In honor of International Women’s Day, I thought it would be interesting to introduce people to several names of important Muslim women in history that they may not have encountered before. Although the names of such extraordinary figures as the Empress Theodora, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Joan of Arc, Anne Boleyn, Caterina Sforza, and Elizabeth I are generally well-known, their counterparts in the medieval and early modern Muslim world are not. Women played an important role in the pre-modern Muslim world as scholars, poets, mystics, rulers, and warriors. This is a very short list of some of them.
1) Khadīja b. Khuwaylid (d. 620). Even before her famous marriage to the Prophet Muhammad, she was an important figure in her own right, being a successful merchant and one of the elite figures of Mecca. She played a central role in supporting and propagating the new faith of Islam and has the distinction of being the first Muslim. As the Prophet Muhammad himself is believed to have said in a hadith preserved in Sahih Muslim: “God Almighty never granted me anyone better in this life than her. She accepted me when people rejected me; she believed in me when people doubted me; she shared her wealth with me when people deprived me; and God granted me children only through her.” Indeed, another of the most important women of early Islam, Fāṭima al-Zahrā’, was the daughter of the Prophet by Khadīja and it is only through Fāṭima (especially through her two sons, al-Hasan and al-Husayn) that the lineage of the Prophet Muhammad is preserved. These facts make Fāṭima and her mother Khadīja among the most revered female personages in Islamic history.
(Tomb of Khadija before its destruction)
2) Nusayba b. Ka‘b al-Anṣārīyya (d. 634). Also known as Umm ‘Ammara, she was a member of the Banū Najjār tribe and one of the earliest converts to Islam in Medina. As a Companion of the Prophet Muhammad, there were many virtues attributed to her. She is most remembered, however, for taking part in the Battle of Uhud (625), in which she carried sword and shield and fought against the Meccans. She shielded the Prophet Muhammad from enemies during the battle and even sustained several lance wounds and arrows as she cast herself in front of him to protect him. It is said that after she sustained her twelfth wound, she fell unconscious and the first question she asked when she awoke (a day later in Medina) was “did the Prophet survive?”
3) Khawla b. al-Azwar (d. 639). Another contemporary of the Prophet Muhammad. She is best known for her participation in the Battle of Yarmuk (636) against the Byzantines. According to later narratives of the Islamic conquests, authors described her as having the skill and fighting ability of the famed Muslim general Khālid ibn al-Walīd. There are a lot of embellishments and unclear details that emerge from later sources about her which make the details questionable, leading some scholars to doubt whether she had even existed at all! Despite these reservations, it is nonetheless notable that scholars such as al-Waqidi and al-Azdi, writing in the eighth and ninth centuries, found it necessary to ascribe such importance to a female warrior in the conquests. Indeed, if she never existed at all this makes her legend all the more interesting.
(Jordanian stamp depicting Khawla b. al-Azwar)
4) ‘Ā’isha b. Abī Bakr (d. 678). A figure that requires almost no introduction, ‘Ā’isha was the wife of the Prophet Muhammad who had perhaps the most influence on the Muslim community after his death. She played a central role in the political opposition to the third and fourth caliphs Uthmān ibn ‘Affān and ‘Alī ibn Abī Ṭālib, even leading an army against the latter at Basra in 656. Although she retired from political life after her defeat, she continued to play a major role as a transmitter of Islamic teachings. She is one of the major narrators of hadith in the Sunni tradition. In many ways, she is among the most controversial figures in early Islam, especially since the implications of her actions for women’s participation in scholarship, political life, and the public sphere clashed with later conservative conceptions of the role of women. For more about ‘Ā’isha and her legacy, read Denise Spellberg’s excellent book entitled Politics, Gender and the Islamic Past: The Legacy of ‘Ā’isha bint Abī Bakr (1996).
5) Zaynab b. ‘Alī (d. 681). She was the grand-daughter of the Prophet Muhammad through his daughter Fāṭima (d. 633) and her husband ‘Alī ibn Abī Ṭālib (d. 661). She was among the most illustrious and admirable figures of the Ahl al-Bayt (Family of the Prophet) and played a central role both during and after the Massacre at Karbala (680), where her brother al-Ḥusayn ibn ‘Alī, and 72 of her nephews and other brothers were killed by the Umayyads. For a time, she was the effective leader of the Ahl al-Bayt and served as the primary defender of the cause of her brother, al-Ḥusayn. At Kufa, she defended her nephew—‘Alī ibn al-Ḥusayn—from certain death by the governor of the city and, when presented to the Yazīd ibn Mu‘āwiya at Damascus, gave such an impassioned and forceful speech in the royal court that forced the caliph to release her and the prisoners taken at Karbala. Her strength, patience, and wisdom makes her one of the most important women in early Islam. Her shrine at Damascus remains a major place of visitation by both Sunnis and Shi’as, a fact that emphasizes the universality of her legacy among Muslims.
