A summarised transcript* of the lecture given for the Ijtimak Ilmuwan Islam Antarabangsa (International Conference of Muslim Scholars). Organised by the Institute of Islamic Understanding Malaysia (IKIM) and Sarawak Islamic Council – MIS on 25-26 July 2023 by Prof. Salim T S Al-Hassani, Emeritus Professor University of Manchester, President Foundation for Science, Technology and Civilisation (UK). Below is the full video of the presentation.
*This is a shortened script with 8 out of 40 slides from the lecture delivered by Prof. Salim Al-Hassani at the Muslim Scholars Conference.
Excellencies, respected ladies and gentlemen. As-salamu Alaikum wa Rahmatullahi wa Barakatuh.
Apologies for not being with you physically today due to unavoidable personal circumstances. May I first express gratitude and appreciation to the host who invited me to this esteemed conference.
You might be wondering what prompted me to choose this topic for this conference, and the answer is another question that was posed to me after publishing the 1001 Inventions book. The question was:
Were there any women in Muslim civilisation who contributed in fields other than being housewives? Fields such as science?
In reality, the issue is not that these women did not exist – it’s that such information is rare. In fact, even information on men’s contributions in science is also rare. There is a blind spot as presented in school STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) textbooks and University Science and Engineering courses. This is part of a wider general lack of information on the contributions of non-European societies to science, technology, and medicine. This presentation addresses the huge gap in public knowledge on women of science, medicine, and leadership in Muslim civilisation. The picture that emerges when these gaps are filled will redefine the narrative that has been constructed around women in Muslim civilisation.
In modern times we have seen the rise of ideologies and movements which have sought to bring women to the forefront of discussions and highlight their agency and power in western society. But the onus is on Muslims, as bastions of a once thriving Muslim civilisation, to uncover the fascinating story of women in Muslim civilisation.
Over time, due to the marginalisation of the study of women to a niche academic circle, women as the subject of academic research became popularised through the paradigm of empowering women through prevalent western ideologies. However, modern Muslim societies can no longer relegate the study of women’s history to a niche academic circle and let it become hijacked by feminist agendas of women’s liberation which celebrate a morally contrasting and deeply un-Islamic ethos or way of living as a model for women’s progression. The longer that Muslims do not address the elephant in the room, the more entrenched these false narratives on women in Muslim civilisation become, and the more dire the consequences will be to our modern world.
Muslim women are already increasingly looking to emulate their western counterparts. An ignorance of the remarkable women of Muslim civilisation who paved the path for future generations has meant that to fit in today’s social environment, many Muslim women have no role model to follow but that of the Western model.
In this presentation, I shall:
A recent survey carried out by the Foundation for Science, Technology and Civilisation (UK) discovered that a blind spot exists in the syllabi of most STEM textbooks and popular books. To demonstrate the gap, you only need to list the names of scientists and inventors from some popular recent publications and spread them along a timeline to discover a gap of more than 1000 years – a gap that coincides with what is sometimes referred to as the ‘Dark Ages’ or the Medieval Ages.
Take for example a popular book from 1989 by Anthony Feldman and Peter Ford titled: ‘Scientists and Inventors: The People who made the ‘Technology from the Earliest Times to Present Day’. The book jumps from Archimedes in 287 BCE to Johannes Gutenburg in 1400 CE, followed by Leonardo de Vinci in 1452 CE. This gap represents the period between the Greek/Roman era and the European Renaissance.
The gap, once populated with contributions from other cultures, should look like this:
The issue becomes more pronounced when we come to women.
Recent books, unfortunately, have not improved in representing more diverse contributions of women across history.
1. A 2016 book published by Rachel Ignotofsky titled ‘Women in Science: 50 Fearless Pioneers Who Changed the World’ jumps from Hypatia of Alexandria 400 CE as the first female mathematician to Elina Piscopia 1678 as the first woman to receive a doctoral degree.
