Muslim Women Leaders & Activists
Contrary to popular belief, Muslim women have served as revolutionary and heroic leaders. Yet this image is not what our history records or what our present reflects.
For example, the current Prime Ministers of Bangladesh (Sheikh Hasina Wazed) and Mali (Cissé Mariam Kaïdama Sidibé) are Muslim women. Similarly, the current President of Kosovo, Atife Jahjaga, is the world's youngest female president, as well as her country's first female Muslim president.
Since 1988, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Mali, Pakistan, Kosovo, Kyrgyzstan, Senegal and Turkey have been led, at some point, by a Muslim woman president or prime minister. Source
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Scholars and Philanthropists
Notable Muslim women throughout history and in the contemporary world have contributed to civilization as scholars, legal jurists, rulers, benefactresses, warriors, businesswomen, poets, mystics, among endless positions.
Women who lived in Prophet Muhammad (PBUH)’s time and especially in his household, we mention-:
- Khadijah binte Khuwaylid, his wealthy businesswoman and trader wife, who supported him morally and financially during his prophecy;
- Aishah binte Abi Bakr, his other wife, who transmitted a great amount of knowledge learned from the Prophet, thus becoming a great jurist and scholar;
- Umm Salamah, another wise wife who counseled the prophet on political matters;
- Hafsah binte Umar, daughter of 2nd Caliph Umar ibn al-Khattab, who was entrusted with the first copy of the Quran upon her father’s death;
- Fatimah tuz-Zehra, the prophet’s daughter, who was deeply loved by her father;
- Nusaibah who defended the prophet heroically during the battle of Uhud.
Muslim women in later times from the 8th century onward contributed in every field of what later developed an Islamic civilization in the classical age.
- Ashifa binte Abdullah for example was the first Muslim woman to be appointed by Caliph Umar ibn AlKhattab as a market inspector and manager.
- Amra binte Abdurrahman was one of the greatest scholars among the second generation of early Muslims. She was a jurist, a mufti (gives legal opinions,) and a hadith (Prophet’s sayings tradition) scholar in the time of Ummayyad Caliph Umar ibn Abdul Aziz, who encouraged Muslims to learn with her.
- Aisha binte Sa’d ibn Abi Waqqass was a jurist and scholar who taught the famous Muslim man jurist Imam Malik, the founder of the Maliki juristic school.
- Sayyida Nafisah, the Prophet’s great granddaughter, daughter of al-Hassan ibn Ali ibn Abi Talib, was a teacher of Islamic jurisprudence whose students traveled from faraway places to learn with her. One of her students was Imam Shafi’i, another great founder of the Shafi’i school of law. She actually financially supported him as well.
- Aisha binte Muhammad ibn Abdel Hadi in Damascus was another Muslim woman scholar who taught famous Muslim men scholars was ; she possessed the shortest chain of narration back to the prophet of any other scholar alive in her time. She taught Ibn Hajar Al Asqalani, the greatest latter-day Hadith scholars.
- Umm Darda was a female scholar who taught at the great Umayyad mosque in Damascus as well as in Jerusalem; one of her students was Caliph Abdul Malik ibn Marwan himself. A 12th century woman,
- Shuhadah bint Ahmad al-Ibrii studied in Baghdad with the latest scholars and became herself a great scholar of hadith and jurist. She was known as “the pride of women.”
Closing classical Muslim times, we find more Muslim women like Nana Asma’u of Nigeria’s 19th century: a poet, teacher, scholar, and advisor to her father.
As philanthropists and benefactresses, Muslim women like Queen Zubayda, wife of 9th century Caliph Harun Ar-Rasheed in the Abbasid dynasty, deserves mention because of her huge contributions to public works such as building wells and guest houses on the major routes that pilgrims took to Mecca, as well as building wells and reservoirs. In addition, Queen Zubayda was an intellectual who expressed her political thoughts in public besides supporting poets and writers, regardless of their religion, and religious scholars and the needy.
On the Western side of the Muslim Arabic world, 9th century’s Fatima al Fihriyya in Fez, Morocco founded al-Qarawwiyyin mosque which became one of the oldest Islamic schools and colleges operating until the present time.
Among other women who built schools was Banafshaa’ ar-Rumiyya of the 11th century who restored schools, bridges, public housing for homeless women in Baghdad, besides having her own school endowment.
Moreover, Fatima of Cordoba was a 10th century librarian who oversaw 70 public libraries containing 400,000 books.
Queens and Rulers
Finally, as queens and rulers, Muslim famous women that stand out are
- Arwa as-Sulayhi, an 11th century Yemeni who ruled for 71 years and was known as the Noble Lady.
- Sultana Shajarat al-Durr took control over Egypt after her husband’s death in the 13th century.
- Sultana Razia, on the other hand, was the only female to sit on India’s throne in Delhi for four years in the 13th century.
- Begum Kaikhursau Jahan. In central India and closer to our contemporary world, a family of women rulers ruled over the principality of Bhopal from 1819 to 1924, the last of whom was Begum Kaikhursau Jahan. This family was famous for building railways, water works, and a postal system. Source
- Great Muslim Women
- Famous Muslim Women
- Famous Muslim Women Scholars, Philanthropist and Rulers
- 10 Muslim Women Every Person Should Know
1. Nusayba bint Ka'b Al-Ansariyah (Arabia, unknown-634 C.E.)
Nusayba was of one of the first advocates for the rights of Muslim women. Notably, she asked the Prophet Muhammad, "Why does God only address men (in the Quran)?" Soon after this exchange, the Prophet received a revelation in Chapter 33, Verse 35 that mentions women can attain every quality to which men have access. The verse also conclusively settled that women stand on the same spiritual level as men. She was viewed as a visionary who transcended her own generation.
