“Reverence the wombs that bore you”: On Unearthing a Female Legacy Transgressive to the Patriarchal Social Order

Perceptions of women’s power and authority in Islam range from Orientalist discourses that present the Muslim woman as an exotic, victimized, and elusive figure in need of reform, to patriarchal scholarships that confine her to a secondary, consequential role under male regulation, to Islamic feminist exegeses that seek to liberate her, and itself, from either of these assessments. This study explores the flaws in contemporary patriarchal male scholarship, referred to herein as “patriarchal scholarship” or simply “male scholarship,” and defined as the line of scholarship that claims traditional precedent and mainstream consensus, that necessitate Islamic feminism. I build on Asma Barlas’s observation that while male scholarship professes egalitarianism in Islam by upholding Qur’anic values of equality at a theoretical, spiritual level, this profession is duplicitous, as patriarchal scholarship simultaneously fails to apply its Islamic theory of egalitarianism to Islamic practice, which should be challenged as a detrimental lapse in logic. My argument consists of three elements: I assert that inconsistencies between Islamic belief and Islamic practice as promoted by patriarchal scholarship prevail at even the interpretational level, that this male legacy of interpretative authority is afforded a continuity that female scholarship is denied, and that the formations of Islamic feminist exegeses predate European colonial influences in the Middle East. It is this third point that renders disingenuous the characterization of Islamic feminism as non-traditional compared to patriarchal scholarship, and subsequently an insufficient reason to dismiss feminist scholarship, though it is one commonly employed and further facilitated by the harmful dynamics of Orientalist discourse that seek to “free” the Muslim woman over her agency.

Cosmological equality of the sexes in Islam transcends the realm of belief. Islamic beliefs must manifest in the realm of practice, as described in the Qur’an with the opening verse of surah 4, which commands Muslims to “Reverence God, who created you from a single Self; created, of similar nature, its mate, and dispersed wherefrom countless men and women. Reverence God, through Whom you demand your mutual rights” (Q4:1). Islamic feminists including Asma Barlas, whose poetic rendition of Yusuf Ali’s translation is used roughly here, cite this verse establishing intrinsic equality, and note that the verse continues to recognize the womb as encircled in the same realm as God (“And Reverence the Wombs that bore you”). Patriarchal male scholarship, frequently without mention of Q4:1, utilizes an approach similar to “different but equal” in which men and women are cosmological equals but women are demonstrably relegated to a separate sphere of privacy, seclusion, and domesticity.[1] This particular application of (in)equality in the practical, non-cosmological realm is inconsistent with the Qur’an, which makes no distinction between cosmological equality and practical equality. That is to say there should be no dissimilarity between the theoretical spiritual equality of sexes and the manifestation of this equality in practice.[2] Furthermore the command of Q4:1 is not only to recognize God, but to reverence Her with a practice: the practice of mandating rights that are not “different” but are “mutual.”

Varied readings of a Qur’anic verse are possible: one reading of Q4:1 is that the verse presents “mutual rights” as an incentive to reverence God; another reading suggests that God is reverenced independent of incentive and that the verse of “mutual rights” functions only to introduce the theme of roles in the subsequent verses. The reading I propose here, that the awareness and implementation of “mutual rights” is more than a reason to reverence God but a way to reverence Her, operates on two variables: (1) the recognition of the verb “to demand [mutual rights]” as an action, or a practice, as opposed to the mere existence of “mutual rights” such as, for example, the mere existence of “Signs” and (2) the Islamic philosophy that every action described in the Qur’an as originating from God is an act of worship and consequently an act of belief.  This reading is consistent with the indicative language of the Qur’an that fastens practice with belief; for example, “God will show you Her Signs, and you will recognize them.” (Q27:93) Here, it is the recognition of these Signs, and not the mere existence of them, that engage Muslims to believe. But to recognize is an action and a practice of the corresponding belief, which illustrates the Qur’anic theme of collapsing belief with practice: if the mutuality of rights, like the recognition of Signs, is not practiced, then the religion is not believed. A Muslim who does not recognize the Signs of God shirks the definition; the demand (not the existence) of “mutual rights” is equally fundamental to belief. It is not sufficient, therefore, to merely acknowledge “mutual”—not “different”—rights if these rights are not implemented into Islamic practice.