2. Kate Pankhurst’s 2016 book titled ‘Fantastically Great Women who changed the World’ features only recent Western women, with the exception of three non-white women.
Jane Austen (1775 – 1817, England) Renowned English novelist. Gertrude Ederle (1906 – 2003, New Jersey, US) was the first woman to swim across the English Channel. Coco Chanel (1883 – 1971, France) Fashion designer who founded the Chanel brand. Frida Kahlo (1907 – 1954, Mexico City, Mexico) Mexican painter. Marie Curie (1867 – 1934, Poland, France) She was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize; awarded a Nobel Prize twice in both Physics and Chemistry. Mary Anning (1799 – 1847, England) English fossil collector, and palaeontologist. Mary Seacole (1805 – 1881, England) British-Jamaican nurse who set up the ‘British Hotel’ during the Crimean War. Amelia Earhart (b. 1897; declared dead January 5, 1939, Kansas, U.S.) First female aviator to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean. Agent Fifi (1920 – 2007, London) British secret agent in World War II. Sacagawea (1788 – 1812, Lemhi River Valley, near present-day Salmon, Idaho, US) Explorer from the tribe of Lemhi Shoshone who accompanied the Lewis and Clark Expedition. Emmeline Pankhurst (1858 – 1928, England) British political activist, suffragette. Rosa Parks (1913 – 2005, U.S.) Civil rights activist – famous for the Montgomery bus boycott. Anne Frank (1929 – 1945, Nazi Germany) Jewish diarist during Nazi rule.
There is not a single Muslim woman who made it to this list.
3. A UN Women interactive timeline titled ‘Women’s footprint in History’ jumps from Agdonice in 400 BC to Mexican writer and nun, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz in 1691 CE.
4. In a timeline recently produced by the Science & Technology Facilities Council titled ‘A Brief History of Women in Science’, the same gap appears. It jumps from Hypatia 350 CE to Hildegard of Bingen 1155 who wrote the first book on disease, medicine & psychology.
This absence leads to spreading a superiority complex amongst Western women and at the same time widening an inferiority complex amongst women of other cultures. In addition to being airbrushed out of history, Muslim women are wrongly depicted in modern western media and often appear belittled in the public spotlight.
Of course, there are numerous books published in English on Muslim women in history predominantly written by orientalists, mostly giving a distorted view of women in the harem and depicting them as objects of pleasure subservient to men.
Despite negative portrayals of women in the media and literature, women have historically enjoyed significant rights in Muslim societies. What exacerbates derogatory attitudes to the roles that Muslim women play in society is the paucity of literature available. Although some books and papers have debated the position of women in Islam – especially regarding inheritance, marriage, and hijab – these have not addressed the role of women in society. Within the last 30 years, however, there have been some extensive works in Arabic addressing the subject of the role of women in history based on primary sources.
However, Nadwi’s book too offers little outside of religious scholarship to address the lack in scholarship surrounding women in the fields of science, medicine, the arts and management.
Academic and popular books have continued to be published, each exploring different themes linked to the lives of women in Muslim civilisation, but none of these are entirely successful in uncovering the missing names in women’s history of science, medicine, arts and management collectively while providing readers with a panoramic contextual understanding of these individual women.
That is the focus of this talk today: a topic which is also the subject of my forthcoming book to be published by the Foundation for Science, Technology and Civilisation (UK).
Now there are millions of unedited manuscripts that might contain a wealth of material on the subject. The primary sources that we do have remain invaluable sources for historians of women in Muslim civilisation. To name a few, many classical biographical collections in Arabic devote a section to women, such as:
A number of notable Islamic scholars of the past also name their female teachers, such as the Andalusian scholar Ibn Hazm (d. 1064 CE), whose teachers were mainly women, Ibn Hajar (d. 1449) who studied with 53 women, As-Sakhawi (d. 1497) who had ijazas from 68 women, and As-Suyuti (d. 1505) who studied with 33 women – a quarter of his shaykhs.
