to a harmonious marriage and "facilitate the continuation of the [marriage] bond and the fulfillment of its aims."These qualities are piety (dhat al-din), good character (Nan al-khuluq), beauty of the face (ijusn al-wajh), a small marriage payment (khiffat al-mahr), fertility (wilada), virginity (bakara), good lineage (nasab), and absence of close consanguinity to the groom (an la takw qaraba qariba),I6 Though Bar Hebraeus alters one quality and adds another, the Ethicon's list is largely similar: piety (dehlat Alctha), gentleness (tammimta wa-bhilta) and diligence (kassirta), physical beauty (scuprii), an inexpensive marriage payment (la yaqqirta d-sadke), fertility (men gensa d-yalladata), virginity (btalfitet), good lineage (tohma tbiba), absence of close consanguinity (la [tehwe] ba(r)t gensa qarriba), and common creed (men hranyay subha ia tehwe). (17)


As noted, the Ethicon is largely modeled on the MA' and the profile of the good wife that both texts offer is no exception. Before examining in detail the relationship between these texts, however, we need to consider al-Ghazali's own Islamic sources. At stake is not simply a general background to al-Ghazali's thought but a more precise understanding of how Bar Hebraeus rendered particular elements and strands of Islamic thought intelligible within his own Christian tradition. Examining how such strands were drawn, in turn, through al-Ghazali's and Bar Hebraeus's conceptual filters will reveal a broader contextual picture of how their image of the ideal wife acquired its particularly compelling, trans-religious resonance.

Unsurprisingly, many of the bride's desirable qualities articulated in the Ihya reflect sentiments expressed elsewhere in Islamic tradition: as with much of the ya), originality in this section lies largely in his...

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