Islamic History and the Women You Never Hear About: Fatima Muhammad Al-Fihri

Did you know the first institution granting academic degrees in the world was founded by a Muslim woman? Of course you didn’t.

Fatima Muhammad Al-Fihri’s university, the University of Qarawiyyin in Fes, Morocco, is still in operation today. It is the world’s oldest institution of education to continually operate, and after its construction in 859, the university quickly became one of the leading education centers in the world. Conveniently located within the compounds of a mosque that would in the coming centuries expand to become the largest enclosed mosque in the continent of Africa–capacity 22,000–the university attracted scholars from all over the world to the magnificently influential city of Fes. Abu Al-Abbas al-Zwawi, Abu Madhab Al-Fasi, and Leo Africanus are some of the leading thinkers, theorists, and writers produced by Al-Fihri’s university. Renowned mapmakers, astonomers, and historians attended as students. Al-Fihri’s sister, Mariam built the Al-Andalus mosque.

Both sisters were known to have been extremely pious. Fatima Muhammad Al-Fihri, despite having no experience in architecture, oversaw the construction of the mosque and the university in great detail and with great dedication until the project was complete. Non-Muslims were attracted to the mosque as well, and the university played a pivotal role in the cultural and intellectual interactions between the Middle East and Europe. A variety of subjects were taught at the university, including Islamic law, medicine, mathematics, astronomy, chemistry, history, and–gasp!–music.

Although Al-Fihri was a wealthy woman and contributed considerably to her community, little biographical information has been written or preserved about her. Women who inherit their fathers’ fortunes, you see, give grandly, live quietly, and vanish from the face of the earth while the universities they establish are associated with a patronage of sultans– and their extensive biographies. Al-Fihri, instead, will be (and has been) renowned instead for her modesty and her charitable nature–the “sacrificial Muslim woman (TM)” who gives unthinkingly to her community–and not for her great leadership.

Prophet Maryam and Her Successor, the Prophet Muhammad

Although I’ve already written about Maryam as our Prophetess, I’d like to expand on her significance by comparing the cosmological role of our Prophet Muhammad to that of our Prophetess Maryam. There are several interesting parallels between Maryam and Muhammad; the first and most obvious is not only that both recieved word from the Archangel Jibril (Gabriel) of their Prophethoods, but that the reactions of these two Prophets to that word are strikingly similiar. When Muhammad is greeted by the Angel, he is terrified until he comes to recognize the entity; the Prophet had, at first, run frantically down the moutain. Likewise, when the Angel approaches Maryam, she cries,

“Indeed, I seek refuge
in the Most Merciful
from you, so leave me
if you fear God!”

until her visitor responds,

“I am only a messenger
of God to bring you news
of a child.” (19:18)

But what is more intriguing is the dialogue that takes place. Maryam proceeds to ask,

“How can I birth a child
when I am a virgin?” (19:20)

while Muhammad, when commanded to “Read!” at the revelation of Surah Iqra, responds, bewildered, “But I cannot read.”

The Prophet was indeed illiterate, and in this exchange his illiteracy plays the same role as Maryam’s virginity. This response, “I cannot read,” is paralleled with Maryam’s, “How can I birth a child when no mortal has touched me?”

Since Islam does not elevate the Maryam’s virginity to the extent that it is certainly elevated in other faiths accepting her as a religious figure, the Islamic approach to Maryam’s virginity is the same as its approach to Muhammad’s illiteracy. In other words, these two states are considered neither particularly virtuous nor are they frowned upon. They are merely the conditions in which these historical figures existed before greeted by the Divine. I am not entirely comfortable in drawing the theory that Muhammad’s illiteracy and Maryam’s virginity are symbolic of spiritual receptiveness to the Word of God, that the absence (of literacy and sexual experience) of each of these “worldy pretenses” made each Prophet the most receptive vessel, unobstructed by human finitude, for the Word of God to be Delivered–for Maryam, God’s Word in childbirth, and through Muhammad, God’s Word in the Qur’an–but it is nonetheless one to be considered.