Although on a much smaller scale, references to women who contributed to the development of science, medicine and technology do exist; they are, however, isolated and require dedicated research to uncover. There are thousands of women that deserve to be recognised. Some can provide excellent role models to present-day Muslim women who are struggling to navigate through the challenges of modern life.
I now turn to presenting some brief prosopographic studies on women who excelled in science, medicine, mathematics, the arts, and management, as examples for future research and further investigation. But before I do that, I want to take you on a journey to the 9th century where my first story begins.
In 859 CE a young lady founded a mosque complex with an educational institution, known as Al-Qarawiyyin madrasa, in Fes, Morocco. The complex was endowed when this young lady came into possession of a considerably large inheritance from her merchant father – an inheritance large enough to build a mosque and madrasa. Having lost her husband, brother, and father, this visionary and far-sighted woman set her sights on constructing what would become the leading degree-awarding institution of her time.
Scientists and scholars from around the world flocked to study at this elite educational institution. And if you visit Morocco today you will still see this building in existence, recognised by UNESCO as the world’s oldest continuously operating degree-granting university.
This young lady was Fatima al-Fihriyyah. Not only did she donate the funds for the construction of the building, but she also project-managed the entire building process. She restricted the design requirement to ensure that the building material only came from the land of the campus. Due to her devout religious conviction and piety, she launched the project by fasting from the first day until its completion. Historians say it took thirteen years.
Al-Qarawiyyin became the pillars of an educational institution rooted in a God-conscious ethos, nurturing the soul and intellect. The curriculum consisted of: the Qur’an, theology, law, rhetoric, prose and verse writing, logic, arithmetic, geography, medicine, grammar, Muslim history, astronomy, and elements of chemistry and mathematics.
The following section of the talk turns to biographical diagrams of selected women from Muslim civilisation.
I have grouped the selected women into four categories:
Starting with Sutayta al-Mahamali in the field of science, Sutayta was an unparalled muhaddithah (hadith scholar), faqihah (scholar of Islamic jurisprudence) and a mathematician of the Abbasid period. She is a brilliant example of the balance that early Muslim women exemplified through their combined pursuits for higher objectives.
What is incredible about Sutayta is that she did not specialise in one subject alone, but she 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. Due to her combined competence in fiqh and mathematics in inheritance, Sutayta can be described as an Expert Witness in modern terminology.
There are numerous names of scientific women in Muslim civilisation who have been forgotten and whose contributions have been disregarded. A few of these include:
Al-Biruni wrote his book Kitab al-Tafhim li-Awa’il Sina’at al-Tanjim (The Book of Instruction in the Elements of the Art of Astrology) at the request of Rayhana in the city of Ghazna in 1029.
Mathematician, well-versed in the exact sciences, geometry, algebra and general literature. Private secretary to the Umayyad Caliph of Islamic Spain, Al-Hakam II (r. 961–976).
Wife of the Abbasid Caliph Al-Ma’mun (r. 813–833), excelled in astrology.
Thought to have been an astronomer from Andalusia, and daughter of astronomer and mathematician Maslama al-Majriti. There is much debate surrounding the historical accuracy of the figure of Fatima al-Majriti.
She was an astronomer who worked in the palace of the Andalusian Caliph Al-Hakam al-Mustansir Billah (r. 961–976).
Al-Ijliyyah was an astrolabe-maker who worked in the court of Sayf al-Dawla in Aleppo (r. 944–967).
Skilful in the science of chemistry and poetry. She was from the famous Zenat Berber Amazighi tribe of Qairawan.
Zaidi scholar resided in the city of Thila in Yemen, where she taught jurisprudence. She was also proficient in various sciences, excelling in grammar, usul, logic, astronomy, chemistry, and poetry.
