Long Teaching Module: Women in the Islamic World, 600-1600
From its inception in the early 7th century up to the present day, women have played a vital role in shaping Islamic history. However, their voices have often been left out of standard historical narratives, silenced by a lack of primary sources as well as an assumed belief by male historians that they were not part of the development of Islamic civilizations. Looking past this bias, scholars may find many valuable sources to uncover the significant contributions of women to Islamic history, revealing their work alongside men throughout the centuries.
This long teaching module includes an informational essay, objectives, activities, discussion questions, potential adaptations, guidance on engaging with the sources, and essay prompts relating to the nine primary sources.
Women in Early Islam
Indeed, biographies of the wives of the Muslim prophet Muhammad are an excellent example of the significance of women in the development of Islamic history. Khadija, Muhammad’s first wife, was the world’s first Muslim. She embraced the belief in one sole deity and the message of the Qur’anic revelations in 610 CE, even before Muhammad understood himself to be a prophet of God, making her the “mother of believers” in the Islamic faith. Her model as an ideal wife, mother, and companion has made Khadija the most revered woman in Islamic history.
Moreover, Muhammad’s wives who survived him (after his death in 632 CE), such as ’A’isha and Umm Salama, became important transmitters of hadith, or traditions of the Prophet. The hadith stand, second only to the Qur’an, as authoritative texts for Muslims searching for answers to daily questions. Upon his death, the companions of Muhammad, including his surviving wives, compiled stories of his saying and actions to assist Muslims in understanding how to live pious lives in the model of the Prophet. Because of their unique access to him, Muhammad’s wives became particularly important figures in hadith transmission, solidifying their historic contribution to Islamic law.
Women such as Khadija and ’A’isha, as well as Muhammad’s daughter, Fatima, became key public figures in the earliest years of Islamic history. However, within the context of Arabian society, patriarchal social structures and attitudes continued to regard women as subordinate to men in many realms of public life. For example, when ’A’isha challenged the fourth Caliph, ’Ali, for control of who would rule over the Islamic community at the Battle of the Camel in 656, the ensuing fitna—or crisis of Muslim fighting Muslim in warfare—led to a tradition that women should not engage in politics. Although women continued to play supporting roles in subsequent wars, the notion that a woman could lead or advise an army was discredited after the Battle of the Camel.
Women in Later Islamic Empires
Nevertheless, women continued to play vital roles in political life in various Islamic empires as the centuries wore on. For instance, royal Ayyubid women in 13th century Egypt and the Levant were known as important public figures, using their wealth and position to endow schools, hospitals, and other charitable institutions. Moreover, wife of the Ayyubid sultan Salah al-Din, Shajarat al-Durr, became the cofounder of the Mamluk dynasty, albeit her reign as an independent queen was a short one. Ottoman women in the harem of the Sultan in Istanbul were also known for their political engagement. Even from within the walls of their home, the women of the Ottoman harem chose to whom the sultan would marry and with whom he would have children, maintaining the dynasty for nearly 700 years.
Women also became important figures in the mystical movements of Islam, known collectively as Sufism. Indeed, one of the most important founders of Sufi thought was Rabi’a al-’Adawiyya. This 8th-century woman from Basra is largely recognized as the first person to express the now-standard Sufi belief in holy love. Her poems, dedicated to a mystical union with God, alongside her model as saintly person, have made her one of the most revered Sufis of history. Like al-’Adawiyya, countless women in Islamic history have turned to Sufism to give them spiritual strength, as well as religious community and authority. Pilgrimages to Sufi shrines became important journeys for women, particularly those unable to afford a pilgrimage to Mecca.
Women in Islamic Society
However, the majority of women in the era of the great Islamic empires lived their lives predominantly in the private sphere. Within the context of Islamic faith, women are esteemed as wives and mothers, and it was as such that historical sources present most women. Moreover, as the Muslims expanded out of Arabia, conquering societies with strong patriarchal restrictions on women’s movement in public, such as the Safavid empire of Iran and the Byzantine empire of the Levant, notions of veiling and seclusion became more widespread among Muslims. Viewed as markers of high social class, these restrictions were most feasible for families that did not need women’s labor or income.
In some eras of Islamic history, women’s positions appear quite subordinate to men’s. For instance, the Abbasid period saw the disappearance of women from public records and events, as the ideal of secluding women became more fashionable for men who wanted to demonstrate their power. Concubinage and expansive harems became the rule for political leaders, and women’s social value was viewed as lower than that of men by many in power. Women were largely excluded from religious authority, despite the Qur’anic declaration that men and women were equal in the eyes of God and the role of the female Companions in transmitting the hadith. Patriarchal values became increasingly codified in the sharia, or Islamic law, as well as in the daily life of Muslim women.
