The path for women in the Arab world has been paved by irrepressibly strong and independent female pioneers. From Yemen’s Asma bint Shahab in the 11th century Egypt’s Shajar al-Durr in the 13th century, women have led many key areas such as education, healthcare, and politics. We take a look at 9 inspirational leaders from the ancient Arab world.
The images used in this article are purely for illustrative purposes.
Asma bint Shahab, Yemeni ruler
Asma bint Shihab is one of the few pioneers in ancient Arab politics. From queen consort to a sole ruler, Asma’s journey is one for the history books.
She married her cousin, Ali al-Sulayhi, sultan and founder of the Sulayhid dynasty. The marriage between Ali and Asma was reportedly a happy one, and Ali relied on her support on his way to power and participated in the sacrifices his religious faith placed upon him.
When Ali became king in 1047, he named her malika (queen), but not merely his consort. He formally acknowledged her as a co-ruler and political partner, who governed the realm of Yemen by his side.
In recognition of this, her name was proclaimed alongside that of her spouse in the Khutba, the traditional privilege of a sovereign in a Muslim state.
The khutba was proclaimed from the pulpits of the mosques of Yemen in her husband’s name and in her name, after the Fatimid sovereign and her husband. It read ‘May Allah prolong the days of al-Hurra the perfect, who manages the affairs of the faithful with care.’
This was the first time ever in history when the name of a woman had been proclaimed in the khutba. Another unique occurrence was that queen Asma bint Shihab attended councils unveiled. Her face was uncovered, just as a king would be in that scenario.
Muhammad al-Thawr described her as one of the most famous women of her time, and one of the most powerful.
“She was munificent. She was a poetess who composed verses. Among the praises given her husband al-Sulayhi by the poets was the fact that he had her for a wife … When he ascertained the perfection of her character, her husband entrusted the management of state business to her. He rarely made decisions that went against her advice and […] regarded her with very great respect and never gave any other opinion precedence over hers.”
In 1067, during the pilgrimage to Mecca, the Banu Najah clan under Sa’id Ibn Najah, the prince of Zubayd, attacked the royal travel party of Ali and Asma. They killed Ali and took Asma prisoner.
She was sequestered in a secret prison in Zubayd, and reportedly, the severed head of her spouse was planted on a pole visible from her cell. After a year’s imprisonment, she managed to get a message through to her son and daughter-in-law in Sa’na, and her son stormed Zubayd and freed her.
Asma returned to her realm and assisted her son, Ahmad al-Mukkaram, and daughter-in-law, Arwa al-Sulayhi, with the management of the realm until she died.
When she met her son al-Mukarram, she confirmed him as his father’s successor, but when he was paralyzed shortly afterward, she retook control as the co-regent of the realm together with her daughter-in-law Arwa.
The two queens, Asma and Arwa, co-ruled Yemen; a first for any kingdom at the time.
Queen Asma was sometimes affectionally referred to as the Little Queen of Sheba, according to Muhammad al-Thawr.
“Some poets, carried away by their admiration of Asma, went so far as to declaim that if the throne of the queen of Sheba had been magnificent, that of Asma was still more so,” he wrote.
Another name used both for her and her daughter-in-law and co-regent was malika hazima, an epithet awarded to those regarded to have shown the utmost wisdom and judgment in political affairs.
Kahina, Amazigh military leader
Kahina was a 7th century female Amazigh religious and military leader, who led indigenous resistance to Arab expansion in Northwest Africa.
Kahina’s real name was Dihya, Daya, or Damya, depending on the translation. Her title, al-Kahina, meant priestess soothsayer because her Muslim opponents believed she had supernatural powers to foresee the future. This was because of her indomitable spirit and ability to defeat legions of military attacks from Arab Islamic invaders of the Umayyad Dynasty.
Hasan ibn al-Nu’man marched from Egypt and captured the major Byzantine city of Carthage and other cities. Searching for another enemy to defeat, and new territories to conquer, he was told that the most powerful monarch in North Africa was “the Queen of the Berbers”.
He marched into Numidia to prove the might of his army and of Arab invaders. The armies met near Meskiana in the present-day province of Oum el-Bouaghi, Algeria.
She defeated Hasan so soundly that he fled Ifriqiya and holed up in Cyrenaica in Libya for five years.
For five years, Kahina ruled a free Amazigh state from the Aures mountains to the oasis of Gadames.
But the Arabs, commanded by Musa bin Nusayr, returned with a stronger army and defeated her. She fought at the El Djem Roman amphitheater but was finally was killed in combat near a well that still bears her name, Bir al Kahina in the Aures. Her head was sent to the caliph as a trophy.
