International Women’s Day

To celebrate Women’s Day on 8th March, no way is better than reproducing a collection of articles written by FSTC scholars and associates on the achievements of women in Muslim Heritage in various fields. We focused in our work on this topic of contributions made by women in science, technology, medicine, social care, management and patronage.


In view of the growing importance of the subject of gender and women in society, this collection of articles we present below represents some of what we currently know about some famous Muslim women. We hope that this will initiate debate and start the process of unearthing what could be a most significant find:

Women’s Contribution to Classical Islamic Civilization: Science, Medicine and Politics

Despite the scarcity of references to the historical role women played in these fields, we endeavoured to unearth significant pieces from various literary genres to build the first synthesis on this important subject. Among the examples we present there are famous ones, such as those of Zubayda who pioneered a most ambitious project of digging wells and building service stations all along the pilgrimage route from Baghdad to Makkah; and also constructing a complex water system to bring water from aquifers to Makkah using underwater canals and aqueducts. Additional examples being that of Dhayfa Khatun who excelled in management and statesmanship alongside Fatima al-Fehri who founded the Qarawiyin mosque – school complex that became the oldest extant university in the world.

There are other women of science who are much less known, such as Sutayta who was a mathematician and an expert witness in courts, Lubana of Cordoba whose expertise in mathematics was quoted in numerous historical sources, and the astrolabe maker Al-‘Ijliya (Al-Astrulabi).

Malika Series by Tom Verde

From Bangladesh to Pakistan, Kyrgyzstan to Nigeria, Senegal to Turkey, it is not particularly rare in our own times for women in Muslim-majority countries to be appointed and elected to high offices—including heads of state. Nor has it ever been.

Stretching back more than 14 centuries to the advent of Islam, women have held positions among many ruling elites, from malikas, or queens, to powerful advisors. Some ascended to rule in their own right; others rose as regents for incapacitated husbands or male successors yet too young for a throne. Some proved insightful administrators, courageous military commanders or both; others differed little from equally flawed male potentates who sowed the seeds of their own downfalls.

This six-part series presents some of the most notable historical female leaders of Muslim dynasties, empires and caliphates: 

  • Malika I: Khayzuran & Zubayda
  • Malika II: Radiyya bint Iltutmish
  • Malika III: Shajarat Al-Durr
  • Malika IV: Hurrem Sultan (Roxolana)
  • Malika V: Nur Jahan
  • Malika VI: Sayyida Al-Hurra

A 1000 Years Amnesia: Sports in Muslim Heritage

Professor Salim Al-Hassani published in the issue 369 (Spring 2012, p. 10) of Runnymede Bulletin (Spring 2012 Runnymede Bulletin – Sport) a short article on “Sports in Muslim Heritage”. He argues, notably, that while Europe was in the “Dark Ages”, the Islamic world enjoyed a period of high art, science, and sport. During this long period, various forms of Riyadha (sport in Arabic) was widely practiced in the classical Islamic world, and this practice continues intensively in the present. 

Daily Sabah: A woman with a past

Fatima al-Fihri, a Muslim woman activist from the annals of history has been reintroduced to inspire future generations. 
“Last week I mentioned the one-day conference at the University of Derby on Muslim women activists and suggested that Muslim women activists were not a new phenomenon, that indeed Muslim women have been activists since the advent of Islam. At this same conference, a presentation on historical Muslim women activists was given by the Muslim Women’s Historical Heritage (Müslüman Kadının Tarihi Mirası) who are working in conjunction with the Foundation for Science, Technology and Civilization (FSTC) from Britain and the Turkish NGO, IGETEV. 
FSTC, an NGO which supports activities like the 1001 Muslim Inventions books and exhibitions, Muslim Heritage and Curriculum Enrichment for the Future (CE4tF), has been keen to bring these historical personages, who are missing from the typical curriculum, back into the history classroom and people’s consciousness. In Turkey the MWHH group is concentrating on women with Muslim heritage, they are bringing to light women from the distant past about whom little is known, in the hopes that people will be inspired to find out more. A further aim of this project is to give young people role models from their own culture to whom they can turn.” Zeynep Jane Louise Kandur

Women Dealing with Health during the Ottoman Reign

In the history of Islamic civilization, many hospitals were founded by women, either as wives, daughters or mothers of sultans. All health personnel were male at these hospitals. In the Ottoman period, the female patients were treated either at their homes or at the residences of the medical practitioners until the 19th century. This feature somewhat explains the rich varieties of females practicing medicine both in and outside the Ottoman palace. In this article, Professor Nil Sari, provides information on the various medical practices dedicated to female patients under the Ottomans.