Contextually, the mutual nature of the equality described in verse 4:1 of the Qur’an refers to all circumstances, as its practical application is not in any way confined to the financial, legal, domestic, social, martial, or marital areas, among others, specified in the Qur’an. Nor is it ascribed to a context unique to the 7th century. Patriarchal male scholarship fails to apply universal verses comprehensively, whilst affecting specialized verses to all Islamic practices. Consider, for example, Qur’anic verse 2:282, which describes the mitigation of a financial dispute by requesting the presence of two male witnesses or otherwise one male and two female witnesses. From this verse, male scholarship concludes that a single man’s testimony is equal to that of two women’s, regardless of whether the dispute in question is the ratification of a contract between a loaner and a debtor as specified in the Qur’an.[3] The Qur’an makes no qualitative equivalence between a male witness and two female witnesses. Furthermore, Q2:282 itself can be read to designate only one of the women as a witness, and the other as a guarantor to “remind” her should she err or become intimidated in the male-dominated jurisdiction of financial transactions, but the second woman is read by male scholarship as a witness nonetheless, and not merely as a supporter, creating an opportunity to read women’s testimony as less accurate or less valuable. This is the popular reading despite the fact that the verse continues to caution, “Let no scribe be harmed, nor any witness. For if you do so, indeed, it is grave disobedience [of God] in you” (Q2:282), which clarifies that the supporting woman’s purpose is to ensure that the female witness is not threatened by the domineering party breaching the contract, and not necessarily that of an official witness. In the context of the Qur’an, if the first woman “forgets” or “errs” it is in the face of potential harm. Additionally, it has been noted by Islamic feminists that the Arabic word for “she errs” or “she forgets” used in the Qur’an is tadilla from the word dalal, (as opposed to nisyan, which is literally forgetfulness); tadilla describes forgetfulness or error of a particular nature: forgetting the right way (of God) when confronted by an external interest, in this case a threat.

Specified in the Qur’an for only financial contracts concerning debt, this male to female ratio has been applied to all contracts, including those pertaining to marriage.[4] However, several configurations of court are described in the Qur’an in which no designation is made for the sexes (Q4:15, 5:106, 65:2) and in the case in which a woman is accused of adultery, her witness to her own innocence is not only equivalent to a man’s but effectively eliminates his testimony, as in Q24:9. In the case of adultery, the Qur’an privileges the accused woman’s witness over the testimony of the male accuser. If the gender dynamics of verse 2:282, which are specified in the Qur’an as relevant only to financial contracts involving loans, are applied in practice to all courts, then why not argue that the dynamics of verse 24:9, in which a man’s testimony is rendered ineffective by a woman’s, should set the legal standard for all courts?

Instead, male scholarship erroneously overlooks the Qur’an’s parameters for verse 2:282 that confine the gender ratio to only the litigation of debt, yet it appropriately restricts Qur’anic verses such as 24:9, in which a woman’s witness is privileged over a man’s, to the designated case of adultery. Additionally, patriarchal scholarship devises parameters such as “different but equal” that have no foundation in the Qur’an but rely on politically motivated and culturally situated values to universal verses such as Q4:1. In fact, not only is the privileging of a woman’s testimony over her male accuser’s in Q24:9 restricted only to the verse to which it is be designated in theory, but the invalidation of man’s testimony against an allegedly adulterous woman is one that is abandoned entirely in practice.

Vulnerable with faulty, disproven, and sensationalist science, the unsupported conjectures of patriarchal analysis depend on irrelevancies to survive: in order to justify the projected equivalence between one male witness and two female witnesses, patriarchal jurists often cite that “men are the maintainers and protectors of justice [qawwamuna] for women, for God bestows a bounty of advantages on some over others.” (Q4:43) I’ve deciphered the Arabic words qawwamuna here, which are often translated as “maintainers” or “protectors”, to “maintainers and protectors of justice.” Islamic feminist Kecia Ali, whenever referring to this verse, leaves the word qawwamuna untranslated in her scholarship and proceeds to explore its potential definitions instead, because no English translation exists without the imposition of some interpretation. However, to specify that Q4:34 is referring to matters of equity and justice, the word can be examined in another Qur’anic verse in which the function of the word is clear, “Those who’ve attained faith! Be ever steadfast in upholding equity and securing justice [qawwameena], bearing witness to the truth for the sake of God even though it be against yourselves, or your parents and kinsmen, whether the individual be rich or poor; God stands closest to either.” (Q4:135) It is for the interest of continuity that Q4:34 should be interpreted in a similar fashion to Q4:135, in which the word signifies a person expected to act justly, but the bias of patriarchal scholarship distorts the interpretation of qawwamuna when the subject matter refers specifically to women to describe men as the “maintainers” of them. This is an imposition of a patriarchal framework onto the content of the Qur’an; independent of it, men are in fact warned in Q4:34 to not abuse their power and control women but to maintain justice in regards to them. Note the use of “some” and “others” rather than “men” and “women,” authenticating a reading of social privilege due to constructed gender roles rather than due to biological sex.

