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Journal of World History 11.1 (2000) 122-124

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Book Review

The Forgotten Queens of Islam

The Forgotten Queens of Islam. By Fatima Mernissi. Translated by Mary Jo Lakeland. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993. Pp. 238. $24.95 (cloth); $16.95 (paper).

In The Forgotten Queens of Islam, a short and very readable volume, Fatima Mernissi, perhaps the best known writer on women and Islam, establishes a historical foundation for women's political independence and their legitimacy as rulers in the Muslim world. In the course of her exposition she proposes a radically democratic orientation in early Islamic teaching, and so in the best fashion of feminist scholars progresses from a fairly narrow perspective to a very inclusive one, using the problem of "women's history" to open up critical perspectives on the history of an entire culture.

The introductory narrowness could hardly be more narrow, as Mernissi begins with the problem of Benazir Bhutto's novelty as political leader of Pakistan. The author reviews the received wisdom that in all of Islamic history no woman had ever before led a polity, then proceeds to explore the "forgotten" history of women leaders in the Islamic world. The wrenching leap backward in time from the twentieth to the seventh century is interrupted by a discussion of the difference between spiritual and mundane authority in Islamic theory and practice. For all undergraduates studying Islam this is a very clear and useful discussion, providing a concise but thoroughly accessible hermeneutics of Arabic and Koranic terminology. The primary point--that spiritual and secular authority were distinct, if interrelated--is fundamental to any student's understanding of Islamic history and is advantageous for the study of many other traditions (including Europe, Iran, and Tibet). Mernissi goes on to demonstrate that though women were evidently excluded from commanding religious authority (that is, they could not act as caliph or imam), they were not excluded from political authority (and could be sultans or queens).

Mernissi's examples include not only women who acted as titled leaders, but also those who resourcefully managed to extend their roles as courtesans or concubines to the political sphere. Parallels in the histories of China, Mongolia, India, and Tibet with respect to the enlargement of women's ostensibly domestic roles to include a frank exercise of power will readily suggest themselves to many readers. The heart of Mernissi's book, however, is a serial narrative of medieval "queens" of Islam. They include female sultans (sultana) among the Mamluks in Egypt and India as well as in the Maldive Islands and in Indonesia; Mongol empresses (khatun); Shi'ite queens (malika) in the Yemeni dynasties; and influential women in Sheba (Saba). The narrative portion of the book ends with a biography of Sitt al-Mulk ("lady of [End Page 123] power"), whose story is a study in the ambiguities of female influence in the medieval world--capable but untitled, depending upon her private connections to make a public impact, poised among the Christian, Jewish, and Islamic communities of Cairo, always in a delicate balance between forces she hoped to manipulate without becoming subordinate to them. On the surface, the rather ruthless Sitt al-Mulk outwitted the traps that normally ensnared women of her class and background, but as her name implies--and as Mernissi states--she was unique. Her successes, such as they were, only underscore the conditions under which most women achieved little if any independence.

The book concludes with a short but intriguing account of the "Medina Democracy." In my reading the essay combines many threads from classic scholarship on Islam dealing with the establishment of the Umayyad dynasty with new questions relating to theories of human rights, individuality, and the place of women (the latter being less explicit than one would expect here). The conventional narrative of the idealism in the original notion of the caliphate and the community being distorted by the power politics that emerged after the founding of the dynasty is extended here to include an unresolvable paradox that Mernissi ascribes to all Islamic societies: the inclusive, communitarian...