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The Unsung Heroines Of Islamic History

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Historian Hassam Munir unearths stories of lesser known women in Islamic history, exploring how many of these unsung heroines are often overlooked in discussions of “influential Muslims in history.”

Introduction

Umm Mihjan raḍyAllāhu 'anha (may Allāh be pleased with her) devoted herself to cleaning al-Masjid an-Nabawi. When she passed away, the Sahabah respectfully carried out her last rites, but did not mention it to the Prophet ﷺ. He soon noticed her absence from the masjid and inquired about her. Upon learning what had happened, he hastened to her grave to pray for her, implicitly expressing his appreciation for her service to the community1Habeeb Akande, Illuminating the Darkness: Blacks and North Africans in Islam (London: Ta-Ha Publishers Ltd., 2012), p. 108. .

There are many lessons in this story, but the most pertinent one for this article is that the Prophet ﷺ taught us to remember and be appreciative of every good contribution made by every Muslim. Too often, Muslims’ conversations about the past reflect the “great men” approach to history, relegating women and anyone with “not-as-great” contributions to the margins.

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My intention with this article is to introduce some lesser-known Muslim women from history. Qur’anic figures, Sahābiyyāt, scholars, and those in leadership positions are not covered, with a few exceptions. Four categories are explored: education; arts and sciences; pursuits of justice; and philanthropy. This list of course, does not exhaustively cover Muslim women’s experiences and roles in the past, but that is not feasible in one article. Instead, I hope this adds to a growing list of resources on Muslim women’s history2A helpful (albeit dated) list of resources related to Muslim women in Islamic history is provided here: https://ballandalus.wordpress.com/2012/08/29/women-in-islamic-history/., and serves as a point of departure for the reader’s further research, reading, and reflection on the lives and works of these and other women, inshaAllah – certainly including the women in our own lives and communities today.

– Education

Many Muslim women have made incredible efforts to facilitating education in the societies in which they lived. A famed example is Fatima al-Fihriyya, who used her wealth to establish Masjid al-Qarawiyyin in Fez (Morocco) in the mid-9th century. A mosque is an important space for education in its own right, but this particular one, over the centuries, also developed into a university which produced scholars like Ibn Khaldun and is still operational today.3“Fatima al-Fihri: Modern Legends, Medieval Sources,” Ian D. Morris: Tidbits of Wisdom on the Origins of Islam (blog), 28 February 2014, [archived at https://web.archive.org/web/20210429154344/http://www.iandavidmorris.com/fatima-al-fihri/]; Abdel-Moniem El-Shorbagy, “Women in Islamic architecture: towards acknowledging their role in the development of Islamic civilization,” Cogent Arts and Humanities 7, no. 1 (2020); Merah Souad, Tahraoui Ramdane, and Mariya Senim Khan, “Fatimah al-Fihri and Religious Fraternity in Al-Qarawiyyin University: A Case Study,” International Journal of Humanities and Social Science 7, no. 10 (2017)

In nearby al-Andalus, Lubna of Córdoba (d. 984) presided over one of the largest libraries of its time, managing about 500,000 volumes. Early in her life she was enslaved, but was able to overcome that and other obstacles to earn the description given to her by Ibn Bashkuwal: “She excelled in writing, grammar, and poetry. Her knowledge of mathematics was also immense and she was proficient in other sciences as well. There were none in the Umayyad palace as noble as her.”4Kamila Shamsie, “Librarians, rebels, property owners, slaves: Women in al-Andalus,” Journal of Postcolonial Writing 52, no. 2 (2016): 178-188; Mohamad Ballan, “15 Important Muslim Women in History,” Ballandalus (blog), 8 March 2014, https://ballandalus.wordpress.com/2014/03/08/15-important-muslim-women-in-history/ Another woman who presided over an impressive library was Hiba bint Abdillahi (d. 1476); of Somali background, she studied, taught, and married in Makkah, and her family maintained the best library in the region, which was used by scholars such as al-Sakhawi.5Looh Cast [@looh.cast]. Infographic carousel on Hiba Abdillahi. Instagram, curated by Mohammed Abdullah Artan, 7 March 2022, https://www.instagram.com/p/Caz6ROhg6V7/.