Women of Science, Medicine and Management, Istanbul

The Foundation for Science Technology and Civilisation (FSTC), launched a new course in Istanbul, Turkey. Entitled “Women of Science Medicine and Management in Muslim Heritage”, the course was in collaboration with Insan Gelisimi Ve Toplumsal Egitim Vakfi (iGETEV). The course aimed to focus attention on women who excelled in science, medicine and management within the Muslim Heritage.

Jewels of Muslim Calligraphy: Book Review of “Female Calligraphers: Past & Present by Hilal Kazan”

This is a review of the book prepared by Hilal Kazan for the Istanbul Greater City Council Cultural Foundation in order to provide a useful and important bio-bibliographic resource on the history of calligraphy of the Muslim Civilization. Written in Turkish and English, the book consists of notices of past and present Muslim female calligraphers, with many priceless examples of masterpieces of calligraphy. It emphasises also the importance of the activities of female calligraphers in the Muslim civilization at various places. The book reviewed in the following article is a unique work on the subject.

Lady Montagu and the Introduction of Smallpox Inoculation to England

The English aristocrat and writer Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (1689-1762) is today remembered particularly for her letters from Turkey, an early example of a secular work by a Western woman about the Muslim Orient. When Lady Mary was in the Ottoman Empire, she discovered the local practice of variolation, the inoculation against smallpox. Unlike Jenner’s later vaccination, which used cowpox, variolation used a small measure of smallpox itself. Lady Mary, who had suffered from the disease, encouraged her own children to be inoculated while in Turkey. On her return to London, she enthusiastically promoted the procedure, but encountered a great deal of resistance. However, her example certainly popularized the practice of inoculation with smallpox in British high society. The numbers inoculated remained small, and medical effort throughout the 18th century was concentrated on reducing the risks and side-effects of the inoculation process.

Book Review of ‘Ottoman Women – Myth and Reality’ by Asli Sancar

Aise Asli Sancar, a renowned writer and lecturer on women’s issues has said when she began investigating the subject of Ottoman women, she realized that they were much more complex and multifaceted than they are usually portrayed to be. Noting that Ottoman women were described as submissive and suppressed women entrapped in the harem, Sancar says the imperial harem was a more diverse and complex institution than she had formerly thought it to be. This is the main theme of her book: Ottoman Women: Myth and Reality reviewed in this article by Qaisra Shahraz, the well known writer and novelist. Suitable for all publics, the book, a well written and enjoyable to read piece, presents an engaging and appealing image of Ottoman women, far away from the clichés widely spread in the contemporary literature.

Interview with Professor Nil Sari

Professor Nil Sari Akdeniz, the head of the History of Medicine and Ethics Department of Istanbul University at the Cerrahpasha Medical School since 1983, is a world famous historian of Islamic medicine in general and of medical knowledge and practices in the Ottoman Empire and in modern Turkey in particular. In the following unpublished interview, carried on by Dr Mehrunisha Suleman in Istanbul in 2004 on behalf of FSTC and updated in February 2009 by Professor Sari, she expounds her opinion on some issues relating to Muslim Heritage, science and Islam, and her passion as a historian of medicine.

Interview with Dr. Zohor Idrisi

In the following interview, Dr Zohor Idrisi sheds light on Islamic agriculture and the culinary art in Muslim heritage. She mentions the various factors that favorised the development of agriculture in the Islamic civilisation, such the use of astronomical knowledge, the availability of an efficient water management system, the introduction of new techniques in irrigation, the use of new varieties of crops and plants. The result was a real agricultural revolution marked by a high productivity, never reached before in history. The last part of the interview hits upon contemporary issues, like environment strategies and consumption habits that we have to learn from the standpoint of Islamic practices based on respect of nature, human wisdom and common sense.

