20 Influential Medieval/Early Modern Muslim Women

This is the second part of a previous post on the subject (https://ballandalus.wordpress.com/2014/03/08/15-important-muslim-women-in-history/), which sought to highlight the important role of women in the influencing the political, social, intellectual and military developments in the Islamic world during the medieval and early modern era. This post, like the previous one, is an attempt to introduce readers to the names of a few women who made their mark in Islamic (and world) history while providing a few sources for those interested in learning more about each. 

1) Fāṭimah al-Zahrā’ bt. Muḥammad (d. 11/632). The daughter of the Prophet Muhammad (d. 11/632) and his first wife Khadīja bt. Khuwaylid (d. 620), she played a pivotal role in the early Muslim community in Mecca and Medina. Fāṭimah, along with her family, endured the harsh persecution of the Quraysh  in Mecca before migrating to Medina in 622. During the life of the Prophet, Fāṭimah lived through (and actively participated) in all the major developments in the establishment of the new faith of Islam. She is remembered as “Her Father’s Mother” (Umm Abīha) for her unwavering devotion to her father, the Prophet Muhammad, and her supporting him during his most difficult time (the Meccan persecutions), even physically defending him from attacks to his person when necessary. Shortly after arriving in Medina, she married ‘Alī b. Abī Ṭālib (d. 40/661), who did not marry any other woman while Fāṭimah lived. This union produced four children: Zaynab (d. 62/681), Umm Kulthūm (d. before 61/680), al-Ḥasan (d. 50/670) and al-Ḥusayn (d. 61/680). It is only through these descendants of Fāṭimah that the Prophet’s lineage was maintained, all his other children having predeceased him. Throughout Islamic history and civilization, those claiming descent from this line—especially through al-Ḥasan and al-Ḥusayn—were held in high esteem and known by the honorary titles Fatimid (faṭimī), Sayyid (sayyid) or Sharif (sharīf).

Fāṭimah is praised by all Muslims for her immense knowledge, piety, humility, generosity and courage. In addition to being a central figure in the household of the Prophet (the Ahl al-Bayt), she is revered as one of the five “People of the Cloak” (Ahl al-Kisā’), an eminent spiritual status linked by many Muslim theologians, exegetes and historians to the “purification verse” (Q. 33:33) in the Qur’an. Both Sunni and Shi’i historical sources indicate that, immediately following the death of the Prophet Muhammad, Fāṭimah played an important role as a leading figure of opposition to Abū Bakr (r. 11–13/632-634), contesting his claim to be the legitimate leader of the community. A skilled, powerful and confident orator, she also publicly defended her claim to the property of Fadak, which she considered to have been unlawfully confiscated by Abū Bakr. Muslims have debated for centuries about the extent of Fāṭimah’s opposition, its significance, its underlying causes and whether or not she was reconciled with Abū Bakr before her death. Despite some serious historical and theological differences of opinion surrounding Fāṭimah (especially regarding her role after the death of the Prophet), all Muslims have exalted her as a central figure in early Islamic history, whose spiritual status, knowledge, piety and struggle for justice render her worthy of emulation. For more on Fāṭimah, see:

Laura Veccia Vaglieri. “Fāṭima.” Encyclopaedia of Islam, Second Edition. Edited by: P. Bearman, Th. Bianquis, C.E. Bosworth, E. van Donzel, W.P. Heinrichs. Brill Online.

Verena Klemm. “Fāṭima bt. Muḥammad.” Encyclopaedia of Islam, THREE. Edited by: Kate Fleet, Gudrun Krämer, Denis Matringe, John Nawas, Everett Rowson. Brill Online

Martin Lings. Muhammad: His Life based on the Earliest Sources (1983).

(Marriage of ‘Alī and Fāṭima, from the 16th-c. Ottoman Siyer-i Nebi)

2) Asmā’ bt. Abī Bakr (d. 73/692).
The daughter of Abū Bakr and the elder sister of ‘Ā’ishah (d. 58/678), Asmā’ was one of the earliest converts to the new faith of Islam in Mecca. She was married to another early convert, al-Zubayr b. al-‘Awwām (d. 36/656), with whom she had several children, all of whom would go on to become prominent political and intellectual figures during the first Islamic century. Asmā’ is considered to be among the most learned Companions of the Prophet and many early Muslim sources emphasize her integrity, fortitude, and bravery. As an early convert, she endured much of the persecution that the early Muslims experienced in Mecca and was forced to migrate to Medina in 622. When the Prophet Muhammad and Abū Bakr sought refuge in the cave outside Mecca, Muslim tradition emphasizes that it was Asmā’ that would secretly carry food and water to them. Like many other Muslim women, she participated in the Battle of Yarmouk (15/636) against the Byzantines. After the death of the Prophet, she was one of the leading authorities on Islamic teachings, transmitting a significant number of hadith (statements by or about the Prophet). One of her sons—‘Urwah b al-Zubayr (d. 94/713)—would go on to become one the most eminent scholars in early Islamic history, especially in the field of hadith.