Nana Asma’u (d. 1864) was renowned for her mastery of many skills, and her achievements in the course of serving the Sokoto Caliphate established by her father, Shehu Usman dan Fodio. She established a network of schools across the empire, which was known as the yan-taru (“those who congregate”). She ensured that her cadre of female teachers, who she trained personally, were recognized for their service (i.e. by being allowed to wear a red headdress). She also set the curriculum herself. Many schools in present-day Nigeria are named after her and she is remembered as Uwar Gari, or “mother of all”. The yan-taru later also spread to the US, where it is still active today.6 Jean Boyd and Beverly Mack, Educating Muslim Women: The West African Legacy of Nana Asma’u, 1793-1864 (Interface Publications and Kube Publishing, 2013); Jean Boyd, The Caliph’s Sister: Nana Asma’u, 1793-1865 – Teacher, Poet and Islamic Leader (New York: Routledge, 2013); Wardah Abbas, “Honouring the Yan-Taru Legacy of Nana Asma’u bint Usman dan Fodio,” Amaliah (blog), 24 June 2019, https://www.amaliah.com/post/51230/honouring-yan-taru-legacy-nana-asmau-bint-uthman-dan-fodio

In 1883, Zuhra Akchurina, a Crimean Tatar Muslim from the Russian Empire, worked with her husband, educator Ismail Gasprinski, to establish Terćuman, one of the first newspapers focused on Muslim women’s voices and issues, and in particular to promote Muslim girls’ education. She died in 1903, but the paper ran until just before World War I, and paved the way for other initiatives advocating for women’s education.7Marianne Kamp, “Debating Sharia: The 1917 Muslim Women’s Congress in Russia,” Journal of Women’s History 27, no. 4 (2017): 16; Danielle Ross, “Debunking the ‘Unfortunate Girl’ Paradigm: Volga-Ural Muslim Women’s Knowledge Culture and its Transformation across the Long Nineteenth Century,” in Paolo Sartori and Danielle Ross (eds.), Sharīʿa in the Russian Empire: The Reach and Limits of Islamic Law in Central Eurasia, 1550-1917 (Edinburgh University Press, 2020), 135.

In 1938, Hilwie Hamdon, a young Lebanese-Canadian woman, led the effort to establish the first masjid in Canada, the Al-Rashid Mosque in Edmonton.8Murray Hogben, Minarets on the Horizon: Muslim Pioneers in Canada (Mawenzi House, 2021), 34-42. Around the same time, Julia Villa, a Latina originally from Yuma, Arizona, embraced Islam and became known for her da’wah efforts, including an Arabic class in El Centro, California, the first of its kind in the region.9Patrick D. Bowen, “U.S. Latina/o Muslims Since 1920: From ‘Moors’ to ‘Latino Muslims’,” Journal of Religious History 37, no. 2 (2013): 172. After realizing that culturally-sensitive education was not available for Muslim girls in Sri Lanka, Ayesha Rauf (from India) set up the Muslim Ladies College in Colombo in 1946. She brought in and taught 200 students in the first year alone, and many more until her retirement in 1970; many of them went on to hold prominent positions in Sri Lankan society.10Farzana Haniffa, Ayesha Rauf: A Pioneer of Muslim Women’s Emancipation in Sri Lanka (Social Scientists’ Association, 2014); available at https://www.academia.edu/29971158/AYESHA_RAUF_A_Pioneer_of_Muslim_Womens_Emancipation_in_Sri_Lanka