Supporting this concept, consider that Q4:135, which once again is concerned with the subject of bearing witness, outlines two parties: those in power, who bear the power of witness, and those for or against whom that witness is bore. The verse summons the faithful toward truthfulness, because regardless of “whether the individual be rich or poor, God stands closest to either,” implying that the interest of justice is to serve the latter party who is affected by witness and not to indulge the first who delivers it. What follows then is that Q4:34, which describes men as the “maintainers and protectors of justice and equity”—qawwamuna—for women, warns men not to abuse their power over women, and observes that the power exists—“for a bounty of advantages are bestowed on one over the other”—in the society to which the Qur’an is revealed, without Divinely sanctioning this power. To justify the disqualification of women from positions of power and prominence,[5] patriarchal scholarship has adopted the inversion: men are maintainers and protectors over women, and that this position of power is permitted by God.

I concede that, like everything, the privileges men hold in society “are permitted” by God. But I challenge why this is meaningful or significant. Poverty, violence, starvation, the ills of society are all “permitted” by God, in that nothing can exist without Her, but are not necessarily the way of God. This is a concept that is not unfamiliar to the religiously inclined. Why, then, has male scholarship interpreted Q4:34, “because God has given one advantage over the other,” as an endorsement of this power, when the same would not apply the identical logic to violence or poverty as an endorsement of the violent or the wealthy? Unlike Q4:1, which calls the Muslim to demand “mutual rights” that come through God, the power described in Q4:34 that assigns some of one gender the responsibility of equity and justice for the Other gender is not a power that is linked with an action or practice of worship: that is to say, it is instead a mere observation—there is no scriptural evidence that the privileges of men, unlike the demand of “mutual rights,” are Divinely Sanctioned and must be implemented into the conscience of the believer.

Rather, there is scriptural evidence that God makes an observation of male privilege[6], and that this observation liberates women by charging men to uphold equity and secure justice, as unearned privileges cannot be challenged if they are not identified. Additionally, the most frequent use of the word faddala or “bestowed” in the Qur’an is to signify wealth: the privilege or “bounty” suggested in Q4:34 is specifically a financial one[7] acknowledging that some men earn more than some women in the society to which the Qur’an is revealed. After warning men that they are “protectors” of justice, the verse alludes to the responsibility of advantaged women, stating that “righteous women are devoutly loyal to God and guard the Unseen that God has ordained to be guarded.” (Q4:34) Although patriarchal scholarship operates on the assumption that the guarded object is sexuality[8], this assumption is an interesting one at the very least, because it deliberately ignores the word lil-ghaybi or “the Unseen” which is a word of extraordinary philosophical weight in the Qur’an. It appears in various forms, no less than sixty times, and nearly always refers to a mystical realm of which only God has knowledge.[9] Specifically, the “Unseen” refers to hidden knowledge, to the sins and virtues that are private to the individual and sometimes even unbeknownst to her. There is an intrinsic parallel in the structure of Q4:34 as it transitions between men and women, indicating that righteous women are enlisted as guardians of their moral compass in the realm of the Unseen in the same way that men are warned of God’s awareness of their privileges. Likewise, true to the role of qiwama in the Qur’an, women in Q4:34 are guardians (hafizatun) of social welfare and securers of justice, and their private affairs—or the Unseen ways, honest or dishonest, with which they deal in their wealth—cannot be hidden from God, who knows the Unseen. The use of “Unseen” in the Qur’an is too significant to be reduced to “sexuality” and is done so only for women, effectively cheating them of agency and authority.

Utilizing the Qur’an as its own dictionary easily renders the most striking incidents of the use of Unseen as knowledge that only God harbors. A basic example of this is Q2:33, in which God teaches Adam various names, “She said, ‘O Adam, inform [the angels] of their names.’ And when Adam had informed them of their names, She said, ‘Did I not tell you that I know the Unseen aspects of the heavens and the earth? And I know what you reveal and what you have concealed,’” as well as Q72:26, which reads, “God is the All-Knower of the Unseen, and She does not disclose Her Knowledge of the Unseen to anyone.” Pertinent to Q4:34, whose context warns men to maintain and secure justice situated beside women as guardians of the Unseen, is Q12:81, in which the eldest brother of Yusuf despairs, “Return unto your father and say: O our father! Your son [Benyamin] has stolen. We testify only to that which we know; we are not guardians of the Unseen.” Here, the word for guardians is haafidh or “protectors,” in the same way that God is a Protector; in verse Q4:34 qawwamuna, maintainers or guardians, is used for men but not for women. For women, Q4:34 employs hafizatun, the feminine plural of the same word Yusuf’s eldest brother uses to deny knowledge of the Unseen, of which She alone has knowledge. It is reasonable to conclude, then, that in Q4:34 while men are warned to maintain justice and assigned the duty to guard it, women are enlisted as protectors of the Unseen.[10] A hafiz, in common use, is a memorizer, or keeper/protector, of the Qur’an itself, and so are women guardians of the moral sphere: they hold the aforementioned men in the verse accountable for the Unseen infringements of patriarchy and “guard in the Unseen that which God has ordered them to guard” (hafizatun lil-ghaybi bima hafiz al-lahu.) Instead of interpreting the verse this way, however, male scholarship has reduced the meaning of lil-ghaybi to women’s bodies, and some translations, including Sahih International and Yusuf Ali, even go so preposterously far as to insert “in her husband’s absence” into the text.[11] Undoubtedly, counterarguments may accuse me of shirk (idolatry or disbelief) in acknowledging that the Qur’an draws women nearer to God, but I challenge the men who simultaneously misconstrue this very verse of the Qur’an as commanding women to obey both God and their husbands in the same breadth, as to why the suggestion of this command isn’t shirk.

