192 - The Stronger Sex: Women Scholars and Islam

Posted on 5 October 2014

Fatema Mernissi and others challenge the long-standing (but not complete) exclusion of women from the intellectual traditions of Islam.

Further Reading

• F. Mernissi, Beyond the Veil (Bloomington: 1987).

• F. Mernissi, Women and Islam: an Historical and Theological Enquiry (Oxford: 1991).


• L. Ahmed, Women and Gender in Islam: Historical Roots of a Modern Debate (New Haven: 1992).

• S. Joseph et al. (eds), Encyclopedia of Women and Islamic Cultures (Leiden: 2003).

• A. al-Hibri (ed.), Women and Islam (Oxford: 1982).

• A.A. Hidayatullah, Feminist Edges of the Qur'an (Oxford: 2014).

• J. Howe, The Routledge Handbook of Islam and Gender (London: 2020).

• B.B. Mack and J. Boyd, One Woman’s Jihad: Nana Asma’u, Scholar and Scribe (Bloomington: 2000).

• M. Marín and R. Deuilhem (eds), Writing the Feminine: Women in Arab Sources (London: 2002).

• R. Roded, Women in Islam and the Middle East: a Reader (London: 1999).

• A. Sayeed, Women and the Transmission of Religious Knowledge in Islam (Cambridge: 2013).

• A. Schimmel, My Soul is a Woman: The Feminine in Islam (New York: 1997).


Website on Muslim women scholars


Thanks to Asma Afsarrudin, Natana Delong-Bas, and Tamara Sonn for help in researching this episode!


Peter Adamson 26 September 2014

In case you're wondering, the picture in the upper right corner is a photo of Bint al-Shati', who is discussed in this episode.

Eager listener 9 October 2014

what about the sister of the Cappadocian brothers? While she may not qualify as independent enough as a counterpoint she at least merits a mention in name checking women philosophers you previously discussed.

Right, you mean Macrina - one of several ancient women I covered. At the beginning of this episode I was only talking about women mentioned in the series on philosophy in the Islamic world.

Incidentally in the book version (Classical Philosophy) there is an additional chapter which I wrote special for the book, which talks more generally about women philosophers in antiquity.

Felix 22 April 2015

I found this episode very peculiar.

You mentioned a very small number of women, including 1 who had already been covered 'properly' and a wife of Muhammad who wasn't a philsopher (and about whom undisputedly historically accurate information is not available).

You then jumped to the late 20th Century and gave us some opinions of one or two female philosophers when we have been embedded in the 7th to 15 centuries for the past 300 or so epsiodes :-)

To me this felt rather like attempted apologetics but actually damning with faint praise and, all-in-all, a episode to fill a gap which wasn't there.

I am not sure that you made the correct decision in coming right up to the present day before jumping back to medieval Christendom. One possible reading of this is that there is nothing worthwhile to say about the response from Muslim philosophers to anything generated in the 'west' from 1500!

(I should say that I am only half way through the final epsiode in the Islamic section so may be jumping the gun)

One gap that I do notice is materialst or anti-theist philosphy from the Islamic world.

We have touched upon numerous philsophers of this inclination since the very start of the podcast, from Xenophanes onwards, and will be meeting an increasing number in the coming episodes.

Are there examples from which you could have made an episode?

Yes, I thought a lot about the issues you're raising when I did the research for this episode, and particularly about whether focusing on what may seem to be slim pickings is counterproductive or misleading (I mean, I didn't want to inflate the material in a historically inaccurate way). But I was actually very curious about the topic myself, so really wanted to look into this; and in fact I came to the conclusion that while women have only very recently started to be allowed to participate in philosophical activity (narrowly construed) in the Islamic world, they have been remarkably present in intellectual transmission and also in Sufism - hence the focus on Aisha and the hadith tradition she started, and the more mystical thinkers. Bear in mind too that a part of the agenda of the whole podcast is to integrate women into the history of philosophy, and I'm going to keep making sure to do that because I think it is worthwhile in itself and also fits with the "no gaps" mantra. If there is an occasional danger of "damning with faint praise" as you say, it's far less dangerous than ignoring the real contributions that women have made, which is of course is what people usually do.