– Arts and Sciences

There were likely far more Muslim women active in producing knowledge of the sciences than we are currently aware of. We know of some women who excelled in mathematics and astronomy. Ijliya al-Asturlabi was skilled at designing, crafting, and using astrolabes, a tool that was used for many purposes, such as astronomy and navigation. She flourished at the court of the Hamdanid ruler of Aleppo, Sayf ad-Dawla, in the mid-900s, alongside other important figures such as the poet, al-Mutanabbi.11Bayard Dodge (trans. and ed.), The Fihrist of Al-Nadim: A Tenth-Century Survey of Muslim Culture, Volume 2 (Cambridge University Press, 1970), p. 1012. Bija Munajjima (fl. late 15th century in Herat) was known for her advanced skills in mathematics, her mastery in producing almanacs and converting dates between calendars, and her rivalry with the famous poet and mystic, Jami.12Maria Szuppe, “The ‘Jewels of Wonder’: Learned Ladies and Princess Politicians in the Provinces of Early Safavid Iran,” in Gavin R.G. Hambly (ed.), Women in the Medieval Islamic World (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 1999), pp. 325-348.

Many women excelled in the field of medicine. In al-Andalus, Zaynab (fl. prior to 1270) was a physician and proto-ophthalmologist; Rufayda al-Aslamiyya and her daughter, Umm al-Hasan, were both physicians in Seville; and many women worked as professional bloodletters.13Anver Giladi, Muslim Midwives: The Craft of Birthing in the Medieval Middle East (Cambridge University Press, 2015), 70. For many others we don’t have names, sadly. The unnamed “chief physician” of the Mansuri Hospital in Cairo took the role after the death of her father in c. 162614Anver Giladi, Muslim Midwives, p. 71., and Ibn Taymiyyah took the expert opinion of a Muslim midwife on the impact of Ramadan fasting on a fetus, before issuing a ruling.15Anver Giladi, Muslim Midwives, p. 62. From the Turkic cultural milieu, there are illustrations of female surgeons performing surgery on other women in the works of Şerefeddin Sabuncuoğlu (d. 1470) of Amaysa16G. Bademci, “First illustrations of female ‘neurosurgeons’ in the fifteenth century by Serefeddin Sabuncuoglu,” Neurocirugia 17 (2006): 162-165.; and Lady Montagu noticed that in the Ottoman Empire, the inoculation performed to protect against smallpox was done by experienced and trusted elderly women.17Elisabeth Brooke, Women Healers Throughout History (Aeon Books, 2020), p. 138-139.

The Prophet ﷺ said, “Allah is beautiful and loves beauty.”18al-Mu’jam al-Awsaṭ 6906, https://www.abuaminaelias.com/dailyhadithonline/2017/05/21/allah-jamil-yuhibbu-jamal/ Many Muslim women excelled in different arts, such as calligraphy, poetry, and miniature painting. A beautiful copy of the Qur’an produced in Beijing in 1643, complete with Chinese cultural motifs, bears the name of the calligrapher, a woman named Ama Allah Nur al-Ilm bint Rashid al-Din.19Éléonore Cellard [@cellardeleonore], Twitter post, 4 March 2022, 8:20 AM, https://twitter.com/CellardEleonore/status/1499736509712416775 Several Mughal (Indian) women were known for their creativity and attention to detail in miniature painting, including Sahifa Bano.20“A Unique Female Gaze: Sahifa Banu’s Mughal Miniatures,” Daak: Postcards from the Attic, http://daak.co.in/unique-female-gaze-sahifa-banus-mughal-miniatures/ And the ummah produced many a great poetess, such as the revered Sufi ascetic Rabi‘a al-Adawiyyah of Basra (d. 801), about whom one commentator has said, “if Rumi is the ocean, Rabi’a is the well” – her poetry is not as vast, but deep and nourishing.21Rkia Elaroui Cornell, Rabi‘a from Narrative to Myth: The Many Faces of Islam’s Most Famous Woman Saint, Rabi‘a al-‘Adawiyya (Oneworld Academic, 2019).

