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"The Child Was Small... Not So the Grief for Him": Sources, Structure, and Content of Al-Sakhawi's Consolation Treatise for Bereaved Parents

Avner Gilʿadi
Poetics Today
Vol. 14, No. 2, Cultural Processes in Muslim and Arab Societies: Medieval and Early Modern Periods (Summer, 1993), pp. 367-386
Published by: Duke University Press
DOI: 10.2307/1773124
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1773124
Page Count: 20
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"The Child Was Small... Not So the Grief for Him": Sources, Structure, and Content of Al-Sakhawi's Consolation Treatise for Bereaved Parents
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Abstract

Irtiyah al-akbad by Muhammad al-Sakhawi (d. 1497) is the most complete representation of a whole group of writings compiled during the late Middle Ages by Middle Eastern Muslim scholars and intended to console bereaved parents. Written in the wake of his own young son's death, al-Sakhawi's treatise, although lacking any precise information on mortality rates, gives a clear impression of the chronic problem of infant and child deaths in the premodern Middle East. As a result of recurring epidemics of the Black Death, this problem became even more acute from the fourteenth century onward. Many other consolation treatises for bereaved parents that were written against this background gained apparent popularity and were widely circulated. The significance of these treatises lies not so much in the (partial) picture they draw of the circumstances of children's lives and the causes of their deaths as in the psychological relations between parents and children that they reflect through descriptions of adult reactions to infant and child deaths. They thus contribute to our understanding of the prevailing image of children in medieval Muslim societies. Al-Sakhawi's Irtiyah testifies to parental love and tenderness toward living children (including females), as evinced by touching descriptions of the psychological difficulties experienced by parents (fathers and mothers alike) in trying to cope with the loss of their offspring. The main purpose of the treatise was to channel the strong emotional reactions of bereaved parents into legitimate religious modes of mourning. But the efforts of al-Sakhawi and other Muslim scholars to impose on the believers a certain cultural pattern for the emotional expression of grief were not made without some degree of understanding of human psychological needs. Moreover, the need to repeatedly attempt to channel these spontaneous emotional expressions of grief over infant and child deaths bears enduring witness to the strong feelings involved and gives the impression that parental love and concern, even against a background of high rates of infant and child mortality, were not uncommon in medieval Muslim societies. In medieval European societies, according to Philippe Ariès, such mortality rates bred indifference among parents, an indifference which resulted in the neglect of children and, thus, in even higher mortality rates.

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