With the revelation of Islam in the seventh century came revolutionary women’s rights reforms, and there are numerous noteworthy women in history who have served as empowered role models. Yet, Muslim literature, for the most part, is overwhelmingly dominated my men.
Muslim Women's Day, which falls on Saturday, March 27, was founded to help amplify Muslim women's voices in the media, and what better way to celebrate the occasion than shedding light on their courageous contributions to the most traditional form of media – books?
From enlightening memoirs to more academic non-fiction reads, there has been a surge in female-led Islamic discourse in the literary world over the past decade. Here are 10 titles by and about pious and powerful Muslim women that you should add to your reading list.
'The Unforgettable Queens of Islam' by Shahla Haeri
Most Muslim rulers throughout history have been men, but anthropologist and former director of the women’s, gender and sexuality studies programme at Boston University, Shahla Haeri, sheds light on the many women who held positions of power in various eras and empires – from one of the Prophet Mohammed’s wives Aisha bint Abi Bakr, who famously led the Battle of the Camel in 656, to Pakistan’s only female prime minister Benazir Bhutto, who was assassinated in 2007. Haeri also offers an analysis of the mythic Queen of Sheba, who is referenced in the Quran as a powerful ruler, and has served as a symbol of political perseverance for Muslim women throughout time.
'A History of Islam in 21 Women' by Hossein Kamaly
Associate professor of Islamic studies Hossein Kamaly handpicks 21 Muslim women from across the globe to profile in this wide-ranging account of historically influential women. It honours the world's first Muslim after the Prophet Mohammed – his wife Khadijah bint Khuwaylid, who was a successful businesswoman and contributed immensely to the spread of early Islam. Notable names such as hers are woven in with the lesser-known stories of a brave British-Muslim spy and women's rights activist who became the first Muslim female judge in Russia. Treat this as a starting point for further research on the lives of these awe-inspiring women.
'Aisha: The Wife, the Companion, the Scholar' by Resit Haylamaz
Aisha, fondly regarded as the Prophet Mohammed's favourite wife, the daughter of his companion Abu Bakr and the "Mother of the Believers", was arguably the most influential woman during the first few generations of Islam. She is believed to have narrated more than 2,000 Hadiths, and thus helped in transmitting and spreading Islamic knowledge after the Prophet Mohammed's death. In this book, scholar Resit Haylamaz chronicles the critical role that Aisha played in early Islamic history.
'Women and the Transmission of Religious Knowledge' by Asma Sayeed
In this inspirational read about the active role women played in spreading the message of Islam in the first few generations of the faith, professor Asma Sayeed focuses on Muslim women’s experiences in studying the Hadith and how their active roles as transmitters of the sayings of the Prophet Mohammed, teachers and scholars were influenced by the legal, political and social contexts of their eras. Starting with Aisha and running all the way through to the early Ottoman period, this book sheds light on some of the forgotten names of Islamic history.
'Educating Muslim Women: The West African Legacy of Nana Asma’u' by Jean Boyd and Beverley Mack
This illuminating text recounts the life of Nana Asma'u, a 19th-century female Muslim scholar of Islam who resided in what is now northern Nigeria. As the daughter of a spiritual leader of the Sokoto community and "princess" of the Sokoto caliphate, she played a key role in preaching Islam. With her work ranging from poetry to history, law, politics, theology and mysticism, this inspirational intellectual is celebrated for founding a public education system for women, along with leading a revival of Islam in West Africa.
'Empress' by Ruby Lal
This is the fascinating tale of Nur Jahan, who was the twentieth wife of Mughal Emperor Jahangir, and became the most trusted adviser of them all, ruling at her husband's side as a charismatic, popular and ambitious empress. She was a talented huntress and an empowered leader with great political acumen and military experience. Though her legacy has been historically cast aside by Orientalist male writers who instead focused on the exotic thrills of a harem lifestyle when writing about women in the Mughal empire, South Asian history professor Ruby Lal tells the story of the famous empress's life from a well-researched, feminist lens.
'The Warrior Women of Islam' by Remke Kruk
While preserved by storytellers of the Arab world, many tales about heroic, powerful and memorable Muslims have become somewhat mythic in Middle Eastern culture, where stories about women often portray them as damsels that are dependant on men. Violence and romance are intertwined in the narratives of these trailblazing Muslim women, who were renowned warriors, fighters and leaders. Challenging gender roles and Orientalist perceptions while highlighting the rich diversity of Islamic history, professor of Arabic and expert in medieval Arab culture Remke Kruk memorialises these enlightening stories for a western audience.
'Women of Sufism' by Camille Adams Helminski
An academic who has translated numerous religious works and Sufi texts, Camille Adams Helminski sheds light on the several women throughout history who have followed the Sufi path of Islam. Starting from the time of the Prophet Mohammed to the present day, these poets, scholars and saints hail from Asia, Africa, the Middle East, Europe and America. Helminksi introduces core principles of the Sufi path while describing the diverse traditions and practices championed by these profound, pious women.
'Women are the Future of Islam' by Sherin Khankan
This is a book on empowerment from the lens of a Muslim woman living in the West, who has sacrificed familial relationships and friendships as well as community ties to help make a more inclusive and welcoming community for Muslim women. Khankan, who has mixed Syrian and Finnish heritage, founded Mariam Mosque, Europe's first mosque for women, in Copenhagen, where she leads prayers and even officiates marriages under her role as an imam. Her memoir tracks her pioneering journey along with candid family moments and encounters with those opposed to her progressive vision.
'I am Malala' by Malala Yousafzai
This courageous young woman who took a stand against fundamentalist terrorism has remained a living symbol of activism and women's rights. Malala Yousafzai's award-winning autobiography traces her early life and activist experiences, as well as the terrifying assassination attempt made against her when she was 15 years old, by a Taliban faction in Pakistan. Her parents' roles in promoting her schooling and education go against the grain of the conservative community norms that value sons over daughters and, despite being insightful and inspirational, her book has been banned by many schools in Pakistan.