Women in Muslim History: Traditional Perspectives and New Strategies

This short essay by sociologist Fatima Mernissi, a prominent sociologist from Morocco, is a survey of Islamic texts on women. Mernissi argues that the authors of these texts “did not, as might be expected, talk about them only as the mothers and daughters of powerful men. General history books, genealogies and chronicles identified women as active participants and full involved partners in historical events.” Mernissi then provides specific examples of such accounts, beginning with the Prophet’s wife, Aisha. The second part of the article addresses strategies for pursuing research into the role of women in Islam, in the process assessing some of the efforts of modern feminist movements.

Fatima Mernissi, From Women’s Rebellion and Islamic Memory

© 1996 Zed Books, Ltd. by permission of Zed Books Ltd.

Traditional Perspectives and New Strategies

Contrary to widespread belief, early Muslim historians gave considerable exposure to women in their writings. They did not, as might be expected, talk about them only as the mothers and daughters of powerful men. General history books, genealogies and chronicles identified women as active participants and fully involved partners in historical events, including the crucial emergence of Islam. In religious histories describing events which took place from the Prophet’s birth to his death, as well as in religious texts themselves, such as Hadith repertories (testimonies of disciples concerning the Prophet’s words and deeds) or Qur’an Tafsir (explanations, commentaries), women are acknowledged and their contribution generously praised as both disciples of the Prophet during his lifetime and as authors of Hadith after his death.

In fact, more than ever before, historical argument seems to be crucial to questions concerning the rights of women in Muslim theocracies. This is because all kinds of state policies to do with women, be they in the economic sphere (the right to work outside the home), or in the legal sphere (issues concerning personal status or family law), are justified and legitimized by reference to the tradition of the Prophet, that is, to historical tradition. Progressive persons of both sexes in the Muslim world know that the only weapon they can use to fight for human rights, in general, and women’s rights, in particular, in those countries where religion is not separate from the state, is to base political claims on religious history.

A particularly illuminating debate taking place in the Muslim world today concerns whether or not there is a precedent for women to exercise political power in the highly controversial role of A’isha, the Prophet’s third wife, who advised civil disobedience and herself led troops onto the battlefield in armed opposition to the fourth orthodox Caliph, ‘Ali Ibn Abi Talib on 4 December AD 656 (A.H. 36), thereby contributing to his downfall. One of the results of the ‘Ali-A’isha confrontation was the division of Muslims into Shi’a and Sunni, the Shi’a being unconditionally for ‘Ali and, therefore, against A’isha as the symbol, among other things, of civil disobedience and of the right to contest the Caliph when he is believed to be in the wrong.1 Even today, an outstanding Shiite ideologue, the Iranian ‘Ali Shari’ati, holds that the ideal for Muslim women is Fatima, the Prophet’s daughter, who played no noticeable political role in Islam.2 A’isha is for the Shi’a the antimodel, the monstrous image of femininity. Women should content themselves, like Fatima, with being good mothers, daughters and housewives. In Egypt, Sa’id al-Afghani devoted ten years to writing his biography of A’isha. He says in his introduction and conclusion that he did so to show that women should be barred from politics. His book, A’isha and Politics, is a systematic marshalling of all conservative works on women to this end.3

The case of A’isha illustrates how closely the claim for or against women’s rights is linked to historical scholarship in the Muslim world. Women’s excellence in this field has had a tremendous impact. The definitive biography of A’isha by Zahiya Moustapha Khaddoura, a Lebanese woman scholar, which was written in the 1940s and republished in the 1970s, is a stunning rehabilitation of A’isha, which gives pride to Muslim women by supporting their claim, not only to political decision-making but also to legislation and shari’a (religious law) making.4 A’isha produced more Hadiths (which are, besides the Koran, the revealed text, the source of the shari’a, the religious law) than ‘Ali. According to Ibn Hajar, the author of the seventeen-volume Fath al-Bari, one of the most authoritative Hadith commentaries of Boukhari Sahih (authentic Hadiths, since thousands were frauds)5 claimed that Caliph ‘Ali contributed only 29 Hadiths, while A’isha contributed 242. And, since according to this widely acclaimed 15th century scholar Ibn Hajar died in A.H. 852, Boukhari Sahih do not total more than 1,602 Hadiths (and not as he previously believed 4,000), A’isha alone contributed more than 15 per cent of the bases of the shari’a.6 Fatima, the daughter of the Prophet, upheld by Shi’a progressive ideologues like Shari’ati as the ideal for Muslim women today, did not contribute, although she was the Prophet’s daughter; nor, according to the same source, did Caliph ‘Ali’s wife contribute more than one single Hadith.