Asmā’ was part of the anti-Alid faction during the First Civil War, supporting her sister ‘Ā’ishah, her husband al-Zubayr and her son ‘Abd Allāh b. al-Zubayr (d. 73/692) in their war against the caliph ‘Alī b. Abī Ṭālib which culminated in the Battle of the Camel (36/656). During the Second Civil War, she was a leading anti-Umayyad oppositional figure, rallying thousands of Muslims in the Hijaz to support the caliphal claims of her son ‘Abd Allāh b. al-Zubayr against the rule of Yazīd b. Mu‘āwiyah (r. 61–64/680–683), Marwān b. al-Ḥakam (r. 64–65/684–685) and ‘Abd al-Malik b. Marwān (r. 65–86/685–705). Following the violent conquest of Mecca by Umayyad forces in 73/692, she had to endure the sight of her son ‘Abd Allāh being killed and crucified in the sacred precincts of the Ka’ba by the Umayyad general al-Ḥajjāj b. Yūsuf (d. 95/714), whom she bravely confronted. She was among the longest-lived of the generation of the Prophet’s companions and passed away when she was over 100 years old. For more on Asmā’ and her context, see

Asma Afsaruddin, The First Muslims: History and Memory (2007)

Asma Afsaruddin, “Asmāʾ bt. Abī Bakr.” Encyclopaedia of Islam, THREE. Edited by: Kate Fleet, Gudrun Krämer, Denis Matringe, John Nawas, Everett Rowson. Brill Online

3) Ghazālah al-Shaybāniyyah (d. 77/696).
Born into the Arab Banū Shaybān tribe that had migrated to Iraq during the Islamic conquests in the early seventh century, she rose to become a leading member of the infamous Ḥarūrī sect of early Kharijism, a group notorious for its puritanical interpretation of the Qur’an, rejection of non-Kharijite rule and use of violence against their opponents, combatants and non-combatants alike. Her husband was the renowned Ḥarūrī military commander Shabīb b. Yazīd al-Shaybānī (d. 77/696), elected the leader of the sect with the title Amīr al-Mu’minīn. The Ḥarūrīyyah, for all their violence, advocated a staunchly egalitarian worldview for the members of their sect—the only “true Muslims” as far as they were concerned—which enabled Ghazālah to rise as an important leader in her own right and command armies, a rare feat for an Arab woman in the 7th century. Unfortunately, there are no contemporary sources that mention Ghazālah so the bulk of information about her is drawn from sources written between the 9th and 15th centuries. These later chronicles, even when written by scholars staunchly opposed to the Kharijites, memorialize her as a an outstanding warrior, praising her bravery, military prowess and leadership abilities.

According to several narrations, Ghazālah once defeated an army commanded by the Umayyad general al-Ḥajjāj b. Yūsuf, compelling the latter to flee the battlefield. Following this victory, she composed a short poem taunting al-Ḥajjāj as “an ostrich posing as a lion.” Around 695 she and her warriors are said to have briefly occupied the town of Kufa, at which point Ghazālah ascended the pulpit in the Great Mosque of Kufa and delivered a rousing sermong to her troops before praying two rak‘as (units of prayer), allegedly reciting Surah al-Baqarah (Chapter 2) of the Qur’an during the first rak‘a and Surah Al-‘Imran (Chapter 3) of the Qur’an in the second, both chapters being the longest in the Qur’an. Ghazālah was responsible for defeating several Umayyad armies sent against her, but eventually died in battle against an Umayyad force outside Kufa around 696. The Kharijite insurrection waged by Shabīb and Ghazālah against the Umayyads and its suppression was among the most violent affairs of 7th-century Iraq, a fact which prompted the Umayyads (and al-Ḥajjāj in particular) to eliminate the most violent Kharijite sects (such as the Harūrīyyah and the Azāriqah), while negotiating with more quietist ones such as the Ibādiyyah. For more on the representation of female warriors in the Islamic tradition, see Remke Kruk, The Warrior Women of Islam: Female Empowerment in Arabic Popular Literature (2013)

Lot 4187 - ISLAMIC COINS. UMAYYAD. KHARIJITE REBEL. Anonymous, Silver Dirham, al-Kufa 128h, 2.89g (Klat 548a; A

(Kharijite coin from the Umayyad era. From http://www.the-saleroom.com/en-gb/auction-catalogues/baldwins/catalogue-id-srbal10018/lot-812346bd-46f5-44c8-ad7f-a447004f97f2)

4) Umm al-Dardā’ Hujayma bt. Ḥuyayy al-Sughra (d. after 81/700).
One of the leading Muslim scholars of the second generation after the Prophet (known as the tābi‘īn), Umm al-Dardā’ was an important hadith transmitter, teacher and jurist. An expert on the Qur’an (which she memorized at a young age), she met and transmitted hadith from ‘Ā’ishah b. Abī Bakr, Salmān al-Farisī, Abū Hurayra and other companions of the Prophet. After living much of her life in Medina, she moved to Damascus where she taught hundreds of students (both male and female) in the Great Mosque, many of whom would go on to become respected scholars in their own right (and one, ‘Abd al-Malik b. Marwān, who would eventually become caliph). For more on Umm al-Dardā’ and other women scholars in the medieval Islamic world, see

Asma Sayeed’s Women and the Transmission of Religious Knowledge in Islam (2013)

Mohammed Akram Nadwi, al-Muhaddithat: The Women Scholars in Islam (2007): https://ia802705.us.archive.org/23/items/AlMuhaddithat/al%20-%20Muhaddithat.pdf

5) Sayyida Nafīsah al-Ṭāhirah (d. 209/824).
 A direct descendant of the Prophet Muhammad through the line of al-Ḥasan b. ‘Alī b. Abī Ṭālib, she was one of the most important figures in the early Islamic history of Egypt. Having memorized the Qur’an while still a child, she also become an expert in jurisprudence,and hadith by the time she was an adult. She married Isḥāq b. Ja’far b. Muḥammad, also a prominent scholar and a son of Ja’far al-Ṣādiq (d. 148/765), and moved to Egypt (after having lived in Medina for most of her life). She is remembered in Muslim tradition for her immense piety as well as her knowledge. One of her most famous students was none other than Muḥammad b. Idrīs al-Shafi‘ī (d. 204/820). According to various narrations, following the latter’s death, Sayyida Nafīsah ordered his body to be brought to her house so that she could recite the funeral prayer over him. In the Sufi and mystical traditions of Islam, there are numerous miracles ascribed to her. As an Alid, a learned woman, and an individual of renowned piety, Sayyida Nafīsah is remembered in Egypt as one of the most important saints of Fustat (Old Cairo), where her mausoleum and mosque—constructed, expanded and renovated by the Fatimid, Ayyubid, Mamluk, and Ottoman dynasties—is still visited by thousands. For more on Sayyida Nafīsah, see R. Strothmann, “Nafīsa,” Encyclopaedia of Islam, Second Edition. Edited by: P. Bearman, Th. Bianquis, C.E. Bosworth, E. van Donzel, W.P. Heinrichs. Brill Online