A second parallel is the cleansing of both Prophets before the creation of the universe and all that exists. A hadith reads, “There is none born among the offspring of humankind that Satan does not touch; a child, therefore, cries loudly at the time of birth because of the touch of Satan, except Maryam and her child.” (Sahih Bukhari) This is an indication that both Maryam and her son are free of sin, like Muhammad who is distinguished by his isma, protection from moral depravity: “Did We not expand your bosom?” (Qur’an 94:1) so that the Messenger of the Qur’an could convey the message without error. Our Prophet’s heart is cleansed during his ascendance through the Heavens, and several hadiths, in which this described concept has been meditated upon by mystics, read that the Prophet existed before the very creation of the first human being, and several hadiths read that “the first thing God created [when Adam was still between water and clay] was my [the Prophet's] Light.” As the Prophet is distinguished as exceptional compared to all humankind, so is the declaration made for Maryam at her birth,

“When she [the mother of Maryam] had delivered,
she said: “O my Lord! Behold! I am delivered
of a female child!”—and God knew best
what she delivered—
And no wise is the male
like the female.

I have named her Maryam (Mary), and I commend her
and her offspring to
Thy protection from the Evil One, the Rejected.” (3:36)

Just as the Qur’an is protected from defect through the protection of the purity of Muhammad from moral depravity, so is Prophet Isa’s protection from Satan invoked in the same protection of his mother.

What are then, the cosmological and mystical implications of both these figures? It is no accident that the Prophetess and the Prophet have inspired the same passionate praise and meditative repose among those who follow them and submit to God. One of the most fundamental attributes of the Prophet is his Light, believed to be a direct reflection of the Light of God, the noor of Muhammad is so close to God that Muhammad is Loved if God is Loved. Likewise Maryam, who occupies the realm of the Womb, is tied closely, almost inextricably, to the realm of the Divine, as made clear in 4:1. Prophet Isa, son of Maryam, is secondary to his mother, as the Qur’an reads he declares,

“I am a servant of God;
God has given me a Book and made me
a Prophet,
and blessed me and enjoined upon me
prayer and charity
and made me dutiful
to my mother
who bore me
.” (19:30-32)

There are two things to take away from this: (1) Prophet Isa was made dutiful to his mother, which has interestingly never been interpreted as a Divine Ordination of matriarchy (though Isma’il’s dutifulness to God has been conveniently misread as dutifulness to Ibrahim as a patriarch), and (2) although it is true the conception was Immaculate, it is emphasized over and over in the Qur’an that Isa is the son of Maryam: she, alone, birthed him, harnessing the Divine powers manifested in the realm of the womb and acting singularly (without a man) to perform a miracle, a sign of the Prophets.

And Maryam is most certainly a Prophet. Whether she can be called a Messenger, having carried and delivered the Word of God in the form of a human being, just as Muhammad delivered the word of God as the Qur’an, is a decision I personally haven’t made and will leave up to you, dear readers. One thing is certain: Maryam, and Asiya, and Eve, and the numerous women who inarguably qualify as Prophets demonstrate with their capacities that the distinction between a Prophet and a Messenger is hazy and not so distinct, and more uncertain than widely defined.

I propose that there is an entire league of female Prophets who transcend patriarchal categorizations of Divine Interaction.

Islamic History and the Women You Never Hear About: Zaat al-Khaal

The very earliest of the Umayyads did not keep harems of jawari (or slave women, if I can translate roughly for a moment), but instead a woman’s power was rightfully her own, and her nobility was measured by her defiance. Among the women who demonstrate this are Sakina bint al-Hussain and A’isha bint Talha, both of who rejected the veil and polygamy, and whose “disobedience” were encapsulated into their power—and celebrated.

However, aristocrats of the later Umayyad period, much longer after the Prophet had passed, and infamously of course the Abbasid period, preferred jawari, because a jariya’s duty was to obey. That was why she was “purchased.” This began with the Muawiyah, who violently seized power and manifested this leadership by making its transmission dynastic, against the desire of the Prophet. During this period there was a fascination with power and everything it rendered—ownership and wealth, and the jariya is a demonstration of this obsession with absolute power.

Let me pause here for a moment and explain what jariya means, because this will be conveyed (a little) in the story of Zaat al-Khaal, whose story is, of course, not representative of all jawari of her time, but nonetheless comments expansively on the political philosophy of this period. The word jariya itself, its roots, means something in movement. It is the wind, or the vessel that follows on flowing waters, something to which one is directed, secret in nature—and something that is to be owned as a symbol of power.

