Women's Contribution to Classical Islamic Civilisation: Science, Medicine and Politics
Professor Salim T S Al-Hassani *
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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-Fehri
- 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. By way of a conclusion
- 12. Acknowledgement
- 13. References
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 are 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-Fehri who founded the Qarawiyin mosque in Fez, Morocco, which became the first university in the world, and the engineer Al-'Ijlia who made astrolabes in Aleppo.
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 and in the 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 at times and influencing small but significant spheres of life at others. 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 .
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 .
From the early years of Islam, women had crucial roles in their society. They contributed substantially to the prominence of Islamic civilization. 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 . 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, in a more recent and unusual role, Sabiha Gökçen (1913-2001) was the first female combat pilot in the world. She was appointed as chief trainer at the Turkish Aviation Institution .
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 about 5 million manuscripts in archives around the world. Only about 50,000 of them are edited and most of these are not about science . 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 , Dr Nadwi summarized 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 modesty in dress and manners, women routinely attended and gave classes in the major mosques and madrasas, travelled intensively for ‘the knowledge', transmitted and critiqued hadith, issued fatwas, 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 achievement 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, contextualization and analysis .
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 to roughly the middle of the 13th century AH. A perusal of the entries shows that Muslim women have been successful, for example, as scholars and businesswomen as well as fulfilling their roles as wives and mothers for the past fourteen centuries .
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" .
4. General overview
The eminence attained by many women in Islamic culture 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".
An Indian woman, Rasa, was the author of a book on the medical treatment of women, listed among Indian works on medicine available in Arabic. Maryah al-Qibtiyyah, an Egyptian woman of the first century CE, wrote on alchemy, and finds her place among books by savants of antiquity that were studied by the scholars of the Islamic world. One female authority on the traditions of the Prophet is noted: Fatima bint al-Mundhir, who lived in Medina and died about 145 H/763 CE. She was the wife of Hisham, son of ‘Urwah who gathered so many traditions from his aunt ‘A'ishah.
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 one woman, 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 ."
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 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. So the healthcare of Muslim women was mainly handled by other women, especially as it was socially improper for a man to attend a woman regarding matters of her health. 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 Koaiba 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.
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 organizer. 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, handicapped and the poor .
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 treatment against ant bites and the Prophet approved of her method and requested her to train other Muslim women .
5.3. Nusayba bint Harith al-Ansari
Nusayba bint Harith al-Ansari, also called Umm ‘Atia, took care of casualties on the battlefields and provided them with water, food and first aid. In addition, she performed circumcisions .
5.4. Women surgeons in 15th-century Turkey
Between those first names of early Islamic history other women practiced medicine and nursery. Few of them were recorded. However, a serious investigation in books of history, of medicine and literature writings will certainly provide precise data about their lives and achievements.
In the 15th century, a Turkish surgeon, Serefeddin Sabuncuoglu (1385-1468), author of the famous manual of surgery Cerrahiyyetu'l-Haniyye, did not hesitate to illustrate the details of obstetric and gynaecologic procedures or to depict women treating and performing procedures on female patients. He also worked with female surgeons, while his male colleaques in the West reported against the female healers.
Female surgeons in Anatolia, generally performed some gynaecological procedures like surgical managements of fleshy grows of the clitoris in the female genitalia, imperforated female pudenda, warts and red pustules arising in the female pudenda, perforations and eruptions of the uterus, abnormal labours, and extractions of the abnormal foetus or placenta. Interestingly in the Cerrahiyyetu'l-Haniyye, we find illustrations in the forms of miniatures indicating female surgeons. It can therefore be speculated that they reflect the early recognition (15th century) of female surgeons with paediatric neurosurgical diseases like foetal hydrocephalus and macrocephalus.
The attitudes towards women in the history of medicine reflect the general view that society held of women during the period. It is interesting that in the treatise of Serefeddin Sabuncuoglu we find an open minded view of women, including female practitioners in the complex field of surgery .