Moving onto the field of medicine, we have Umm al-Hasan bint Abu Ja’far. Here is a remarkable example of a medieval Muslim woman of medicine who also had a reputation for being a literary woman, while attaining proficiency in the sacred art of reciting the Qur’an.
Umm al-Hasan bint Abu Ja’far al-Tanjali would have been alive during the Nasrid dynasty of the Late Middle Ages which made her a contemporary of the Andalusian polymath Ibn al-Khatib (d. 1374) and Ibn Khaldun (d. 1406). Ibn al-Khatib was known to have developed the contagion theory, which is important because it sheds light on Umm al-Hasan’s environment and the developments in her field at the time. Her father Ahmad ibn ‘Abdullah al-Tanjali was also learned in the medical sciences, although his primary profession was working as a Judge in Loja. He died of the Black Death in 1349.
The names of medical women in Muslim civilisation are too many to count. A few of these include:
A physician who was eloquent in speech and a philanthropist who donated the produce of her large orchard as a perpetual charity.
Physician and a poetess whose compositions were read in the presence of the Kings of her time. Originally from Aleppo, then migrated to Tunisia during the Berber Hafsid dynasty.
Banu Zuhr were a learned family who resided in Seville, Andalusia in the Iberian Peninsula – they were well known for their excellence as physicians and scholars from the 11th to 13th centuries.
A physician from the tribe of Banu Awd, who was an expert in cures, surgeries and the treatment of eye pains.
A sahabiyyah who was a paramedic at the Battle of Uhud in the year 625 and other major battles. She belonged to the Banu Najjar tribe.
A sahabiyyah who administered emergency healthcare from a tent during early Muslim battles. She belonged to the Medinan tribe of Bani Aslam.
A famous pious midwife during the Tulunid dynasty. She was famed for novel techniques for easing the delivery and reducing pain.
A Makkan midwife who delivered the children of the women who were close to the Prophet Muhammad (SAW).
She was proficient in medicine, natural science and the knowledge of anatomy amongst other sciences.
A wise sahabiyyah who had the title ‘al-Shifa’ (the Healer) due to her medical knowledge and skills in treating skin diseases.
In the field of literature, I’timad al-Rumaykiyyah stands out.
Still, within the field of literature, we have Al-Khansa’, whose name was actually Tumadir bint ‘Amr ibn al-Harith (d. 644). Al-Khansa’ means one with a small nose like that of an antelope; however, her presence and reputation as a 7th-century Arabian poetess is anything but small.
She was the most celebrated Arab poetess of 7th-century Makkah, hailing from the tribe of Banu Sulaym. The grief that Al-Khansa’ suffered from the loss of her two brothers caused her blindness; however, during the Islamic phase of her life, she would also suffer an enormous loss too. All four of her sons whom she encouraged and despatched to join the Muslim army for the Battle of al-Qadisiyyah (636 CE) between the Muslims and the Persians in Iraq, during the caliphate of ‘Umar ibn al-Khattab. When the news of the loss of her sons came, she did not grieve. She is reported to have said
“Praise be to Allah for honouring me with their martyrdom and I pray that He joins me with them in Paradise”.
There are numerous literary and artistic women in Muslim civilisation who deserve more recognition. Although this list is by no means exhaustive, some of them include:
One of the most notable and significant contributors to philanthropic works in Muslim civilisation has to be Zubaydah, the wife of Harun al-Rashid, the most famous 5th Abbasid Caliph.
She is particularly remembered for the contributions she made to the ‘ulamah and the poor, and for the series of wells, reservoirs and artificial pools that provided water for Muslim pilgrims along the route from Baghdad to Makkah and Medina.
The route was renamed Darb Zubaydah (“Zubaydah’s Way”) in her honour.
She was a great builder of Housing Estates, roads, and wells for public consumption all along the roads to Makkah. She personally funded and supervised most canals and underground water systems which still feed some Makkan population with water brought from Aquifers miles away from the city.
