Medieval Domesticity: Home, Housing and Household
25th Annual Medieval Studies Conference
Saturday March 12-Sunday March 13, 2005
Humanity at Home: Evolving Images of Households in Islamic Paradise

Nerina Rustomji, Bard College

One of the rewards of being a righteous Muslim is the promise of a luxurious home in a paradise (al-janna) that enhances the wonders and eliminates the hardships of the earthly world. This paper focuses on descriptions of paradisiacal homes and on narratives of household dynamics in Islamic texts from the seventh to the twelfth century A.D. By demonstrating the connection between the architecture of the home and the social construct of the household, it argues that from the ninth century A.D. onwards the pleasure of domestic life in the afterworld transformed from the promise of reuniting the household to the promise of a sensual world enjoyed by the believer.

In the Quran and written traditions of the prophet Muhammad (ahadith) from the seventh to the ninth century A.D., two types of homes are identified. The first is a tent of a hollowed pearl so vast that a rider would take 100 years to cross its shadow, and the second is a pavilion-like structure made of a gold brick and encrusted with jewels. In both these domiciles, believers experience the pleasure of being reunited with their ancestors, spouses, and descendents. For believers, life in al-janna offers the pleasures that Muslims did not always enjoy in their earthly lives: privacy, sumptuary goods, servants, and most importantly, the ability to meet ancestors.

However, in theological manuals from the ninth to the twelfth century A.D., ancestors, spouses, and descendents disappear. Instead, the texts present images of believers occupying opulent pavilions whose only other inhabitants are servants. The domestic life of the believer, then, transformed from a socially bound conception of home into a lifestyle that privileges individual sensual pleasures. By studying these evolving images, the paper discusses how expectations of the afterworld shed light on the domestic realities of the dramatically transforming Islamic social world. The shift from the promise of reunion to sensual pleasure, then, reflects the impact of a changing material culture as Islamic society developed outside of Arabia and the formation of a theological literary culture as an Islamic religious aesthetic emerged.



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