History Revisited: The Forgotten Women of Islam

In his book A History of Islam in 21 Women, Hossein Kamaly aims to offer a refreshing view of women’s often overlooked role in Islamic, historical discourse. Through 21 biographical chapters, the concise, 300-page read brings to light the rich lives of some of the greatest women in Islamic history. The Professor’s approach[i] is extensive, covering a variety of times from the advent of Islam in the seventh century to the present day. Women from around the world are featured, including Russia, Turkey, Nigeria, the Middle East and North America.[ii]

The Dawn of Islam: Women as Central Actors

Kamaly’s book’s structure is logical. The chapters are set out in chronological order, in order of the figures’ dates of birth. The first section focuses on some of the most important figures during the early years of Islam.

Khadija bint Khuwaylid was the wife of the Prophet Muhammad. As a distinguished merchant in Arabia’s trade with the Byzantine Empire, she was also the Prophet’s employer. When the Prophet started preaching his message of Islam in Mecca, Arabia, he was met by hostility from most of the city’s elites. This included countless verbal and physical attacks on the street on the emerging Muslim community, leading to the deaths of a number of Muhammad’s early disciples.[iii]

However, Muhammad found his wife always by his side. Her considerable wealth and tribal connections gave her significant clout in protecting Muhammad from attacks during the first years of Islam. This, along with the fact that she was the first person to believe in his message, makes her one of the most revered figures of the Islamic tradition.

What Kamaly does well is present a complex picture of gender relations in all his chapters. On the one hand, women in Mecca could own property and often had higher literacy rates than men. On the other hand, the society was rampant with misogyny; femininity or any association with it was looked down upon. Some families even buried their infant girls alive out of shame.[iv]

Muhammad’s third wife, Aisha, proved to be amongst Muhammad’s most important supporters. Her contribution to Islamic scholarship eclipses the vast majority of Muhammad’s male contemporaries. She recorded thousands of teachings of the Prophet (known as Hadiths) which form an integral foundation of current Islamic law.

Another important woman in Islamic history is Fatimah. The fact that she is Muhammad’s daughter, wife to Ali Bin Abi Talib – the fourth ruler of the Muslim Caliphate – and mother to Muslim leaders Hassan and Hussain has meant she has often been depicted as a ‘feeble and passive victim of circumstance’, largely overshadowed by her male family members. However, Kamaly argues that Fatimah was an active participant in shaping Islamic history. She campaigned vehemently for the Islamic cause and provided important advice to her father.[v]

Fatimah and her husband Ali also acted as a demonstration for Muhammad to teach about Islam’s view on gender roles and marriage. Muhammad saw marriage as a union of equals. In fact, he frequently took the side of Fatimah during disputes with her husband.[vi]

As such, these initial chapters are integral to Kamaly’s message. By highlighting the Prophet’s push for greater rights for women, and Khadija, Fatimah and Aisha as examples of female empowerment, he successfully demonstrates how Islam can be used as a tool in the struggle for a more equal world rather than to legitimize misogyny.[vii] Unfortunately, the use of religious texts has been used to justify unequal gender policies throughout Islamic history. This issue persists to this day.[viii]

In her 2019 book Believing Women in Islam: Unreading Patriarchal Interpretations of the Qur’an, the U.S. academic Asma Barlas[ix] supports this through the most important religious text in Islam.[x] Her analysis of the Qur’an shows intricacies in its wording. This means that depending on what lens you read it through, it will have different interpretations. Using a feminist lens, it can be used as a weapon against misogyny while using a conservative lens, it can be used to justify misogyny.[xi] The current discourse in most Muslim-majority countries is dominated by conservative clerics who have taken authority over interpreting the Qur’an to justify gender inequalities. This, however, should not be used to downplay what one could treat as evidence of the potential overlap between Islam and women’s rights.[xii]

Mosaic of Success

The chapters presented after this tend to diverge to women less associated with Islam and more acclaimed in their respective professions. What Kamaly also does well in many of these chapters is give an idea of the mainstream male-centric narratives of history. Then, he deconstructs them to highlight the integral role women played. [xiii]

Much of the book covers the lives of powerful rulers. Perhaps the most impressive is Queen Arwa (c. 1050-1138) who ruled much of present-day Yemen. Orphaned from a young age, she went on to rule Yemen for over fifty years. She proved to be highly capable, fighting a number of wars to defend her kingdom and built numerous cities with mosques and education centers.As such, she is still revered in the Muslim world today.[xiv]

The jurist Mukhlisa Bubi (1869-1937) ascended to become the first Muslim ‘woman at a central religious institution’[xv] as a judge in the Russian Empire.Her work across the Russian Empire focused on complaints over polygamy and divorce.  Outside of court, she campaigned for greater rights for women. This ultimately gained her the ire of the anti-religious Stalin regime, which executed her based on uncorroborated charges. Yet her sacrifices and impressive life are celebrated today in a museum built in her honor, located in the Russian city of Kazan.[xvi]