2. Rab'ia al-Adawiyya (Iraq, 717-801 C.E.)
Rab'ia was an eighth century Sufi saint who set forth the doctrine of "Divine Love." Rab'ia was born into a poor family, orphaned at a young age and was eventually sold into slavery. One night, while her owner witnessed her bowing in prayer, a lamp hung above her head without support, so he freed her. When asked why she walked down the street with a bucket of water in one hand and a lit candle in the other, she replied, "I want to set fire to heaven with this flame and put out the fire of hell with this water so that people will cease to worship GOD for fear of hell or for temptation of heaven. One must love GOD as GOD is Love." She is widely considered to be the most important of the early Sufi poets.
3. Fatima al-Fihri (Morocco, unknown-880 C.E.)
Fatima was the founder of the oldest degree-granting university in the world (pictured). After inheriting a large fortune, she wanted to devote her money to pious work that would benefit the community. Thus, with her wealth she built the Al Qarawiyyin mosque. From the 10th to 12th century, the mosque developed into a university -- Al Qarawiyyin University. Today, the Guinness Book of World Records and UNESCO recognize this university to be the oldest continuously operating institution of higher education in the world.
4. Sultan Raziyya (India, 1205-1240)
Sultan Raziyya was the Sultan of Delhi from 1236 to 1240. She refused to be addressed as Sultana because it meant "wife or mistress of a sultan" and only answered to the title "Sultan." As she solidified her power, she believed that appropriating a masculine image would help her maintain control. So she dressed like a man and wore a turban, trousers, coat and sword. Contrary to custom, she appeared unveiled in public. Sultan Raziyya was known for her belief that the spirit of religion is more important than its parts. She established schools, academies, centers for research and public libraries.
5. Nana Asma'u (Nigeria, 1793-1864)
Nana was a princess, poet and teacher. She was fluent in Arabic, Fulfulde, Hausa and Tamacheq and well versed in Arabic, Greek and Latin classics. In 1830, she formed a group of female teachers who journeyed throughout the region to educate women in poor and rural regions. With the republication of her works, that underscore women's education, she has become a rallying point for African women. Today, in northern Nigeria, Islamic women's organizations, schools and meeting halls are frequently named in her honor.
6. Laleh Bakhtiar (USA, 1938-Present)
Laleh's Quran translation, "The Sublime Quran" (2007), is the first translation of the Quran into English by an American woman. Her translation incorporates alternative meanings to Arabic terms that are ambiguous or whose meaning scholars have had to guess due to the antiquity of the language. Notably, her translation of Chapter 4, Verse 34 has gained a lot of attention. She translates the Arabic word daraba as "go away" instead of the common "beat" or "hit." Her Quran translation is used in many mosques and universities and has been adopted by Prince Ghazi Bin Muhammad of Jordan.
7. Shirin Ebadi (Iran, 1947-Present)
In 2003, Shirin became the first Muslim woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. As a judge in Iran, she was the first woman to achieve Chief Justice status. However, she was dismissed from this position after the 1979 Revolution. As a lawyer, Shirin has taken on many controversial cases and in result, has been arrested numerous times. Her activism has been predicated on her view that, "An interpretation of Islam that is in harmony with equality and democracy is an authentic expression of faith. It is not religion that binds women, but the selective dictates of those who wish them cloistered."
8. Dr. Amina Wadud (USA, 1952-Present)
In 2005, Amina was the first female imam to lead a mixed-congregation prayer. This act caused a shock wave to run throughout the Islamic world. Some viewed it as an awakening and a return to the equalitarian way of Islam. Others viewed it as an offensive innovation. According to Amina, "The radical notion that women are full human beings is already inscribed in Islam by our notion of tawhid. So the binary that tries to give women less than full human dignity is transformed into a relationship of equality and reciprocity." Despite individuals' views on the subject, she has created a platform where diverse Muslim views can be voiced.
9. Daisy Khan (USA, 1958-Present)
In 2005, Daisy founded the Women's Islamic Initiative in Spirituality and Equality (WISE), the only cohesive, global movement of Muslim women around the world that works to reclaim women's rights in Islam using a human rights and social-justice based framework. Further, in 2008, Daisy spearheaded the creation of the Global Muslim Women's Shura Council, which is comprised of eminent Muslim women scholars, activists and lawyers from 26 countries. The Council's statements have informed numerous university curriculums and legal opinions. Daisy is viewed as a credible, humane and equitable voice within the global Muslim community.
10. Anousheh Ansari (USA, 1966-Present)
In 2006, Anousheh became the first Muslim woman in space. When asked about what she hoped to achieve on her spaceflight, she said, "I hope to inspire everyone -- especially young people, women and young girls all over the world and in Middle Eastern countries that do not provide women with the same opportunities as men -- to not give up their dreams and to pursue them. ... It may seem impossible to them at times. But I believe they can realize their dreams if they keep it in their hearts, nurture it, and look for opportunities and make those opportunities happen."