(Sayyida Nafīsah Mosque, Cairo, Egypt)

6) Kanzah bt. Isḥāq b. Muḥammad al-Awrabiyya (d. ca. 215/830).
The daughter of the chieftain of the Awraba Berber tribe in North Africa, she became the wife of Idrīs I b. ‘Abd Allāh (d. 177/791), himself a descendant of al-Ḥasan b. ‘Alī b. Abī Ṭālib and founder of the Idrissid Kingdom in Morocco. She bore Idrīs his only son and heir: Idrīs II (r. 177–213/791–828). Most historians are often silent after this point, assuming that she played no further role in Idrissid history. However, since the child was born shortly after the death of his father, he was raised by his mother, her family and his two official regents (first his father’s freedman Rashīd then by Abū Khālid Yazīd b. Ilyās) in the environs of Walīlī (Volubilis). Kanzah directly participated in the founding of the city of Fez and its early development as a site of Islamic culture and civilization in northern Morocco; indeed, it was in this same town of Fez that in 859, a generation after Kanzah’s death, that another Muslim woman—Fāṭimah bt. Muḥammad al-Fihriyyah (d. 265/878)—would establish the Qarawīyyin mosque. Kanzah was a pivotal figure in helping her husband ally with local Berber tribes in Morocco, and she played a central role in the establishment and expansion of the Idrissid Kingdom during the reign of her son, for whom she acted as co-regent for the first half of his rule. Following the death of Idrīs II and the contested accession of his son Muḥammad b. Idrīs (r. 213–221/828–836) to the throne, she prevented the outbreak of a civil war in the kingdom by encouraging him to partition the Idrissid polity between his brothers (the sons of Idrīs II). As the individual who oversaw the first three generations of the Idrissid kingdom and played a significant role in the direction of political developments, Kanzah deserves to be viewed as an important figure in the early Islamic history of Morocco. Although there has been nothing written in English about Kanzah, for more about her broader context see: http://www.qantara-med.org/qantara4/public/show_document.php?do_id=867&lang=en

7) ‘Arīb (d. 277/890).
Arīb was the most famous female Muslim musician of the third/ninth century. She was part of the school of the famous Isḥāq al-Mawṣilī (d. 235/850). ʿArīb was renowned for her singing as well as for her skills in poetry, prose, calligraphy, and for her knowledge of music theory. She is also often noted for her beauty, grace, and wit. She is said to have composed at least one thousand songs. Although possibly of noble birth (some have suggested her father was Jaʿfar b. Yaḥyā al-Barmakī [d. 187/803]), ʿArīb was sold into slavery at a young age and was owned by the Abbasid caliphs al-Amīn (r. 193–198/809–13) and al-Maʾmūn (r. 198–218/813–33). She was eventually freed by the caliph al-Muʿtaṣim (r. 218–27/833–42) and enjoyed a particularly close relationship with the Abbasid caliph al-Mu’tazz (r. 252–255/866–869). She continued to perform at the court for several other caliphs. The Kitāb al-Aghānī by Abū al-Faraj al-Isfahānī (d. 356/967) states that none of her contemporaries approached her level of achievement, making her one of the most notable performers and musicians in the Abbasid court.

For more on ‘Arīb and her context, see

Matthew Caswell, The Slave Girls of Baghdad: The Qiyān in the Early Abbasid Era (2011)

George D. Sawa, Music performance practice in the early ʿAbbāsid era. 132–320 AH / 750–932 AD, (1989)

Kristina Richardson, “Singing Slave Girls (Qiyan) of the Abbasid Court in the Ninth and Tenth Centuries,” in Children in Slavery Through the Ages (2009), pp. 105–118

Suzanne Meyers Sawa, “The Role of Women in Musical Life. The Medieval Arabo-Islamic Courts,” Canadian Women Studies 8/2 (1987), 93–95

Suzanne M. Meyers Sawa. “ʿArīb.” Encyclopaedia of Islam, THREE. Edited by: Kate Fleet, Gudrun Krämer, Denis Matringe, John Nawas, Everett Rowson. Brill Online

(Illustration from a 13th-century manuscript of Kitāb al-Aghānī. Taken from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Kitab_al-aghani.jpg)

8) ‘Ā’ishah b. Ahmad b. Muhammad b. Qādim (d. 400/1009).
 She was one of the most learned Andalusi women of the late 10th century. Most information about her life is derived from the various biographical dictionaries composed by Andalusi scholars between the 12th and 14th century, which testifies to the fact that long after her death she was still remembered as an important figure. The following is an overview of her life according to Ibn Bashkuwāl (d. 578/1183): “She was from Cordoba. The famous historian Ibn Hayyān (d. 469/1076) made mention of her and said: There was none in the entire Iberian peninsula in her era that could be compared with her in terms of knowledge, excellence, literary skill, poetic ability, eloquence, virtue, purity, generosity, and wisdom. She would often write panegyrics in praise of the kings of her era and would give speeches in their court. She was a very skilled calligrapher and copied many manuscripts of the Qur’an and other books. She was an avid collector of books, of which she had a very large amount, and was very concerned with the pursuit of knowledge. She was also very wealthy and died chaste, without having ever married. She died in the year 400 A.H. [1009 A.D.].” [Ibn Bashkuwal, Kitab al-Sila (Cairo, 2008), Vol. 2: 324–325]