Zaat al-Khaal was at first the jariya of the great artist Ibrahim al-Mawsili, who taught her poetry and music. She was extraordinarily beautiful (it is actually even in her name), and extremely talented—enough for Harun al-Rashid to become so jealous that he wished to acquire her, and so he “purchased” her from Ibrahim al-Mawsili. During a night of impassioned intimacy, seized in the throes of desire, he asked the question that had been tormenting him from the beginning: whether she had relations with her former master, Ibrahim al-Mawsili, who taught her the arts of music and poetry.

Although she feared punishment (even though such a thing had been within Ibrahim’s “rights”) Zaat al-Khaal replied with the truth: yes, only once.

Harun al-Rashid was devastated and overwhelmed with jealousy. He rejected Zaat al-Khaal, and to punish her gave her to Hamawiya, his slave. But one day, Harun al-Rashid was seized with the longing to see her again, and asked Hamawiya if he might hear her sing. Hamawiya replied that they would come tomorrow, and, to prepare for the visit, borrowed from the jeweler so that Zaat al-Khaal would be adorned with what she was once accustomed to wearing.

Seeing her again, Harun al-Rashid was once more overtaken by her beauty, but noticed the exquisite jewels that adorned her and became immediately jealous that his slave was capable of providing such things for her. He asked Hamawiya how he had managed to acquire the jewels when (sarcastically) “I haven’t yet appointed you governor.” Fearful, Hamawiya admitted the jewels were a loan.

Reassured of Hamawiya’s decency—and, for al-Rashid’s ego, of Hamawiya’s poverty rendering him inferior—Harun al-Rashid called the jeweler and purchased all the jewels Zaat al-Khaal had worn so that she may keep them, and right then and there promised to grant her any wish.

She wished for Hamawiya to be appointed governor of Persia. And so al-Rashid did.

Although she could no longer be her own protector, Zaat al-Khaal profitably made her protector the governor of the most powerful nation of the Empire, and did so within the acknowledgements of the system in which she was imprisoned, because the impulse of seeking power and wealth was within the framework of al-Rashid’s leadership.

Islamic History and the Women You Never Hear About: Kahula bint Azwar

Kahula bint Azwar, who belongs in the warriors series, is nothing short of legendary. Most notably the ardent heroine charged to the rescue of her abducted brother, who was also a soldier and had been taken prisoner by the Byzantine Roman army during the Siege of Damascus in the Battle of Saniyat al Uqab, 634. (Until this incident, no one knew she was a woman.) Her brother Zirrar ibn Azwar fought alongside her frequently through numerous battles. When she accompanied Khalid ibn Walid to rescue him, she rushed forward toward the guards all alone—and because of her Arab clothing and armor she was not recognized by them as a woman, nor by the other commanders of her army, one of whom remarked, “This warrior fights like Khalid ibn Walid, but I am sure he is not Khalid.” Her own brother asked about her identity when she approached him covered in blood and refused to remove her veil several times, until she finally revealed herself as his sister.

Up until that point, writes Al Waqidi, “Khalid watched a knight, in black attire, with a big green shawl wrapped around his waist and covering his bust. That knight broke through the Roman ranks as an arrow. Khalid and the others followed him and joined battle, while the leader was wondering about the identity of the unknown knight.” That knight was Kahula bint Azwar.

The leader is reported to have been asked, “Who is that knight? By God, he has no regard for his safety!”

When she reached her brother, Kahula was asked by him and other eager soliders to remove her veil to show her identity, but she refused until finally she stated, “My prince, I did not answer because I am shy. You are a great leader, and I am only a woman whose heart is burning.”

At this, as the soldiers were astonished at the feminine voice, her brother asked her identity once more.

“I am Khawla Bint Al Azwar. I was with the women accompanying the army, and when I learnt that the enemy captured my brother, I did what I did.”

As the enemy army was fleeing, she led the attack against them. The prisoners the enemy had captured were freed after the camp was searched.

