Extraordinary Women in Islam: The Forgotten History | Expressions with ELEVEN
Ask any Muslim to name five famous women in Islamic history, and the chances are very high that all five names will be of those from the time of Prophet Muhammad SAW or from the time of the prophets before. These include names such as Khadijah, Aisha, Maryam, Asiya, and Fatimah RA just to name a few. However, if we were to tweak the question to name some famous Muslim women after the time of the Prophet SAW, most of us would struggle and may only be able to name one or two. I noticed that this problem does not exist when naming famous Muslim men after the time of the Prophet SAW and most of my own friends could easily mention names such as Al-Ghazali, Ibn Battuta, Ibn Sina, Imam Bukhari, and many more. I found this unacceptable and thus I have decided to create a list of my own to highlight some extraordinary and famous women from medieval and early modern Islamic history.
For thousands of years, women left their mark on their societies, changing the course of history at times, and influencing significant spheres of life at others. In Muslim civilisation, extraordinary women from different backgrounds worked alongside men to advance their communities. Women in early modern history participated in all fields of life ranging from education and culture, medicine, philosophy, and politics. Their inspiring stories, charismatic personalities, and determination to contribute to the development of their environments make them beacons that can guide young women and men today. Below is a non-exhaustive list of some of these extraordinary women. I have tried my best to select 12 women from a variety of eras, regions, and fields. I hope that by browsing through these stories, readers will feel intrigued to find out more and do their own research on the topic inshaAllah.
Rabi’a al-Adawiyya or Rabia Basri (d. 801) - Basra, Iraq - Woman Saint
Rabi'a of Basra was an Arab Muslim saint and Sufi mystic, and carried her life out as an influential religious figure. After the death of her father, Rabi'a separated from her sisters and went into the desert to pray and became an ascetic, living a life of semi-seclusion. She is often cited as being the queen of saintly women, and was known for her complete devotion as "pure unconditional love of God." As an exemplar among others devoted to God, she provided a model of mutual love between God and His creation; her example is one in which the loving devotee on earth becomes one with the Beloved. She is also quite famous for introducing the Sufi school of “Divine Love”, as shown by this particular prayer which some of us may have heard or read:
"O Lord, if I worship You because of Fear of Hell,
then burn me in Hell;
If I worship You because I desire Paradise,
then exclude me from Paradise;
But if I worship You for Yourself alone,
then deny me not your Eternal Beauty”
Fatima al-Fihri (d. ~880 AD) - Fez, Morocco - Scholar and Educator
Fatima played a great role in the civilisation and culture in her community. She migrated with her father, Mohamed al-Fihri, from Qayrawan in Tunisia to Fez in Morocco. She grew up with her sister in an educated family and learnt Fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence) and Hadith. Fatima inherited a considerable amount of money from her father which she used to build a mosque for her community. Established in the year 859, the Qarawiyyin mosque had the oldest, and possibly, the first university in the world. Students travelled there from all over the world to study Islamic studies, astronomy, languages, and sciences. Arabic numbers became known and used in Europe through this university. This is just one important example of the role of women in the advancement of education and civilisation.
Sutayta al-Mahamali (d. 987) - Baghdad, Iraq - Mathematician and Scholar
Sutayta is renowned for her legal mind as for her mathematical mastery, a woman of genius widely celebrated as such by her culture, praised for her abilities by three of the era’s greatest historians, and today, sadly reduced to the status of a historical footnote. As will surprise nobody reading this list, we know more about her father, son, and grandson, who were well-regarded judges and scholars, than we do about her, meaning we must piece her life and work together from a few scraps of information and a wealth of intellectual context if we are to know her at all. She studied Arabic literature, jurisprudence, the interpretation of sacred texts, and mathematics a full two hundred years before Europe produced women of comparably broad education and fame in the form of Heloise of Argenteuil and Trota of Salerno. We know that she was widely consulted for her legal and mathematical insight, and that she solved problems of inheritance that imply an advanced knowledge of that era’s hot new field – Algebra. Sutayta made original contributions to this field, and to the theory of arithmetic as well.