9) Sitt al-Mulk (d. 414/1023).
The daughter of the fifth Fatimid caliph al-‘Azīz (r. 365–386/975–996) from a Christian concubine, and the elder sister of the sixth Fatimid caliph al-Ḥākim (r. 386–411/996–1021), Sitt al-Mulk was one of the most powerful women in Fatimid history. Following the disappearance of al-Ḥākim in 411/1021, she was the effective ruler of Egypt for two years, ruling as regent on behalf of her nephew al-Zāhir (r. 411–427/1021–1036). She reversed many of al-Ḥākim’s anti-Jewish and anti-Christian decrees, restoring many churches and synagogues which had been converted into mosques during the reign of al-Ḥākim and ordering that those who had been forced to profess Islam be allowed to return to their original faith. She also severely persecuted the Druze religion in Egypt and Syria, removed many of al-Ḥākim’s supporters from office and sought peaceful relations with the Byzantines. Despite all the challenges that she faced, Sitt al-Mulk was a capable ruler, renowned for her good leadership skills and effective administrative policies, and played an important political role during the reigns of three Fatimid caliphs. She was also a major patron of architecture and learning. For more on Sitt al-Mulk and Fatimid women, see

Delia Cortese and Simonetta Calderini, Women and the Fatimids in the World of Islam (2006)

Paul E. Walker, “The Fatimid Caliph al-Aziz and His Daughter Sitt al-Mulk: A Case of Delayed but Eventual Succession to Rule by a Woman,” Journal of Persianate Studies 4 (2011): 30–44

Lev, “The Fatimid Princess Sitt al-Mulk”, Journal of Semitic Studies 32 (1987): 319-28

Lot 4645 - ISLAMIC COINS. FATIMID. al-Zahir, Gold Dinar, Misr 416h, 4.20g (Nicol 1518; A 714.1). Extremely

(Fatimid gold coin from the reign of al-Zahir. From http://www.the-saleroom.com/en-gb/auction-catalogues/baldwins/catalogue-id-srbal10018/lot-2b89b3bb-703b-4188-9bd1-a4470050dc15)

10) Zaynab bt. Isḥāq al-Nafzāwiyyah (d. ca. 467/1075).
Descended from the Nafzāwa Berber tribe, Zaynab directly participated in the establishment and expansion of the early Almoravid state in North Africa. She was among the wealthiest women of the 11th-century Maghrib, as a result of inheritance and her own successful business enterprises. In the late 1060s, she married the Almoravid ruler Abū Bakr b. ‘Umar al-Sanhājī (d. 480/1087) but they divorced several years later, at which point Zaynab married another Almoravid ruler, Yūsuf b. Tashufīn (r. 454–500/1061–1106). She served as her husband’s main political adviser, encouraging him to declare himself the sole ruler of the Almoravids in Morocco, which compelled Abū Bakr to cede his authority to Yūsuf while he (Abū Bakr) continued his missionary activity and military campaigns in West Africa. Her wealth, diplomatic skills, tribal ties and political acumen contributed greatly to the establishment and expansion of the Almoravid empire. Although initially based at Aghmat, Zaynab contributed to the transformation of the newly-constructed city of Marrakesh into the imperial capital of the Almoravid realm.

Many medieval chroniclers, notably Ibn al-Athīr (d. 630/1233), Ibn Abī Zar‘ (d. after 726/1326) and Ibn Khaldūn (d. 808/1406), praise Zaynab as one of the most intelligent, beautiful, pious and ambitious women of her era and emphasize that played an important public role in Almoravid politics, with Ibn Khaldūn noting that “she was one of those women renowned for both her beauty and her political leadership (riyāsah).” She was sometimes referred to by the nickname “The Enchantress” (al-sāḥira), invoked positively by her admirers to describe her unparalleled political, administrative and diplomatic skills and pejoratively by her opponents who felt that, as a woman, she had no place asserting herself in the realm of politics, ascribing her influence over Yūsuf b. Tashufīn to witchcraft. Zaynab died around 467/1075, by which point the Almoravids—due in no small part to her efforts—succeeded in establishing their authority over much of north-west Africa. Throughout Almoravid history, royal women (following in the tradition of Zaynab) would continue to play an important role in imperial and local politics. For more on Zaynab, see

H. T. Norris and Pedro Chalmeta, “al-Murābiṭūn.” Encyclopaedia of Islam, Second Edition. Edited by: P. Bearman, Th. Bianquis, C.E. Bosworth, E. van Donzel, W.P. Heinrichs. Brill Online

Michael Brett and Elizabeth Fentress, The Berbers (1996)

Ronald A. Messier, The Almoravids and the Meaning of Jihad (2010)

(Modern Moroccan depiction of Zaynab)

11) Fāṭimah bt. Muḥammad b. Aḥmad al-Samārqandī (d. 581/1185).
The daughter of a Ḥanafī jurist (Abū Manṣūr Muḥammad b. Aḥmad al-Samarqandī [d. 575/1179], author of Tuḥfat al-Fuqahā’) from Central Asia, Fāṭimah was an expert in Qur’an, hadith, jurisprudence, theology and grammar by the time she reached adulthood. She was qualified to issue formal religious opinions (fatwas). Fāṭimah was recognized as one of most learned women of the 12th-century by her contemporaries and her legal opinion was valued by many political rulers and administrators, including the emir Nūr al-Dīn Zangī (r. 541–569/1146–1174). She married ‘Alā’ al-Dīn Abū Bakr b. Mas‘ūd al-Kāsānī (d. 587/1191), another eminent Ḥanafī jurist and author of the legal compendium entitled Badā‘i al-Ṣanā’i‘ fi Tartib al-Sharā’i‘.  Shortly after their marriage, the couple traveled across the Islamic world until they settled in Aleppo, where they both established themselves as preeminent scholars.

