A furor greeted Benazir Bhutto when she became Prime Minister of Pakistan in 1988. Backed by orthodox theologians, her opponents decried the event as un-Islamic and Ã¢â‚¬Å“against nature,Ã¢â‚¬Â adding that Ã¢â‚¬Å“no woman had ever governed a Muslim state between 622 and 1988.Ã¢â‚¬Â To verify the accuracy of this statement, Moroccan author and sociologist Fatima Mernissi consulted the works of explorers, scholars and historians ranging from Ibne Batuta (1304-78) and Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406) to Stanley Lane-Poole (Encyclopaedia of Islam, 1960) and her findings, published inÃ‚Â The Forgotten Queens of Islam, tell us that there were at least seventeen Muslim queens between the eleventh and seventeenth centuries.
Mernissi restricts her list to female rulers who met the Muslim criteria of sovereigntyÃ¢â‚¬â€their names were proclaimed in the Friday khutba from mosques and inscribed on the coins struck in their reigns. Relatively well known are two thirteenth century queens of the Mamluk (Turkish slave) dynasty. One, of course, is Razia Sultana of the Delhi Sultanate, an able administrator whose calibre as compared to her three half-brothers was acknowledged by her father when he named her his successor. The other is the sagacious Sultana Shajaratul- Durr of Egypt, who routed the French army during the Crusades and captured King Louis IX.
Coin bearing Razia Sultan’s name [Wikipedia]
However, few of us have heard of the two eleventh century Arab queens who ruled Yemen jointly with their husbands: Asma bint Shihab al-Sulahiyya (described by her contemporaries as one of the most famous and powerful women of her time) and her daughter-in-law, Arwa, both under the title Ã¢â‚¬Å“Syeda al-HurraÃ¢â‚¬Â. Nor has muchbeen written about the queens of the Mongol dynasty, which treated its women with a respect that amazed Ibne Batuta. It had no fewer than six queens (1256-1340) reigning over various principalities in present day Iran and Iraq. These were: Kutlugh (also known as Turkan) KhatunÃ¢â‚¬â€whose reign lasted for twenty-six yearsÃ¢â‚¬â€and Padishah Khatun in Kirman; Absh Khatun, whose capital was Shiraz; Dawlat Khatun of Luristan (in Persia); and Sati Bek and Malika Tindu of Iraq.
Subsequently in the Maldives, three Muslim queens succeeded each other during a forty year period (1347-1388). Sultana KhadijaÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s thirty-three year reign was succeeded by that of Sultana Myriam followed by Sultana Fatima. In the seventeenth century (1641-1699), AtjehÃ¢â‚¬â€the fi rst region of Indonesia to have a Muslim kingdomÃ¢â‚¬â€had four successive queens (Sultanas Tajul Islam, Nurul Alam, Inayat Shah and Kamalat Shah) despite their opponents obtaining a fatwa against them.
Sources other than Mernissi cite a seventh Mongol queen, Sultana Fatima Begum, known to the Russians as Sultana Sayyidovna, of Qasim in Central Asia (1679-1681) and two Muslim queens in sub-Saharan Africa: Qasa, the head wife of Mansa Suleiman of Mali (Ã¢â‚¬Å“his partner in the kingship, after the custom of the blacks. Hername is mentioned with his fromthe pulpitÃ¢â‚¬Â) and a famous conqueror and warrior-queen, Amina of Zauzau, West Africa.
The total count of female Muslim rulers thus adds up to twenty. So why are most of them missing from our history books, their very existence denied? Diehard orthodoxy opposed many of them in their lifetimes but did this opposition pursue them after their deaths to expunge them from memory?
The opposition to women holding public offi ce ostensibly stems from a single hadith. The Prophet (pbuh) is reported to have said, Ã¢â‚¬Å“A nation which places its affairs in the hands of a woman shall never prosper.Ã¢â‚¬Â Theologians differ in their interpretations of this hadith. Some prohibit women from all public duties; some allow them to hold public offi ce, including that of a judge; and a few even acknowledge their right to be heads of state. Others point out that the Prophet (pbuh) made this remark after hearing that the Persians had appointed ChosroeÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s daughter as their ruler. (The Prophet (pbuh) had earlier foretold the end of ChosroeÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s dynasty after the latter had torn up the letter inviting him to Islam). He was therefore referring specifically to one particular woman, not women in general. InÃ‚Â The Veil and the Male Elite, Mernissi questions the reliability of the hadith on the grounds that the narrator, Abu Bakrah, an ex-slave perhaps fearful of jeopardising the freedom and prosperity he enjoyed after converting to Islam, had been anxious to win AliÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s favour after the latter defeated Ayesha at the Battle of the Camel and conveniently remembered the supposed remark twenty-fi ve years after the ProphetÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s death. What is more, he had once been fl ogged in OmarÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s reign for bearing false testimony.
The Prophet (pbuh) told his followers to reject any saying attributed to him which violated the message of the Quran and this hadith seems to run contrary to the Quranic account of the Queen of Sheba (Surah 27), which nowhere implies that she was forbidden to rule. Moreover, history itself disproves the implications of the hadith. Nations have prospered under certain women rulersÃ¢â‚¬â€England under Elizabeth I and Victoria; Israel under Golda Meir; India under Indira Gandhi, Russia under Catherine the Great; Spain under Isabella. How can the Prophet (pbuh) have been thought to make a statement that time would refute? Of course there were some awful women rulers, including Muslim queens who were either poor administrators, bad Muslims, or both; but this is just as true of their male counterparts.
And yet the most restrictive interpretation of the hadith is cited by those who subscribe to the view that women should be neither seen nor heard, much less hold public offi ce. During Ziaul HaqÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s benighted tenure, a well-known alim even declared that women should avoid answering the telephone because this would violate their purdah. Such people are trapped in attitudes ingrained by centuries of a culturally inculcated misogyny which has transformed the Quranic injunctions regarding respect for and protection of women into a kind of imprisonment and a licence to rule their minds as well as their lives.
Until a few years ago, there was a tradition among some Muslim families to present new brides with a copy of Maulana Ashraf Ali ThanviÃ¢â‚¬â„¢sÃ‚Â Bahishti Zewar (Heavenly Ornaments), a book about Islamic beliefs and rituals which counsels women, among other things, never to step out of their husbandÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s home even to visit their parents, except to attend their funerals. However, the book does encourage women to be literate. Earlier, only a privileged few had been permitted to learn to read but never to write, just in caseÃ¢â‚¬â€horror of horrors!Ã¢â‚¬â€they used the skill to write love letters.
Perhaps this is the mindset responsible for making Muslim queens vanish from our history. Mernissi urges women to read and reconstruct their own history in self-defence. Ã¢â‚¬Å“Since our ignorance of the past is being used against us, we must act. Read the past!Ã¢â‚¬Â The questÃ¢â‚¬â€to add Ã¢â‚¬Å“herÃ¢â‚¬Â-story to Ã¢â‚¬Å“hisÃ¢â‚¬Â-storyÃ¢â‚¬â€further underlines the need for the education of women. Only thus can they Ã¢â‚¬Å“read their past,Ã¢â‚¬Â learn to believe in themselves, develop their talents and fulfill their God given potentialÃ¢â‚¬â€be it in the home, in the workplace or in public office. The choice should be theirs and theirs alone.
[This article is written by By Raihanaa Hasan andÃ‚Â was first published in the magazineÃ‚Â Nation And The World September 1, 2009 issue]