As horrifying as that sounds, at the time, it was a symbol of military strength. Her death in combat symbolizes a major victory for the invaders, who considered her a formidable foe.
Over four centuries after her death, Tunisian hagiographer al-Mālikī seems to have been among the first to state she resided in the Aurès Mountains. Just seven centuries after her death, the pilgrim at-Tijaniwas told she belonged to the Lūwāta tribe. When the later historian Ibn Khaldun came to write his account, he placed her with the Jrāwa tribe.
Ibn Khaldun records many legends about Kahina. A number of them refer to her long hair or great size, both legendary characteristics of sorcerers.
She is also supposed to have had the gift of prophecy and she had three sons, which is characteristic of witches in legends. Even the fact that two were her own and one was an adopted Arab officer she had captured, was an alleged trait of sorcerers in tales.
Another legend claims that in her youth, she had supposedly freed her people from a tyrant by agreeing to marry him and then murdering him on their wedding night. Virtually nothing else of her personal life is known, but all of these legends remain to serve as a reminder that a woman of great military skill led a rebel force to victory.
According to Ibn Khaldun, she died when she was 127 years old; another of the many myths which surround the mysterious and powerful Kahina.
Fatima al-Fihri, academic
At a time when most of the world’s civilizations were agrarian, further education was seen as a distraction from the feudal way of life. In the Arab world, however, knowledge was power.
The world’s first academic degree-granting institution of higher education was founded in 859 AD by a woman; Fatima al-Fihri.
The University of al-Karaouine was established in Fes, Morocco, and is still in operation today as the University of Al Quaraouiyine. It is the oldest continually operating educational institution in the world and is sometimes referred to as the world’s oldest university, though it did not officially become a university until the 1950s.
The mosque adjacent to the university is also still in operation and is one of the largest in North Africa.
Al-Fihri was the daughter of a wealthy merchant, which gave her opportunities many men didn’t have at the time, let alone women. As an educated and worldly wise woman, she wanted to bring the benefits of higher education to her community.
She also founded one of the world’s oldest libraries in the University of Al Quaraouiyine. The library recently underwent restoration and reopened to the public in May 2016. The library’s collection of over 4000 manuscripts includes a 9th-century Qur’an and the earliest collection of hadiths.
The al-Fihri family was part of a large migration to Fes from the town of Qayrawan in modern Tunisia, which is why the town lent its name to the mosque and madrassa.
Rufaida Al-Aslamia, surgeon
Rufaida Al-Aslamia was a medical and social worker recognized as the first female surgeon in Arab history in 620 AD.
Rufaida lived at the time of the Prophet Muhammad. She nursed those wounded in many wars at the time, including the battle of Badr on 13 March 624 AD.
She learned most of her medical knowledge by assisting her father, Saad Al Aslamy, who was a physician. Rufaida devoted herself to nursing and taking care of sick people and she quickly became an expert healer. She practiced her skills in field hospitals in her tent during many battles.
Rufaida is recorded in multiple historical texts as a kind, empathetic nurse, and surgeon. With her clinical skills, she trained other women to be nurses and to work in the area of healthcare. She also worked as a social worker, helping to solve social problems associated with diseases. In addition, she helped children in need and took care of orphans, the handicapped and the poor.
Al-Shifa bint Abduallah, healer and scholar
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, and was involved in public administration and medicine. Her real name was Laila, but everyone referred to her as “al-Shifa” because of her skill as a healer.
Al-Shifa used to practice folk medicine to prevent ant bites and cure common maladies, which she then taught other women.
At a time when barely twenty people in Mecca could write, Al-Shifa was the first woman to acquire this skill. She taught writing to other women according to records at the time
Sutayta Al-Mahamali, mathematician
Sutayta Al-Mahamali is one of the first female mathematicians in recorded history. She lived in the second half of the 10th century, and was known for her passion for science, literature, the law, and hadith.
Sutayta 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-Mahamali who was known for his fair judgments and wisdom.
In her own right, Sutayta was highly proactive in the pursuit of knowledge. She was taught and guided by several scholars including her father. Other scholars who taught her were Abu Hamza bin Qasim, Omar bin Abdul-‘Aziz al-Hashimi, Ismail bin Al-Abbas al-Warraq and Abdul-Alghafir bin Salamah al-Homsi.
Even as a trailblazer, Sutayta chose the best way to access the male-only world of science at the time was by playing up what it meant to be a “good woman” then.
