When I picked up Hossein Kamaly’s beautifully bound A History of Islam in 21 Women, my subconscious mind attempted to dismiss the title as a potential foray into harem politics. Such thoughts are borne out of a, possibly unjustified, weariness of the endless hand-wringing over the ‘woman question’ in Islam. Fetishised, pitied, prized and always needing to be delivered from the clutches of someone or other’s oppression, Muslim women are endlessly reduced to caricatures. Their victim status has become a cloak for the dagger of neo-colonial interventions in the Muslim world under the guise of ‘saving’ exotic damsels in distress. The men from whom said Muslim woman must be saved are demonised while the project to bring her to salvation is an assertion of the supposed moral superiority of liberal western values that seem to so narrowly define that very construct we label ‘freedom’. With this in mind, I wondered how, in the context of history, contested female bodies would fare in this book. Would their stories be mere appendages to the postulating male characters who have, since time immemorial, monopolised Islamic discourse? Or will these women be given a voice with which to articulate each and every one of their unique and individual lived experiences?

It wasn’t long before any such fears were allayed. Upon opening the pages it became clear that, mindful of the way in which the language of power is gendered, Kamaly skilfully and sensitively negotiates the matrix of history, gender and language through the lived realities of 21 remarkable Muslim women. The result is a rich, vibrant and meticulously researched exposition that instinctively unpacks the intersectional context Muslim women have occupied from the sixth century to the present day. Each profile illustrates prestige hierarchy at play, highlighting the importance of the role of female protagonists in Islamic history. Acknowledging that Islamic history has long been marked by gendered and racialised exclusion, Kamaly makes a concerted effort at redress: ‘Legions of male writers of women’s biographies, both from within Islamic societies and later the foreign Orientalists gazing from the outside, have shared unexamined, misogynistic, and self-contradictory assumptions about the nature of women. Their tainted premises are intellectually untenable and sometimes psychologically disturbing. For example, dismissing women’s agency.’

Hossein Kamaly, A History of Islam in 21 Women, OneWorld, London, 2019

Kamaly also steers clear of becoming the kind of champion of Muslim women who denounces the cultures, traditions and beliefs of the Muslim world into which he was born, in a loathsome flourish that would only serve to fuel Islamophobia and do little to inspire introspection. Taking seriously the responsibility that comes with being a male academic writer of women’s biographies, Kamaly, who is Associate Professor of Islamic Studies at Hartford Seminary and scholar of the Middle East focusing on the history of ideas, rises to the challenge, alert to the pitfalls he must necessarily avoid.  

The premise of the book was borne out of a discussion about women as agents of historical change, during which he was informed of the existence of BBC Radio 4 ‘Woman’s Hour’ presenter Jenni Murray’s A History of Britain in 21 Women. This tome selects the biographies of 21 pioneering women pivotal to our understanding of British history. Why just 21 women? The number is a nod to the 21 centuries of history the Gregorian calendar has allotted global society so far. Any number is arbitrary but this seemed appropriate enough. Recognising that writing about women in Islam, or women and Islam, or Islam’s relationship with women, and so forth, was a minefield but also necessary, he set out to conquer the task with a sensitivity, intellectual voracity and enthusiasm that may well have been missing if attempted by a less holistic scholar.

Compelled by an awareness that gendered histories have the consequence of shaping practises we accept today to be irrefutable positions, Kamaly was aware that with any limit on the innumerable women he could choose to profile, there would be omissions. However, he was also careful not to ease into predictability in his choices. The female voice has for too long been obscured by male scholars who continue to dominate Islamic studies, particularly lauded when it comes to Islamic jurisprudence and scholarship from which the sharia is seemingly derived. Yet, as Kamaly illustrates with his work, these fields of study have an increasingly diminishing centrality to our contemporary understanding of Islamic traditions. Reportage, biography and forensic re-appraisal of the tools that have contributed to the construction of history can offer a more relevant insight into the practices of Muslims around the world, in a way that dismantles the choke-hold of patriarchy. 

