Miriam's Reviews > Infants, Parents And Wet Nurses: Medieval Islamic Views On Breastfeeding And Their Social Implications

Infants, Parents And Wet Nurses by Avner Giladi
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Nov 22, 10

bookshelves: gender, medieval, non-fiction
Read in April, 2001

Giladi uses Qu'ranic commentaries, legal texts, and medical texts to explore medieval Islamic views on breastfeeding. This is an important topic because at the time Islamic law and science held that breastfeeding created a biological relationship, so children nursed by the same woman were related even if there were no other biological connection (i.e. your kids and the wet-nurse's kids are now relatives). Also, the milk a baby received was thought to influence character and personality traits, so one wanted to be careful about where that milk was coming from. This was not primarily an issue of female morality, because breastmilk, like children themselves, was believed to be created entirely by the man's semen (this is also why, in Islamic law, children belong solely to their father). However, breastfeeding was seen forming a social or emotional bond between woman and child; thus it was viewed as beneficial despite concerns that it harmed women's health.

The beliefs outlined above had important legal ramifications. For instance, "milk-brothers and milk-sisters" could not marry because it would be incestuous. If such a connection were discovered at any date, they would have to divorce. On a more positive level, milk-kinship created a wider circle of individuals with whom women could behave in a "permissive" manner (converse freely, go unveiled, etc). Breastfeeding also largely replaced the adoption, which had been eliminated by Islamic law. A man could in effect adopt by having the child (or adult) breastfeed from his wife.
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message 7: by Lisa (new)

Lisa Vegan Miriam, You are reading some fascinating books!


Miriam I'm going through some old notes in order to throw them out.

So. Much. Paper.


message 5: by Lisa (new)

Lisa Vegan I'm sure it's satisfying to get rid of some of that paper, and we get your reviews as icing on the cake. Yay!


message 4: by Ronyell (new)

Ronyell Wow!! Interesting review Miriam!! I never knew that much about breastfeeding in Islamic law!


message 3: by AH (new)

AH That was fascinating. It is always interesting to read another culture's perspectives.


message 2: by Manny (new)

Manny breastmilk, like children themselves, was believed to be created entirely by the man's semen

When did people realise this wasn't true? And how far does it go back? I seem to recall Simone de Beauvoir ascribing to Aristotle the belief that children were entirely created from the man's semen, but maybe it's older than that. As she points out: if it were true, a patriarchal society would make perfect sense, since women would just be plant pots that men put their seeds in. But I don't remember her saying anything about breast milk. Is that something the Arab scholars added?


message 1: by Miriam (last edited Nov 24, 2010 09:06AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Miriam I read this quite a few years ago so I am not sure, but I don't recall Giladi specifying whether that belief was drawn from the Greek tradition. He also works on Maimonides, so presumably he would know the connection if there were one. Giladi mentions that the sources for this topic are mostly proscriptive texts.

[edit: [author:B.F. Musallam|1222643] says that Muslims drew their biological understanding of procreation from Hippocrates rather than Aristotle.]


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