Muslim historians have been forced to grant women their due in the volumes of traditional mainstream treatises. But they have also devoted a specific genre of work to women, a genre we can call (since they often used this title themselves) Akhbar al-nisa (Women’s News). These are biographical portraits of famous individuals which are notable for their particular attention to detail and for their inclusion of themes that the methodological rules of scholarship prohibit in more mainstream work.

Salah ed-Din al-Munajid identified more than seventy such books in an article called ‘What was Written on the Subject of Women’,7 which was an attempt to provide an exhaustive listing of every mention of these works by early historians. Of course, not all of them are available today due to destruction of libraries during foreign invasions, but many have been printed, and many more are still in manuscript form in Persian, Turkish and Arabic libraries (just to mention a few), waiting to come alive.8

The authors of these books were not dubious, unknown beginners. They included many of the most important scholars of both general and religious history as well as famous imams, literary figures and genealogists. The criteria for inclusion in these biographical portraits was the display of excellence in some field; beauty was just one of these criteria. Moreover, not only queens and aristocrats were included. Slaves made it into the ‘Women’s News’ frequently and even managed on occasion totally to eclipse royalty and occupy primacy of place. A whole series of treatises on Qiyan – the cultural and literary contribution of women slaves to society – exists and begs thorough investigation.9

How then, with such a glowing presence in their history, do Muslim women come to have such a lowly image in their own society and in the world at large? In this chapter I try to answer that question and to challenge the situation.

As will be seen, the lowly image attributed to Muslim women in their own society today is not due to their absence from traditional memory or in written history. In fact, there is empirical evidence to show that the tradition of historicizing women as active, full participants in the making of culture (which we shall call nisa’ist, the Arabic synonym for feminist, from the word nisa, women) still continues today.10 It could be said that the only novelty in this tradition is that women are now no longer simply objects of Muslim history. They have become subjects as well, they write history, side by side with men. They have, since the turn of the century, been actively involved in the writing of women’s history.

The clue to this mystery resides partly in the fact that the image of women in society is not derived from historical material per se by any simple process, but is crucially dependent on the media which can either disseminate such research or restrict its dissemination. History, the recorded memory of a culture, is never consumed directly like other products. Historical material goes through highly complicated processes, often tightly controlled and censored by those in power, before it is presented to citizens for selectively orientated consumption. In order to simplify these multi-faceted, multi-connected processes, let us first make the basic assumption that possessing good historical material showing women as full participants in society is an advantage and can of course be recuperated and harnessed to a nisa’ist strategy.

Contrasting the wealth of historical evidence favourable to women with their lowly status in Muslim society leads to the inescapable conclusion that the forces shaping image-making in the Muslim world discriminate against them. But we should be careful to label these forces conservative and not fundamentalist, because, despite the way Western commentators frequently confuse the two, Muslim women’s passivity in political, economic and cultural spheres cannot be explained by the influence of fundamentalism alone. In most Muslim countries fundamentalists are viewed with suspicion by those in power and considered politically undesirable by the state. This confusion between the terms conservative and fundamentalist does not further the understanding of a dynamic and complex situation.

While most Muslim regimes disagree politically with fundamentalists about almost everything, they do agree with them on women and their place in society. The very deep political conservatism at the basis of fundamentalist movements is mirrored in the political nature, opinions and aspirations of most Muslim regimes. If only fundamentalists are taken into account, it is impossible to understand why the disparaging, discrediting image of Muslim women is so present in national media and why discrimination against them attains the status of a sanctified act.

Medieval History and the Legitimization of Women’s Rights

Medieval religious history is crucial for contemporary Muslim politics. As I mentioned earlier, those who make any kind of statement regarding the status of women are obliged to justify their pronouncements by citing precedents in religious history and tradition. State legislators, as well as fundamentalists, claim that their ideal model of the politically passive woman, barred from the public sphere and totally secluded and estranged from the society in which she lives, is derived from and legitimated by this history and tradition. A good example of this attitude is Mohammed Arafa’s book, Women’s Rights in Islam. He argues that women should not have political rights today because they never had them in the crucial period when the Prophet built the Muslim nation. The Prophet started to receive revelations in 610 when he was in his forties, emigrated to Medina in 622 (the first year of the Muslim calendar), created the first Muslim community there and died in 630. The years from 610 to 632 therefore constitute the reference, the model and the law. Mohammed Arafa states that ‘during the first decades of Islam, Muslim woman played no role whatsoever in public affairs, and this in spite of all the rights Islam bestowed on her, which are similar to those accorded to men. . . . Muslim history in its entirety ignores the participation of women, side by side with men, in the managing of the state affairs, at all levels’.11

There are many classical criteria for participation in the making of Islam. Among these, the individual must be identified as having been a disciple during the prophetic call period, while the Prophet was still alive. The person must have taken the oath of allegiance (bay’a) directly with the Prophet to fight for Islam’s survival. And the individual must have contributed after the Prophet’s death as an author of Hadiths, testimonies concerning the Prophet and his words and deeds. Using these criteria, Mohammed Arafa’s thesis is difficult to support. Women are in fact identified as disciples in all the classical religious history books, which are the references and the source for Islam past and present. The following provides impressive evidence of this.