Arwa bint Ahmed al-Sulayhiyya (d. 1138) - Yemen - Queen of Yemen
From 1067 to 1138, she ruled as the queen of Yemen in her own right. She was an Isma‘ili Shi’i and was well-versed in various religious sciences, Qur’an, Hadith, as well as poetry and history. Chroniclers describe her as being incredibly intelligent. The fact that she ruled in her own right as queen is underscored by the fact that her name was mentioned in the khutbah (Friday sermon) directly after the name of the Fatimid caliph. Arwa was given the highest rank in the Yemeni Fatimid religious hierarchy (that of hujja, usually used to refer to a single individual in any given human era who represents God's "proof" to humanity) by the Fatimid caliph. She was the first woman in the history of Islam to be given such an illustrious title and to have such authority in the religious hierarchy. It was also during her reign that Isma’ili missionaries were sent to western India, where a major Isma’ili centre was established at Gujrat. Her reign was marked by various construction projects and improvement of Yemen’s infrastructure, as well as its increased integration with the rest of the Muslim world. She was perhaps the single, most important example of an independent queen in Muslim history.
For more on Queen Arwa, see: Farhad Daftary, “Sayyida Hurra: The Isma’ili Sulayhid Queen of Yemen” .
Fatima al-Samarqandi (d. 1185) - Samarqand, Uzbekistan - Islamic Jurist and Scholar
The daughter of a Hanafi jurist from Central Asia, Fatima was an expert in Qur'an, Hadith, jurisprudence, theology, and grammar by the time she reached adulthood. She was qualified to issue formal religious opinions (fatwas). Fatima was recognized as one of most learned women of the 12th century by her contemporaries and her legal opinion was valued by many political rulers and administrators, including the emir of the Zengid Dynasty. She married another eminent Hanafi jurist and shortly after their marriage, the couple travelled across the Islamic world until they settled in Aleppo, Syria, where they both established themselves as preeminent scholars.
Fatima was viewed as one of the most knowledgeable jurists in Aleppo and would often be consulted on the specifics of the religious law by other scholars, including her husband. Most of her students, men as well as women, became renowned jurists in their own rights. The Syrian historian Ibn al-‘Adim praises Fatima as among the most learned scholars in the history of Aleppo, underscoring her knowledge of the various schools of law and emphasising that her grasp of the religious law at times even surpassed that of her more famous husband. In addition to her credentials as a religious authority, she was also known to be a great calligrapher. Several medieval biographers and chroniclers state that Fatima authored several important legal treatises and works on Hadith which were widely read by the intellectual elite in 12th and 13th century Syria. Unfortunately, none of them appear to have been preserved.
For more on Fatimah and the broader social and intellectual context in which she lived, see: Asma Sayeed’s Women and the Transmission of Religious Knowledge in Islam (2013) and Mohammad Akram Nadwi’s Al-Muhaddithat: The Women Scholars of Islam (2007).
Sultan Razia (d. 1240) - Delhi, India - Warrior Queen of Delhi
Razia was the ruler of the Sultanate of Delhi between 1236 and 1240. Her father, Shams al-Din Iltutmish, had Razia designated as his heir before his death, therefore making her the official ruler of the sultanate. She was a fairly effective ruler and was a major patron of learning, establishing schools and libraries across northern India. In all matters, she behaved like a sultan, leading armies, sitting upon the throne, and even adopting the same royal dress as her father; to the outrage of many, she also insisted on appearing unveiled in public. In 1240, she was overthrown in a rebellion by the nobles of the kingdom who, among other things, were strongly opposed to being led by a woman.
For more about Sultan Razia, see: Rafiq Zakaria’s Razia: Queen of India (1966).
Shajar al-Durr (d. 1257) - Egypt - Sultana of Egypt
Shajar al-Durr was the widow of the Ayyubid sultan and played an important role in Egyptian politics following her husband’s death. She was most likely of Turkic origin, beginning her life as a slave-girl in the Ayyubid court. By 1250, she had become the ruler (or sultana) of Egypt and her reign is generally considered to mark the beginning of the Mamluk Sultanate of Egypt. She was heavily involved in the preparations in defending Northern Egypt against the Seventh Crusade, defeating the crusaders (although she herself was not present) at the Battle of Fariskur and taking King Louis IX of France captive. She was the effective head-of-state and her name was mentioned in the khutbah and coins minted in her name with the title “Malikat al-Muslimin” (Queen of the Muslims). However, it was difficult for people to accept being ruled solely by a woman and in August 1250, as a result of various pressures, she married her commander-in-chief ‘Izz al-Din Aybak, who became the first Mamluk sultan. Despite the marriage, Shajar al-Durr maintained her power and was even able to ensure that documents of state bore the names of both sovereigns, rather than only that of Aybak. However, in 1257, she decided to eliminate her husband (for political reasons in addition to discovering that he was engaged in an affair with another woman or sought to marry an additional wife [the sources are obscure on this issue]) and assassinated him in the bath. When this was discovered, she was deposed and brutally killed, bringing her reign to a tragic close.