Interview with Dr. Rim Turkmani

The tradition of Islamic astronomy is the main topic of the following interview, in which Dr Rim Turkmani, an astrophysicist scholar, draws on her passion for Islamic science to present a survey on salient aspects of Islamic classical astronomy. At the end, she shows how this scientific tradition is still inspiring today. On that point, the attitude of openness, diversity and tolerance is highlighted.

Queen Rania and Bettany Hughes: Muslim Heritage in Our Homes Video

We are delighted to bring you the most recent YouTube clip uploaded by Her Majesty Queen Rania of Jordan. This clip highlights just some of the everyday items in our homes that came to us through a shared heritage with Muslim Civilisation. (Image Source)

Bettany Hughes: Divine Women

Bettany Hughes is an advisor to the Foundation for Science, Technology and Civilisation (FSTC) and member of its consultant network Muslim Heritage Awareness Group (MHAG)

Interview with Professor Emilie Savage-Smith

Professor Emilie Savage-Smith expands in this remarkable interview on Islamic medicine of which she draws a lively picture. Beginning with a general survey of the conditions of its inception and development in an intercultural context, she mentions representative names and treatises, then the various fields of expertise are scrutinized and the different innovations this tradition brought are highlighted, from the classification of diseases, their treatment, the use of surgery, the improvement of medical instruments, the foundation of hospitals. The answers of the expert are informative on specific areas of medical care such as ophthalmology, mental illness, the development of a real industry of drugs, the various ways of healing, including the use of music in the treatment of emotional and mental stress. The exploitation of this treasure of medical knowledge in Europe until the 17th century is also reminded.

Women of Science and Management in History June 2014

In June 2014, The Foundation for Science, Technology and Civilisation (FSTC) played host to a delegation from Turkey and held a workshop on Women of Science and Management in History attended by 27 participants. The delegation from the Human Development and Social Education Foundation (iGETEV) was led by Zeynep Jane Louise Kandur and has been working closely with FSTC since June 2013, on highlighting the roles played by a number of remarkable women from the Muslim civilisation. The two day workshop, which took place on the 24th and 25th June 2014, followed on from sessions held in Istanbul in October 2013, and is part of a collaborative project between FSTC and iGETEV.

Zaynab Al Shahda, 12th Century

Zaynab was a famous female calligrapher who was renowned for her work in fiqh (Islamic law) and hadiths, in addition to her husn-I khatt. She was highly praised and positioned, and was appointed as teacher of Yaqut, the last Abbasid Caliph. She was also the calligrapher in the Musa Palace. She was a brilliant, well-established teacher and many people had the opportunity to study with her and to receive their ijaza from her. The fame of Zaynab was well established when she was named Siqat al-Dawla because of her association with al-Muktafibillah, the Abbasid Caliph. She spent her time studying science and literature.

Image by artist Ali Amro created for 1001 Inventions.

Have you heard these names before?

Over thousands of years, many women have left a mark on their societies, changing the course of history at times and influencing small but significant spheres of life at others. Since ancient times, women have excelled in the areas of poetry, literature, medicine, philosophy and mathematics. A famous example is Hypatia (ca. 370-415), a philosopher, mathematician, astronomer, and teacher who lived in Alexandria, in Hellenistic Egypt, and who participated in that city’s educational community

In the same vein, it is interesting to note the Islamic view of Cleopatra of Egypt (b. 69 BCE). Arabic sources referred to her as a strong and able monarch who was very protective of Egypt. These sources focused on her talents but made no reference to her morals or seductive power. They focused instead on her learning and talents in management. This Arabic image of Cleopatra is in direct contrast to that presented by the Greco-Roman sources which presented her as a hedonist and seductive woman. 

From the early years of Islam, women had crucial roles in their society. They contributed substantially to the prominence of Islamic civilization. For example, Aisha bint Abu Bakr, wife of the Prophet Muhammad, had special skills in administration. She became a scholar in hadith, jurisprudence, an educator, and an orator. There are also many references which point to Muslim women who excelled in areas such as medicine, literature, and jurisprudence. This long tradition found its counterpart in modern times. For example, in a more recent and unusual role, Sabiha Gökçen (1913-2001) was the first female combat pilot in the world. She was appointed as chief trainer at the Turkish Aviation Institution.