Historical Sources

(a) In his famous directory of disciples’ biographies, Al-Isaba fi Tamyiizi al-Sahaba, Shaikh Ibn Hajar (who died AH 852 of the Muslim calendar – AD 1474) acknowledges 1,552 women as disciples.12 In a special section devoted to women (Kitab al-nisa’), which occupies a good part of Volume 5, he summarizes most of what has been written on the subject and is considered in Islam to be an important scientific author. He has been described both as the ‘most outstanding of celebrities’ (Shaikh al-Islam) and as the ‘imam of the learned’ (Imam al-Huffad). He is not, however, the first to have devoted an entire volume to female disciples’ biographies, describing in minute detail their contribution during the first decades of Islam. The most famous of his predecessors is Ibn Sa’ad.

(b) Ibn Sa’ad’s work on the ‘great classes’ (class meaning generation), Al-Tabqat al-Kubra, is an enormous compilation containing the events of the Prophet’s life, as well as biographies of his chief companions. Volume 8, the last one, is devoted entirely to women. The importance of Ibn Sa’ad’s work resides not only in its scientific rigour but also in the fact that it is among the oldest – he lived in the 9th century and died in the year 230 (AD 852). Since his death, other imams, in conformity with his approach (for example classifying the biographies in alphabetical order), have at various times tried to compile and complete the disciples’ biographies and have never failed to give women their due prominence.

(c) Tabari (Abi Ja’far Mohammed Ibn Jarir), still one of the most quoted and referred to masters of religious history, could not resist ending the thirteenth volume of his history of nations and kings (Tarikh al-umam wal-muluk), in which women were aIready given wide coverage, by resummarizing the biographies of the disciples in what he called al-Dayl (long annexes, often books in themselves, this one having 115 pages).13 Women are of course identified in many chapters as active participants and supporters of the Prophet in the making of early Islamic history. Tabari died in the year 310 (AD 932).

(d) Ibn Amir Yusuf-al-Namri al-Qurtubi, known as Ibn ‘Abd al-Barr, who wrote his Kitab al-Isti’ab in the 11th century AD (he died in 463 AH), carried on the tradition and ended his multi-volume study with women’s biographies. He is considered ‘the crown of his peers’ (taju agraniht). His text is presented, according to the printing tradition of religious literature, as a footnote in Ibn Hajar’s al-Isaba and allows the Muslim reader to compare, at a glance on the same page, his 11th century biography with that of Ibn Hajar written four centuries later. Early Muslim religious scholars were masters in the special footnoting techniques of hawamish and hawashi, in which two (sometimes three) books on the same theme or event but from different centuries are printed on the same page. This allows researchers to check variations for each biography from one century to the other, thus making their own independent evaluations and drawing their own conclusions.

(e) The 13th century (7th of the Muslim calendar) produced one more outstanding biographer of the disciples – Ibn al-Athir. He too did not forget women. He gave his disciples biographies the title of Usd al-ghaba (literally ‘The Forest Lions’) and hundreds of women are identified and alphabetically classified among them in his 200-page book of women, Kitab al-nisa.15 He died in the year 631 (1253 AD).

(f) Al-Dahbi produced his own biographies of outstanding personalities among the nobles, Siyar a’lam al-nubala, in the 14th century. Here of course nobility was defined in its religious sense as the grace of having contributed to Islam’s triumph. Women were classified among those who had that grace and all that accompanies it. Al-Dahbi died in 748 (AD 1370). This study of his, according to the editor of the most recent edition, is ‘among the pride of Arab heritage’. One of the reasons for this is that it gives pre-eminence to the first decades of early prophetic Islam, while at the same time trying to cover all the ground from that time (7th century) to the author’s own era (14th century).16 Besides general history and early religious history books, another historical genre yields incredibly detailed information on women and their position in society in early and even later Muslim centuries. This is the nassab, the genealogies. Nassab material is fascinating for contemporary researchers because it uncovers a wealth of information on particularly important topics – kinship patterns, marriage, divorce, conjugal life, sexual mores, childbirth and parenting, and women’s initiatives in all these matters. The two following examples are selected only because they have been and are still considered achievements in the genre. Thorough listing and systematic investigation of this material is one of the tasks awaiting young generations of nisa’ist researchers.

