Islam elevated the role of women in the 7th century and gave property and other rights that were not available to women until the onset of the 20th century. The golden age of Islam started in the 7th century and lasted to the end of the 17th century when colonial occupation of Muslim ruled areas by European powers began. With the decline in scholarship and deficit in the knowledge of Islam among Muslims came the erosion of rights of women. It is interesting to note that the number of women scholars and rulers was at its height when scholarship in Islam, sciences and all other fields was at its peak.
Muslims quite early in their history started to excel in science, philosophy, medicine and other fields. The golden age of Islam was a period of learning and enlightenment. Big advances were made in science, medicine, governance, architecture and other fields. One reason for advancement was heavy investment on education and *Madrasas(means an institutions of learning) of all levels from primary to most advanced level were well funded. Money was available for independent research. It is estimated that Muslim rulers in the golden age Islam spent a greater portion of their revenue on education than the most advanced countries spend these days. It brought prosperity and people enjoyed a good quality of life that was not available in the lands of occupiers of colonies. It is the colonies that brought wealth to Europe.
There was a blow to this progress in the 13th century when the Mongol invaders inflicted death and destruction to the Muslim regions east of Egypt. Samarkand and Bukhara were the first to feel the destruction in 1221, Naishapur in 1222. Isfahan and other cities were next. Merve a city of over 500,000 was completely destroyed and most of its inhabitants killed. Baghdad was sacked in 1250 and close to one million people killed in a city of over I million. Destruction of libraries, institutions of higher learning and mosques stopped when the Mongols were defeated by the Mamalukes of Egypt in 1258. After this destruction and end of Abbasid period, recovery did take place and progress continued. But the colonial period sniffed out all creative energies and since then very little or no progress has taken place in most Muslim countries and a few are in a self-destruct mode.
During the golden period of Islam there was no separation between the mullah class and the scholars. The great philosophers, physicians, mathematicians and experts of other fields were also expert in the knowledge of Islam. After colonial occupation the gulf between the mullah class and the university educated class grew and at one point it became fashionable for most elite to disassociate themselves from anything to do with Islam. The result was that by default the mullah class who had poor academic and not very sound knowledge of Islam became custodians of Islam. Fortunately the situation is changing and young educated Muslims are seeking Islamic knowledge.
Here is a brief overview of women’s role as scholars, Sufis and rulers. Women of the Prophet’s family and other women of that period had a very important role in the history of Islam. This period is very well covered by Professor Timothy Winters of Cambridge University in a video lecture called “Legacy of early Muslim Women”. A link is provided below. Khaliq M Khan (June 2019).
- Muslim Women Sufies and Scholars
Rabia Al Basri and Fatima Naishapuri, born in the 8th century, were early scholars and Sufis. As-Sulami (died in 1021) in his publication on early Sufi women** mentions that between the 8th and 11th centuries there were 80 respected Sufi teachers and spiritual guides. Some known figures were Lubna of Cordoba (Spain) who died in 984, who was a scholar and a mathematician. She presided over the famous Library of Cordoba that had about 500,000 books. Fatima Al Qasim died in 1216. She was also from Andalusia and is regarded as one of the most learned scholars of her time. Zainab B Ahmed died in 1339 and was an eminent Islamic scholar of the 14th century. Bibi Hatati Kirmani and Aisha of Damascus were known Sufi teachers in the 15th century. Jahan Ara (1592-1666) daughter of Emperor Shahjahan was a Sufi and a writer.
2, Muslim women rulers (excludes queens who were not rulers)
Among the well-known rulers were Queen Razia Sultana of India in 1236 and Queen Shajaratul-Durr, ruler of Egypt in 1249. King Louis IX of France who led the 7th crusade*** was defeated and captured under the rule of Queen Shajaratul-Durr. Women rulers were in Yemen (Malika al Hurra in12th century and other co – rulers). In Nigeria Amina (Aminatu) ruled Zaria in 1576 and Abuja and Kano in 1580. The Mongols had converted to Islam and had several ruling queens in their Khanates (Princedoms).
Muslim women rulers were in princely states and sultanates in India, Central Asia, Indonesia, Kenya, Mali and the Philippines (Sulu Sultanate 1405 to1915). The Patani Kingdom **** in Thailand from 1516 to 1902 had only female rulers. A number of Muslim women regents in several countries ruled between successions. There were also a number of powerful queens who were not rulers such as Empress Noor Jahan (1577-1645) a very able wife of the Emperor Jahangir who was the power behind the throne. Khaliq.
** 1. Dhikr an-Niswa al-Muta’abbidat as-Sufiyyat translated by Rkia Elaroui Cornell of Duke University.
-An excellent section on Muslim women Leaders and rulers – www.guide2womenleaders.com/Muslim_Leaders.htm.has
- “Women’s contribution to Classical Islamic Civilization, Sciences Medicine and Politics by Salim Al Hassan U of Manchester. www.muslimheritage.com/…/womens-contribution-clasical-islamic-civili..
*** Crusades started in 1095 and came in 9 major waves. They were urged on by the popes starting from Pope Urban the 2nd. The crusade movement led to the demise of Muslims in Spain. The crusaders occupied cities like Aleppo in Syria and Jerusalem and were expelled by Saladin in 1187. The crusade movement continued in Europe and resulted in the expulsion of Muslims from Hungary and other East European countries.
****Patni Kingdom in Thailand is a Muslim majority enclave where succession to rule was through female line.. It is next to the Malaysian border and ended up in Thailand instead of Malaysia. Patni means a female spouse and Pati a male spouse. Bhopal state in India Like the Patani kingdom was ruled by Begums (female successors).
Please note that the role of an imam as compared to a minister or a priest in a church is minor. A non-imam can lead the prayers and perform other rituals in a mosque, whereas in a church service, baptism, communion and other rituals cannot be performed without a minister or a priest.
*Madrasas were learning institutions. The education system in Muslim regions consisted of Maktab for children up to age of 6 where they learned basics and ability to read Quran and memorise surahs required to read in daily prayers. The Maktab was followed by Madrasas and they had 16 grades in 2 levels. Level 1 from age 6 to 14 and level 2 from age 15 to 22. In level 1, one trade was compulsory. The curriculum of Madrasa was multidisciplinary and included subjects like science, mathematics,logic, Falsafa (philosophy), literature, law, governance, religion and others. Haroon Al Rashid in 790 in Baghdad started the first Madrasa, an institution of advanced learning called Al Nizamya center of knowledge. Madrasa in the Muslim world were modeled after the house of wisdom and knowledge in Baghdad.
Al-Azhar in Cairo, the oldest University in the world started in 970, in comparison Oxford started in 1248 and Harvard in 1636. Two other old institutions of advanced learning were, Ez Zaitona in Tunisia, which started in 737 and Al Quaraouiyine in Morocco established in 859. Khaliq