20 May 2020
History of Islam in 21 Women Hardcover – March 10, 2020
Hossein Kamaly (Author)
Used from $17.05
her “Uwar Gari”, or the “Mother of all”.
(1793-1864), the daughter of Shehu Usman dan Fodio, the founder of the Sokoto
Caliphate (1806-1903) in northern Nigeria, was a patron of women and children’s
rights and an exponent of education in West Africa. She taught in four
languages and promoted women’s liberation through reading, writing, singing and
working. Women flocked to her home and sat at her feet.
built a team of women scholars who would travel across the caliphate and teach
women in their own homes.
held in such high esteem, she was known in Morocco, Mauritania and western
story is among those of 21 women profiled in a new book by Hossein Kamaly, A
History of Islam in 21 Women, in which he details the biographies of some
of the most illuminary Muslim women in Islamic history.
pressed the point that the mistreatment and debasement of women contradicted the
exemplary conduct of Prophet Muhammad,” Kamaly, an associate professor of
Islamic Studies at Hartford Seminary in Connecticut, writes of Asmau.
reviving the roots of pure Islam depended on raising the status of women.”
The book, a
breezy 260-page read, is a chronologically assembled biography of five
religious figures, eight rulers, four leaders within the colonial era and four
others in the contemporary moment. All women.
stories encompass the Middle East and Central Asia, as well as India,
Indonesia, Russia and the United Kingdom. Kamaly’s unusual selection might
raise eyebrows, while historical scholars may frown at the simplification of
complex histories into fast-paced narrations of these extraordinary women's
lives, but as an introduction to some of the lesser-known exploits of Muslim
women throughout Islamic history, it is instructive.
makes clear in his introduction that his effort is not exhaustive. The book is
laced with reference upon reference to previous studies (and a seven-page
bibliography) and is framed as an invitation to read Islamic history through
the stories of these strong-willed, iconoclastic Muslim women.
little doubt that Muslim women were fundamental in the formative years and spread
of the religion. They acted as agents of change and were very much part of the
disputes and controversies that dominated the early years of the religion, as
well as the attempts to reassert women’s role in the story of one the world’s
participation was not egregious or scandalous, as contemporary depictions seem
to convey. They were businesswomen, legal scholars, teachers from the start and
some of the earliest records acknowledge their role.
instance, one of the women profiled in the book, Rabia al-Adawiyya (c.
717-801), a mystic and poet understood to have lived in present-day Iraq,
remains a towering figure in Sufism. Even though much about her remains unknown
and is based on legend and myth, she is a symbol of asceticism and a rejection
of worldly desires.
example demonstrates that a woman could be a friend of God too, without even
being part of the Prophet's household," Kamaly writes. "Revering
Rabia emphasizes this possibility, and that being a woman does not rule out the
possibility of reaching the highest spiritual rank."
that the most detailed portrait of her appears in a book written by Attar of
Nishapur in the 13th century.
should I worship you for fear of punishment, then burn me in hellfire. Should I
worship you for reward, then keep me out of paradise. But I worship you only
for you. So, do not withhold from me your Eternal Beauty,” is a prayer
attributed to al-Adawiyya. Centuries later, in northern Nigeria, Nana Asmau
would venerate her, too.
comes to Asmau, Beverly B Mack and Jean Boyd in their book, One Woman's Jihad:
Nana Asma’u, Scholar and Scribe (Bloomington), say that though Asmau was an
exceptional personality for her time, there were many other Sufi women at the
edge of the Sahara who played important roles in their societies.
book, Women’s Rebellion and Islamic Memory, Fatima Mernissi tries to account
for the contradiction between a history of scholarship that did include women
and the “lowly image attributed to Muslim women in their own society today”.
says the memory of women “as active, full participants in the making of
she argues that these histories have been mediated by conservative (men) who
have played the role of gatekeepers to the existing annals of knowledge. The
advent of more Muslim women as writers and historians has meant a reclamation
of this narrative.
instance, volume eight of the work of Ibn Sa’ad, one of the Prophet Muhammad’s
earliest biographers, known as Al-Tabaqat al-Kubra, which focuses on the life
of the Prophet Muhammad, is dedicated completely to women in the Prophet's
household. The compilation was written in the 9th century.
there are more accounts of emirs, sultans and imams than there are of women,
and there are even fewer accounts of less famous women.
importance of detailing the role of women in Islamic history is imperative
especially in places where “religious history” is deemed instructive, in
societies where religion and state are still undivided.