Fāṭimah was viewed as one of the most knowledgeable jurists in Aleppo and would often be consulted on the specifics of the religious law by other scholars, including her husband. Most of her students, men as well as women, became renowned jurists in their own right. The Syrian historian Ibn al-‘Adīm (d. 660/1262) in his Bughyat al-ṭalab fī tārīkh Ḥalab praises Fāṭimah as among the most learned scholars in the history of Aleppo, underscoring her knowledge of he various schools of law and emphasizing that her grasp of the religious law at times even surpassed that of her more famous husband.  In addition to her credentials as a religious authority, she was also known to be a great calligrapher. Several medieval biographers and chroniclers state that Fāṭimah authored several important legal treatises and works on hadith which were widely read by the intellectual elite in 12th- and 13th-century Syria. Unfortunately, none of them appear to have been preserved. She died in 581/1185 and is buried in Aleppo, Syria. For more on Fāṭimah and the broader social and intellectual context in which she lived, see

Asma Sayeed’s Women and the Transmission of Religious Knowledge in Islam (2013)

Mohammad Akram Nadwi’s Al-Muhaddithat: The Women Scholars of Islam (2007).

(A hadith transmission certificate–or sama’–from late medieval Syria naming another eminent female scholar, Zaynab bt. Makki, a testament to the importance of women in medieval Islamic scholarship. Taken from M.A. Nadwi, al-Muhaddithat, p. 181)

12) ʿĀʾisha al-Mannūbiyya (d. 665/1267).
 ʿĀʾishah al-Mannūbiyya, perhaps the most well-known female saint from late medieval North Africa, was born in 595/1199 in Almohad North Africa and lived for most of her life in the Hafsid territories (modern-day Tunisia and eastern Algeria). She was one of the few women in Islamic history about whom a hagiography was written. Originally from the village of al-Manūba (La Manouba), a short distance outside Tunis, she would travel to that city to study with the Sufi masters of the Shādhiliyya order. ʿĀʾishah studied the teachings of several of the most preeminent mystics in the Islamic world, especially those of Rābiʿa al-ʿAdawiyya al-Qaysiyya (95/714–185/801), Abū l-Ḥassan al-Shādhilī (593–656/1196–1258, ʿAbd al-Qādir al-Jīlānī (470–561/1077–1166) and al-Junayd (d. 297/910). Traditional hagiographical accounts also ascribe a large number of miracles (karamāt) to her and describe her as being among the righteous saints (awliyā’). ʿĀʾishah  was renowned for associating with the impoverished inhabitants of Tunis and for her kindness, generosity and ability to inspire others through both her words and deeds. For centuries, she has been memorialized as the patron saint of Tunis and is certainly considered the most important female mystic in the history of the region. For more on ʿĀʾisha and her context, see

Abū ‘Abd al-Raḥmān al-Sulamī, Early Sufi Women: Dhikr an-Niswa al-Muta’abbidat as-Sufiyyat (1999), translated by Rkia Cornell

Katia Boissevain. “al-Mannūbiyya, Sayyida ʿĀʾisha.” Encyclopaedia of Islam, THREE. Edited by: Kate Fleet, Gudrun Krämer, Denis Matringe, John Nawas, Everett Rowson. Brill Online

Katia Boissevain, Sainte parmi les saints. Sayyida Mannūbiya ou les recompositions cultuelles dans la Tunisie contemporaine (2006)

Nelly Amri, La sainte de Tunis. Présentation et traduction de l’hagiographie de ʿĀisha al Mannūbiyya (2008)

13) Fāṭimah al-Ḥurrah (d. after 898/1493).
One of the last reigning Muslim queens in al-Andalus, she was a member of the Nasrid royal family, the wife of Nasrid emir Abū al-Ḥasan ‘Alī (r. 868–887/1464–1482, 888–890/1483–1485) and mother of the last Nasrid emir Abū ‘Abd Allāh Muḥammad XII (r. 887–888/1482–1483, 891–897/1486–1492). A resourceful, powerful, and ambitious, she exercised a major influence on Nasrid politics during the last decade of that kingdom’s history. Following Abū al-Ḥasan ‘Alī’s marriage to a younger, Christian woman (Isabel de Solís) whose own ambition was to supplant Fāṭimah, the latter—seeking to secure her own position and that of her son—instigated a rebellion against her husband and succeeded in (temporarily) placing her own son on the throne. This led to a series of events that culminated in a Nasrid civil war, which greatly undermined the ability of the kingdom of Granada to resist the advancing armies of the newly-unified kingdoms of Castile-León and Aragón led by Ferdinand and Isabella. During the siege of Granada, Fāṭimah was one of the leading voices advocating resistance and was outraged upon discovering that her son—Muḥammad XII (Boabdil)—had surrendered the city. When Boabdil finally left Spain in 898/1493 and settled in Fez, Fāṭimah accompanied him into exile. Her residence, known as Dār al-Ḥurrah, has survived into the present and can be visited in Granada. Although many contemporary scholars have blamed Fāṭimah for the downfall of the Nasrid kingdom due to her taking measures that fundamentally weakened the political unity of Granada and increased its vulnerability (and many have, in turn, sought to defend her from such accusations), her actions and career demonstrate the power and influence of royal women in the politics of Nasrid Granada. For more on Fāṭimah and her broader context, see

