Thomas Roe, Britain's envoy in India during the 1620s, wrote of Empress Nur Jehan's power over her husband, the Mughal emperor Jehangir, that she "governs him, and wynds him up at her pleasure."
The story of Nur Jehan, who was born to migrant parents and rose to a position where she unofficially ruled jointly with her husband, is just one of the intriguing tales that make up Hossein Kamaly's eminently readable collection "A History of Islam in 21 Women." Besides Nur Jehan, we hear of the Prophet Muhammad's wife Khadija, who saw the promise of an orphaned young man and was the first to accept Islam, and the Sufi ascetic Rabia Al-Adawiyya, who insisted that women were the spiritual equals of men. Later on came the Yemeni queen Arwa, who ruled for seven decades and even issued coinage in her own name, and also Noor Inayat Khan, the Sufi-Muslim British spy who went into Nazi-occupied France to radio enemy movements back to Britain.
Indeed, the Muslim women recounted by Kamaly (who teaches Islamic studies at Hartford Seminary) are a feisty and intrepid bunch. Collectively, they constitute a foil against the persistent myth that Muslim women are simpering sorts awaiting rescue. This Western "rescue" fantasy and the would-be saviors it creates were duly debunked by the Columbia professor Lila Abu-Lughod in her book "Do Muslim Women Need Saving?" But while Abu-Lughod's work provides a theoretical critique of Western insouciance and obstinacy in holding on to the myth of Muslim helplessness, Kamaly's book hands up the lived examples. Here in all their gutsy glory are women whose voices have not received the prominence that is their due within the story of Islam.
This is a pity because, as Kamaly demonstrates, women have been crucial players in some of the most defining moments of the faith. There is the Prophet Muhammad's daughter, Fatima, who chastised his feuding followers after his death: "You have left the body of the Apostle of God with us and you have decided among yourselves, without consulting us, without respecting our rights." It turned out to be a consequential sidelining; the schism between those who believed the Prophet's male heirs should inherit leadership of the faith (Shia) and those who believed that Fatima should (Sunni) remains pivotal to this day. Similarly, the Prophet's wife Aisha, nicknamed the "ruddy-cheeked one," was instrumental in questioning patriarchal sayings attributed to the Prophet. In later life, it was Aisha's rising power that prompted a man named Abu Bakra to recount that he had heard the Prophet say, "Those who entrust power to a woman will never know prosperity."
It is a saying that has haunted Muslim women and Muslim feminists — including Fatima Mernissi, a Moroccan sociologist, who points out that "Abu Bakra must have had a fabulous memory" because he didn't recall this line until a quarter century after the Prophet Muhammad died. Still, it has been a handy tool for the patriarchy. Hundreds of years after Abu Bakra's revelation, the 16th-century Safavid queen Pari Khanum was removed from power because the new king believed that a woman handling the affairs of state is "demeaning to the king's honor." As recently as 1986, Islamists who opposed the rise of Pakistan's prime minister Benazir Bhutto trotted out these possibly apocryphal words as a rationale.
"A History of Islam in 21 Women" is an act of reclamation on several fronts. For Muslim women, it provides an empowering and exhilarating genealogy of strong forebears whom they can connect to their contemporary journeys of empowerment. For Western readers, it exposes the untruths that have characterized Muslim women as deferential beings in need of rescue.
There is still more work to be done. "A History of Islam in 21 Women" provides the substance of a feminist narrative that has always existed within Islam. The question remains: Will Kamaly's book will be relegated to the margins, shelved away under "other" feminisms, or will it be integrated into the larger history of feminism, now dominated by white and Western women?