Restoration of female authority is a primary concern for Islamic feminists, but female authority is swiftly suppressed by male scholarship at any opportunity. As demonstrated in Q4:1, in which Muslims are commanded to “Reverence the Wombs that bore you” in the same verse they are commanded to Reverence God, it is not at all unusual for the Qur’an to position women in proximity to God.[12] This ethereal phenomenon goes unnoticed, and occurs again in Q4:34 when women are enlisted as guardians of the Unseen. In Q4:1, the Self from which men and women are created is in fact linguistically feminine whilst its “mate” is masculine.[13] This is starkly contradictory to the “God to man to woman”[14] hierarchy imposed by patriarchal scholarship. The patriarchal reading of Q4:34 in which women are guardians not of justice or the Unseen but of their own sexuality is a symptomatic of a politically motivated, culturally situated, and economically invested state-of-mind with which male scholars approach interpretation.

Contemporary patriarchal scholarship is deliberate in its incorporation of sexism, as even the strongest cases for feminist interpretation are dismissed over the appeal of misogynistic ones. An example of this is Q33:33, which has been translated by a number of male translators, including Yusuf Ali, as ordering women to “stay quietly in [their] homes,” while a far more accurate translation is “behave with dignity in your homes.”[15] Although the notion that classical and contemporary patriarchal scholarship is biased is a radical one to the Muslim community, I am not the first to suggest it. Nazira Zain el-Din, a pioneer of Islamic feminism in the early 1920s, confronted Shaykh al Ghalayini by saying, “Do you not know that women’s freedom and independence are rights? When you wrote about women’s inferiority you claimed that men’s strength was the reason for their greater reason and acumen. What’s the connection between reason and physical strength? […] Men claim superiority because of their strength, but they can only do so by making sure that women stay weak.”[16] In fact, in the early 1800s, prior to French displacement of the Ottomans in the Arab Peninsula and European pressures in the region, Butrus al-Bustani founded a pro-women’s rights newspaper that circulated widely in Syria, Iraq, and Egypt with a considerable female readership. The history of female resistance in the Middle East and South Asia is a lively and vigorous one, stunted only by the threat of European powers, not enabled by them. In a critique of the framework of Ayesha Chaudhry’s excellent book[17], Shehnaz Haqqani notes, “Since alternative interpretations of 4:34 start emerging after colonialism, Chaudhry finds the demarcation of colonialism a rational choice, one that works well given her research and finding. Nonetheless, readers might struggle to appreciate the implication that colonialism deserves the credit for prompting an egalitarian conscience in Muslims, almost as though were it not for colonialism, the emergency of egalitarian scholarship would never have occurred, despite the fact that western ideology also hadn’t developed a feminist conscience yet.”[18] Indeed, the perception that improvements in women’s acknowledged rights prior to the coinage of the term “feminism” cannot be considered feminist is a hindrance to establishing a crucial legacy of female scholarship, because the notion that women’s efforts prior to the coinage of the term are not “feminist” relies on the dishonest validation of white Western women as pioneers of female liberty from whom Muslim women merely borrow[19], when in fact, Muslim women enjoyed even rights as standard as the vote prior to women in the United States and Europe. While I understand from a historical standpoint the reluctance to characterize female advancement as “feminist” prior to the coinage of the term, I question how useful and how honest upholding this principle can prove when it enables male scholarship to invalidate the radical exegesis of contemporary female scholars by severing female scholarship from a feminist legacy, and furthermore, when we fail to apply the same principle to contemporary male scholarship that differs from classical interpretation and is yet considered an extension of the same male legacy. For this reason, I will be employing the term “classical feminist scholarship” to refer to classical scholarship dismissed as incorrect or transgressive.

Illustrating the essentiality of female legacy, a few years after the Prophet’s death a woman was forbidden by the order of Caliph Umar from ever marrying any free man, due to her transgressive interpretation of the Qur’an. After the woman had disclosed to him that she had taken one of her young male slaves to bed with her (outside of a marriage), the Caliph, incredulous, sought to punish her. When he had demanded to know her rationalization, she’d responded, “I believe that ownership by the right hand made lawful to me what it makes lawful to men.”[20] Milk al-yamin, as Kecia Ali explains, or “property of the right hand” appears in multiple Qur’anic verses that describe the lawfulness of enslaved sexual partners. It is typically interpreted by both classical and contemporary scholars (or the few contemporary scholars willing to discuss its existence) as pertaining to the female slaves of only male slaveowners and their conduct. The Qur’an, however, makes no assignment of gender, and in Q24:31, describes milk al-yamin under the female hand as well.[21] Kecia Ali remarks that Umar was stunned and distressed by the woman’s actions and her assertion to have God’s authorization for it. When Umar brought the incident to the Companions, they responded that, “She [the woman] has applied to the Qur’an an interpretation that is not its interpretation.”