(g) Abi Abdallah Ibn Mus’ab Al-Zubeiri’s Kitab Nassab Goraich is definitely the most important and ‘trusted proof’ in Arab genealogy. It has two features which make it an especially precious document. First, it was written in the 9th century and is, therefore, one of the earliest of its kind and, second, the author ‘puts a particular effort into tracing genealogies through women as well’, according to Lery Provencal, who quoted edited and commented on its first publication.17 This work has been widely quoted by all historians and biographers of disciples, including those mentioned above, such as Tabari and lbn Abd-al-Barr, the author of Kitab al-Istiab.

(h) lbn Hazm al-Andaloussi’s Jamharat ansab al-‘Arab, written a few centuries later in the 11th century (Ibn Hazm died in 152 AH) is notable because it both summarizes all the genealogical information accumulated until his time and also includes information on non-Arabs.18 Berber, Persian and Jewish genealogies (he was an expert on the Torah) are also included. His study highlights links between Arabs and non-Arabs; women are present and visible and their sexual and reproductive life is documented like that of men.

(i) No study of religious history would be complete without mentioning the most quoted basic reference work for all Muslim historians, Ibn Hisham’s biography of the Prophet, Al-Sira al-Nabawiya. Here the lives of women disciples appear to us tightly enmeshed in their historical context. They are depicted as actively involved in the Prophet’s preaching, battles and debates.19 Hisham’s Sira is an epic fresco of the first decade of Islam’s difficult birth (often overlooked today) and of each disciple’s crucial contribution, support and detailed deeds. Here women appear as major builders of the faith. Without the emotional and intellectual support of Khadija, the Prophet’s first wife, one wonders what would have become of Islam in its particularly difficult beginnings in Mecca between 610 and 622. She was an influential and prosperous Mecca businesswoman, fifteen years his senior. She was knowledgeable about monotheism and thus convinced the Prophet, when he lived his first Quranic revelation experiences as terrifying events, that he was indeed the Prophet of a new God. According to the Prophet’s own testimony in Hisham’s Sira, it is to Khadija that he came, after his first encounter with Gabriel, the angel who contacted him on behalf of Allah in 610. He was then in his forties: ‘I came back home and went to Khadija, and put my head on her thigh. She said, “Where were you, Father of Qassem?” [one of the Prophet’s names, after one of their sons named Qassem] . . . I told her what happened [the visions and voices] and she said: “Good news, my cousin, and be assured by God. I want you to be this Nation’s Prophet”.’20 Muhammad, explains Tabari, who quotes Hisham heavily, was afraid to be just a poet under the spell of his own creativity, as there were many who had such strong fits of inspiration.21 Khadija was instrumental in convincing the troubled Prophet that his inspiration was indeed from divine origin and not simply a poetic and therefore human phenomenon. The interest of Hisham’s Sira is that it is a fundamental text, and one of the earliest, most trusted and revered references for all later historians of the Muslim religion.

That women did not enter the battlefields simply to give first aid to the wounded, as we are repeatedly told in many contemporary conservative and fundamentalist writings, is amply confirmed in Ibn Hisham’s description of one of the most disastrous battles the Prophet had to fight, the Battle of Ohod in March 625. A woman disciple who appears in all major religious history books, Nussaiba Bint Ka’b, describing her role during that battle, said that when she saw the Muslims were losing: ‘I took position near the Prophet and I started fighting with my sword, in a defensive move around the Prophet. . . . I fought until I was wounded’.22 It is no wonder then that contemporary nisa’ist intellectuals of both sexes have no difficulty proving, through the historical scholarship we shall identify in the strategy section, that women’s passivity, seclusion and their marginal place in Muslim society has nothing to do with Muslim tradition and is, on the contrary, a contemporary ideological production.

Strategies for Enhancing the Image of Muslim Women

The best way to design effective strategies is to be pragmatic and start with what one has. As we have seen, as far as historical research on women per se is concerned, the Muslim world has almost everything. But what we lack is regional and international coordination of scarce skills, both in terms of communication between researchers and at the level where their findings can be fed to the various media for wider dissemination. There follow some specific proposals to improve the situation.

Producing Historical Research

Three themes, extremely important to all those involved in women’s rights, could serve as the basis for three research projects. These are (1) research on the first decades of Islam and the production of biographies of outstanding Muslim women; (2) turn-of-the-century feminist research in Muslim countries; and (3) female slavery and prostitution in Islam. I will outline each of these in some detail to show the quality of the research potential on the one hand and the problems arising from the current lack of communication and coordination on the other.

The First Decades of Islam

Any campaigner for women’s rights is accused of importing Western models and ideas. The first decades of Islam, as we have seen, are very eloquent on women’s contribution at that time and produce models of femininity like the active businesswoman Khadija, or the first shari’a-maker A’isha, the Prophet’s third wife, or women who exercised political power within Muslim civilization. Data on women in the first decades of Islam are vital since conservative regimes and fundamentalists base their policies on women in Muslim tradition.