Although they became less apparent in the historical record as the Islamic conquests spread, women in the Islamic empires continued to be vital members of society. Their responsibilities of bearing and raising children, providing food and clothing for their families, and instilling religious and social values within their households made them fundamental partners with men in the development of Islamic civilizations. Moreover, women in Islamic history gained strength from a legacy of strong and influential women in the founding years of their faith, as well as a tradition that, although culturally patriarchal, granted them ultimate equality in the eyes of the deity in which they believed.
This Sura (or chapter) of the Qur’an, known as al-Ahzab, or the “Confederation,” is known for its many verses extolling modesty in women, as well as detailing aspects of ideal marriage. Because of its references directly to the wives of the Prophet Muhammad, there has been controversy over whether or not the restrictions it places on women’s movement in the public sphere are to be universally applied. At the same time, this Sura’s assertion in the equality of men and women in the eyes of God makes it one of the most important and appealing chapters of the Qur’an.
This source is a part of the Women in the Islamic World, 600-1600 teaching module.
One of the most challenging aspects of teaching the history of women in Islamic Empires is getting the students to recognize the humanity of those they are studying. Because of the remote context of the history in time and place, students may have a difficult time feeling that they relate to the people they are learning about. However, this module deals with many issues that students today grapple with in their own society: questions of marriage, family, dress, and behavior are all relevant points of reference to their own emotional worlds, making the women of the Islamic empires easier for students to understand and to relate to.
Another challenge in teaching Islamic history in modern American classrooms is the fact that Islamic societies and cultures have been denigrated in popular media accounts and by many religious and secular organizations. Muslim women, in particular, have been singled out as “benchmarks” for Islamic societies and the way they are judged as either “civilized” or “uncivilized” by Westerners. Images of Muslim women as oppressed slaves of Islamic patriarchy, coupled with images of Muslim women as sexual objects, are common fixtures everywhere, from Oprah to Disney’s Aladdin to Fox News. Thus, students should be exposed to more nuanced images of Muslim women, and, in particular, the balanced view of women found in the Qur’an and the Hadith.
Finally, it is important to remind students that the experiences of Muslim women in the world today are as diverse as those in history. “Muslim” is not a race or ethnic group, nor a nationality, although it is often referred to in that way in American discourse. Muslim women's history runs concurrent with the history being studied, that is, it is not stagnant. Orientalist discourse has presented the Islamic world as one unit, fixed in ancient times. Islamic history, both at its beginnings and up to the present day, is dynamic and variable. Thus, issues of race, class, gender, and historical specificity must be kept in mind when teaching about women in Islamic history.
- What are the ramifications for allowing women to be valid reporters of the hadith? What does it tell us about the nature of gender relations during the time of the first umma? Do you think that influenced later roles for women, according to the sources you have studied? Why or why not?
- Compare and contrast the images of women and their equality with men in the eyes of God from the Qur’an with the poem mourning the death of Hasan ibn al-Firat’s daughter. How do you reconcile these differences in value of women? Explain, using comparisons with other societies you have studied, as well as various times and places in Islamic history.
The Significant Contributions of Islamic Women to the Growth and Expansion of Islamic Civilization
One 90-minute class period and DBQ as an independent assignment.
After completing this lesson, students will be able to:
- read and understand the historical evidence that supports the viewpoint that Islamic Women have made significant and lasting contributions to Islamic Civilization.
- read and analyze secondary and primary sources relevant to the topic.
- work in small groups to answer questions and then present data to the class.
- respond to a document-based question related to the topic integrating information from both secondary and primary sources.
- Provisioning: Duplicate required number of each of the following items for each student. Make a packet for each student and distribute at the beginning of class for efficiency.
Islamic Empire Introduction
- Sufficient copies of Primary Source Analysis Worksheet: Images
- Sufficient copies of Primary Source Analysis Worksheet: Texts
Source 6: Poem, Abbasid-era
Source 3: Religious Text, Marriage Customs
Source 4: Religious Test, Mosque Customs and Public Behavior
Source 10: Architecture, Ayyubid and Ottoman
- Historical Context (20 minutes):
- Think-Share (20 minutes):
- Reading Primary Resources (25 minutes):
- Responding to Primary Sources (25 Minutes): Distribute Primary Source Analysis Worksheet: Images and Primary Source Analysis Worksheet: Texts from to each student. Assign an equal number of students to work independently and complete the work sheet for Primary Source 6, 3, 4, or 4. Discuss.
- Document-based Essay Question (10 minutes): In class permit students to work on the outline for the essay. A completed, printed essay will be due in class at the next block session.
Read: Islamic Empire Introduction
Discuss: What bias have male historians traditionally brought to the study of women in the Islamic empire?