Still, within the category of management, we have the aforementioned Fatima al-Fihriyyah who is well-known for endowing and project managing the building of Al-Qarawiyyyin mosque.
Management is not a simple term to define, so here I have selected a number of different roles that women played in Muslim civilisation: as rulers of kingdoms, philanthropists, and businesswomen. This is not an exhaustive list.
Mother of the Abbasid Caliph Al-Mutawakkil. Endowed a hospital.
Founded the Madrasah al-Shamiyyah in 1185.
Queen-regent of Ayyubid Aleppo in the 13th century,
endowed philanthropic projects including Al-Firdaws School in 1235 and Khankah School (both in Aleppo).
Ruler of Delhi between 1236 and 1240. She was the only woman ever to sit on the throne of Delhi.
Fatimid ruler of Yemen who ruled from 1091-1138. Known for founding the Queen Arwa Mosque in Jibla, Yemen.
From the women of influence, power, politics and administration in Andalusia.
Queen of Kirman, Persia during the Qutlugh-Khanid dynasty.
Fatimid princess who was the de facto ruler of the Egypt after the disappearance of her half-brother, the Caliph Al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah in 1021.
Pirate Queen of Morocco who managed to control the Western half of the Mediterranean over 30 years.
A sahabiyyah who had public administration and medical skills.
She was appointed by the Caliph ‘Umar ibn al-Khattab as Muhtasib (Market Administrator) of Medinah.
A sahabiyyah employed by the Caliph ‘Umar ibn al-Khattab as Muhtasib of Makkah’s market.
Apothecarist to the Abbasid Caliph Abu Ja’far al-Mansur.
Busra hired Abu Huraira and he was her employee during the time of the Prophet. Later she married him, after Marwan succeeded him (as administrator) over Madinah.
But there is one woman in this category who deserves a spotlight mention, and that is Morayma bint Ibrahim al-’Attar (1467–1493) who was the last sultana of Granada in Al-Andalus. Morayma’s tale is a particularly tragic one, as you may be able to guess from the statue in the image from Loja in South Spain which shows her in tears.
Morayma was the wife of Abu Abdallah Muhammad XII of Granada, the last ruler of the Nasrid kingdom of Granada, and the daughter of Ibrahim bin Ali al-Attar, commander of the Granada forces and governor of the city of Loja.
Her wedding took place in 1482. Shortly thereafter, she and her husband were imprisoned. Her children were kept as hostages until after her husband handed Alhambra palace marking fall of Granada in 1492.
There is a popular and old Portuguese song which says:
“If I have to cry, I remember Moraymah and
if I have to complain, I remember Moraymah.”
Our studies show that throughout early Islam, a calibre of Muslim women emerged who set the tone for excellence in their fields, while crucially not neglecting their familial and societal roles.
If they were mothers, they had one trait in common: they were the producers of unique generations who seemed to have a standard BRAND. Male and female children were brought up to live in a halal zone.
The Green zone in our modern terminology, which I refer to as the TAJiR ﺗاﺟﺮ (ر ج ا ت) zone. A Tajir (literally Merchant in Arabic) observes four characteristics defined by T A J R whilst dealing with the people or with the environment. The understanding of Halal (permitted) and Haram (unlawful) governed the behaviour of faithful men and women in Muslim civilisation.
So women were the cogwheels that drove Muslim civilisation to flourish when they worked in harmony with men within the halal zone as defined by Islam.
This contrasts significantly with what is commonly assumed about Muslim women today, based on the declining status societally we have observed in recent centuries. Unlike their western counterparts who campaigned exhaustively for women’s right to vote and own property in the 20th century, Muslim women quite comfortably enjoyed their social status throughout Muslim civilisation.
The question that remains for us today is:
How do these findings impact today’s Muslim women?
Will they want to follow the western model of liberation, or instead, claim back their rich heritage as one of the foundational pillars that raised Muslim civilisation?
Thank you for listening.