Sakina Shihabi’s editing of the comments of Imam Ibn ‘Asakir’s special volume on women, Tarikh Dimashq (History of Damascus), is probably one of the best examples of this research23 This text contains 196 biographies of famous Muslim women who either lived in or visited Damascus and it gave Ibn ‘Asakir an opportunity to summarize all existing data until his time (12th century AD) on some of the most active and forceful women of our civilization. The volume on women is the last of an 80-volume history of Damascus, the editing of which Sakina Shihabi made her life’s work. She carried out what is called in Arabic tahqiq (literally ‘investigation’) which means that she did extensive background research so that the modern reader could identify, by a simple glance at the reference at the bottom of the page, all names and events quoted. She explains her motives, since most of the rest of the volumes are still in manuscript form, for prioritizing the text on women: ‘I preferred to bring alive Imam Ibn ‘Asakir’s volume on women . . . because it highlights a dimension of our Muslim civilization which is still totally obscure, that concerning women’.24 She summarizes the importance of the work by saying that Ibn ‘Asakir’s women ‘make vibrant five centuries of the political, social, literary and religious life of our civilization’.25

Having acknowledged the vital importance of this investigation, however, let us go on to look both at the difficulties she encountered in carrying out her work and the problems other scholars have in gaining access to her findings.

Sakina Shihabi illustrates some of the obstacles researchers face when she describes in the introduction to her book the difficulty she had in gaining access to the work of a colleague researching the same area, Dr Aida Tayyibi. The manuscript documents from which Shihabi was working were in a badly-damaged condition and, although Dr Tayyibi had published her edited edition of ‘Ali al-Hassan al-Maliqi’s classical 13th-century manuscript, Biographies of Famous Women in Early Islam, three years earlier, Shihabi was completely unable to acquire a copy of it or to link up with Tayyibi herself. In the end she had to obtain a copy of the original manuscript from the Chester Beatty Library in Dublin, Ireland. Here we have two researchers working on identical themes in the same language, yet, because they are isolated from one another and are short of funding, their efforts suffer from this appalling duplication of energy. Shihabi’s own book is a bulky 678 pages, extremely expensive26 and poorly distributed (no publisher is indicated).

Let us look, however, at some further research potential.

Omar Kahhala’s Most Outstanding Women in Both the Arab and Muslim World is a bulky five-volume collection of biographies on women, particularly interesting for its scope (the Muslim world) and its time span. It includes early feminists such as the Lebanese, Turkish and Egyptian women who campaigned for human rights at the turn of the century, and describes their activities.27 The author’s introduction is dated 1959, which means that the book waited two decades to be published.

Zahiya Moustapha Khaddoura’s already mentioned biography of A’isha the Mother of Believers is one of the best documents available on that most important model of femininity in Muslim history. The introduction to the first edition is dated 1947, but the book was only reprinted two decades later. It mentions that Dr Khaddoura presented it to obtain a diploma from the history department of Fouad First University.

Also important is Dr A’isha Abd al-Rahman’s biography of Sakina Bint al-Hussein, the little daughter of the Prophet who refused to veil and insisted on leading an active intellectual and political life. Dr Abd al-Rahman was working at Qaraouiyine University, Fez (Morocco) when the book was published.28

This list is merely an indication of the importance of the research that already exists in Arabic on women and does not pretend to provide an exhaustive or representative survey of the available data. Similar work has probably been carried out in Iranian and Turkish. A research project could identify systematically what has been done and where, and could evaluate whether texts are worth translating and publishing and, if so, what needs to be done to make this possible. The researchers identified above could easily be traced through their publishers. Setting up networks for coordination between nisa’ist history researchers and activists and linking these to feminist publishers and the media could help bring together all the scattered energy already at work both inside and outside the Muslim world.

Feminist Research at the Turn of the Century

Many Western feminists were surprised by Margot Badran’s biography of the Egyptian feminist, Huda Sha’arawi (1879-1924), for they had been convinced that Muslim women were no more than obsequious followers in the struggle for women’s rights.29 It is true, though, that even in the Muslim world, this turn-of-the-century feminist movement had been totally forgotten, its memory swept aside by the wave of conservative and fundamentalist opinion into which the media had sunk. This is one reason why it has become necessary to organize a workshop to carry out systematic investigations into what has been written and to make suggestions about how best to ensure that it becomes more accessible. The following examples give an idea of the rich accumulation of data which are already available but scattered throughout the Muslim world.

