We often do not think of women as major actors in Islamic history. In fact, women played significant roles from the very earliest days of the religion, with the female relatives of the Prophet Muhammad crucial participants in the political and religious development of the religion.
But it is true that women have rarely been at the forefront of Islamic history, even if modern politicans such as Sheik Hasina of Bangladesh, Benazir Bhutto of Pakistan, and Cissé Mariam Kaïdama Sidibé of Mali have changed this.
Below are 10 remarkable Muslim women who played vital roles in the political, spiritual, intellectual and even military history of Islam.
1) Khadija (d. 620). The first wife of the Prophet Muhammad, Khadija was a successful merchant in her own right. A powerful woman, it was she who proposed to Muhammad, who was about 15 years her junior. Khadija was incredibly important in encouraging Muhammad in developing his ideas and spreading his new faith, something he readily acknowledged. She is remembered by Muslims as the Mother of Believers. Muhammad was devoted to her, breaking with polygamous Arabian customs by taking no other wife during her life, and was devastated by her death.
2) A’isha (d. 678). Married to the Prophet Muhammad while still a child, A’isha was a shrewd and intellectual woman who, surviving her husband by 46 years, became a commanding influence in early Muslim history. A scholar and politician in her own right, and responsible for several hadiths, she confounds more conservative readings of Islamic womanhood in her historical and spiritual importance. Highly educated, she has been credited as a major influence in Islam’s strong emphases on learning. She also insisted that Muslim women should be educated and even established her own schools where she taught.
3) Zaynab (d. 681). A granddaughter of the Prophet, through his daughter Fatima, Zaynab belonged to the Shi’ite division that emerged in the early history of Islam. At the Massacre at Karbala, more than 70 male relatives, effectively all the adult men in her family, were murdered. She assumed leadership of the Shi-ite cause and after her arrest by the Caliph, persuaded him through her intelligence to release her family. She remains honoured by both Sunnis and Shi’is.
4) Lubna of Cordoba (d. 984). Unlike the first three women, Lubna’s life was one of adversity overcome. Born into a Spanish Christian family and enslaved, she rose to become the personal secretary of two Cordoban caliphs when the city was the largest and most sophisticated in Europe. A brilliant mathematician in her own right, she collected a library for her employer of more than half a million books.
5) Arwa al-Sulayhi (d. 1138). Queen of Yemen in her own right, and a hugely gifted scholar, in her own lifetime, Queen Arwa was regarded as second only in seniority to the Caliph himself. She was a religious reformer and worked hard to make Yemen a significant power in its own right. Reigning for an extraordinary 70 years, she was probably the single most powerful women in much of Arab history.
6) Razia Sultan (d. 1240). Another great medieval female ruler, this time in Muslim India, Razia was Sultan of Delhi between 1236 and 1240. Chosen by her father as his heir, she acted as a real sultan, leading armies into battle, ruling through her royal council and establishing a culture of learning and education. She refused to veil herself and appeared in public as a male ruler would. She was later overthrown by men who objected to her independence and was killed.
7) Sayyida al-Hurra (d. 1542). When Ferdinand and Isabella captured Granada in 1492, they promised Spain’s Muslims would not be harmed but soon broke their promises. Sayyida was among many who fled Christian persecution to Morocco, where she ended up as sole ruler of the North African city of Tetouan. From here, Sayyida became notorious among the Spanish and Portuguese as a ruthless and daring pirate queen, whose corsair ships raided mercilessly, allegedly as she nursed revenge for her exile from her beloved Granada.
European painting of Hurrem Sultan, Roxelana, the most famous Muslim woman in European history
8) Hurrem Sultan “Roxelana” (d. 1558). Roxelana was a Russian or Ruthenian slave girl who found herself in the Ottoman harem, where she became the favourite wife of the greatest Ottoman sultan, Suleiman the Magnificent. Intelligent as she was beautiful, she became her husband’s most trusted political counsellor, known as the Hurrem Sultan, and probably the most famous Muslim woman in European history.
9) Nana Asma’u (1793-1864) A princess from northern Nigeria, Nana Asma’u is perhaps the most famous female intellectual of sub-Saharan Muslim history. A poet, scholar and religious expert, she was most celebrated as a public speaker and educational reformer, encouraging female literacy through a system of red-turbanned travelling women teachers which she founded. She is latterly seen as an important figure in African feminist history, for Muslims and non-Muslims alike.
10) Benazir Bhutto (1953-2007) Along with Bangladesh’s Sheikh Hasina, Benazir Bhutto confoundexpectations of Muslim women by becoming one of several female heads of state in the Indian subcontinent. Daughter of a Pakistani prime minister, she became prime minister herself twice. Well-regarded as a reformer in the West, she had a poor reputation in Pakistan because of political and financial corruption allegations. Her assassination by jihadis is widely seen as tipping point downwards in the stability of Pakistan.
Who did I miss out? Who would you have added? Kosem Sultan and Mumtaz Mahal? And who are the great Muslim women of today?
You can find out more about the history of Islam in A Quick History of Islam, available here.
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