Barbara Boloix Gallardo, Las Sultanas de la Alhambra: Las grandes desconocidas del reino nazarí de Granada (2013)

Leonard Patrick Harvey, Islamic Spain, 1250–1500 (1990)

(Depiction of Fāṭimah al-Ḥurrah in  Manuel Gomez Moreno’s 1880 painting entitled “Salida de la Familia de Boabdil de la Alhambra,” preserved in the Museo de Bellas Artes in Granada)

Interior Palacio Dar al-Horra Granada

(Remains of Fāṭimah’s residence, the Dar al-Hurra, in Granada)

14) ‘Ā’ishah al-Ba‘uniyyah (d. 923/1517).
Born into a distinguished Damascene family which served the Mamluk sultans as religious and administrative officials in Syria and Egypt, ‘Ā’ishah al-Ba‘uniyyah was among the greatest female mystics and writers of medieval Damascus. An expert on the Qur’an, jurisprudence, theology and hadith, ‘Ā’ishah al-Ba‘uniyyah was certainly one of the most prolific women in pre-modern Islamic history, authoring over a dozen mystical, poetic and literary works. She belonged to the ʿUrmawī branch of the Qādiriyya Sufi order and her specific mystical worldview permeates most of her writings.  Her most original and important work, entitled al-Muntakhab fī uṣūl al-rutab (recently translated into English as “Principles of Sufism”), focuses on the development of one’s spirituality, emphasizing four key concepts: tawba (repentance), ikhlāṣ (sincerity), dhikr (recollection), and maḥabba (love)  Some of her other important works include Tashrīf al-fikr fī naẓm fawāʾid al-dhikr (a treatise on prayer and meditation) and Fayḍ al-faḍl wa-jamʿ al-shaml (a set of mystical poems). She also wrote several works in praise of the Prophet Muhammad, including al-Fatḥ al-mubīn fī madḥ al-Amīn, Fayḍ al-wafāʾ fī asmāʾ al-Muṣṭafā and al-Mawrid al-ahnā fī l-mawlid al-asnā. In addition to her renown as a Sufi master, ‘Ā’ishah was also recognized by her contemporaries in Mamluk Egypt and Syria as an important jurist and was authorized to issue legal opinions (fatwas). Although dozens of manuscripts of her works survive, very few of them have been edited and published.

For more on ‘Ā’ishah, see

Th. Emil Homerin, “ʿĀʾisha al-Bāʿūniyya.” Encyclopedia of Islam, THREE. Edited by: Kate Fleet, Gudrun Krämer, Denis Matringe, John Nawas, Everett Rowson. Brill Online

Th. Emil Homerin ed. and trans. The Principles of Sufism by ʿĀʾisha al-Bāʿūniyya (2014)

Th. Emil Homerin trans. Emanations of Grace: Mystical Poems by ʿĀʾisha al-Bāʿūniyya (2011)


(Manuscript of a commentary on one of ‘Ā’ishah al-Ba‘uniyyah’s poems. From http://majles.alukah.net/t142408/)

15) Hürrem Sultan (d. 965/1558).
Also known as Roxelana, she was born into a Christian family of humble origins in the region of modern-day Ukraine. While still a teenager, she was enslaved by the Crimean Tatars and sent to Constantinople where she was placed in the Ottoman imperial harem. She attracted the attention of the Ottoman sultan Suleyman I (r. 926–973/1520–1566), who took her as a consort before freeing and marrying her in the early 1530s, an extraordinary development in Ottoman history. Now queen of the Ottoman empire, she played a major role in the political, social, intellectual and cultural developments in the Ottoman empire. Her rivalries with other leading members of the Ottoman court were a defining feature of Ottoman imperial politics throughout the 1530s and 1540s. In addition to being notable for her domestic political influence, patronage of art, architecture and learning institutions, Roxelana also played an important role in matters of state, especially foreign policy. She wrote several letters to King Sigismundus II Augustus of Poland (r. 1548-1572), which have survived, and worked towards establishing peaceable relations with the Polish commonwealth. Her influence within the Ottoman court and her mastery of political intrigue secured the way for her son, Selim II (r. 973–9821566-1574) to succeed to the Ottoman throne following the death of Sultan Suleyman. She is remembered as being among the most capable, learned and ambitious queens in Ottoman history.

For more on Roxelana/ Hürrem Sultan, see:

Galina Yermolenko, “Roxolana: The Greatest Empresse of the East,” The Muslim World, 95 (2005): 231–48

Leslie Peirce, The Imperial Harem: Women and Sovereignty in the Ottoman Empire (1993)

S.A. Skilliter, “Khurrem.” Encyclopaedia of Islam, Second Edition. Edited by: P. Bearman, Th. Bianquis, C.E. Bosworth, E. van Donzel, W.P. Heinrichs. Brill Online

(16th-century portrait of Roxelana)

(Letter from Roxelana to Sigismund Augustus II of Poland. From: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/7/7b/Letter_of_Roxelane_to_Sigismond_Auguste_complementing_him_for_his_accession_to_the_throne_1549.jpg)

16) Malahayati of Aceh (fl. 1008/1600).
One of the most significant Muslim women in the early modern history of south-east Asia, Malahayati was a prominent military and political figure in the Sultanate of Aceh during the 16th century. She was a renowned admiral and commanded a fleet—named the Inong Balee—composed largely of Aceh’s war widows. According to the fragmentary historical evidence that is available about her, it appears that Malahayati was appointed as one of Aceh’s leading admirals during the reign of Sultan Alauddin Mansur Sya (r. 987–994/1579–1586) and played an important role in repelling Dutch and Portuguese attacks against Aceh throughout the reign of Sultan Alauddin Ri’ayat Syah (r. 997–1012/1589–1604) during the late sixteenth century. She apparently exercised some political influence within the sultanate, but in the absence of evidence it is very difficult to say anything more concrete about her role in this regard.