(Shrine of Sayyida Zaynab in Damascus)
6) Rābi‘a al-‘Adawīyya (d. 801). One of the most important mystics (or Sufis) in the Muslim tradition, Rābi‘a al-‘Adawīyya spent much of her early life as a slave in southern Iraq before attaining her freedom. She is considered to be one the founders of the Sufi school of “Divine Love,” which emphasizes the loving of God for His own sake, rather than out of fear of punishment or desire for reward. She lays this out in one of her poems:
“O God! If I worship You for fear of Hell, burn me in Hell,
and if I worship You in hope of Paradise, exclude me from Paradise.
But if I worship You for Your Own sake,
grudge me not Your everlasting Beauty.”
When asked why he included such a major entry on Rābi‘a in his biographical dictionary of mystics (the Tadhkirat al-Awliyā’), the 13th-century scholar Fariduddīn Attār (d. 1220) explained: “the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) himself said, ‘God does not regard your outward forms. The root of the matter is not form, but the inner intention. Mankind will be raised up according to their intentions.’ Moreover if it is proper for us to derive two-thirds of our religion from a woman, the noble and blessed ‘A’isha bint Abi Bakr (may God be pleased with them both), then surely it is permissible to take religious instruction from [one who can be likened, in status, to] a handmaiden of ‘A’isha (may God be pleased with her).”
7) Lubna of Cordoba (d. 984). Originally a slave-girl of Spanish origin, Lubna rose to become one of the most important figures in the Umayyad palace in Cordoba. She was the palace secretary of the caliphs ‘Abd al-Rahmān III (d. 961) and his son al-Hakam b. ‘Abd al-Rahmān (d. 976). She was also a skilled mathematician and presided over the royal library, which consisted of over 500,000 books. According to the famous Andalusi scholar Ibn Bashkuwāl: “She excelled in writing, grammar, and poetry. Her knowledge of mathematics was also immense and she was proficient in other sciences as well. There were none in the Umayyad palace as noble as her.” [Ibn Bashkuwal, Kitab al-Silla (Cairo, 2008), Vol. 2: 324].
8) Al-Malika al-Ḥurra Arwa al-Sulayhi (d. 1138). Her full name was Arwa b. Ahmad b. Muhammad al-Sulayḥī. From 1067 to 1138, she ruled as the queen of Yemen in her own right. She was an Ismā‘īlī Shi’i and was well-versed in various religious sciences, Qur’an, hadith, as well as poetry and history. Chroniclers describe her as being incredibly intelligent. The fact that she ruled in her own right as queen is underscored by the fact that her name was mentioned in the khutba (Friday sermon) directly after the name of the Fatimid caliph, al-Mustanṣir-billah. Arwa was given the highest rank in the Yemeni Fatimid religious hierarchy (that of ḥujja) by the Fatimid caliph al-Mustanṣir. She was the first woman in the history of Islam to be given such an illustrious title and to have such authority in the religious hierarchy. It was also during her reign that Ismā’īlī missionaries were sent to western India, where a major Ismā’īlī center was established at Gujrat (which continues to be a stronghold of the Ismā’īlī Bohra faith). She played a major role in the Fatimid schism of 1094, throwing her support behind al-Musta‘lī (and later al-Tayyib), and it is a mark of her immense influence that the lands under her rule—Yemen and parts of India—would follow her in this. Indeed, Yemen became the stronghold of the Tayyibī Ismā’īlī movement. Her reign was marked by various construction projects and improvement of Yemen’s infrastructure, as well as its increased integration with the rest of the Muslim world. She was perhaps the single, most important example of an independent queen in Muslim history.