Incidentally I also think that the evolution of attitudes towards gender and sexuality is itself a philosophical issue, as well as a sociological and historical one - so I also want to glance occasionally at this story as we go along through history and different cultures.

As for the broader point about later philosophy, though, I think I just disagree with your assessment of what I presented: I have about a dozen episodes on developments past 1500, and not only the most obvious thing (the Safavids) but also Ottomans including some anti-theist thinkers by the way in episode 191, if I'm remembering right, and quite a bit about the interaction between the Islamic world and Europe in the later period. And as I said several times even that was only scratching the surface: bear in mind that the scholarship on this area is really not very well advanced, but I hope that I made the case that there is a huge amount of interesting stuff going on in philosophy of the Islamic world in the last 500 years.

Raphael 22 March 2016

I don't know if you haven't heard, or if you forgot, but you in the timeline for the Islamic World, you should probably change Mernissi's entry from "born 1940" to "d. 2015."


I think this unfortunately makes Seyyed Hossein Nasr the only living philosopher you have mentioned.

Oh dear, no I hadn't heard that. What a shame! I'll change it.

AHS 16 March 2017

Mernissi's arguments seem quite bad and shortsighted. She mainly wrote in French and apparently isn't that widely read among Arabic speaking audiences. Her overall estrangement is quite evident in her uncritical usage of concepts that are fairly recent and European in origin. Though this makes her virtually no different to most contemporary Muslim thinkers.

She assumes the binary idea of sex (ie. a fixed male sex existing vis-a-vis a fixed female sex) is applicable to the pre-modern Muslim world. As it's often been controversially argued, Islamic medical texts often adopted a spectrum theory of sex where women and men were inversions of each other, with women being given the short end of the stick. There may not have been two sexes, but multiple forms of one sex that fall into two main catagories. 

I know that might seem a minor point of me nitpicking over anarchonisms, but I think Mernissi's feminist analysis really fails to appreciate how gender and sex can be thought of in a variety of radically different ways. Islamic legal doctrine (Fiqh) and philosophical thinking, tended to recognise three main genders: men, women and boys. The image is blurred even more by very different ways of thinking about gender across different cultures. 

Mernissi can make the point that Islamic thinkers viewed women's sexuality as potent or dangerous, but the taboo over sex was also extended to men and boys. Jurists and philosophers had long debated wether it was required to perform ritual ablutions after touching handsome young boys, as they had with women, the extent to which men were allowed to be in proximity to bearded boys or whether they could lead prayers, all out of worries that men of bad character might be aroused to sodomy. There was a controversial debate, partly enflamed by the popularity of Ibn Arabi's asthetics, over whether gazing at handsome young men was a licit ritual practice with both sides essentially declaring each other apostates. 

While one can point to hard mystical literature as proof of belief women's spiritual equality and even special degree over men, I think Mernissi's argument here is a bit naive. But for me personally this raises additional problems, in that it's no longer really permissible to think in the catagories outlined in classical Islamic law, medicine and philosophy. Why can't beardless boys, young girls, crossdressing men and women, khunthas, mukhannaths, hijris etc. be legitimate catagories of analysis in any emerging social philosophical theory from the Muslim world? It's not as if people with these identities and labels simply disappeared overnight. Why must they be either made other or turned into potential avenues of progress and assimilated into LGBT identity categories?  


That's a very interesting reaction. You're right that Mernissi (at least in what read of her) never rejects the fundamental binary gender contrast, but of course this is hardly surprising. I'm not sure I buy your idea that that binary conception is somehow challenged in classical Islamic jurisprudence: this is totally not my area of expertise, but it seems like recognizing a special legal category for boys does not amount to recognizing them as in any sense a gender even if the other two categories are adult male and adult female. However I would be curious to learn more about this, because in general I think that pre-modern societies often had different ideas and intuitions about gender and sexuality; in fact for that reason I will be doing an episode towards the end of the medieval series on this topic in medieval Christian Europe.