In the field of mathematics, names of female scholars featured in Islamic history such as Amat-Al-Wahid Sutaita Al-Mahamli from Baghdad and Lobana of Cordoba, both from the 10th century. Systematic investigation, with the methodology of history of science, will certainly yield more information on other women scholars who practiced mathematics in Islamic history. We know of many women who practiced fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence). Now, calculations and arithmetic were intertwined with successoral calculations (fara'idh and mawarith), a branch of applied mathematics devoted to performing calculatations of inheritance according to the rules of Islamic law.
6.1. Sutayta Al-Mahāmali
Sutayta, who lived in the second half of the 10th century, came from an educated family from Baghdad. Her father was the judge Abu Abdallah al-Hussein, author of several books including Kitab fi al-fiqh, Salat al-'idayn . Her uncle was a Hadith scholar and her son was the judge Abu-Hussein Mohammed bin Ahmed bin Ismail al-Mahamli who was known for his judgements and his talents.
Figure 7: View into the courtyard towards the prayer hall of the Qarawiyyin mosque and university in Fez (photograph date 1990, copyright Aga Khan Visual Archive, MIT). (Source).
Sutaita was taught and guided by several scholars including her father. Other scholars who taught her were Abu Hamza b. Qasim, Omar b. Abdul-'Aziz al-Hashimi, Ismail b. Al-Abbas al-Warraq and Abdul-Alghafir b. Salamah al-Homsi. Sutayta was known for her good reputation, morality and modesty. She was praised by historians such as Ibn al-Jawzi, Ibn al-Khatib Baghdadi and Ibn Kathīr . She died in the year 377H/987CE.
Sutayta did not specialize in just one subject but excelled in many fields such as Arabic literature, hadith, and jurisprudence as well as mathematics. It is said that she was an expert in hisab (arithmetics) and fara'idh (successoral calculations), both being practical branches of mathematics which were well developed in her time. It is said also that she invented solutions to equations which have been cited by other mathematicians, which denote aptitude in algebra. Although these equations were few, they demonstrated that her skills in mathematics went beyond a simple aptitude to perform calculations.
6.2. Labana of Cordoba
Labana of Cordoba (Spain, ca. 10th century) was one of the few Islamic female mathematicians known by name. She was said to be well-versed in the exact sciences, and could solve the most complex geometrical and algebraic problems known in her time.
Her vast acquaintance with general literature obtained her the important employment of private secretary to the Umayyad Caliph of Islamic Spain, al-Hakam II. .
 See Michael A. B. Deakin, "Hypatia and Her Mathematics", The American Mathematical Monthly, March 1994, vol. 101, No. 3, pp. 234-243; L. Cameron, "Isidore of Miletus and Hypatia of Alexandria: On the Editing of Mathematical Texts", Greek, Roman and Byzantine Studies vol. 31 (1990), pp. 103-127; I. Mueller, "Hypatia (370?-415)", in L. S. Grinstein and P. J. Campbell (eds.), Women of Mathematics (Westport, Conn., 1987), pp. 74-79; Bryan J. Whitfield, The Beauty of Reasoning: A Reexamination of Hypatia of Alexandra; O'Connor, John J. & Robertson, Edmund F., "Hypatia of Alexandria", from MacTutor History of Mathematics Archive; Hypatia of Alexandria: A woman before her time, The Woman Astronomer, 11 November 2007 (accessed 12.05.2008); "Hypatia of Alexandria" (from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia) Resources on Hypatia (booklist and classroom activities).
 Okasha El-Daly, Egyptology: the Missing Millennium. Ancient Egypt in Medieval Arabic Writings. London: UCL Press, 2005.
 See the biography of Aishah bint Abi Bakr (University of Southern California: USC-MSA Compendium of Muslim Texts); Montgomery Watt, "Ā'isha Bint Abī Bakr", Encyclopedia of Islam, Brill, vol. 1, p. 307; Amira Sonbol, "Period 500-800, Women, Gender and Islamic Cultures (6th-9th Centuries)", in Encyclopedia of Women & Islamic Cultures, General Editor: Suad Joseph, 6 vols. Leiden-Boston: E. J. Brill, 6 vols., 2003. See an online preview here.
