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A plate from the Fatimid period (1000s AD), Egypt

A plate from the Fatimid period (1000s AD), Egypt

Children in the Islamic Empire generally did what their parents did (as many people still do today). Girls never went to school. They worked at home taking care of their brothers and sisters and cooking. Girls carried water from the well, and they went out to look for fuel for the fire. Boys usually worked in the fields, plowing or weeding.

But some richer boys went to school in the maktab. At school, they learned to recite the Quran. They also learned how to live an Islamic life. When they got older, if they were hard working and their families had enough money, they might go to a madrassa (like going to college) for more education.

Friendships were less emphasized in the Islamic world than family relationships. Usually people got their positions through an uncle or a cousin. But we do still hear of close friendships between both men and women.

Slave market in Yemen (1300s AD)

Slave market in Yemen (1300s AD)

When the free children grew up they usually got married. Most women married their first or second cousins. Islamic law allowed men to have up to four wives if they could take care of all of them equally, but most men still only had one wife. Some powerful traders and sheiks had more than one wife.

Once they were married, women moved to their husband’s house and took care of his house. Women hardly ever went out of the house alone – when they went out, their husbands or brothers, or a slave, went with them, and they wore a veil covering their heads and sometimes their faces so nobody would see them.

Islamic law said that Muslims could not have Muslim slaves, so the slaves of the Islamic Empire were foreigners, captured in war or bought in slave markets. This did not stop slavery at all. A lot of people in the Islamic Empire were slaves. Many people from West Africa were forced to come to West Asia to work as slaves. Most of these slaves were poor fieldworkers, who worked too hard even when they were children and did not get enough to eat. Racism convinced some Islamic scholars that it was okay to force people to be slaves, because, as the North African historian Ibn Khaldun said about 1400 AD, “The black nations are, as a rule, submissive to slavery because they… have attributes like those of dumb animals.”

Learn by doing: try on a head scarf or a veil
More about people in the Islamic Empire

Bibliography and further reading about medieval Islamic people:

More about the Islamic Empire home