AHS 20 March 2017

In reply to by Peter Adamson

I understand that the idea of classical Islamic law as challenging a binary outlook on gender is dubious. Since this isn't the case. But was there an essential binary gender distinction made at all that Islamic law could challenge? I personally don't think so.  

Thomas Laquer has done some controversial work in which he argues that the distinction between fundamentally different male and female bodies was not made in pre-modern anatomy and is a relatively recent development arising in the 19th century when new biological ideas replaced older Galenic-ish models. 

Islamic medical texts do not draw an essential physical male-female distinction, following the Galenic 'inverted man theory' there is only one actual sex. For example, they may use the word 'farj' to refer to the vulva and vagina, but on occasion it's used to refer to the penis. The extent to which these medical ideas filtered into jurisprudence, is arguable, but it's unlikely that the law ever adopted a binary gender, or even a sex-gender distinction. 

If we look at gender as a set of roles linked to physical appearances, we can identify in legal thinking certain identities which are allocated specific social roles in relation to men and women that are discussed under the law. These would be the aforementioned boys (Amrad/Ghilman), who are often assumed to be objects of desire and discussed in relation to men just as women are, Mukhanaths (effeminates) and Khunthas (individuals with ambiguous genitalia). Some Ottoman historians, and I think Afsana Najimabadi, argue that there were at least three genders: men, women and beardless boys. Irvin C. Schick argues that gender was a fluid concept  because of the way it was related to age, boys and children inhabiting this ambiguous mixed space untill their coming of age. 

I think that Mernissi's core argument is fascinating and in some aspects accuarate, but not the way she tries to evaluate Al-Ghazali. And I think it's especially important to pay attention to these distinctions in the way different people construct gender, especially when comparing two people as far apart culturally and historically as Freud and the 'proof of Islam' himself. It's equally important to not simply see these things as just history, people across cultures still have radically different world views when it comes to gender and sex and this has theoretical implications. By using modern western categories, such as male-female, man-woman, homosexual-heterosexual, Mernissi inadvertently legitimises their universality and this ultimately hurts the applicability of her work. 

I'm glad to hear that Prof. Adamson, I'm looking foreword to it.

That's all very interesting. I haven't worked on these topics so I can't really comment on the plausibility of your argument - certainly in the philosophical texts I know, the male female dichotomy is taken for granted and even sometimes mentioned as a pretty basic natural distinction. In Aristotle's zoology for instance. I think that one could turn your argument around and question the way you are using the word "gender": like, would an Ottoman writer recognize, never mind embrace, the idea that the category of beardless boys is a "gender"? I honestly don't know. But in general I would agree that we can be far too quick to assume that people in previous eras operated with the same conceptual framework we do - if the podcast has shown anything, it's this!

Vahid Ranjbar 30 August 2021

I am enjoying your excellent series of podcast on the very neglected topic of philosophy in Islamic culture. In this particular one though it seems a large oversight to miss on Tahirih when talking about Feminism in the Islam (though I must admit to being very biased). It would actually have fit very well into your next podcast on Iqbal since he actually wrote a poem about her where he journeys through the skies and meets three important holy figures, one of whom is Tahirih. In the first section of the “Song of Tahira,” their spiritual ardor appeals to his own inner longings:

“If ever confronting face to face my glance should alight on you

I will describe to you my sorrow for you in the minutest detail

That I may behold your cheek, like the zephyr I have visited

house by house, door by door, lane by lane, street by street.

Through separation from you my heart’s blood is flowing

From my eyes

river by river, sea by sea, fountain by fountain, stream by stream,

My sorrowful heart wove your love into the fabric of my soul

thread by thread, thrum by thrum, warp by warp, woof by woof.

Tahira repaired to her own heart, and saw none but you

page by page, fold by fold, veil by veil, curtain by curtain.”


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