She was known for her good reputation, morality, and modesty and was praised by historians such as Ibn al-Jawzi, Ibn al-Khatib Baghdadi and Ibn Kathīr.
Sutayta excelled in many fields because of her intellect and support from her family. It is said that she was an expert in hisab (arithmetic) 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 algebraic equations which have been cited by other mathematicians.
In ancient astronomy, history only names one woman; Al-‘Ijliya, an astrolabe maker from Aleppo. There’s very little information available about her. Only one source mentions her; the famous work Al-Fihrist of Ibn al-Nadim.
Ibn al-Nadim presents a list of 16 names of engineers, craftsmen, and artisans of astronomical instruments and other machines. Al-‘Ijlii al-Usturlabi, pupil of Betolus, “and his daughter Al-‘Ijliya” make the list, suggesting that she worked with her father in the court of Sayf al-Dawla making astrolabes. Betolus was a famous astrolabe-maker at the time, which would mean she was an expert in the field.
Like her father, Al-Ijliya was a member of a rich tradition of engineers and astronomical instrument makers who flourished in the 9th and 10th centuries.
Ibn al-Nadim only mentioned her in a section on machines and astronomical instruments, but she may have been an expert in related sciences.
History does not reveal where she was born, or if she learned her trade in Aleppo alone. Among the few extant Islamic astrolabes, none bears her name. This could be for a number of reasons, such as the social barriers women have faced throughout history in receiving credit for their work. We can only speculate with whatever little information on her is left in the history books.
Dhayfa Khatun, Syrian ruler
Dhayfa Khatun is another famous and powerful ruler in ancient Arabia. She the wife of the Ayyubid ruler of Aleppo, al-Zahir Ghazi, and ruled as the Queen of Aleppo for six years. She was born in Aleppo in 1186 AD. Her father was King al-Adel, the brother of Salah al-Din Al-Ayyubi and her brother was King al-Kamel. After her son’s death, she became the Queen of Aleppo, ruling until her 7-year-old grandson came of age.
During her 6-year rule, she faced threats from Mongols, Seljuks, crusaders and Khuarzmein, which she single-handedly overcame.
Dhayfa was a popular queen; she removed injustices and unfair taxes throughout Aleppo. She favored the poor and wanted to eradicate social injustice in her kingdom through a number of charities she founded.
As a patron of architecture and science, Dhayfa sponsored learning in Aleppo where she founded two schools.
The first was al-Firdaous School which specialized in Islamic studies and Islamic law, especially the Shafi’i doctrine. Al-Firdaous School was located close to Bab al-Makam in Aleppo and had a teacher, an Imam, and 20 scholars, according to the structure of the educational system at that time. Its campus consisted of several buildings, including the school, a residential hall for students and a mosque.
The second school, the Khankah School, specialized in both Sharia and other fields. It was located in Mahalat al-Frafera.
Shajarat al-Durr, Sultana of Egypt
Shajarat al-Durr is one of the few queens in the ancient Arab world bearing the title of sultana. From truly humble beginnings as a slave, Shajar gained power in Cairo in 1250 AD, and led her kingdom to victory during the crusades.
She even famously captured the King of France, Louis IX, who led the sixth and seventh crusade against the Arab world at the time, as a display of strength.
Shajarat al-Durr, whose name means ‘string of pearls’ in Arabic, bore the royal name al-Malikah Ismat ad-Din Umm-Khalil Shajarat al-Durr.
Shajara was originally bought by Ayyubid Sultan as-Salih Ayyub, who fell so deeply in love with her that the two were married and she was to rule by his side. After his death during the crusades, Shajara took control of the realm but kept it a secret as a war strategy.
In the course of her life and political career, Shajarat al-Durr played many roles and held great influence in the Egyptian court. She was a military leader and led her army to defeat Louis IX of France, who had then taken Damietta and advanced down the Nile. Her Mamluk army stopped his troops at Mansura and took him hostage. This legitimized and strengthened Shajara’s rule. She re-established political stability and held on to political power for seven years in one form or another.
Lessons from female pioneers
From leading armies to victory, to building schools and tending to the sick, women have always been a vital part of the success of the Arab world. While history may have glossed over their achievements, these women stand out for their unwavering strength, unmatched skills, and tenacity at a time when being female was seen as inferior. Women in the Arab world today can take inspiration from these pioneers, while blazing new paths in their own right.
On a positive note, there are about 5 million ancient manuscripts in archives around the world, of which only about 50,000 have been studied and translated. These tomes could hold many more tales of women who have shaped Arab history that may have been lost in the sands of time.