Review: 'The Forgotten Queens of Islam' by Fatima Mernissi
The Forgotten Queens of Islam is the fruit of Fatima Mernissi’s ongoing research in the role of women at various stages of Islamic history, which has lead to a re-reading of that history from the perspective of a feminist archaeology of knowledge. Following her well-received book The Veil and the Male Elite, The Forgotten Queens of Islam establishes the inevitability of the roles women played throughout the various periods of Islamic history - in spite of allegations to the contrary and attempts to render their historic roles in Islamic politics invisible.
Her research opens with a fundamental question: How did these women contrive to take power in states which, as a matter of principle, defined politics as an exclusively male pursuit? In Islam, the concept of spiritual and political succession (khilafa), is a purely male aﬀair – there is no place for women in the conceptualisation and arrangements of the Muslim caliphate. So how did women in those times manage to penetrate the corridors of power?
Women: the present absent
Mernissi argues that Benazir Bhutto was not the first female leader of an Islamic nation, countering allegations that women were absent from the political scene in Islamic history. She posits that women were present, but then forced to disappear and that their contributions were intentionally excluded. Mernissi takes the reader on a cross-continental journey to meet female politicians who played a role in leadership – the Queens, as she calls them – in the different geographical regions where Muslim civilization blossomed.
Mernissi says that whenever a woman rises to political power, so-called fundamentalists consider it an act of aggression and a breach of the rules of the game, whereby it is evident that fundamentalism comes in many guises such as groups and elites that exploit doctrine and spirituality in defence of their personal interests. Here, Mernissi poses another question about a contradiction that has existed for decades in Islam: why does the ruler have to be an Arab male, when Islam is the religion of equality between people of different races and genders? She insists that her book does not aim to study past history, but to seek inspiration from an excluded part of history during which thousands of Muslim men and women fought for equality in rights before the unfair authorities that prevailed at different historic periods of the Islamic state until today.
To this end she narrates the story of the Queen Radiya who was chosen by her father Sultan Qutb Al Din Aybak (himself a freed slave) to be his successor. Aybak established Islam’s hold in India, but insisted on appointing his daughter despite the fact that he had three sons. Such experiences of women rising to power in various Islamic states in the Asian continent have recurred throughout Muslim history for example in Taj Al Alam Safyat Al Din Shah who was Sultana of Aceh in Sumatra in the 17th century, and Sultana Inayat Shah Zakiyat Al Din and Kamalat Shah who have ruled for decades. The author shows how women ruled Islamic states directly and inﬂuenced them indirectly throughout the history of Islam, and that their rule continued to be viciously resisted time and again.
The first chapter of the book investigates how this relates to the changes in the structure of the Islamic state from the dawn of Islam to the beginnings of the Muslim empire, and specifically, to the positioning of the mosque – the locum of congregation, where the Prophet would meet anyone and everyone who wanted to see him and talk to him. Mernissi describes that the mosque played a role similar to that of a parliament or an advisory council, but as those in power progressively kept the public at an arm’s length, the political institutions of the Islamic state became increasingly isolated, and thus increasingly less transparent.
The author describes that a “veiling” - of the ruler from the ruled - has placed a barrier/intermediary between the governor and the public, isolating the former from the latter. She provides evidence from the Prophet’s sunna and the practices of the four rightly guided caliphs that show how this veiling has, as the Islamic state evolved, conﬂicted with the principles of transparency in governance they had established.
Exclusion: the cause of conflict in the Islamic state
Questioning the relationships of political power in the Islamic state, Mernissi posits that the exclusion of women was linked to the exclusion of the amma/umma (people/nation) from running the aﬀairs of the Islamic state, once the authority, represented by the elites, “veiled” itself from the ruled. She uses etymological explanations of the terms used in describing the “public” in the Islamic state: the amma (public) which she finds disrespectful and excluding, instead of the umma (nation) which originates from the Arabic umm - the term for mother, and a lofty and highly respected concept. The antonym of the “public”, in Mernissi’s opinion, is the “elite” - that group which collaborates with the ruler in oppressing the public, in which exclusion from the machinations of power and from knowing the true resources of the state is a means of control.
Mernissi believes that oppressive powers exclude both women and men, rendering itself opaque to them. Therefore, the role of the veil (hijab) is not limited to covering women’s human entity by covering her body. It is a concept that also veils the men in the “public” from participating in power. According to the author, the continuing crisis of the Islamic state has its locus in this gap which separates the ruled from the ruler – a gap filled by the benefitting elite and the military. Modern democratic processes intend to introduce the public to the political stage and open them up to political practice in Islamic states where both women and persecuted groups gain access to the political process.
In this part of the book, Mernissi reaches the conclusion that it is impossible to exclude women from politics, affirming that they have, throughout Muslim history, lead, participated in or influenced on different aspects of the political process. She narrates the critical role played by the jawari (female slaves) and the harem in the corridors of political power at the highest levels of the Islamic state, as mothers to caliphs, and active mistresses to statesmen. Pivotal political decisions were influenced by the jawari - mothers, sisters and wives who reached to the point of participating in power in the Islamic state.
Mernissi tells the story of Khayzuran, the Mother of Harun Al Rashid. She was a female slave of the third Abbasid caliph, Al Mahdi. Originally from Yemen, she was enslaved and sold in Baghdad, where she became Al Mahdi’s favourite concubine. She successfully excluded all his other sons from the succession, limiting it to her own two, Harun Al Rashid and Musa Al Hadi. The caliph freed and married her when her son Al Hadi was declared his successor. Mernissi tells in fascinating details the circumstances of the female slaves in the Islamic state during Khayzuran’s times, but adheres faithfully to the feminist political analysis of that state’s contradictions, elites, corruption and lack of equality. The final chapter of the book narrates the stories of fifteen of the most famous queens and female rulers and politicians in Muslim history.
Sovereignty in the Islamic state
Mernissi proposes that sovereignty in the Islamic state lies squarely in the political and material power, i.e. in the ownership of wealth and its exploitation. The isolation of those governing from the governed has led to continual oppression and exclusion of the majority of the umma from political power and decision-making process. Mernissi says that nothing better expresses the betrayal of the revolutionary principles on which Islam was founded at the time of the Prophet (PBUH) and his immediate successors more than the attitude toward the access of women to mosques.
In the Kitab Al Jum’a (Book of Friday) of Imam Bukhari, who wrote two centuries after the death of the Prophet, we find the following famous hadith: “Do not forbid the mosques of Allah to the women of Allah.” A half-century later, Imam Nisa’i, who wrote his Al Sunan (Traditions) in the 10th century, 300 years after the death of the Prophet, he concludes naturally by saying that a man has no right to forbid his wife to go to the mosque. The Prophet said: “When a woman asks authorization from one of you to go to the mosque, let him grant it to her.” Mernissi concludes that the efforts to exclude women from the mosque lay at the beginning of their exclusion, and that of the Muslim public, from entering the political scene. By monopolising the mosque, the ruling male elites also monopolised the legislation.
As with all Fatima Mernissi’s books and papers, this one is intriguing to read and packed with intelligent analysis. The ease of text does not, however, distract from the knowledge it conveys in its chronology of the transformations suffered by the Islamic state through the concentration of power in the hands of the elite and their use of spirituality and religious doctrine to exclude women and the Muslim public from participation in political power.
From Women in Islam, Issue 1 (2014)