- The First Believer’
primary sources, as well as alluding to the stories collected and told through
oral history and legend, Kamaly reveals several strands of narratives within
the history of Islam itself.
highlighted, who include religious exemplars, and political authorities, are
too diverse to represent a single ideal or ideal type, and they seldom appear
together in general histories of Islam,” Kamaly writes.
with Khadija (c. 560-619), the first believer in Islam and the Prophet
Muhammad’s beloved first wife. Her role is deeply seminal.
more than ever, it is important to highlight that the first person to receive
the Prophet’s message was a woman,” Kamaly writes.
was Khadija around 15 years older than the Prophet when they married, she was a
successful and wealthy trader at the time. Drawn to his honesty and character,
she asked him for his hand in marriage.
Khadija who received the shivering Prophet and comforted him with a blanket
following his first encounter with revelation.
reaction to his vocation as a divine messenger reveals the depths of her
attachment to him and her confidence in his truthfulness,” Kamaly adds.
Prophet is then persecuted by his own tribe, Kamaly describes Khadija as
“having used her standing to back her husband when he was at his most
vulnerable... Khadija is a heroine of towering stature in Islamic history”.
moves from Khadija to the Prophet’s daughter Fatima (c. 612-633) and then to
his second wife Aisha (c. 615-678), who also played defining roles in the early
establishment of the religion, especially after the Prophet’s death and the
dispute over his successor. Fatima was especially close to her father following
the death of Khadija, and cared for him so deeply that she became known as
"the mother of her father".
At the time
of the Prophet's passing, Fatima was married to his younger cousin and one of
his earliest supporters Ali, whose followers (who became known as Shia) believe
was the rightful heir to the Prophet. Instead, Aisha's father Abu Bakr, a close
companion to the Prophet, became the first Caliph in Islam.
"elevated position in the eyes of the community around the Prophet [...]
many members of the Muslim community accepted [Aisha's] testimony that the
Prophet had wished her father to lead the community as his successor,"
chroniclers highlight how she prevented the spread of confusion. By contrast,
Shia chroniclers stress that she stood against the Prophet's daughter Fatima,
his son-in-law Ali, and a chosen group of companions," he adds. Later,
Aisha rode out to battle Ali, the-then fourth caliph of Islam, which only
served to deepen the chasm.
on to play an important role in the ordering of verses in the Quran as well as
contributing more than 2,000 hadith, indicating "her acknowledged position
as of one of the most prolific sources of eyewitness reports about the
personifies the early depiction of gender equality in Islam. But her boldness
is also used as an example by conservatives of all persuasions as a reason to
keep women out of politics and the public sphere.
is clear that Islam elevated women at the time, Kamaly does not whitewash the
continued misogyny of early Meccan culture.
clear of romanticising the place of women in Islamic societies and resists
fetishising Muslim women as fundamentally “good” or “fierce warriors”, and
always in charge of their lives. Instead, Kamaly narrates the tensions and
struggles for power and influence of a select number of women, who, by all
measures, were extraordinary personalities.
a long and complex history, and in this book I have tried to acknowledge and
restore the distinct voice of women in it,” Kamaly writes.
with a vague reading of Islamic history, the book - made up of dedicated
chapters for each woman - really takes off with the introduction of Rabia
al-Adawiyya (ca. 717-801), the Muslim saint and Sufi mystic of Basra, Iraq, and
Fatima of Nishapur (c. 1000-1088), in what is now present-day Iran.
originally conquered by Caliph Omar in the 7th century, became an important
node in Islamic history when it emerged in the 9th century as a centre for the
transmission of Hadith, the ethical worldview of the Prophet.
global institutions of madrassas and Sufi lodges or khanqahs also owe their
development to Nishapur, while the first major steps towards agreeing on a
shared methodology of the Hadith, which later became the six major Hadith
collections, have their roots in Nishapur, too. Fatima worked on two of these
collections and taught the Hadith, too.