The book also presents how women distinguished themselves as authors and activists. Halide Edib Adivar is revered as one of modern Turkey’s most important novelists. She and her husband played a significant role in Turkey’s war of independence from colonial powers. She championed equal rights for women by organizing educational centers and through her books.[xvii] One of her most popular, Handan, tells the story of the struggle of an educated woman in Turkey.This helped the country implement more equal policies for women, including voting rights.[xviii]

Kamaly then moves on to the twenty-firs century, presenting the life of the architect Zaha Hadid. Her innovative, curvy designs have become landmarks in major cities in East Asia, the Middle East, Europe and North America. The final chapter follows Maryam Mirzakhani who emerged as one of the most influential mathematicians of the past decade.[xix]

A New Reading of History

Hossein Kamaly’s work is part of a wider movement which has aimed to focus on historical records showing the integral role of women contrary to the often misogynistic, mainstream scholarship in the Muslim world. This is known as the nisa’ist movement, coming from ‘nisa’, the Arabic word for women. Fatima Mernissi, a Moroccan sociologist,[xx] has identified how historical records have been censored by conservative governments and intellectuals who dominate much of the Muslim world. Contemporary research on these sources has little financial support and distribution.However, since the early noughties, this type of scholarship has gained traction due to more females participating in academia. [xxi]

Thus, Kamaly’s book has used and presented both, old forgotten sources and contemporary nisa’ist research. Rather than adding something new to the scholarship, Kamaly has aimed to attract greater interest in this wider movement. To accomplish this, he has shied away from any significant controversies surrounding some of these women, instead focusing on their positive accomplishments.[xxii] This is arguably the primary weakness of this book. By ignoring its characters’ flaws, the book diminishes the historical accuracy of the narrative, and as such, misinforms its readers.

It could also be argued that Kamaly’s approach is very limited in using only 21 figures, leaving out countless others. Yet he acknowledges the limitation of this approach. He argues that the aim of his book is to provide a concise introduction and summary rather than a comprehensive history.[xxiii]

Ultimately, the book can serve as an inspiration to women throughout the Muslim world. It shows a variety of ways in which they excel in an environment where historians and the media mostly sideline potential role models.[xxiv] As the common saying goes: “You cannot be what you cannot see”. Kamaly shows us that there are plenty of these women to see and despite the book’s weaknesses, it serves as a gateway to the rich tapestry of scholarship on Muslim women.

[i] Hartford Seminary, ‘Hossein Kamaly’ [website], <https://www.hartsem.edu/faculty/hossein-kamaly/>, accessed 24 June 2020.

[ii] H. Kamaly, ‘A History of Islam in 21 Women’, Simon and Schuster, 2019.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Ibid.

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] Ibid.

[viii] A. Barlas, ‘Believing women in Islam: Unreading patriarchal interpretations of the Qur’an’, University of Texas Press, 2019.

[ix] Ithaca College, ‘Asma Barlas’ [website], <https://faculty.ithaca.edu/abarlas/>, accessed 24 June 2020.

[x] Ibid.

[xi] Ibid.

[xii] Ibid.

[xiii] H. Kamaly, ‘A History of Islam in 21 Women’, Simon and Schuster, 2019.

[xiv] Ibid.

[xv] R. Garipova, ‘Muslim Female Religious Authority in Russia: How Mukhlisa Bubi Became the First Female Qāḍī in the Modern Muslim World’, Die Welt Des Islams, vol. 57, no. 2, 2017, p. 135-161.

[xvi] H. Kamaly, ‘A History of Islam in 21 Women’, Simon and Schuster, 2019.

[xvii] Ibid.

[xviii] A. Tikkanen, ‘Halide Edib Edivar’, Britannica [website],  <https://www.britannica.com/biography/Halide-Edib-Adivar>, accessed 23 June 2020.

[xix] H. Kamaly, ‘A History of Islam in 21 Women’, Simon and Schuster, 2019.

[xx] M. Fox, ‘Fatema Mernissi, a Founder of Islamic Feminism Dies at 75‘, The New York Times  [website], 9 December 2015, <https://www.nytimes.com/2015/12/10/world/middleeast/fatema-mernissi-a-founder-of-islamic-feminism-dies-at-75.html, accessed 21 June 2020.

[xxi] F. Mernissi, ‘Women’s rebellion and Islamic memory’, Zed Books, 1996.

[xxii] H. Kamaly, ‘A History of Islam in 21 Women’, Simon and Schuster, 2019

[xxiii] Ibid.

[xxiv] Ibid.

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Published by Asfar in London, UK - ISSN 2055-7957 (Online)