As a practising Muslim, I often come up against misconceptions about my religion, community and way of life. Many words like “oppressed”, “inferior”, and “unequal” are the first words that come to mind when thinking about women in Islam. There is a widely held misconception that Muslims place little value on the education of women and equal rights. And yet here I am, an educated woman, one in a long line of Muslim women stretching back to the Golden Age making my mark (however small) on the world.
So what’s the story? How can a religion be seen as regressive but at the same time be demonstrating its progressiveness? What society outwardly associates with Islam has nothing to do with religion and everything to do with culture. The negative stereotypes confuse Islam with cultural practices and fail to recognise that Islam has empowered women with the most progressive rights since the 7th century.
Unlike their male counterparts, not much is known about Muslim women from the Golden age of Islam. Not much has been written about them despite most being pioneers in their own right, but just because they were not chronicled in historic records does not lessen their contributions. It does however risk them being lost to history.
At a time when female children were buried alive in Arabia and women were considered transferable property, Islam honoured women in society by elevating them and protecting them with unprecedented rights. Islam, in around 610 CE, changed the lives of women forever. One of its founding principles was that Paradise was found under the feet of women when they became mothers. They became the reason why the father would enter paradise and were made central to a husband’s faith (as dishonouring her would make his faith worthless). Our Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) taught us that there was no difference in our worth based on gender. Both men and women had equal rights and it was everyone’s duty to learn and teach and so the concept of equal rights for women was born.
It transformed their status overnight from being just mere commodities in households to sources of great dignity and expectation. It hailed the dawn of a new era where we see Muslim women, contributing to the legacy of Islam as scholars, jurists, rulers, benefactresses, warriors, businesswomen, and legal experts equal to men in all these roles.
Here are just a few examples of the Muslim women who stood shoulder to shoulder with their fathers, brothers, and husbands and were counted. I start this list with our Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) and his household, which is the point at where everything about Islam starts. The Holy Prophet (PBUH) and his household provided a blueprint for the treatment of future generations of women everywhere.
1. Khadija bint Khuwaylid (7th Cen)
Prophet Muhammad’s (PBUH) household was a beacon of guidance for all his companions and followers. He led by example; the way he treated his wives and daughters left those around him in awe.
All of his 11 wives had prominent roles in their own right and had important and trusting parts to play in supporting him and spreading the word of Islam. Top of the list is his first wife and the first follower of Islam, Khadija bint Khuwaylid a wealthy businesswoman and trader.
She supported him morally and financially when he was granted prophethood and became his confidante and companion towhom he turned for advice. She is often referred to as “The Mother of Believers”. In Islam, she is an important female figure and as one of the four “ladies of heaven”, she helped to spread the word of Islam. She was married to him monogamously for 25 years. Of his children, Fatima bint Muhammad (SA) was his youngest and his favourite.
2. Khawla bint al-Azwar (7th Cen)
Described as one of the greatest female soldiers in history Kawlah was an Arab Muslim warrior in the service of the Rashidun Caliphate, She was a close companion of our Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). She played a major role in the Muslim conquest of the Levant fighting alongside her brother, including the Battle of Yarmouk in 636 against the Byzantine Empire, in which she led a group of women against the Byzantine army and defeated its chief commander.
3. Rufaida Al-Aslamia (7th Cen)
Known as the first female nurse and surgeon, Rufaida al Aslamiyah devoted all her life to curing the sick and tending the wounded and is believed to have founded the first Islamic health centre in Medina. With her clinical skills, she trained other women, including two of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH)’s wives to be nurses. She was also a social worker, helping to solve social problems associated with the disease. Her primary focus was on hygiene and reviving sick and wounded patients but also on more invasive medical procedures.
The Prophet, appreciating her services to public health, rewarded her with a share of the spoils of war. He also paid her equivalent to that of all the soldiers who participated in combat. Rufaida’s contributions to the field of science and medicine are immortalised in the annual University of Bahrain Rufaida al Aslamiyah prize for nursing.
4. Fatima al-Fihriyya (9th Cen)
Fatima bint Muhammad Al-Fihriyya is ranked as one the most influential Muslim women in history and founded the world’s first University. She inherited a large amount of money after the death of her father and husband, which she decided to use to build a much-needed mosque Al-Qarawiyyin in Fez.
Soon after opening, the mosque expanded into a fully functioning University and became the first institution of its kind ever to award degrees. It played a pivotal role in the cultural exchange and transfer of knowledge between Muslims and Europeans.
For example, it is thought that Pope Sylvester II, a University of Al-Qarawiyyin alum, brought the use of zero and Arabic numerals to Europe following his studies there.
5. Queen Zubayda bint Abu Jafar al-Mansur (9th Cen)
Zubaidah bint Jafar ibn Mansur, a devout Muslim was the wife of Harun al-Rashid. On her fifth pilgrimage to Mecca, she saw what devastation a drought had caused the population in the area and reduced the Zamzam Well to a trickle of water. She ordered the well to be deepened and spent millions of dinar from her finances to improve the water supply of Makkah and the surrounding provinces. This included the famed “Spring of Zubayda” on the plain of Arafat, one of the ritual locations on the Hajj. She also improved the pilgrim route across nine hundred miles of desert between Kufa and Mecca. Ibn Battuta, the famous Muslim traveller referring to Zubaidah, stated that “every reservoir, pool or well on this road which goes from Mecca to Baghdad is due to her munificent bounty…had it not been for her concern on behalf of this road, it would not be usable by anyone.”
6. Mariam “Al-Astrolabiya” Al-Ijliya (10th Cen)
Astrolabes were widely used to predict the positions of the stars, planets, and the sun among other celestial bodies and were used by Muslims to accurately determine the direction of qibla one was required to take to fulfil the requirement of prayer while facing Mecca.