Identify: Islam, Hadith, Companion, Fitna, Patriarchal, Sufism, Private Sphere, Sharia
Key People: Identify-Muhammad, Khadija, A’isha, Umm Salama
Divide class into groups of four to facilitate discussion.
Assign one question to each group based on the reading.
Each group will present its response to the class.
Discuss briefly the responses and check for understanding.
Who was Khadija? List reasons why she has been a most revered woman throughout Islamic history.
Outline the evidence that supports the fact that Islamic women played integral roles in Islamic Civilization both politically and spiritually.
What is the significance of the Battle of Camel to Islamic women?
The article suggests that the majority of Islamic women were most influential in the “private sphere.” Explain what that means and give examples of that influence.
Compare the spiritual relationship of Islamic women to the deity to the position given them in the patriarchal social structure.
Check for understanding: What is the critical difference to historical research between secondary and primary resources?
Individually read the primary resources in the packet and answer each of the following questions.
Review responses with the students.
Source 6: Poem, Abbasid-era: Explain why this poem reflects the patriarchal beliefs and attitudes toward Islamic women.
Source 3: Religious Text, Marriage Customs: Women as Teachers: Give specific examples from the three excerpts that show Islamic women as spiritual teachers.
Source 4: Religious Test, Mosque Customs and Public Behavior: Which Hadith, or ways of Muhammad, do Islamic women discuss in these sources?
Source 10: Architecture, Ayyubid and Ottoman: How did the prestige of Islamic women influence architecture?
Advanced Students: Assign the reading and responses to the questions relating to the reading in the “Historical Context” activity for homework. Based on these responses, lead a 10-minue class discussion. To assess the completion of the assignment, consider a peer review or circulating and completing a quick check of the homework while students are involved in the other activities. Allocate the time saved on the “Historical Context” activity to the “Document-based Essay Question” activity. Alter this activity by using the backward design model. Provide students with the topic, but not the thesis statement. Allot the students about 20 minutes to work on the body of the essay. Then, from the factual content the students have outlined, take five minutes and ask them to write a draft thesis for the paper. Conclude the activity by asking volunteers to write their thesis on the board. Invite the other students to critique and offer positive suggestions that improve the thesis. The completed, typed essay will be due the next block period.
Less Advanced Students: Focus on ensuring that students comprehend what they are reading and learn tools to assist with this comprehension. For the “Historical Context” activity, direct students to scan the introductory pages and spend five minutes highlighting words or phrases that they do not comprehend. Then, ask the students to build a list on the board. Review the list, soliciting clarifying info from the class. Encourage students to jot down the meanings. Check for understanding. Condense the time in the later activities to allow for this.
Document Based Question
Document Based Question (Suggested writing time: 40 minutes)
Directions: The following question is based on the documents included in this module. This question is designed to test your ability to work with and understand historical documents. Write an essay that:
- Has a relevant thesis and supports that thesis with evidence from the documents.
- Uses all or all but one of the documents.
- Analyzes the documents by grouping them in as many appropriate ways as possible. Does not simply summarize the documents individually.
- Takes into account both the sources of the documents and the authors' points of view.
You may refer to relevant historical information not mentioned in the documents.
Question: Using the content information from at least three of the four primary documents, discuss how traditional historic perspectives do not reflect the vital contributions that Islamic women have made to Islamic civilization. Be sure to analyze point of view in at least three documents or images. What additional sources, types of documents, or information would you need to have a more complete view of this topic?
About the Author
Nancy Stockdale is Assistant Professor of Middle Eastern History at the University of Central Florida. Her recent publications include “Biblical Motherhood: English Women and Empire in Palestine, 1860-1948,” “Murder in the Holy Land: Matilda Creasy and the Mystery of Missionary Death,” and “Writing Empire in Palestine 1800-1939: English Women in the ‘Holy Land.’” She has received numerous fellowships and awards enabling her to pursue research overseas in India, Israel, Turkey, Morocco, and the United Kingdom. Her academic interests include the Modern Middle East, Islamic History, the British Empire, and the History of Religions in Modern Palestine.
About the Lesson Plan Author
Frances Patchett is a Mentor Resource Teacher in the Fairfax County Public Schools in Virginia, where she works extensively training and evaluating beginning teachers. In the past she has worked with the American Council on Education, and worked closely with Fairfax County, teaching AP World History, Sociology, U.S./Virginia History, and Current Affairs. She has advanced degrees in both secondary education and U.S. history.
Grateful acknowledgement is made to the following institutions for primary sources:
- Fine Arts Library, Harvard University
- Michael Greenhalgh
- John and Caroline Williams
- Modern World History Sourcebook, http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/mod/modsbook.html
- Women of Sufism by Camille Adams Helminski, © 2003. Reprinted by arrangement with Shambhala Publications, Inc., www.shambhala.com
- Yale University Press
This teaching module was originally developed for the Women in World History project.