 Sabiha Gökçen, Atatürk'le Bir Ömür (A Life with Atatürk) (in Turkish), Istanbul: Altin Kitaplar, 2000. See also Sabiha Gokcen (1913-2001), Pioneer Aviatrix.
 Private communications with Qassim Al-Samarrai, Professor of Palaeography, Leiden, Holland.
 Oxford: Interface Publications, 2007 (hardcover and paperback).
 Over the last few years Dr. Nadwi has, on several occasions and in different cities, given an introductory talk on the public authority and achievements of the women scholars of hadîth. One of those talks was given in New York. Carla Power, a London-based journalist attended that occasion, and has since reflected upon Akram Nadwi's work in a magazine article published by the New York Times (25 February 2007): see A Secret History. A follow-up article, done after an interview with the author in Oxford, was published in the London Times, 14 April 2007. For another article, also after an interview with Akram Nadwi, this one in Arabic, go here. Read also a PDF file (17 pp.) of Akram Nadwi's introductory talk on the women scholars in Islam, click here.
 Aisha Abdurrahman Bewley, Muslim Women: A Biographical Dictionary, Ta-Ha Publishers, 2004.
 Ibid, introduction.
 Waddy Charis, Women in Muslim History, London and New York: Longman Group, 1980, p. 72.
 R. Jan, "Rufaida Al-Asalmiy, The first Muslim nurse", Image: The Journal of Nursing Scholarship, 1996 28(3), 267-268; G. Hussein Rassool, "The Crescent and Islam: Healing, Nursing and the Spiritual Dimension. Some Considerations towards an Understanding of the Islamic Perspectives on Caring", Journal of Advanced Nursing, 2000, 32 (6), 1476-84; Omar Hasan Kasule, "Rufaidah bint Sa'ad: Historical Roots of the Nursing Profession in Islam; History of Nursing in Islam (compiled by Sarah Miller); Rufaidah bint Sa'ad Founder of the Nursing Profession in Islam.
 See the articles Muslim Women in History and Al-Shifaa bint Abdullah al Qurashiyah al Adawiyah.
 Abdel-Hamid ‘Abd Rahman Al-Sahibani, Suwar min Siyar al-Sahābiyāt, Riyadh: Dar Ibn Khazima, 1414 H, p. 211; ‘Umar Kahala, A'lam al-nisa', Damascus, 1959, vol. 5, p. 171.
 G. Bademci Gulsah, "First illustrations of female "Neurosurgeons" in the fifteenth century by Serefeddin Sabuncuoglu, Neurocirugía (Sociedad Española de Neurocirugía, Murcia, Spain), April 2006, vol. 17, no. 2, pp. 162-165. The book was edited several times, see Serefeddin Sabuncuoglu, Kitabul Cerrahiyei Ilhaniye, Istanbul, Kenan Basimevi, 1992, and Ankara, Turk Tarih Kurumu Yayinlari, 1992.
 Al-Khatib Baghdadi, Tarikh Baghdad, Cairo: Happiness Press, 1931, vol. 6, p. 370. To read this section online: click here.
 Abu ‘l-Faraj Abdurahman b. Ali ibn al-Jawzi, Al-muntazam fi ‘l-tarikh, Haydarabad: Da'irat al-ma'arif al-uthmaniya, 1359, vol. 14, pp. 161-202; this section is online at: click here; Haji Khalifa, Kashf al-Zunun an ‘Asami al-Kutub wa al-Funun, Istanbul: al-Ma'aref, 1941.
 Samuel P. Scott, The History of the Moorish Empire in Europe, Philadelphia & London: J.B. Lippincott Company, 1904, vol. 3, p.447; quoted in [FSTC], Women and learning in Islam.
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by: FSTC Limited, Wed 14 April, 2010