Hierarchizations of traditions should be examined for prejudices. In another incident, which Aisha Geissinger discusses, Fatima bint Qays recounted that when she had been irrevocably divorced, the Prophet, after ruling that she was not pregnant, had determined that she needn’t stay in her ex-husband’s home for the three months prescribed in the Qur’an for women who receive a revocable divorce. The Prophet instructed her instead to spend her waiting period in the home of another man. When Fatima bint Qays recounted this incident to a messenger sent by the governor of Medina, it was dismissed on the grounds that, “We do not hear this account from anyone except a woman. So we will adhere to the practice of restraining any divorced woman from departing.”[22] Even though the Qur’an itself supported her, since verse 65:1 specifies that the three-month waiting period applies only to a woman whose divorce is revocable, Fatima bint Qays was overruled, though she had argued that her hadith is supported by the Qur’an. Consequently, the right of an ex-husband’s family over a woman who receives a revocable divorce from him is upheld against the Qur’an, in favor of maintaining the patriarchal social order.

Assertions that misogynistic interpretations of Qur’anic verses do not originate with the most classical scholars, and that misogynist interpretations are deviations from original egalitarian analyses, are not necessary ones with which I disagree. But I accept these assertions on the ground that it is self-defeating to claim that misogynistic interpretations have no foundation in Islam, even though these interpretations might have a precedent, and simultaneously accept and discard potential female scholarship that is vital to the assertion of egalitarianism: the “adulterous” woman who bedded her male slave, who was of the Prophet’s time (practicing Islam only a few years after his death), spoke the Prophet’s Arabic, understood the culture in which she lived and in which the Prophet had lived, arrived at an egalitarian interpretation of the Qur’anic euphemism that was understood by male Companions to apply only to themselves as men. The woman herself and her interpretation were denied validation by the male authority of the Companions. She is not, up until this contemporary time, considered a scholar, but only her conclusion, viewed as incorrect, deprives her of the title. Her methodology, comprising the linguistic and cultural insight of the people who lived during the Prophet’s time, can not be brought into question by most contemporary Islamic scholars, who often claim that the Islamic rulings should be considering according to their time as justification to silence an opposition who isn’t learned in the early Islamic era, since this woman was a woman of her time.

Muslim feminists have a propensity to claim that misogynist readings do not originate from classical scholarship and instead evolved over time, but in order to do this we should be forced to expand the constructed parameters of that scholarship, because to substantiate this claim, our understanding of “classical scholarship” must include women whose agencies and authorities were not and are not recognized by classical and contemporary male scholars. In order to insist that misogynist readings do not originate from classical scholarship, we must admit that feminist classical scholarship involves the identification of women who were denied authority by existing classical scholars. And we are forced to recognize them if we want to make this claim of origins, because male classical scholarship was in fact demonstrably misogynistic, as in this case. This, of course, involves structural rearranging, and raises a number of questions.

But denial of classical feminist authority means that for contemporary women, there is no scholarly lineage, because it has been deliberately obstructed by classical male scholarship. Lineage is relevant on a structural level: when potential male scholars are born into a legacy that their forefathers have established for them, their scholarly ventures are anchored by this legacy and their interactions with it. Any potential female scholarship, denied the stability of an acknowledged legacy, is either lagan or a spectacle—a lone ranger, detached.

Manifestations of this phenomenon are not only limited to the well-recognized phenomenon in the Muslim community that entails praising women such as Ayesha, the Prophet’s wife, yet criticizing those contemporary women who resemble Ayesha and other exemplary figures in their defiance. This disconnect extends to become evident nearly every conversation pertaining to any kind of feminist interpretation of the Qur’an. When describing to a man the problems in the interpretations of 5:38, which most scholars identify as permitting the removal of the hands of thieves, I was confronted by the man’s adamant refusal to accept my methodology, which consisted of peeling away at the layers of the word itself and in its grammatical context. He insisted that because I lacked male-approved credentials—my “credentials” came into question often during this conversation—I must have had no right to speak on the matter, although he believed it was appropriate to interrogate me regardless. But what was most astounding about this conversation is that another male contributor to the discussion referenced an article by Hadia Mubarak, in which Mubarak destabilizes and ultimately discredits misogynist interpretations of 4:34[23], the verse believed to permit domestic violence against women, an article which I’d already read long ago. Hadia Mubarak uses the same methodology I’d applied, but because her credentials were approved by the male audience and her scholarship was not perceived as independently noteworthy, our methodologies could not be linked.