Buran made an impact in the culinary arts through her experiments with the eggplant. She was the enterprising wife of the famous Abbasid ruler, al-Ma’mun, and no recipe at that time in Baghdad was able to make eggplant in a way that pleased the taste buds of Baghdad, until Buran rolled up her sleeves and developed her recipe. To this day, versions of it are regularly enjoyed all over the world: braniya in Morocco, alborani in Spain, burani in Turkey, Greece, Syria, and Afghanistan, and buranija in Bosnia and Croatia.22Ibn Sayyār al-Warrāq, and Nawal Nasrallah (trans. and ed.), Annals of the Caliphs’ Kitchens: Ibn Sayyār al-Warrāq’s Tenth-Century Baghdadi Cookbook (Leiden: BRILL, 2007), 526, 605; Charles Perry, “Buran’s Baby,” Los Angeles Times, 6 May 1996, https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-1996-05-09-fo-1957-story.html.

– Pursuits of Justice

Every Muslim is obliged to strive for justice, and from the earliest times Muslim women have spoken truth to power, unwaverlingly, through both their words and actions. Sayyida al-Hurra was born into a prominent Andalusi family but had to flee to Morocco at a young age to escape the Fall of Granada in 1492. In the early 1500s, upon the death of her husband, she emerged as the ruler of Tétouan. For the next quarter-century, she made the once-ruined city prosper, and partnered with Muslim privateer Oruç Reis to protect North Africa against Spanish/Portuguese attacks and seek retribution for Andalusi refugees (both Muslims and Jews), for which she was called a “pirate queen.”23Tom Verde, “Malika VI: Sayyida al-Hurra,” AramcoWorld, January/February 2017, 34-37, https://www.aramcoworld.com/Articles/January-2017/Malika-VI-Sayyida-Al-Hurra Other Muslim women who helped refugees include Fatima Veseli and Serveta Ljuž (Albanian and Bosnian, respectively), both of whom took great personal risks to help Jews fleeing the Holocaust in the 1940s.24“Fatima Veseli…,” United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Photograph no. 24722, https://collections.ushmm.org/search/catalog/pa1087151; Paul B. Bartrop, Resisting the Holocaust: Upstanders, Partisans, and Bystanders (Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2016), 135-137; https://jfr.org/rescuer-stories/korkut-servet-and-dervis/

In the late 1800s, Cut Nyak Dhien of Aceh (Indonesia) led a guerilla movement against Dutch colonizers for many years. Her father and husband were killed in the struggle for freedom, but she refused to shed tears for martyrs. She herself was captured and exiled in 1901, and died in 1908, but her daughter Cut Gambang continued the resistance. Both may have been inspired by Malahayati (fl. 1600), an admiral of the Sultanate of Aceh who led the Inong Balee, a fleet composed mostly of war widows, and repelled Dutch and Portuguese attacks.25Jacqueline Aquino Siapno, Gender, Islam, Nationalism and the State in Aceh: The Paradox of Power, Co-optation, and Resistance (New York: RoutledgeCurzon, 2002), 25-28; Elsa Clavé-Çelik, “Images of the past and realities of the present: Aceh’s Inong Balee,” International Institute for Asian Studies (IIAS), Newsletter 48 (Summer 2008), https://www.iias.asia/sites/iias/files/nwl_article/2019-05/IIAS_NL48_1011.pdf; see also, Sher Banu A. Latiff Khan, “Rule Behind the Silk Curtain: The Sultanahs of Aceh 1641-1699,” PhD diss., Queen Mary University of London, 2009.

Nuzuğum means “my delicate one” in Uyghur Turkic. (History can be foggy; many scholars argue that she is a folk heroine and literary figure, and some sources discuss her as a real person. Please be mindful of this contention.) She is believed to have taken part in the revolt led by Jahangir Khoja in 1826 from Khoqand (Uzbekistan) in an attempt to liberate Kashgar from Qing (Chinese) occupying forces. The Qing crushed the revolt; Nuzuğum was enslaved but fled and hid in Kazakhstan. She was found, but in self-defense she killed her captor, who wanted to forcibly marry her, and fled again. This time her execution was ordered, to which she replied, “I will be an exalted martyr.” She was captured and taken to the capital, and at the gallows she sang that her people would soon be free.26Kara Abramson, “Gender, Uyghur Identity, and the Story of Nuzugum,” The Journal of Asian Studies 71, no. 4 (2012): 1069-1091.