In a different battle Kahula bint Azwar was captured herself after falling from her horse as it was killed. She was forcibly moved to a camp with other female prisoners (whom she was shocked to discover had been wrongfully attacked), after which she was to be taken to the leader of the enemy army for pleasure (read: rape), but she incited the other women to use the poles of the tent as weapons and attacked the guards. They killed THIRTY of the Romans; Kahula herself killed five—including the leader who had wanted to rape her and who, upon seeing that she had roused and armed the other women, furiously attempted to sway them with promises, including telling Kahula that he would marry her and make her first lady of Damascus, to which she replied, “I wouldn’t even accept you to be a shepherd of my camels! How do you expect me to degrade myself and live with you? I swear that I’ll be the one to cut off your head for your insolence.” (And apparently she did.)

She also an army of women against the Byzantine army during the Battle of Yarmouk (in which she was wounded by a Greek soldier.) Witnesses report she was braver than most men, and when she was not fighting attended to the medical needs of soldiers. In fact, when the men were met with a much larger army, several of the soldiers began to flee, and Kahula met them with an army of women, harshly questioned their claims of bravery, and forced them to return to battle. (The battle was won.) “Our women were much harsher with us than the Romans,” reported one of the knights. “We felt that going back to fight and die was much easier than facing the fury of our women later on.”

Islamic History and the Women You Never Hear About: Al Shifa bint Abdullah

Along with contributing to medical necessities and engaging in politics Al Shifa bint Abdulla was the first female teacher in the early Muslim community. She is mentioned in nearly every text, but her name is seldom heard during sermons at the mosque—she is instead referred to as the first woman to hold public office, appointed by Umar to be an administrative officer of the marketplace (and his advisor while he was caliph.) But more notably, the Prophet himself regularly visited her for her medical expertise, which she had demonstrated to him and which he bade her not only to continue to practice but to teach to his wife and the others. “Oh Messenger of God, I used to do preventative medicine for ant bites during Jahiliyya, and I want to demonstrate it for you,” she disclosed upon approaching him, to which he replied, “Then demonstrate it.” Once she did, he asked her to teach his wife the practice of healing just as she taught her to read and write.

Because she dealt with the Prophet and his family so frequently and was so close to them she has narrated a substantial number of hadith.

Her name—Al Shifa—refers to her skills in healing because of her invaluable role in medicine. Her real name was Layla (night.) She was born in Mecca, converted to Islam before the migration to Medina, and thus endured all the harsh persecution faced by the members of the newly emerged religion.

During a time of illiteracy, Al Shifa bint Abdullah was one of the few literate people in Mecca before migrating to Medina. Along with her instrumental and essential medical contributions she taught reading and writing to her Muslim community.

Islamic History and the Women You Never Hear About: Women Leading Men in Prayer

“In the early days of the Muslim community, there were women who made the call to prayer, and there were also women who led the ritual prayer not only for women but also for men. In particular, Umm Waraqa bint Abdullah, who was trained by Muhummad himself, acted as the prayer leader for her whole tribe.

“Lady Nafisa, who was known as the “jewel of knowledge” and “the mother of the helpless,” was the great-granddaughter of Hasan, son of Lady Fatima and Imam Ali. Nafisa married Ishaq, son of Imam Jafar as-Sadiq.

“She was reputed to know the Qur’an and the commentaries by heart and was so versed in religious knowledge that even her great contemporary, the Imam al-Shafi, used to come and listen to her discourses and enter into discussions with her; the degree of his respect for the scholarship of this saintly woman and for her sanctity also, may be judged from the fact that he used to pray with her the special prayers for Ramadan.

“Whenever Al-Shafi would fall ill, he would send word with a messenger to Nafisa asking for her prayers and as soon as the messenger would return to Al-Shafi he would find him recovered from his ailment. When he came down with his fatal illness he again sent his messenger to Lady Nafisa but this time she told the messenger to go back and tell Al-Shafi’I that “God had blessed him with the pleasure of seeing His Noble Face”… Al-Shafi knew his time had come to make his final preparation. He made his last will and testament, asking that Lady Nafisa perform the funeral prayers for him when he died. When the imam died, his body had to be brought to her house because she was so weak due to her constant fasting and worship that she could not leave her house…”

Extract from “Women of Sufism” A Hidden Treasure
Writings and stories of Mystic Poets, Scholars and Saints
Selected and introduced by: Camille Adams Helminski
Emphases mine.


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