Likewise, in a discussion during which Shehnaz Haqqani[24] voiced her distress about the number of women the Prophet married, she was told by a man to “be more like Kecia Ali” in the disposition of her argument, although I doubt Kecia Ali would have found any issue with her expression of dissatisfaction. When commenters rushed to criticize a woman lamenting the disconnect she felt within her Muslim community due to her attire, amina wadud was cited by misogynistics as a woman whose scholarship was valid because “even she” dressed “properly” (and not in short skirts). I could have assured these men that, based on her scholarship, amina wadud would have found this laughable. Furthermore, women are denied interactivity with the text. While the male Companions of the Prophet demanded[25] that Qur’anic verses that were transgressive to their patriarchal social order be changed, their interactivity with the text was viewed as acceptable, and was negotiated. While women, such as Umm Salaama, directly changed the Revelation of the Qur’an, women are not viewed as authorities in negotiating with God, and thus cannot accept or reject points of this negotiation between Muslims and God regarding the practice of Islam.

Feminist critics, whom I distinguish here from feminist scholars, are disjointed from feminist scholarship because female scholarship in itself has been denied lineage. Because the recognition of female authority by Muslim men in the community is too frequently based not on the insightful, groundbreaking work of these scholars or what they are contributing to Islamic discourse, but on how they are presenting their conclusions (Kecia Ali) or on how they dress (amina wadud), their arguments and scholarly voices are fallaciously pivoted on whether their attire or tones appeal to a male audience, regardless of the atrocity the scholars themselves would find in this. That atrocity, and the vocalization of it, are silenced by the assumption that it does not exist, and by male insistence on refocusing the conversation amina wadud’s choice of dress rather than her words or Kecia Ali’s scholarly detached tone instead of the implications of her provocative questions. When the arguments themselves are denied validity, male members of the community become incapable of identifying in female inquirers congruity with these scholars except on superficial terms, and they are able to fashion feminist scholarship to suit their patriarchal contentions instead of conceding to the scholarly argument-based lineage from which male scholarship benefits.

Having bedded her male slave, the woman who interpreted Qur’anic verses referring to “property of the right hand” as applicable to herself, which at least once in the Qur’an (Q24:31) it explicitly is, as it is to any free man, was prevented from marrying, but the grounds on which her interpretation was deemed “incorrect” without justification—her femaleness—is evidence of a thread of bias in classical scholarship. The impact of this bias, and the patriarchal order that was established from it, serves as a perpetual blockade to female scholarship by rendering the quality of femaleness as unlawfully exceptional to Qur’anic commands and authorizations and of female behavior as regulated by male expectations. In order to imagine what contemporary Islamic discourse may sound like had classical feminist scholars achieved recognition as such, we can only pull verses from the Qur’an which, interpreted in the “feminine voice,” convey starkly different attitudes than in the presumed default masculine voice. Consider Q24:31, which reads, “And say to the believing women that they should lower their gazes and guard themselves, and not display their adornment except what is obvious (apparent, necessary) save to their husbands, or fathers, or father-in-laws, or sons, or brothers, or nephews, or children, or their women, or what their right hands possess, or those who have no desire of women.” The list of exceptions (husbands, sons, etc.) may sound restrictive, but compared to the verse it follows, Q24:30, which reads simply, “Tell the believing men to lower their gazes and guard themselves. That is purer for them,” we can note a number of things. First, men are told to lower their gazes before women are told to lower their gazes. Second, men have no exceptions. The larger context of these two verses involves entering a household, and men must lower their gazes to everyone in the household. It is reasonable, then, to come to the understanding that this verse is a regulation of male arrogance, that when a man, in context, enters someone else’s home and is commanded to “lower the gaze,” it is commentary on the entire culture of masculinity. Men are commanded to lower their gazes–or reduce their arrogance–not only in the presence of a woman, but in respect to her entire household.

Artificially separating feminist scholars from unrecognized predecessors and potential successors is problematic to intellectual honesty, because it privileges a male lineage of scholarship as fundamental tradition. A male lineage is the very definition of patriarchy, and that in itself is an ideological bias; I argue, therefore, that female scholarship should be retroactively identified and restored. The attention to precedent and legacy, although discouraged in the Qur’an, for example, when disbelievers respond to Prophet Ibrahim that they will insist on the ways of their fathers[26], has tremendous impact on the anchoring of a Qur’anic exegesis to legitimacy. The solution to Islam’s patriarchy crisis I propose is not merely to produce more female scholars who carry on the patriarchal tradition: it is to unearth the classical feminist scholarship that has been discarded by patriarchs because their scholarship was transgressive. It is not merely an imitation, a regurgitation, of male scholarship propagated from a female form. Were we accustomed to an ulema in which the majority of exegetes were women from the beginning of Revelation, that ulema arriving at this interpretation would not sound to us as though they were performing logical acrobatics in their arguments, especially not considering the inconsistencies present in the interpretations of an ulema composed entirely of men.