“No physical move in my life has been more pivotal or profound in its repercussions,” Malcolm X wrote in his Autobiography. He was referring to moving in with his sister, Ella Little-Collins, at a young age. Ella was a businesswoman and a civil rights activist in her own right. She gave a coming-of-age Malcolm the opportunity to explore and learn, but also protected him. She embraced Islam in 1959, years before Malcolm, and then funded Malcolm’s life-transforming Hajj. After his assassination, she carried on his—and her own—racial justice work for decades.27“Ella Collins, 82, Relative Who Aided Malcolm X,” The New York Times, 6 August 1996, https://www.nytimes.com/1996/08/06/us/ella-collins-82-relative-who-aided-malcolm-x.html.

– Philanthropy 

Muslim women have given very generously in charity. A century after Genghis Khan launched the Mongols’ devastating invasions of Muslim lands, the Mongol princess El-Qutlugh Khatun embraced Islam and set out to perform Hajj. She led traditional Mongol ring hunts on the way to provide food for the pilgrims, and also gave large amounts in charity, including 30,000 dinars in Makkah and Madinah alone. She was also generous in other ways; for years she was part of a secret (and ultimately successful) movement for a Ilkhanate-Mamluk treaty to bring peace to the region, and she was described by Ibn Hajar al-Asqalani as “a good Muslim who often gave good advice to the Muslims.”28Yoni Brack, “A Mongol Princess Making Hajj: The Biography of El Qutlugh Daughter of Abagha Ilkhan (r. 1265-82),” Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, Series 3, 21, no. 3 (2011): 331-359.

Aziza Uthmana (d. 1669) hailed from a wealthy and influential family of Ottoman-era Tunis in North Africa. She gave large amounts of charity, especially towards the freeing of enslaved people. She left 90,000 hectares of land as a waqf (endowment) to fund bailing out prisoners; freeing the enslaved; buying wedding dresses for poor brides; and a hospital she established in Tunis, which specialized in providing treatment for mental illnesses and is still functional today.29Jane D. Tchaïcha and Khedija Arfaoui, The Tunisian Women’s Rights Movement: From Nascent Activism to Influential Power-broking (London: Routledge, 2017), 15.

Interviewed in the 1930s, Katie Brown shared that she recalled her grandmother, Margaret, preparing rice cakes called “saraka” every year on a holiday, following a particular recipe, and then reciting prayers over the cakes, including “āmīn”. This “saraka” referred to sadaqah, as rice cakes were commonly given out on Fridays and special occasions as charity in West Africa. Despite the disruptiveness and hardships of enslavement, Bahamas-born, Sapelo Island (US)-living Margaret maintained such traditions as wearing hijab and giving sadaqah.30Edward E. Curtis, IV, Muslims in America: A Short History (Oxford University Press, 2009), p. 17-19.

Conclusion

The examples above give us a glimpse into the diverse experiences of Muslim women in history and the dynamic ways in which they strove to benefit their societies. As an ummah today we are arguably more in need than ever before of role models who embody the Muslim spirit. It’s a disservice to our ummah, then, that so many Muslims remain virtually unknown (let alone duly appreciated) simply because they are outside the limited scope of “great man” history. It is crucial for our success that we develop an approach to history that most accurately represents the reality of the past — a past in which Muslim women certainly contributed and excelled, often in “small” ways, and often in ways that continue to benefit humanity.

We must learn and tell their stories, and make duʿa for them in gratefulness:

“Our Lord! Forgive us and our fellow believers who preceded us in faith, and do not allow bitterness into our hearts towards those who believe. Our Lord! Indeed, You are Ever Gracious, Most Merciful.” [Surah Al-Hashr; 10]

 

Related reading:

Muslim Women’s History: A Book List

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Hassam Munir is an Islamic history researcher and public educator. He is pursuing an MA in History at the University of Toronto. He is a research fellow at Yaqeen Institute for Islamic Research, and a founder of the iHistory blog (www.ihistory.co) and multimedia project.

1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Hasan

    June 13, 2022 at 10:14 PM

    Very interesting and very impressive review

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