For more on Shajar al-Durr, see: Amalia Levanoni, “Shajar al-Durr: A Case of Female Sultanate in Medieval Islam,” World History Connected 7 (2010).
Zaynab b. Ahmad (d. 1339) - Damascus, Syria - Islamic Scholar
She was perhaps one of the most eminent Islamic scholars of the 14th century. Zaynab belonged to the Hanbali school of jurisprudence and resided in Damascus. She had acquired a number of ijazat (diplomas or certifications) in various fields, most notably Hadith. In the early 14th century, she taught such books as Sahih Bukhari, Sahih Muslim, the Muwatta’ of Malik bin Anas, the Shama’il of al-Tirmidhi, and al-Tahawi’s Sharh Ma‘ani al-Athar. Among her students was the North African traveller Ibn Battuta, Taj al-Din al-Subki, al-Dhahabi, and her name appears in several dozen of the isnad (chain of authorities attesting to the historical authenticity of a particular hadith) of Ibn Hajar al-Asqalani. It is important to point out that Zaynab was only one of hundreds of female scholars of hadith during the medieval period in the Muslim world.
For more on the role of Muslim women in Hadith scholarship, see: Asma Sayeed’s Women and the Transmission of Religious Knowledge in Islam (2013) and Mohammad Akram Nadwi’s Al-Muhaddithat: The Women Scholars of Islam (2007).
Malahayati (d. 1615) - Aceh, Indonesia - First Woman Admiral of the Modern World
Malahayati of Aceh was one of the most significant Muslim women in the early modern history of South-east Asia, Malahayati was a prominent military and political figure in the Sultanate of Aceh during the 16th century. She was a renowned admiral and commanded a fleet, named the Inong Balee, composed largely of Aceh’s war widows. According to the fragmentary historical evidence that is available about her, it appears that Malahayati was appointed as one of Aceh’s leading admirals during the reign of Sultan Alauddin Mansur Syah and played an important role in repelling Dutch and Portuguese attacks against Aceh throughout the reign of Sultan Alauddin Ri’ayat Syah during the late 16th century. She apparently exercised some political influence within the sultanate, but in the absence of evidence, it is very difficult to say anything more concrete about her role in this regard.
Malahayati is remembered in post-colonial Indonesian historiography as a heroic admiral who was an early leader of the resistance against Dutch colonialism in South-east Asia. One of Malahayati’s most important victories was the defeat of the Dutch naval commander Cornelis de Houtman in 1599. Her tomb in Aceh remains an important local site of visitation. Malahayati’s career highlights the importance of women in the Sultanate of Aceh during the early modern period. Indeed, shortly after Malahayati’s death, Aceh would have four female heads of state (or sultanas) during the 17th century: Sultana Taj ul-Alam Safiatuddin Syah, Sultana Nurul Alam Naqiatuddin Syah, Sultana Inayat Zakiatuddin Syah, and Sultana Zainatuddin Kamalat Syah.
For more on the remarkable history of women in the Aceh Sultanate during the 17th century, see: Sher Banu Khan, Rule Behind the Silk Curtain: The Sultanahs of Aceh, 1641-1699 (Phd Thesis, University of London 2009).
Ratu Hijau (d. 1616) - Patani, Thailand - Queen who led Patani into the Golden Age
Ratu Hijau was a Malay sovereign queen of Patani who reigned from 1584 to 1616. Her name means "the Green Queen" in English. She was also known as the "great queen of Patani". Her rule in Patani ushered in the golden age of Patani. She came to the throne in 1584 as a sister of the murdered Patani king after twenty years of instability in the country. There was apparently a lack of male heirs as a number of them were murdered in this period of political turbulence and violence. Raja Hijau adopted the title of peracau derived from the Siamese royal title phra chao. Early in her reign, she saw off an attempted coup by her prime minister, Bendahara Kayu Kelat. She ordered that a dam be built to divert water to a dug channel to ensure supply of water to Patani. She ruled for 32 years, and brought considerable stability to the country.
During her reign, trade with the outside world increased, and European traders such as the Portuguese and Dutch came to the port. The majority of the merchants were said to be Chinese merchants, of which the most important of them, such as the leading commercial official Datu Sirinara, had converted to Islam and adopted Malay court etiquette.