9) Fāṭima b. Abī al-Qāsim ‘Abd al-Rahmān b. Muhammad b. Ghālib al-Ansārī al-Sharrāṭ (d. 1216). She was one of the most learned women in al-Andalus during the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries. Her engagement with works of legal theory, jurisprudence as well as mysticism makes it apparent that she was familiar with a wide variety of Islamic sciences. She was the mother of the eminent professor Abū al-Qāsim b. al-Ṭaylasān. According to the Andalusi scholar Abū Ja’far al-Gharnāṭī (d. 1309): “She memorized enumerable books under the guidance of her father, including al-Makki’s Tanbīh, al-Qudā‘ī’s al-Shihāb, Ibn ‘Ubayd al-Ṭulayṭalī’s Mukhtasar, all three of which she knew by heart. She also memorized the Qur’an under the guidance of Abū ‘Abd Allāh al-Madwarī, the great ascetic who is considered from among the abdāl [an important rank within Sufism]. With her father, she also learned Sahīh Muslim, Ibn Hishām’s Sīra [of the Prophet], al-Mubarrad’s al-Kāmil, al-Baghdādī’s Nawādir, and other works.”[Abū Ja’far Ahmad b. Ibrāhīm al-Gharnāṭī, Kitāb Silla al-Silla (Beirut, 2008), p. 460].
10) Razia Sultan (d. 1240). She was the ruler of the Sultanate of Delhi between 1236 and 1240. Her father, Shams al-Dīn Iltutmish (r. 1210-1236) had Razia designated as his heir before his death, therefore making her the official ruler of the sultanate. She was a fairly effective ruler and was a major patron of learning, establishing schools and libraries across northern India. In all matters, she behaved like a sultan, leading armies, sitting upon the throne and even adopting the same royal dress as her father; to the outrage of many, she also insisted on appearing unveiled in public. In 1240, she was overthrown in a rebellion by the nobles of the kingdom, who—among other things—were strongly opposed to being led by a woman and killed. There is too much to be said about her life than I can do justice to here, but if you want to know more, I suggest you read Rafiq Zakaria’s Razia: Queen of India (1966).
(Coins minted in the name of Razia Sultan)
(Artistic depiction of Razia Sultan)
11) Shajar al-Durr (d. 1257). She was the widow of the Ayyubid sultan al-Sālih Ayyūb (r. 1240-1249) and played an important role in Egyptian politics following her husband’s death. She was most likely of Turkic origin, beginning her life as a slave-girl in the Ayyubid court. By 1250, she had become the ruler (or sultana) of Egypt; her reign is generally considered to mark the beginning of the Mamluk sultanate of Egypt. She played an important role in the preparations in defending northern Egypt against the Seventh Crusade, defeating the crusaders (although she herself was not present) at the Battle of Fariskur (1250) and taking King Louis IX of France captive. She was the effective head-of-state and her name was mentioned in the khutba and coins minted in her name with the title “Malikat al-Muslimīn” (Queen of the Muslims). However, it was difficult for people to accept being ruled solely by a woman and in August 1250, as a result of various pressures, she married her commander-in-chief ‘Izz al-Dīn Aybak, who became the first Mamluk sultan. Despite the marriage, Shajar al-Durr maintained her power and was even able to ensure that documents of state bore the names of both sovereigns, rather than only that of Aybak. However, in 1257 she decided to eliminate her husband (for political reasons in addition to discovering that he was engaged in an affair with another woman or sought to marry an additional wife [the sources are obscure on this issue]) and assassinated him in bath. When this was discovered, she was deposed and brutally killed, bringing her reign to a tragic close.
(Coins minted by Shajar al-Durr)
(Tomb of Shajar al-Durr)
12) Zaynab b. Ahmad (d. 1339). She was perhaps one of the most eminent Islamic scholars of the fourteenth century. Zaynab belonged to the Ḥanbalī school of jurisprudence and resided in Damascus. She had acquired a number of ijazas (diplomas or certifications) in various fields, most notably hadith. In the early fourteenth century, she taught such books as Sahīh Bukhāri, Sahīh Muslim, the Muwatta’ of Mālik b. Anas, the Shamā’il of al-Tirmidhī, and al-Tahāwī’s Sharḥ Ma‘ānī al-Athār. Among her students was the North African traveler Ibn Battūta (d. 1369), Tāj al-Dīn al-Subkī (d. 1355), al-Dhahabī (d. 1348), and her name appears in several dozen of the isnads of Ibn Ḥajar al-Asqalānī (d. 1448). It is important to point out that Zaynab was only one of hundreds of female scholars of hadith during the medieval period in the Muslim world. For more on the role of Muslim women in hadith scholarship, read Asma Sayeed’s Women and the Transmission of Religious Knowledge in Islam (2013) and Mohammad Akram Nadwi’s Al-Muhaddithat: The Women Scholars of Islam (2007).