This was also not destined to be a book that lionises Muslim women by measuring their significance in terms of piety. Having said that, of course it is no surprise that the first, longest and most detailed of the biographies is of Khadija, the first wife of the Prophet Muhammad. She was, after all, the first believer after him. Her support of her husband in his anguish at the burden of revelation, along with her influence as she stood by his side as his monogamous wife for 25 years, is indisputable. She is revered as the ‘Mother of the Believers’, but was also a successful businesswoman in her own right, a widow who by some accounts may even have been 40 years old when she proposed to the 25 year old Muhammad. Kamaly casts doubt on the exact age, but that she was older than her husband is without question. Her inclusion in the series of 21 profiles is not just a re-hash of all that we already know. It re-asserts her agency in the story of Islam and Kamaly shines a spotlight on her singular achievements. As one of the most important women in Islam, revered and adulated, she is emblematic of the way in which women continue to navigate their contexts. Meccan society was riven with contradictions when it came to gender equality, with female infanticide rampant and the prevailing attitude that women were inferior. However, as Kamaly explains: 

more women than men in Mecca could read and write, and, importantly, could own wealth and property as Khadija certainly did. As both her mother and father belonged to influential branches of the Quraysh, Khadija had capital, connections, children and honour. She was strong, wise and independent, and men and women answered to her.

Introducing his collection of biographies with Khadija makes perfect sense, because what Kamaly sets out to do is embark upon a representation of the formation of Islam. And this undoubtedly begins with Khadija. She is not the only member of the Prophet’s immediate family to feature. His daughter Fatima and his young wife Aisha, who he married after Khadija’s death, are also included. The two women found themselves on differing sides at one of the most critical junctures in Islamic history, the Battle of Camel. The schism that emerged out of the bloody spectacle evolved into the Sunni-Shia divide, which has impacted the Muslim world since. 

Aisha, who was educated and intellectually curious, proved a proficient chronicler of the life and times of the Prophet and the immediate aftermath of his death. Her narrations, despite being presented via a patriarchal lens, became authoritative sources for future generations of Muslims. For some believers, she is a contentious figure. Aspersions upon her character and swirling rumours questioning her loyalty characterise the chatter that surrounds her, possibly because she was feisty and strong-willed. Kamaly does not shy away from such controversies. In fact, his choice of 21 biographies includes women who, to my delight, may well raise eyebrows among self-appointed members of the Muslim morality police. 

With such an abundance of pioneering Muslim women to choose from, singer Umm Kulthum, who mesmerised audiences with her melodic voice for five decades, soothing a demoralised Arab world after the Six-Day War of 1967, was a pleasant surprise. Trail-blazing architect Zaha Hadid, whose untimely death in 2016 left a gaping void in the field of radical mega architecture, was another genius addition. However, both these women did not base their identities on their Muslim origins. As is the case with many Muslims around the world, their Muslim-ness did not follow a conservative trajectory of outward rituals and pieties. Similarly, the inclusion of Noor Inayat Khan, a spy working for allied forces during the Second World War, brought up in Europe and born to Indian and American parents, is representative of the fragmented identity complexities Muslims negotiate in the increasingly globalised context of the twenty-first century. 

It is the manner in which Kamaly utilises his profiles as a means of speaking of wider geopolitical issues that Muslims are confronted with, that is one of the strengths of the book. He has compiled more than a series of nice, neat potted histories of admirable women, but is the author of a coherent narrative of what it means to be a Muslim woman through the shifts of time. The spectre of patriarchy lurks in these lives, indeed in all our lives. This is no better illustrated than in the chapter dedicated to Tajul-Alam Safiatuddin Syah, titled Diamonds Are Not Forever. 

Sultana Tajul-Alam Safiatuddin Syah was born in 1612 and succeeded to the throne of Aceh Darussalam at the age of twenty-nine. A widow, her reign was characterised by skilful diplomacy and support of Islamic scholarship. Her negotiations with the West Dutch India Company on settling a debt incurred by her ostentatious and jewel-enamoured late husband proved a deft strategic move. Three consecutive female rulers followed, but eventually the local male elite, the ulema, put an end to female succession by invoking the hadith that ‘those who entrust their affairs to a woman will never know prosperity’. Contrast this with the long-time ruler of Yemen, Queen Arwah who was endorsed by the ulema. She founded a number of notable mosques and had the khutbah proclaimed in her name, one of only two female monarchs in the Muslim Arab world to be bestowed such an honour.

Kamaly’s biographies are deliberately diverse and non-partisan. Sectarianism, theological judgements or knotty issues of fiqh are in the landscape of some of these narratives but are only part of the framework. What these women represent is the course of global Islam, freed from the airbrushing effect of patriarchy. After all, as the book demonstrates, women’s history is human history.

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