[1] Syed Abul A’la Maududi, Purdah and the Status of Women in Islam (Lahore: Islamic Publications, 1962), 146.

[2] Asma Barlas, “Believing Women” in Islam: Unreading Patriarchal Interpretations of the Qur’ān (Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 2002), 142.

[3] Hina Azam, “Rape in Islamic Law.” The [Oxford] Encyclopedia of Islam and Law, Oxford Islamic Studies Online, accessed April 19, 2013. http://www.oxfordislamicstudies.com/article/opr/t349/e0075.

[4] Shaykh Taha Jabir Al-Alwani, Issues in Contemporary Islamic Thought (London: Biddles Limited), 169. al-Razi writes in the 7th century that, “The nature of women is dominated by forgetfulness owing to a predominance of cold and wetness in their physical constitution. The joining of two women in forgetting is less likely than the occurrence of forgetting in just one woman. That is why two women are to take the place of only one man.” This debunked assertion purports that a woman’s witness should always equal half that of a man’s, regardless of circumstance, because the fault lies inherently with her and not in the uneven powers of the field.

[5] Ziba Mir-Hosseini, “Muslim Legal Tradition and the Challenge of Gender Equality” in Men in Charge? Rethinking Authority in Muslim Legal Tradition, edited by Ziba Mir Hosseini et al. (London: Oneworld, 2015).

[6] Hadia Mubarak, “Breaking the Interpretative Monopoly: A Re-Examination of Verse 4:34,” Hawwa Journal of Women of the Middle East and the Islamic World, Vol. 2, No 3 (2004): 261-89. She provides in a footnote that, “A more ‘progressive’ definition of qiwama [in this verse] would be ‘guardianship’, whereas a more traditional definition would be ‘male supremacy’” (p.263). I adhere to the traditional definition. If male supremacy is identified here by God, it can be dismantled by Her Order (Q4:1).

[7] amina wadud, Qurʼan and Woman: Rereading the Sacred Text from a Woman’s Perspective, 2nd ed., (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 65.

[8] Thomas Irving et al., The Qur’ān: Basic Teachings: An Anthology of Selected Passages from the Qurʼān, Translated into Contemporary English with an Introduction to the Message of the Qurʼān (Markfield, Leicester, UK: Islamic Foundation, 1992), 207. He refers politely to a “husband’s rights” over her. The sexual implication, with its problematic wording, is clear to Muslims well versed in their own communities.

[9] Consider, for example, Q6:59, “And with God are the keys of the Unseen; none knows them except Her. And She knows what is on the land and in the sea. Not a leaf falls but that She knows it. And no grain is there within the darknesses of the earth and no moist or dry [thing] but that it is [written] in a clear record.” Consider also, Q62:8, “Indeed, the death from which you flee – indeed, it will meet you. Then you will be returned to the Knower of the unseen and the witnessed, and He will inform you about what you used to do.” In the Qur’an, the “Unseen” refers to the dimensions of magic, death, and, as relevant to Q4:34, personal moral conduct hidden from the social realm of spectators.

[10] Note also that although male privilege is recognized without the permissive vehicle of a verb as described earlier, women righteous women are described, with a verb, as those who are commanded by God to guard.

[11] Muhammad Muhsin Khan’s translation of the Qur’an reads, “Therefore the righteous women are devoutly obedient (to Allah and to their husbands), and guard in the husband’s absence what Allah orders them to guard (e.g. their chastity, their husband’s property, etc.),” when the Arabic text of the verse neither commands women to obey their husbands nor enlists women to protect the Unseen in their husband’s absence.

[12] Barlas, Believing Women, 197.

[13] However, this, too, is ignored by patriarchal scholarship as a merely linguistic occurrence necessitated by the Arabic language. Contradictorily, male scholars interpret the story of creation as a masculine Adam in the primary role, based solely on the masculine and feminine pronouns, which somehow in this case are not merely necessitated by the Arabic language. Were “scientific” explanations imposed on interpreting the Qur’an as they are by male scholars, it can be argued that Eve is the primary character, as embryos are initially female.

[14] wadud’s contribution to Men in Charge?.

[15] Carolyn Baugh, “Part 1: What a Difference a Kasrah Makes.” AltMuslimah, April 2, 2012, accessed June 6, 2015. http://www.altmuslimah.com/2012/04/part_1_what_a_difference_a_kasrah_makes/. Carolyn Baugh explains in her altMuslima.net article, “What a Difference a Kasra Makes,” (April 2, 2012) that, “The root [in Q33:33] is from qarr, (to remain, to be sedentary, to settle). Even if the root word were qarr, al-Farrā’ shows us what the command form would look like: aqrarna, not qarna. In other words, if you want to use the root verb which means to remain sedentary, it takes a lot of dodgy grammatical wiggling to get it to match the consonantal outline found in the early Qur’āns.”