(Manuscript of Sahih Bukhari)
13) Sayyida al-Hurra (d. 1542). With a name literally meaning “the Free Woman,” Sayyida al-Hurra was one of the most interesting Muslim figures of the sixteenth century. She was originally from the Nasrid Kingdom of Granada, but was forced to flee following its conquest by Christian Spain in 1492. Like many Andalusi Muslims, she settled in Morocco and, along with her husband, fortified and ruled the town of Tetouan on the northern coast. Following the death of her husband in 1515, she became the sole ruler of the city, which grew in strength and population as more Andalusi Muslims were exiled or driven out of Iberia in the early sixteenth century. For various reasons, including the desire to avenge the destruction of al-Andalus and the forcible conversion to Christianity of Muslims there, she turned to piracy and transformed Tetouan into a major base of naval operations against Spain and Portugal. She allied with the famous Ottoman corsair-turned-admiral Hayreddin Barbarossa in Algiers and together they dealt a serious blow to Spanish imperial power in North Africa and the Western Mediterranean. It is interesting to note that Muslim sources are quite silent about Sayyida al-Hurra, and most of our information about her is derived from Spanish and Portuguese documents, who emphasize her effectiveness as a pirate queen and the destructiveness of the raids that she wrought against the southern shores of the Iberian peninsula. She later married the Moroccan Wattasid Sultan, Abūl Abbās Muhammad (r. 1526-1545). While the pirates Anne Bonny and Mary Read are well-known female pirates to many audiences, it is a shame that Sayyida al-Hurra is much less known. For a good look at her life, see Fatima Mernissi’s The Forgotten Queens of Islam (1997), where the author discusses al-Sayyida al-Hurra as well as other important female figures in the medieval Muslim world. For those who know Spanish, see Rodolfo Grim Grimau’s “Sayyida al-Hurra, Mujer Marroqui de Origen Andalusi,” Anaquel de Estudios Arabes (2000): 311-320.
14) Parī Khān Khānum (d. 1578). A Safavid princess and daughter of Shah Tahmasp I (r. 1524-1576) by a Circassian mother, she was one of the most influential Iranian women in the sixteenth century. She was renowned as an educated woman and was well-versed in traditional Islamic sciences, such as jurisprudence. She was also known to be an excellent poet. Parī Khān Khānum played an important role in securing the succession of her brother Ismā‘īl II to the Safavid throne. However, during Ismā‘īl’s short reign, her influence waned. During the reign of Ismā‘īl’s successor, Mohammad Khodabanda, she was killed because she was seen to wield too much influence and power. For more, see Shohreh Gholsorkhi’s “Pari Khan Khanum: A Masterful Safavid Princess,” Iranian Studies 28 (1995): 143-156.
15) Kösem Sultan (d. 1651). Many English-speaking audiences are quite familiar with Roxelana or Hurrem Sultan, the queen-consort of Suleyman I (r. 1520-1566). However, Kösem Sultan seems to be much less known. As the consort (then wife) of Ottoman sultan Ahmed I (r. 1603-1617), the mother of the sultans Murad IV (r. 1623-1640) and Ibrahim (r. 1640-1648), and the grandmother of the sultan Mehmed IV (r. 1648-1687), she wielded immense influence and can be considered to be perhaps the most powerful woman in Ottoman history. Originally a Greek with the name Anastasia, she was enslaved at a young age and brought to the Ottoman palace, where she became the concubine of the sultan Ahmed I. According to a contemporary source, Cristoforo Valier, in 1616, Kösem was the most powerful of the sultan’s associates: “she can do what she wishes with the Sultan and possesses his heart absolutely, nor is anything ever denied to her.” Between 1623 and 1632, she served as regent for her son Murad IV, who took the throne as a minor. Until her assassination in 1651, as a result of court intrigue, she exercised a major influence on Ottoman politics. For more on Kösem Sultan and the institution of the Ottoman imperial harem, see Leslie Peirce’s The Imperial Harem: Women and Sovereignty in the Ottoman Empire (1993).
Anyone wishing to learn more about women in the medieval Muslim world should consult the bibliography I compiled here: