Women's Contribution to Classical Islamic Civilisation: Science, Medicine and Politics

While there are numerous works on the role of Muslim women in jurisprudence (fiqh) and literature, there are also studies on Muslim women in education and in medicine - although on a much smaller scale -, few sources mention the role of Muslim women in the development of science, technology and governance. There are isolated references that mention some of the famous women who had a role in advancing science and who established charitable, educational and religious institutions. Some examples include Zubayda who pioneered a most ambitious project of digging wells and building service stations all along the pilgrimage route from Baghdad to Mecca, Sutayta who was a mathematician and an expert witness in courts, Dhayfa Khatun who excelled in management and statesmanship, Fatima al-Fihriyya who founded the Qarawiyin mosque and university in Fez, along with the astrolabe maker Al-'Ijliya. This is not to mention the rulers and Queens such as Sitt al-Mulk, Shajarat al-Durr, Raziya of Delhi, and Amina of Zaria. In view of the growing importance of the subject of gender and women in society, this report presents what is currently known about some famous Muslim women, in the hope of initiating debate and starting the process of unearthing what could be a most significant find.

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Table of contents

1. Introduction

2. Women in the historiography: A problem of methodology

3. Recent scholarship

3.1. The Muhaddithat project
3.2. Dictionary of women

4. General overview

5. Medical care

5.1. Rufayda al-Aslamiyyah
5.2. Al-Shifa bint Abduallah
5.3. Nusayba bint Harith al-Ansari
5.4. Women surgeons in 15th-century Turkey

6. Mathematics

6.1. Sutayta Al-Mahāmali
6.2. Labana of Cordoba

7. Making of astronomical instruments

8. Patronage

8.1. Zubayda bint Abu Ja'far al-Mansur
8.2. Fatima al-Fihriyya
8.3. Dhayfa Khatun
8.4. Hürrem Sultan

9. Rulers and political leaders

9.1. Sitt al-Mulk
9.2. Shajarat al-Durr
9.3. Sultana Raziya
9.4. Amina of Zaria
9.5. Ottoman women

10. Miscellania

11. Conclusion

12. Acknowledgement

13. References


1. Introduction

While several studies have investigated the contribution of Muslim women in various fields of the classical civilisation of Islam, such as in hadith transmission, jurisprudence (fiqh), literature, and education, until now few sources mention the role of women in the development of science, technology, and medicine in the Islamic tradition.

In scholarship, there are isolated and scattered references to the famous women who had a role in advancing science and who established charitable, educational and religious institutions. Some examples include Zubayda bint Ja'far al-Mansur who pioneered a most ambitious project of digging wells and building service stations all along the pilgrimage route from Baghdad to Mecca, Sutayta who was a mathematician and an expert witness in the courts, Dhayfa Khatun who excelled in management and statesmanship, Fatima al-Fihriyya who founded the Qarawiyin mosque in Fez, Morocco, which is said to be the first university in the world, and the engineer Al-'Ijlia who made astrolabes in Aleppo.

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Figure 1: A famous signed sketch of Hypatia, included as an insert in Elbert Hubbard's pamphlet Little Journeys to the Homes of Great Teachers, vol. 23, no 4, 1908.

In view of the scant information on such women and the growing importance of the subject of gender and women in society, this report presents what is currently known about their lives and works. Our aim is twofold: to present the available information and to initiate a process of investigation to unearth what could be a most significant find about the roles played by hundreds of women in various fields during different periods of Islamic history.

2. Women in the historiography: A problem of methodology

Over thousands of years, many women have left a mark on their societies, changing the course of history and influencing significant spheres of life. Since ancient times, women have excelled in the areas of poetry, literature, medicine, philosophy and mathematics. A famous example is Hypatia (ca. 370-415), a philosopher, mathematician, astronomer, and teacher who lived in Alexandria, in Hellenistic Egypt, and who participated in that city's educational community [1].

In the same vein, it is interesting to note the Islamic view of Cleopatra of Egypt (b. 69 BCE). Arabic sources referred to her as a strong and able monarch who was very protective of Egypt. These sources focused on her talents but made no reference to her morals or seductive power. They focused instead on her learning and talents in management. This Arabic image of Cleopatra is in direct contrast to that presented by the Greco-Roman sources which presented her as a hedonist and seductive woman [2].

From the early years of Islam, women had crucial roles in their society. They contributed substantially to the prominence of Islamic civilisation. For example, Aisha bint Abu Bakr, wife of the Prophet Muhammad, had special skills in administration. She became a scholar in hadith, jurisprudence, an educator, and an orator [3]. There are also many references which point to Muslim women who excelled in areas such as medicine, literature, and jurisprudence. This long tradition found its counterpart in modern times. For example, Sabiha Gökçen (1913-2001) was the first female combat pilot in the world. She was appointed as chief trainer at the Turkish Aviation Institution [4].

In contrast, we find little information on Muslim women's contributions in the classical books of history. New light might arise from the study of not yet edited manuscripts. There are around 5 million manuscripts in archives around the world. Only about 50,000 of them are edited and most of these are not about science [5]. This points to the challenging task lying ahead for researchers into the subject.

Figure 2: A Turkish banknote dated 30 August 1995 to celebrate Sabiha Gökçen (1913-2001), the first female combat pilot in the world and the first Turkish aviatrix: (Source). (Source).

3. Recent scholarship

However, this traditional tendency is changing in recent scholarship. Some recent works endeavour to rehabilitate the role of women in Islamic history. Two examples of such works are presented below.

3.1. The Muhaddithat project

For several years, Dr Mohammed Akram Nadwi conducted a long term and large scale project to unearth the biographies of thousands of women who participated in the hadith tradition throughout Islamic history. In Al-Muhaddithat: The Women Scholars in Islam [6], Dr Nadwi summarised his 40-volume biographical dictionary (in Arabic) of the Muslim women who studied and taught hadith. Even in this short text, he demonstrates the central role women had in preserving the Prophet's teaching, which remains the master-guide to understanding the Qur'an as rules and norms for life. Within the bounds of their religion, women routinely attended and gave classes in the major mosques and madrasas, travelled intensively for ‘knowledge', transmitted and critiqued hadith, issued fatwas (rulings), and so on. Some of the most renowned male scholars have depended on, and praised, the scholarship of their female teachers. The women scholars enjoyed considerable public authority in society, not as the exception, but as the norm.

The huge body of information reviewed in Al-Muhaddithat is essential to understanding the role of women in Islamic society, their past achievements and future potential. Hitherto it has been so dispersed as to be ‘hidden'. The information in Dr Nadwi's dictionary will greatly facilitate further study, contextualisation and analysis [7].

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Figure 3: From an adjacent room, women attend the preaching of Shaykh Baha'al-Din Veled in Balkh, Afghanistan. Miniature in Jami' al-Siyar, 1600. MS Hazine 1230, folio 112a, Topkapi Saray Museum, Istanbul. (Source).

3.2. Dictionary of women

Expanding on her work, Islam: The Empowering of Women, Aisha Abdurrahman Bewley published Muslim Women: A Biographical Dictionary. This most timely work in dictionary form is a comprehensive reference source of Muslim women throughout Islamic history from the first century AH (After Hijri) to roughly the middle of the 13th century AH. A perusal of the entries demonstrate that Muslim women have been successful, for example, as scholars and businesswomen for the past fourteen centuries [8].

The author wrote that her book originally came about as a response to frequent requests to provide some sources about women scholars:

"When I went through my biographical references, I was surprised by the number of references to women, and the great number of women represented in all areas of life, from scholars to rulers, whether regents or women who ruled in their own right, or women who wielded substantial political influence. This led to the decision to compile a larger source of reference of Muslim women, and, given modern views of women in Islam, it gives us a surprising picture of just how active women have been in the history of Islam from the very beginning up until the present time.

"The dictionary covers the period from the time of the Prophet to roughly the middle of the 13th-19th century. (…) As we can see by a perusal of the entries, the role of Muslim women was by no means confined to house and home. They were active in many fields. This is not a question of either/or. It is a question of many roles, all intermeshed and interlocking, rather than separate categories. A business woman is still a mother and a scholar is still a wife. Women simply learn to juggle things more, but that is something women are very good at doing, as can be seen by the entries.

The entries are compiled from a number of sources. Many of the biographical collections devote a section to women, like volume eight of the Tabaqat of Ibn Sa'd and al-Sakhawi's Kitab an-Nisa'. Sometimes references are found within biographies of other references. A number of notable scholars mention their teachers, who included a number of women. Ibn Hajar studied with 53 women, as-Sakhawi had ijazas from 68 women, and as-Suyuti studied with 33 women – a quarter of his shaykhs. Al-Aghani by Abu'l-Faraj al-Isbahani is the major source for singers. An excellent modern source is A'lam an-Nisa' by ‘Umar Rida Kahhala, which consists of five volumes dealing with notable women, and is by no means inclusive" [9].

Figure 4a-b: Two views of the Firdaws Mosque and Madrasa in Aleppo built by Dayfa Khatun in 1235-36 CE. (Source).

4. General overview

The eminence attained by many women during Islamic civilisation begins to be unveiled in recent scholarship. The female relatives of the Caliphs and courtiers vied with each other in the patronage and cultivation of letters. Ayesha, the daughter of Prince Ahmed in the Andalus, excelled in rhyme and oratory; her speeches aroused the tumultuous enthusiasm of the grave philosophers of Cordoba; and her library was one of the finest and most complete in the kingdom.

Wallada (known as Valada in Western scholarship), a princess of the Almohads, whose personal charms were not inferior to her talents, was renowned for her knowledge of poetry and rhetoric; her conversation was remarkable for its depth and brilliancy; and, in the academic contests of Cordoba, the capital which attracted the learned and the eloquent from every quarter of the Iberian Peninsula, she never failed, whether in prose or in poetical composition, to out-distance all competitors.

Al-Ghassania and Safia, both of Seville, were also distinguished for poetical and oratorical genius; the latter was unsurpassed for the beauty and perfection of her calligraphy; the splendid illuminations of her manuscripts were the despair of the most accomplished artists of the age. The literary attainments of Miriam, the gifted daughter of Al-Faisuli, were famous throughout the Andalus, the caustic wit and satire of her epigrams were said to have been unrivalled.

Umm al-Sa'd was famous for her familiarity with Muslim tradition. Labana of Cordoba was thoroughly versed in the exact sciences; her talents were equal to the solution of the most complex geometrical and algebraic problems, and her vast acquaintance with general literature obtained her the important employment of private secretary to the Caliph Al-Hakam II.

In AI-Fihrist, Ibn al-Nadim names women with a varied range of skills. Two are grammarians — a much respected branch of knowledge, related to the use of the full range of excellence of the Arabic language. There was a woman scholar of Arab dialects, "whose origin was among the tribes", and another "acquainted with tribal legends and colloquialisms". A third wrote a book entitled "Rare forms and sources of verbal nouns". Aspiring poets, like Abu Nuwas, used to spend time with the desert tribes to perfect their knowledge of pure Arabic. In a different field, Arwa, "a woman known for her wise sayings", wrote a book about "sermons, morals and wisdom".

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Figure 5: Anonymous oil painting portrait, now located at Topkapi Palace in Istanbul, of Hürrem Sultan or Roxelana (c. 1510 - April 18, 1558), the wife of Süleyman the Magnificent, known for her charities and engagement in several major works of public building, from Mecca to Jerusalem and in Istanbul. (Source).

The making of astrolabes, a branch of applied science of great status, was practiced by Al-'Ijliyah bint al-'Ijli al-Asturlabi, who followed her father's profession in Aleppo and was employed at the court of Sayf al-Dawlah (333 H/944 CE-357/967), one of the powerful Hamdanid rulers in northern Syria who guarded the frontier with the Byzantine empire in the tenth century CE.

In the development of the art of calligraphy, one woman at least took part. Thana' was a slave in the household of the tutor to one of the Abbasid Caliph Al-Mansur's sons. This tutor, Ibn Qayyuma, seems to have been a dedicated teacher, for the young slaves in his household benefited as well as his royal pupil. Of the two whom he sent to be trained by the leading calligraphist of the day, Ishaq ibn Hammad, one was the girl Thana'. His pupils, says Ibn al-Nadim, "wrote the original measured scripts never since equaled [10]."

We now present brief information on women who excelled in medicine, mathematics, astronomy, instrument making and patronage, as examples for future research and further investigation.

5. Medical care

Throughout history and even as early as the time of the Prophet Muhammad, there are examples of Muslim women making significant contributions to the improvement of the quality of the social and economic life of their societies. They actively participated in management, education, religious jurisprudence, medicine and health as they were motivated by their concern for the affairs of the people. The Sharia (Islamic law) requires Muslims to have great concern for society in all spheres of life. Thus, throughout Islamic history the search for scientific knowledge was considered as an act of worship. With the arrival of Islam, women were able to practice as physicians and treat both women and men particularly on the battlefields. However, the strict segregation between men and women meant that women had little or no contact with men outside their immediate family. Hence, the healthcare of Muslim women was mainly handled by other women. The following are some examples of some of Muslim women who contributed to the advancement of medicine.

The title of the first nurse of Islam is credited to Rufayda Bint Saad Al Aslamiyya. But names of other women were recorded as nurses and practitioners of medicine in early Islam: Nusayba Bint Kaab Al-Mazeneya, one of the Muslim women who provided nursing services to warriors at the battle of Uhud (625 H), Umm Sinan Al-Islami (known also as Umm Imara), who became a Muslim and asked permission of the Prophet Muhammad to go out with the warriors to nurse the injured and provide water to the thirsty, Umm Matawe' Al-Aslamiyya, who volunteered to be a nurse in the army after the opening of Khaybar, Umm Waraqa Bint Hareth, who participated in gathering the Quran and providing her nursing services to the warriors at the battle of Badr.

5.1. Rufayda al-Aslamiyyah

Rufayda bint Sa'ad, also known as Rufayda al-Aslamiyyah, considered the first nurse in Islamic history, lived at the time of the Prophet Muhammad. She nursed the wounded and dying in the wars with the Prophet Muhammed in the battle of Badr on 13 March 624 H.

Rufayda learnt most of her medical knowledge by assisting her father, Saad Al-Aslamy, who was a physician. Rufayda devoted herself to nursing and taking care of sick people and she became an expert healer. She practiced her skills in field hospitals in her tent during many battles as the Prophet used to order all casualties to be carried to her tent so that she might treat them with her medical expertise.

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Figure 6: Two Andalusian Arab women playing chess, with a girl playing lute (Chess Problem #19, F18R) , from Alphonso X's Book of Games (Libro de los Juegos). The book was commissioned between 1251 and 1282 CE by Alphonso X, King of Leon and Castile. It reflects the presence of the Islamic legacy in Christian Spain. It is now housed at the monastery library of St. Lorenze del Escorial. (Source).

Rufayda is depicted as a kind, empathetic nurse and a good organiser. With her clinical skills, she trained other women to be nurses and to work in the area of health care. She also worked as a social worker, helping to solve social problems associated with disease. In addition, she helped children in need and took care of orphans, the disabled and poor [11].

5.2. Al-Shifa bint Abduallah

The companion Al-Shifa bint Abduallah al-Qurashiyah al-'Adawiyah had a strong presence in early Muslim history as she was one of the wise women of that time. She was literate at a time of illiteracy. She was involved in public administration and skilled in medicine. Her real name was Laila, however "al-Shifa", which means "the healing", is partly derived from her profession as a nurse and medical practitioner. Al-Shifa used to use a preventative