Malahayati is remembered in post-colonial Indonesian historiography as a heroic admiral who was an early leader of the resistance against Dutch colonialism in South East Asia. One of Malahayati’s most important victories was the defeat of the Dutch naval commander Cornelis de Houtman in 1599. Her tomb in Aceh remains an important local site of visitation. Malahayati’s career underscores the importance of women in the Sultanate of Aceh during the early modern period. Indeed, shortly after Malahayati’s death Aceh would have four female heads of state (or sultanas) during the 17th century: Sulṭāna Taj ul-Alam Safiatuddin Syah (r. 1045–1051/1636–1641), Sulṭāna Nurul Alam Naqiatuddin Syah (r. 1086–1089/1675–1678), Sulṭāna Inayat Zakiatuddin Syah (r. 1089–1099/1678–1688), and Sulṭāna Zainatuddin Kamalat Syah (r. 1099–1110/1688–1699). For more on the remarkable history of women in the Aceh Sultanate during the 17th century, see Sher Banu Khan, Rule Behind the Silk Curtain: The Sultanahs of Aceh, 1641-1699 (Phd Thesis, University of London 2009).

17) Gulbadan Begum (d. 1011/1603).
Descended from both Chinggiz Khan (d. 624/1227) and Timūr (d. 807/1405) and born in Kabul around 929/1523,  Gulbadan Begum was the daughter of the first Mughal emperor Ẓahīr-ud-Dīn Muḥammad Babur (r. 932–937/1526–1530) and half-sister of the second Mughal emperor Naṣīr-ud-dīn Muḥammad Humayun (r. 937–947/1530–1540, 962–963/1555–1556). A highly educated princess and collector of books with a knowledge of several languages (with fluency in both Persian and Turkish), Gulbadan Begum is best known for her writing the Humāyūn-nāma, a detailed historical chronicle of the early Mughal empire written in Persian. This was written at the express order of her nephew, the Mughal emperor Jalāl ud-dīn Muḥammad Akbar (r. 963–1014/1556–1605). Since she personally witnessed (and participated in) the political, intellectual, and cultural developments during the first three generations of the Mughal empire, Gulbadan Begum’s historical account is tremendously valuable and provides important insight into Mughal history and the transition of the Mughal polity from a Central Asian principality into an Indian empire. The Humāyūn-nāma is also a major example of women’s historical writing during the pre-modern era and can be compared with the Alexiad of Byzantine princess Anna Komnene (d. 548/1153). Gulbadan Begum is also one of the Mughal princesses known to have made the Hajj (the pilgrimage to Mecca), which she undertook around 983/1575, remaining in Mecca for nearly four years before returning to India in 990/1582. Her undertaking this arduous and difficult journey is a testament to her piety as well as to her desire to travel and learn more about the world. As a result of her long career, extensive travels and intellectual contributions, Gulbadan Begum can be considered to be one of the most important Mughal women during the sixteenth century.

For more on Gulbadan Begum, see

Gulbadan Begum. Humayun-nama :The history of Humayun. Translated by Annette S. Beveridge (1902): https://ia902704.us.archive.org/6/items/historyofhumayun00gulbrich/historyofhumayun00gulbrich.pdf

Lisa Balabanlilar “Gulbadan Begam.” Encyclopaedia of Islam, THREE. Edited by: Kate Fleet, Gudrun Krämer, Denis Matringe, John Nawas, Everett Rowson. Brill Online


18) Nūr Jahān (d. 1055/1645).
Also known as Mehr-un-Nissa, Nūr Jahān was born into a Persian noble family in Kandahar around 985/1577. She was the daughter of Mirza Ghiyas Beg (d. 1031/1622), a high-ranking official in the Mughal government during the reign of Jalāluddīn Muḥammad Akbar. Several years following the death of her first husband Sher Afgan Khan Ali Quli Istajlu (d. 1016/1607), she married the Mughal emperor Jahāngīr (r. 1014–1036/1605–1627). Nūr Jahān exercised tremendous influence in Mughal politics and was often considered to be the real holder of the reigns of power. She was heavily involved in affairs of state, participated in the administration of the empire and official imperial edicts would often bear her signature. Her political influence encouraged her to appoint members of her family and other Persian aristocracts to high-ranking positions in the imperial administration, further consolidating her hold on power. Nūr Jahān was also deeply involved in the cultural and intellectual developments in the Mughal empire, patronizing architecture and learning and was known for composing her own poetry. Several scholars, notably Ellison Banks Findly, have suggested that although she was an important advocate of religious toleration, Nūr Jahān’s Twelver Shi’i faith and religious perspectives (as well as her patronage of Shi’i scholarship and institutions) often brought her into conflict with Sunni scholars such as the mystic and reformer Aḥmad Sirhindī (d. 1034/1624). One of the most influential, powerful and public female figures in the history of early modern South Asia, Nūr Jahān died in 1055/1645 and is buried in Shahdara Bagh, Lahore. For more on Nūr Jahān, see

Ellison Banks Findly, Nur Jahan: Empress of Mughal India (1993)

Ellison Banks Findly, “Religious Resources for Secular Power: The Case of Nūr Jahān,” Colby Quarterly 25 (1989): 129–148 http://digitalcommons.colby.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=2753&context=cq

(Portrait of Nūr Jahān, ca. 1725. From: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Nurjahan.jpg)

19) Emetullah Rabia Gülnuş Sultan (d. 1127/1715)
. She was born Eugenia Voria in the town of Rethymno, Crete in 1052/1642, when the island was under Venetian rule, and was from a Greek family. She was enslaved as a child during the Ottoman conquest of Rethymno around 1646 and taken to Topkapi Palace in Istanbul, where she was brought up as a Muslim. She became one of the most powerful consorts of Sultan Mehmed IV (r. 1058–1098/1648–1687) and held the rank of Valide Sultan (“Queen-Mother”) when her sons took the throne as Mustafa II (r. 1106–1115/1695–1703) and Ahmed III (r. 1115–1142/1703–1730). She exercised considerable influence in Ottoman imperial politics and was a major patron of art and architecture, with the Yeni Valide Mosque in Istanbul being one of the most important structures she had constructed.