the Muslim world
describes Fatima as an integral figure in the intellectual culture of the city
where women were welcomed to participate in the religious life of the
life reflects the culture of 11th-century Nishapur, where the elite exalted
religious learning and piety among women as well as men,” Kamaly writes. “This
culture welcomed women’s religious participation as an element in the broader
process of standardising Sunni Islam.”
notes that while this “Sunni Revival” was in full swing in Nishapur and in Iraq
under the Abbasid caliphate (750 to 1258), another woman, Queen Arwa of Yemen
(c. 1050-1138), was one of the rulers who helped keep the Shia credo alive
under the Fatimid Caliphate (909-1171), which traced its lineage to Fatima, the
Prophet Muhammad's daughter, given her marriage to Ali.
From her base
in south Yemen, Queen Arwa ruled trade routes within the country as well as
across the Gulf of Aden into East Africa. In Cairo, where the Fatimid Caliphate
was based, the gold coins read:
“Ali is the
Prophet’s Nominee, the Most Excellent Representative, the Husband of the
Radiant Chaste One.”
centrality of women in the Fatimid Caliphate meant that Queen Arwa did not rule
incidentally; she outlived two husbands and ruled her territory for 50 years.
Arwa’s daily life was typical of a Muslim sovereign of the time: she held
court, minted coins; fought wars; negotiated peace treaties and other revenues;
built cities, mosques; and extended patronage to builders, poets, and other
exponents of high culture.”
profiles Nur Jahan (1577-1645), an infant abandoned on the roadside outside
Kandahar (in present-day Afghanistan), who rises to become a Queen in the
Mughal empire. "Her advance was ground-breaking. Within years, she wielded
more power than any other woman in India, and maybe the world at the
time," Kamaly writes. "She was unbreakable."
features Safiye Sultan (1550-1619), a Christian concubine from eastern Europe,
who became the mother of the Ottoman ruler Sultan Mehmed III and later the
grandmother of Sultans Ahmed I and Mustafa I.
In one of
the first moves she made as the mother of an Ottoman sultan, Safiye “suspended
the drowning in the Bosphorous as a punishment for adulterous women”. Safiye
was known as a skilled diplomat, exchanging letters with Queen Elizabeth 1 as
early as 1593.
letter to Elizabeth, Kamaly notes, written “in twenty-four lines on a single
sheet of paper sprinkled with gold dust... opens with 'He is the Helper,' in
English on the top right hand of the page.”
spectacular Yeni Camii mosque in Istanbul, though completed decades later,
began work under her tutelage. Her power and independence irritated her son.
When her grandson tried to dislodge her from her perks, she had him strangled.
this is the best aspect of Kamaly’s effort. He resists the urge to moralise or
palliate the women in his collection. He narrates their history, warts and all.
And though they resist male domination, they are not all vanguards of social
change; many rulers are often supporters of the status quo. They are extraordinary,
but they are also very human.
difficulty with all such books is the question of omission. Kamaly could have
included Hafsa, the daughter of Caliph Omar, who was entrusted with the Quran
following his death in 644. Or he could have included Fatima, or Lubna of
Cordoba, who looked after the Royal Library of Cordoba in the 10th Century.
he might have reconsidered the inclusion of Noor Inayat Khan (1914-1944), a
Muslim woman who becomes a spy for the British during the Second World War.
Though Khan’s personal story is remarkable, that she registered for work under
a Christian name does seem incongruous with the rest of the book, even if it
also hints at historical struggles of Muslim inclusion in western society, even
when serving empire.
this, Kamaly’s book has a special resonance at a time in which Muslim women are
often caricatured as powerless and dependent, and their alleged oppression is
often used by western powers as justification for intervention in the Middle
East. It is also part of resurrecting a history that has been repeatedly
bludgeoned, exploited and buried.
Headline: Saints, scholars and queens: The women who helped forge Islam
Source: The Middle East Eyes
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Muslim News, Arab
World News, South
Asia News, Indian
Muslim News, World
Muslim News, Women
in Islam, Islamic
In Arab, Islamophobia
in America, Muslim
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