Though not much is written about Al-Ijliya, we know that she worked in the mid-tenth century (around 944 – 967 AD) (what is now northern Syria). She was the only female astronomer of her era, such was her skill she was recognised as an eminent authority on all things astronomical and was soon recognized by Sayf Al Dawla, employed by the court of Sayf al-Dawlahhe city’s ruler. Mariam’s contributions led to significant improvements being made to the design of astrolabes as well as increasing knowledge of navigation and timekeeping techniques.
7. Sutayta al-Mahamali (10th Cen)
Very little is known about Sutayta al-Mahamali but what we do know is that she was renowned for her legal mind as well as her mathematical skill. A woman of such genius that she was widely celebrated by her culture, and praised for her abilities by the era’s greatest historians- Ibn al-Jawzi, Ibn al-Khatib Baghdadi and Ibn Kathīr.
She was considered an expert in hisab (arithmetics) and fara’idh (successoral calculations), both being practical branches of mathematics in development during her time. She was widely consulted for her legal insight and solved problems of inheritance that implied an advanced knowledge of algebra – the era’s hot new trend. Sutayta Al-Mahmali made original contributions to algebra and the theory of arithmetic. She invented solutions to equations that have been cited by other mathematicians and her solutions to the cubic type equations mesmerised her successors. She was extraordinarily brilliant in a subject dominated by men and she was also known to have memorised the Qur’an.
8. Lubna of Cordoba (10th Cen)
Lubna of Cordoba was a self-made woman. She was of Spanish heritage, born into slavery and raised within the palace of Caliph of Cordoba, Al-Hakam II. She was an intellectual with an aptitude for mathematics and poetry and grammar. She started her career as a palace copyist but soon ascended the ranks to palace secretary. She was the driving force behind the creation of the famous library of Medina Azahara, which was home to more than 500,000 books. This became one of the most famous libraries of its time. Lubna was one of the first female solo travellers.
She travelled across the Muslim Empire chasing books to add to her library. Her library was one of the most important and famous of its time. As a scribe, she added works to the royal library of Cordoba that she had transcribed herself, including translations of many important historic Greek texts that would have otherwise been lost to time. There are stories of her roaming the streets of Cordoba and teaching the children who chased after her mathematical equations.
9. Zaynab Al Shahda (12th Cen)
Zaynab Al Shahda was a renowned female calligrapher famous for her work in Islamic law and hadiths. She was appointed as teacher of Yaqut, the last Abbasid Caliph and was appointed Calligrapher at Musa’s place. She was named Siqat-al-Dawla due to her association with the Abbasid Caliphate. She was especially known for how she motivated her students to learn and spent her spare time studying science and literature.
10. Princess Gevher Nesibe Sultan (13th Cen)
Gevher Nesibe, princess of the Sultanate of Rum and a deathbed philanthropist. Legend has it that Gevher Nesibe fell in love with a cavalry officer defending the palace of the Seljuk sultan.
Her brother Kaykhusraw I opposed marriage between his sister and the cavalry officer and sent him away on various dangerous missions in the hope that he would die. Heartbroken Gevher Nesibe Sultan fell ill. Her remorseful brother visited her on her deathbed and asked for forgiveness; he offered to fulfil any last request she had.
Gevher Nesibe Sultan is reported to have replied that her wish was that he use her property to build a hospital in her memory. In the hospital, sick people should be treated with no charge and be encouraged to research incurable diseases. Historical records show that her brother carried out his sister’s last request, beginning the hospital in Kayseri in 1204. The buildings were designed by the architect Üstad Ömer. The hospital opened two years later in 1206. The complex was further expanded to include a madrasah and because a great centre of science Gevher Nesibe was buried in the tomb located in the madrasah.
11. Queen Amina of Zaria (16th Cen)
Commonly known as the warrior queen, Amina was born in the middle of the sixteenth century CE to King Nikatau, the 22nd ruler of Zazzau. She was her grandfather’s favourite, he would carry her around the court and instruct her in political and military matters. In 1566 Amina’s brother became king of Zazzau following the death of her father, his reign lasted 10 years during which time Amina had distinguished herself as a “leading warrior in his cavalry”. She accumulated great wealth and numerous military accolades. She ascended the throne in 1576 following her brother’s death. As she had already earned the respect of the Zazzau military, she was able to assume the reign of the kingdom with little opposition. It’s interesting to note that in pre-colonial Nigeria men did not feel threatened when women were in powerful positions, as it was usually understood that they deserved to be there because of age, kinship or merit. Being a woman, therefore, did not preclude women from asserting their authority.
Queen Amina led her first military charge a few months after assuming power. The rest of her 34-year reign was characterised by much of the same. She fought to expand her kingdom. Amina’s conquests brought unheard-of wealth to the land and boosted her kingdom’s wealth and power with gold and new crops. Amina also overhauled the military and introduced metal armour, including iron helmets and chain mail, to her army and is also credited with the fortification of cities through the construction of strong earthen walls around the city. She built many of these fortifications which later became known as “Amina’s walls”, around various conquered cities. Legend has it that she died during a military campaign at Atagara near Bida in Nigeria. Her exploits earned her the moniker “Amina, daughter of Nikatau, a woman as capable as a man”. Her exploits formed the basis for the television series, Xena: Warrior Princess.
And so the story continues. Muslim history has an unfaltering line of women contributing to the betterment of humankind. These women have made remarkable contributions that helped develop the world into a better place today. They have imprinted a legacy that contradicts all gender stereotypes and assumptions made about Islam and have thrown down the gauntlet to us.
-By Dr Shamaila Anwar, Health Educator, Science Communicator
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the original author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the website.