Ratu Hijau died on 28 August 1616 after ruling for 32 years. She was given the posthumous title of Marhum Ketemangan. According to Hikayat Patani (Chronicles of Patani), all the men were ordered to shave off their hair and all the women trimmed their hair in mourning. She was succeeded by her younger sister Ratu Biru.
Nana Asma'u (d. 1864) - Nigeria - Scholar and Poet
Nana Asma’u was the daughter of a jurist, reformer, ascetic, and the founder of the Sokoto caliphate. Although many have assumed that her fame is linked solely with her father’s career, it should be noted that Nana Asma’u was an important poet, historian, educator, and religious scholar in her own right who continued to play a major role in the political, cultural, and intellectual developments in West Africa for nearly 50 years after her father’s death. Nana Asma’u, both a Maliki jurist and a Sufi mystic of the Qadiri order, was devoted to the education of Muslim women and continued the reformist tradition of her father, believing that knowledge held the key to the betterment of society. She established the first major system of schools and other institutions of learning throughout the Sokoto caliphate.
An accomplished author, Asma’u was well educated, quadrilingual (in Arabic, Fulfulde, Hausa, and Tamachek), and a respected scholar of international repute who was in communication with scholars throughout the sub-Saharan African Muslim world. She was a very prolific writer, composing over 70 works in subjects such as history, theology, law, and the role of women in Islam. As an ardent advocate of the participation of women in society and as a result of her broad-based campaign to empower and educate women, she was one of the most influential women in West Africa in the 19th century. In addition to teaching students in her own community, she reached far beyond the confines of her compound through a network of itinerant women teachers whom she trained to teach isolated rural women. She was also heavily involved in the politics of the Sokoto caliphate, acting as an adviser to her brother, the Sultan of Sokoto, Muhammad Bello.
For more on Nana Asma’u, see: Beverly B. Mack and Jean Boyd, One Woman’s Jihad: Nana Asma’u, Scholar and Scribe (Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 2000), pp. 1–2].
Sabiha Gökçen (d. 2001) - Turkey - Turkish Aviator and First Female Fighter Pilot
During her flight career, she flew around 8,000 hours and participated in 32 different military operations. She was the world's first female fighter pilot, aged 23. As an orphan, she was one of the nine children adopted by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, one of the founding fathers of the Republic of Turkey. She is recognized as the first female combat pilot by The Guinness Book of World Records (in fact, she was the first female fighter pilot, as the first female combat pilot was Marie Marvingt in 1915) and was selected as the only female pilot for the poster of "The 20 Greatest Aviators in History" published by the United States Air Force in 1996. Sabiha Gökçen Airport, the second airport in Istanbul, is named after her.
The relation between Islam and women’s education, career, and excellence is a deeply intricate tangle of general principles losing themselves in the messiness of local and ancient tradition. What scholars of the era seem to generally agree upon is that Islam was the victim of its own early successes, and women more so than men. The phenomenal rate of expansion of the early Islamic Empire meant that, before they were entirely ready, the original Islamic faithful, including a number of powerful women, found themselves outnumbered in their own suddenly massive state.
“The majority of the Islamic population now consisted of tribes and peoples that clung to a more repressive and traditional pre-Islamic conception of a woman’s place, and used their influence to write their beliefs into the core principles of the Islamic state. Once those beliefs were well integrated with current practice, Islamic historians, who considered pre-Islamic Arabic civilization to be little more than a collection of barbarisms, then rewrote the lineage of those beliefs to make them Islamic inventions rather than pre-Islamic holdovers.” (Dale Debakcsy, The Algebraist of Baghdad: Sutayta Al-Mahamali’s Medieval Mathematics, 2017.)
The purpose of this article is not to say that we no longer need to learn of the stories of women from the time of the Prophet SAW. There is definitely a lot of merit in learning about their lives. However, I believe that there is huge potential in delving into the history of Muslim women across the past 1400 years as well. When teaching future generations about an example of an Islamic female scholar, or a female saint, we should not only limit ourselves to mentioning women like Sayyidatina Aisha RA, as much as we all love and respect her status as the Mother of the Believers (I personally too would love to name my future daughter after her inshaAllah). Thousands of extraordinary women have followed her footsteps and have greatly shaped Islamic history as well as the modern world through a diverse myriad of disciplines ranging from Qur'anic studies, jurisprudence, mathematics, science, politics, Sufism, Hadith, etc. It is a shame that most of these women have often been omitted from being mentioned enough throughout history and thus it is our responsibility to shed some light and uncover these lost histories and fight back against the centuries of patriarchal inclination towards historiography.