[16] miriam cooke, Nazira Zeineddine: A Pioneer of Islamic Feminism (Oxford, GBR: Oneworld Publications, 2010), 40.

[17] Ayesha S. Chaudhry, Domestic Violence and the Islamic Tradition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014).

[18] Shehnaz Haqqani, “Book Review: Ayesha Chaudhry’s Domestic Violence and the Islamic Tradition,” In Feminist Legal Studies 23 (2015): 225-230.

[19] Uma Narayan. Dislocating Cultures: Identities, Traditions, and Third World Feminisms (New York: Routledge, 1997), 32. Uma Narayan writes, “Third-World feminists need to challenge the notion that access to ‘Westernized educations,’ or our espousal of feminist perspectives, positions us ‘outside’ of our national and cultural contexts.”

[20] Kecia Ali. Marriage and Slavery in Early Islam (Cambridge, MA, USA: Harvard University Press, 2010), 12.

[21] Kecia Ali, Sexual Ethics and Islam: Feminist Reflections on Quran, Hadith, and Jurisprudence. (Oxford, GBR: Oneworld Publications, 2006), 45.

[22] Aisha Geissinger, Gender and Muslim Constructions of Exegetical Authority: A Rereading of the Classical Genre of Qur’an Commentary (Islamic History and Civilization) (New York: Brill Academic Pub, 2015), 145-146. Emphasis added.

[23] Mubarak, “Breaking the Interpretive Monopoly,” 261-89.

[24] I thank Shehnaz Haqqani, PhD student of Islamic Studies at the University of Texas in Austin, for patiently listening as I delineated my thoughts regarding this study to her.

[25] Fatima Mernissi, The Veil and the Male Elite: A Feminist Interpretation of Women’s Rights in Islam. (Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley Pub., 1991), 125-126.

[26] Barlas, “Believing Women,”. 116

References:

Al-Alwani, Shaykh Taha Jabir. Issues in Contemporary Islamic Thought. London: Biddles Limited.

Ali, Kecia. Marriage and Slavery in Early Islam. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2010.

———. Sexual Ethics and Islam: Feminist Reflections on Qur’an, Hadith, and Jurisprudence. Oxford, England: Oneworld Pub., 2006.

Azam, Hina. “Rape in Islamic Law.” The [Oxford] Encyclopedia of Islam and Law. Oxford Islamic Studies Online, http://www.oxfordislamicstudies.com/article/opr/t349/e0075 (accessed Apr 19, 2013).

Barlas, Asma. “Believing Women” in Islam: Unreading Patriarchal Interpretations of the Qur’ān. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 2002.

Baugh, Carolyn. “Part 1: What a Difference a Kasrah Makes.” AltMuslimah. April 2, 2012. Accessed June 6, 2015.

Chaudhry, Ayesha S. Domestic Violence and the Islamic Tradition. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.

cooke, miriam. Nazira Zeineddine A Pioneer of Islamic Feminism. New York: Oneworld Publications, 2012.

Geissinger, Aisha. Gender and Muslim Constructions of Exegetical Authority: A Rereading of the Classical Genre of Qur’an Commentary (Islamic History and Civilization). New York: Brill Academic Pub, 2015.

Haqqani, Shehnaz. “Book Review: Ayesha Chaudhry’s Domestic Violence and the Islamic Tradition.” In Feminist Legal Studies 23 (2015): 225-230.

Irving, Thomas Ballantine. The Qur’ān: Basic Teachings : An Anthology of Selected Passages from the Qurʼān, Translated into Contemporary English with an Introduction to the Message of the Qurʼān. Rev. ed. Markfield, Leicester, U.K.: Islamic Foundation, 1992.

Khan, Maulana Wahiduddin. Woman between Islam and Western Society. New Delhi: Islamic Centre, 1995.

Maudoodi, Syed Abul. Purdah and the Status of Woman in Islam. Lahore: Islamic Publications, 1972.

Mernissi, Fatima. The Veil and the Male Elite: A Feminist Interpretation of Women’s Rights in Islam. Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley Pub., 1991.

Mir-Hosseini, Ziba. “Muslim Legal Tradition and the Challenge of Gender Equality.” In Men in Charge? Rethinking Authority in Muslim Legal Tradition. Edited by Ziba Mir Hosseini et al. London: Oneworld, 2015.

Mubarak, Hadia. “Breaking the Interpretive Monopoly: A Re-Examination of Verse 4:34.” Hawwa, 2004, 261-89.

Narayan, Uma. Dislocating Cultures: Identities, Traditions, and Third World Feminisms. New York: Routledge, 1997.

wadud, amina. Qurʼan and Woman: Rereading the Sacred Text from a Woman’s Perspective. 2nd ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

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.