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Home arrow History arrow A Global History of Child Death: Mortality, Burial, and Parental Attitudes


Medieval Islam

Avner Gil’adi has written extensively on the bereavement of Muslim parents in the Middle Ages, and he refutes Philippe Aries’ claim that parents did not suffer emotionally for the loss of their children. Due to recurring outbreaks of the Black Death, infant and child mortality was high in the Muslim world, as they were in other regions. And while the Black Death was never explicitly implicated in the consolation manuals written at this time, it is assumed that the plague was the cause of death for most Muslim children in the Middle Ages. For medieval Muslim parents in particular, consolation manuals were available in abundance—nearly thirty such books were published. These manuals illustrate the relationships between parents and children through evidence of their grief (See Chapter 9 for a discussion of consolation literature during this time). Although boys were favored for reasons beyond their ability to labor, female and male children alike were grieved at their death, and mortality did not appear to differ among socioeconomic classes. Gil’adi also notes that expressions of grief for a deceased child did not necessarily indicate a warm relationship.20

Some Muslim law experts believed that children should be honored as adults. For example, the body should be carried by people, not animals, and the preparation of the corpse and the prayer should be exactly the same as those for an adult. Many mourning rituals and reactions to death (not condoned by Islam) that were commonly practiced were often violent. These reactions included crying, screaming, moaning wailing, lamenting, “splitting collars”, tearing off clothes, mutilating one’s own face, shaving the head or tangling the hair, as well as reciting elegies and announcing one’s death.21 Additionally, some of the treatises spoke of parents who had died as a result of extreme reactions to grief. For example, a parent might refuse to eat or drink, sleep, or demonstrate complete apathy toward his or her own health. Avoiding these reactions was to inhabit the attribute of sabr, steadfastness. While the advice from the treatises appears to come from the time of Muhammed himself, the Prophet was noted to have very strong reactions to the deaths of his children and grandchildren. Thus a compromise is drawn, within these books, to accept emotional reaction in moderation.

While exhibiting sabr was thought to be rewarded, some demonstrations of steadfastness were unusual. Some parents were reported to have expressed happiness at their child’s death. Some looked forward to the deaths of their children in the hope of “gaining otherworldly rewards for themselves.. .[some were known to] have encouraged their sons to sacrifice themselves, in a holy war, for instance”22 Apparently it was believed that children who pre-deceased their parents would protect them from Hell and help them gain entry into Heaven. It is likely that these kinds of reactions to the death of a child are attributed to religious beliefs more so than a lack of parental affection.

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