A Turkish author, Dr Bahriye Uçok, has researched and produced some valuable biographies of women who exercised political power in Muslim countries. Such data are crucial for today’s debates with fundamentalists and conservatives, who state that women have no political role. Al-Nisa’ al-hakimat fi al-tarikh (Women who exercised political power in History) is a well-researched document on some of the women who took over political power in such far-flung corners of the Muslim world as Persia, Egypt, India, Muslim Spain and the Maldive Islands.30 Although the book was translated into Arabic and published in 1973, it is out of print and available only from libraries. This is a pity, since it is trim, concise (173 pages), well written and easily accessible even to a high-school readership. Translation of such books into Iranian, Urdu, Swahili, Malaysian, Indonesian and other Muslim languages would be useful, and publication in a cheap, well-distributed series would maximize their impact.

All this early feminist research on women in various parts of the Muslim world needs to be checked out, translated and given adequate media coverage. Attention should also be paid to nationalist movements in the Muslim world because nationalists have debated the question of women’s status and rights in their attempts to try to understand why Muslim societies were defeated by Western powers. But our knowledge of this subject has come mainly from men and women’s contribution remains largely unknown.

There are, however, some important clues. For example, in the 1890s Zaynab Fawwaz al-‘Amili, an Egyptian woman writer, published a 552-page compilation of women’s biographies called Generalizations of Secluded Housewives (Al-Durr al-manthour fi tabaqat rabbat al-khodour). In her introduction she says that she undertook the work ‘to contribute to her sex’s enhancement, and because that is the best gift one can give women’.31 This indicates that, not only was women’s historical research being undertaken at that time, but there was also a significant demand for it. The writer states that she herself was secluded and that this greatly impeded her investigations. Freedom of movement to pursue research was one of the goals she wished to achieve. Another example is that of the Turkish author, Princess Qladriya Husseyn, who wrote a volume called The Most Famous Women in the Moslem World (Shihhirat nisa’ fi l’alam al-Islami), although in this case the style was closer to that of a novel than to academic research.32

It is evident from these and other examples that women’s historical research in Islam experienced an important moment at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries. These researchers were women who both analysed their own situation in the contemporary Muslim world and contested it on historical grounds. But who were they? In which countries did the movement start? What was its significance? Where is the material it produced and how can it be used today?

A systematic regional survey, mapping feminist historical research in the Muslim world between the late 1890s and the Second World War, could establish what data exist in at least some of the major Islamic languages – Indonesian, Arabic, Urdu, Turkish and Iranian, for example. Such a survey could cover already published material, as well as give some indication of what manuscripts were available and in what languages, so that these could be fed into further strategies for translation and coordinated, perhaps initially in Turkey, Iran, the Arab states and in Urdu and Swahili-speaking countries.

Female Slavery and Prostitution in Islam

There are important data on this theme, which are usually scattered throughout the various multi-volumed studies already mentioned, especially those of Tabari, Ibn ‘Asakir, and Hisham’s Sira. Clarifying Islam’s position on slavery and prostitution and establishing how it has continually been violated, could strengthen women’s position. Women campaigning for their rights might find here the arguments with which to invalidate conservative and fundamentalist grounds for interpreting the shari’a. One document of this kind may be mentioned briefly. In the 12th century, that is five centuries after the Quran made a strong stand against slavery, Ibn Batalan wrote a treatise giving rich men advice on how to buy slaves, including information on how to test women for physical fitness, according, of course, to whether they were to be used for work or sexual pleasure.33 Since slavery and prostitution go hand in hand, searching out and exposing this material will highlight the fact that the degradation of women in Muslim countries is a violation of the Quran and its principles and laws. Serious historical research could, through a study of the past, help to lift the veil on this taboo topic in today’s societies, where a careful silence surrounds prostitution and its clients.

Dissemination Strategies

Women can learn something from the effective way in which fundamentalists use the media to disseminate information throughout Islam. Everyone has heard about fundamentalist literature on women, but very rarely are people exposed to nisa’ist research. This is because the fundamentalists have a comprehensive regional and international strategy, involving rapid translation into the main Islamic (Turkish, Iranian, Arabic, Urdu) and Western (English, French) languages, as well as well-organized distribution and dissemination of printed material around the world at affordable prices. If one never hears about nisa’ist research, which has produced first-class scholarship on Muslim women, it is because it is being produced by isolated researchers working in difficult conditions and because it has failed to find its way into the media. Moreover, much of it is expressed in rather heavy academic jargon, exists in only one of the many Islamic languages, and is often published in obscure collections, which are more often than not out of print. There are now many Muslim women trying to set up publishing houses and make films to convey different images of women. Creating links between researchers on the one hand and media skills on the other would, in itself, encourage more research and maximize its impact on society. Another vital link is between professional historians and feminist activists in need of their research findings.

Research is, by definition, an unfinished product. Producing historical data on women is just one part of the process. Feeding the research findings into the channels that need them and are likely to make good use of them is another. The problem is essentially one of coordination and the setting up of networks. Regional and international links would allow the findings of isolated researchers to flow to all those who need them and thus encourage both more research and better use of it.