For more on Emetullah Rabia Gülnuş Sultan and the institution of the Ottoman imperial harem, see

Leslie Peirce’s The Imperial Harem: Women and Sovereignty in the Ottoman Empire (1993).

Virginia Aksan, “Wālide Sulṭān.” Encyclopaedia of Islam, Second Edition. Edited by: P. Bearman, Th. Bianquis, C.E. Bosworth, E. van Donzel, W.P. Heinrichs. Brill Online

(Portrait of Emetullah Rabia Gülnuş Sultan. From: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/0/02/Portrait_of_Rabia_G%C3%BClnu%C5%9F.jpg)

(Yeni Valide Mosque, Istanbul)

20) Nānā Asmā’u (d. 1280/1864).
She was the daughter of Shehu Usmān dan Fodīo (d. 1232/1817), a jurist, reformer, ascetic and the founder of the Sokoto caliphate. Although many have assumed that her fame is linked solely with her father’s career, it should be underscored that Nānā Asmā’u was an important poet, historian, educator, and religious scholar in her own right who continued to play a major role in the political, cultural and intellectual developments in West Africa for nearly 50 years after her father’s death. Nānā Asmā’u, both a Mālikī jurist and a Sufi mystic of the Qādirī order, was devoted to the education of Muslim women and continued the reformist tradition of her father, believing that knowledge held the key to the betterment of society. She established the first major system of schools and other institutions of learning throughout the Sokoto caliphate.

Nānā Asmā’u was fluent in four languages (Arabic, Fula, Hausa, and Tamacheq Tuareg) and was a very prolific writer, composing over 70 works in subjects such as history, theology, law, and the role of women in Islam. As an ardent advocate of the participation of women in society and as a result of her broad-based campaign to empower and educate women, she was one of the most influential women in West Africa in the 19th century. She was also heavily involved in the politics of the Sokoto caliphate, acting as an adviser to her brother, the Sultan of Sokoto Amīr al-Mu’minīn Muḥammad Bello (r. 1232–1253/1817–1837). To end this brief overview of Nānā Asmā’u’s extraordinary life and contributions, I leave you all with a lengthy quote summarizing her legacy and accomplishments:

“In addition to teaching students in her own community, [Nana Asma’u] reached far beyond the confines of her compound through a network of itinerant women teachers whom she trained to teach isolated rural women. An accomplished author, Asma’u was well educated, quadrilingual (in Arabic, Fulfulde, Hausa, and Tamachek), and a respected scholar of international repute who was in communication with scholars throughout the sub-Saharan African Muslim world. Asma’u pursued all these endeavors as a Sufi of the Qadiriyya order, but the driving factor in her own life and that of the community was their concern for the Sunna, the exemplary way of life set forth by the Prophet Muhammad. With the Sunna orchestrating the lives of its members, Asma’u’s Qadiriyva community sought to serve through teaching, preaching, and practical work, focused on a spiritual life in the world, while rejecting materialism.

Asma’u was a pearl on a string of women’s scholarship that extended throughout the Muslim world. This chain of women scholars originated long before Asma’u’s lifetime and stretched over a wide geographic region from the Middle East to West Africa. The network of women’s scholarship contemporaneous to Asma’u is but the tip of the iceberg. It did not spring forth fullblown, but was nurtured over successive generations as an integral part of the aim of Islam: the search for communion with God through the pursuit of Truth. Education and literacy have been hallmarks of Islam since its inception. Any society that impedes equitable access to salvation by controlling or limiting who can get an education eschews the tenets of Islam; so for the Qadiriyya community to which Asma’u belonged, to deny women equal opportunity to develop their God-given talents was to challenge God’s will.”

[Beverly B. Mack and Jean Boyd, One Woman’s Jihad: Nana Asma’u, Scholar and Scribe (Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 2000), pp. 1–2]

For more on Nānā Asmā’u, see:

Nana Asma’u, Collected Works of Nana Asma’u. Jean Boyd and Beverly B. Mack eds. (1997)

Jean Boyd, The Caliph’s Sister: Nana Asma’u, 1793-1865, Teacher, Poet and Islamic Leader (1990)

Beverly B. Mack and Jean Boyd, One Woman’s Jihad: Nana Asma’u, Scholar and Scribe (2000). An excerpt here: http://chnm.gmu.edu/wwh/p/214.html

Beverly B. Mack and Jean Boyd, Educating Muslim Women: The West African Legacy of Nana Asma’u, 1793-1864 (2013)


(Artistic depiction of Nana Asma’u)



7 thoughts on “20 Influential Medieval/Early Modern Muslim Women

  1. thank you! I like your article very much. I’m from Indonesia where the great history of Malahati (Aceh) have been neglected in her homeland. Today we seems only have one side of Muslim women narration. Numbers of anti-pluralism groups force their perspective in public sphere to oppress women and democratic agenda here.

  2. Very informative-why do the present day muslims not learn from from the past about the glory of women in Islam, the exact opposite happening now.

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