Nisa’ist Publishing Initiatives

Nisa’ist publishing is thriving despite all kinds of material and political difficulties. With more financial backing, however, not only would publishers be encouraged to work together and coordinate their efforts, but they would be able to launch a more coherent publishing strategy throughout the Muslim world.34

Special mention should be made of the presence in the West of numerous women scholars from Islamic societies, who have often preferred to live abroad to preserve their creativity and who play a particularly important role in publishing historical research or in coordination networks, translation teams, publishing and other media activities on the Western intellectual stage. The AMEWS (Association for Middle-East Women’s Studies) would be in a position to mobilize researchers interested in Muslim women’s history.

Finally, a rapid translation committee needs to be set up, not only to give information about research that has been written in other languages, but also to cater for those who do not speak Arabic (the language of textual revelations and of primary scholarship on Islam) and to produce continually updated lists of new publications in Arabic to enable Urdu, Indian, Turkish and Indonesian researchers and publishers to plan for the future translation and publication of relevant material.

A sub-committee translating pertinent data on women’s religious history from Arabic into English should also be set up. Since many Arab researchers are operating from Western universities, they could play a key role in translating both information and documents into English. The AMEWS is sufficiently skilled to do this. It is well known now that if an Arabic study is translated into English it becomes more accessible to other Muslim researchers working in, say, Urdu or Iranian. Translations from one Islamic language into another are more easily carried out if there already exists an English translation of the original, for it is easier to find translators from, for example, English into Urdu than from Arabic into Urdu. Identifying scholars able to translate from Arabic into English would therefore improve communications between researchers throughout the Arab region and at the same time render the data accessible to Western readers.


  1. For two concise résumés of the historical background and complex reasons for the split between Shi’a and Sunni, see Henri Corbin, ‘Le Schisme et la philosophie prophétique’, inHistoire de la philosophie Islamique(Paris: GaIlimard, 1986) and Mohammed Abu Zahre, ‘Furuq al-medhab al-Shi’i, in Al-Madshib al-Islamiya’(Egypt: Maktabat al Adhab, n.d).
  2. For an analysis of Shariati work and its impact on women’s rights in Iran, see Adèle K. Ferdow, ‘Women and the Islamic Revolution’, International Journal of Middle East Studies15 (1983), pp. 283-98. The references to Fatima as a model are on pp. 288 ff.
  3. Sa’id al-Afghani, A’isha wa-al-Siyasse, (Beirut: Dar al-Fikr, 1971).
  4. Zahiya Moustapha Khaddoura, A’isha the mother of Believers, (Beirut: Dar al-Kitab al-Arabi, 1972). The introduction is dated 1943.
  5. Fatima Mernissi ‘Le Prophet et les Hadithe’ and ‘Enquête sur un Hadith misogyne et sur son auteur Abu Bakre’, in Le Harem Politique(Paris: Michel Albin, 1987, chs. 2 and 3. A summary of these findings was presented to the Georgetown University Eleventh Avenue Symposium on ‘Women in Arab Society, Old Boundaries, New Frontiers’, 10-11 April 1986.
  6. Ibn Hajar, ‘Asqlani al-sari moqaddimat’, Fath al-bari, Vol. 1 (Egypt: a-Matb’a al-Mostapha al-Halabi, 1962), pp. 247 ff.
  7. Salah al-Din al-Mounajid, ‘Ma ullifa ani al-nisa’ majallat majma’, Lugha al-arabiya 16 (1941), p. 216.
  8. Since 1941 several of the books which were still in manuscript form have been printed, thanks to the efforts of pro-women scholars such as Salah al-Din al-Mounajid.
  9. A sample of this genre is Abu al-Faraj al-Isbahani’s Slave Women Poets (al-Ima’ a-Shawa’ir)in the 10th century; see also Abu al-Faraj al-Isbahani,Al-Ima a-Shawa’ir, ed. Noury Mohammed al-Qaissi and Younes Ahmed al-Samarrai (Beirut: Maktabat al-Nahda al al-‘Arabiya, 1984.)
  10. The equivalent of the word feminism in Arabic is coined from the word nisa’ (women). Many compositions with this word as a radical have been adopted to express feminist ideas or claims in many Arab conferences, including one organized in Cairo by Nawal Saadawi, president of the Arab Women’s Solidarity Association, in September 1986. But, as always happens, and this is natural in democratic contexts, each political faction tries to add a consonant here or a vowel there to give the word nisa’ its ideological connotation: niswani, nisa’i, nusswanati. I find the word nisa’ by itself so charged with energy that for me, it means a whole programme of self-liberation just by itself. I would not therefore add anything to it but the adjectival ending which consists of adding a simple ‘i’ to nisa, whence nisa’i. Nisa’i is for me an adjective that designates my idea, project, programme, or hope that supports women’s rights to full-fledged participation in and contribution to remaking, changing and transforming society, as well as full realization of one’s own talents, needs, potentials, dreams and virtualities. And it is in this sense that I have always lived and defined women’s liberation, whatever the language -‘feminism’ or nisa’ism. In this chapter, however, since I am describing the dynamics and the debate around women and history in the Muslim world, I use the Arabic word nisa’ist to identify the progressive current supporting women’s rights through historical scholarship, since Arabic is the only Islamic language I know, and also because most of the historical documents to which I shall be referring are in Arabic, although their authors may be Iranians, or Turks, etc. This progressive nisa’ist feminist current includes men as well as women. The content of the historical work, the ideological target of the conclusions, are taken into account, not the sex of the author.
  11. Mohammed Arafa, Huquq al-mar’a fil-Islam, 3rd edn. (Place of publication not indicated, Al-Maktab al-Islami, 1980), p. 149.
  12. Sheikh Ibn Hajar, Al-Isaba fi tamyiizi al-sahaba(Lebanon: Maktabat al-Mouthanna, 1902).
  13. Tabari, ‘Al-Mountakhab min Kitab al-dayl al-moudayyal min tarikh al-sahaba wal-tabi’in’,Tarikh al-umam wa-l-muluk, Vol. XIII (Beirut: Dar al-Fikr, 1979).
  14. Ibn ‘Abd-al Barr’s Kitab al-Isti’abappears in Appendix II of Ibn Hajar’s al-Isaba.
  15. Ibn al-Athir, ‘Usd al-ghaba fi ma’rifat al-sahaba’, in al-Matba’s al-Wahbiya, ed. and compiled by Moustapha Wahbiar, Vol. V, 1920. Kitab al-nisa’ runs from pp. 389 to 642.
  16. Al-Dahbi, Siyar a’lam al-Mubala(Cairo: Dar al-ma’arif, 1958), p. 38. See especially Vol. II, in which a concentration of women’s biographies is listed.
  17. Abi ‘Abdallah bnu Mus’ab al-Zubeiri, Kitab nassab goraich(Cairo: Dar al-Ma’arif), 1950. The quotation is from Lery Provencal’s introduction, p. 9.
  18. Ibn Hazm al-Andaloussi, Jamharat ansab al-‘Arab(Cairo: Dar al-Ma’arif, n.d.).
  19. Ibn Hisham, Al-Sira al-Nabawiya, Beirut, Dar Ihys al-Thurat al-Arabi, n.d.
  20. Hisham, Sira, Vol. I, p. 254.
  21. Tabari, Tarikh, Vol. II, p. 208.
  22. Hisham, Sira, Vol. III, pp. 86, 87.
  23. Imam Ibn ‘Asakir, Tarikh Dimashq(Damascus: 1982). Special volume on women edited by Sakina Shihabi.
  24. ‘Asakir, Tarikh Dimashq, p. 5.
  25. ‘Asakir, Tarikh Dimashq, p. 33.
  26. It costs 160DH, the equivalent of 200 francs or roughly 40 US dollars, which relative to purchasing power is a prohibitive price.
  27. Omar Kahhala, Most Outstanding Women in Both the Arab and Muslim World(Damascus: Mu’assassat al-Rissala, 1982).
  28. Ai’sha ‘Abd al-Rahman, Sakina Bint al-Hussein(Beirut: Dar al-Kitab al-‘Arabi, n.d.).
  29. Margot Badran, Harem Years: the Memoirs of an Egyptian Feminist(London: Virago, 1986).
  30. Bahriye Ucok, Al Nisa al-hakimat fi al-tarikh, trans. into Arabic by Ibrahim Daqouq (Baghdad: Matba’a al-Sa’doun, 1973).
  31. Zaynab Fawwaz al-‘Amili,Al-Durr al-manthour fi tabaqat rabbat al-khodour(Boulaq, Egypt: al-Matba’a al-Kubr, 1982,1985).
  32. Princess Qadriya Husseyn, Shihhirat nisa’ fi ‘alam al-Islami, trans. into Arabic by ‘Abd al-‘Aziz Amin al-Khanji (Egypt: Husseyn Husseyn Publications, 1924).
  33. Ibn Batalan, Risala fi shariy al-raqiq (Cairo: Dar al-Fikr al Arabi, 1954).
  34. There are already nisa’ist groups publishing research or translations in Pakistan (Simrog Women’s Resource and Publication Centre, Lahore), France (The Arab Women’s Solidarity Association, Doreya al-Awn, Paris), Morocco (Editions le Fennec, Casablanca), the United States (AMEWS, Association for Middle East Women’s Studies, University of California, Davis, Ca. 95616)
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