A Turkish banknote dated 30 August 1995 to celebrate Sabiha Gökçen (1913-2001), the first female combat pilot in the world and the first Turkish aviatrix.

In contrast, we find little information on Muslim women’s contributions in the classical books of history. New light might arise from the study of not yet edited manuscripts. There are many manuscripts in archives around the world. Only few of them are edited and most of these are not about science. This points to the challenging task lying ahead for researchers into the subject.

Fatima al-Fihri played a great role in the civilisation and culture in her community. She migrated with her father Mohamed al-Fihri from Qayrawan in Tunisia to Fez. She grew up with her sister in an educated family and learnt Fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence) and Hadith. Fatima inherited a considerable amount of money from her father which she used to build a mosque for her community. Established in the year 859, the Qarawiyin mosque had the oldest, and possibly the first university in the world. Students travelled there from all over the world to study Islamic studies, astronomy, languages, and sciences. Arabic numbers became known and used in Europe through this university. This is just one important example of the role of women in the advancement of education and civilisation.

Razia (or Raziyya) Sultana of Delhi who took power in Delhi for four years (1236-1240 CE). She was the only woman ever to sit on the throne of Delhi. Razia’s ancestors were Muslims of Turkish descent who came to India in the 11th century. Contrary to custom, her father selected her, over her brothers, to be his successor. After her father’s death, she was persuaded to step down from the throne in favour of her stepbrother Ruknuddin, but, opposed to his rule, the people demanded that she become Sultana in 1236. She established peace and order, encouraged trade, built roads, planted trees, dug wells, supported poets, painters, and musicians, constructed schools and libraries, appeared in public without the veil, wore tunic and headdress of a man. State meetings were often open to the people. Yet, she made enemies when she tried to eliminate some of the discriminations against her Hindu subjects. (Image Source)

During Muslim civilisation, numerous women excelled in various fields in Subsaharan Africa. Among them was Queen Amina of Zaria (1588-1589). She was the eldest daughter of Bakwa Turunku, who founded the Zazzau Kingdom in 1536. Amina came to power between 1588 and 1589. Amina is generally remembered for her fierce military exploits. Of special quality is her brilliant military strategy and in particular engineering skills in erecting great walled camps during her various campaigns. She is generally credited with the building of the famous Zaria wall.

Labana of Cordoba (Spain, ca. 10th century) was thoroughly versed in the exact sciences; her talents were equal to the solution of the most complex geometrical and algebraic problems, and her vast acquaintance with general literature obtained her the important employment of private secretary to the Caliph Al-Hakam II.

Sutayta al-Mahmali. Sutayta was taught and guided by several scholars including her father. Other scholars who taught her were Abu Hamza b. Qasim, Omar b. Abdul-‘Aziz al-Hashimi, Ismail b. Al-Abbas al-Warraq and Abdul-Alghafir b. Salamah al-Homsi. She was praised by historians such as Ibn al-Jawzi, Ibn al-Khatib Baghdadi and Ibn Kathīr. She died in the year 377H/987CE. Sutayta did not specialise in just one subject but excelled in many fields such as Arabic literature, hadith, and jurisprudence as well as mathematics. It is said that she was an expert in hisab (arithmetics) and fara’idh (successoral calculations), both being practical branches of mathematics which were well developed in her time. It is said also that she invented solutions to equations which have been cited by other mathematicians, which denote aptitude in algebra. Although these equations were few, they demonstrated that her skills in mathematics went beyond a simple aptitude to perform calculations.

Gevher Nesibe Sultan “was an early 13th century princess of the Sultanate of Rum, the daughter of Kilij Arslan II and sister of Kaykhusraw I, and the namesake of a magnificent complex comprising a hospital, an adjoining medrese devoted primarily to medical studies, and a mosque in Kayseri, Turkey. The complex (külliye in Turkish) that she endowed, is considered one of the preeminent monuments of Seljuk architecture. The hospital was built between 1204 and 1206, and the medrese, whose construction started immediately after Gevher Nesibe’s death in 1206, was finished in 1210. The complex takes its name from the princess. The medrese within is known under a variety of names: the Gevher Nesibe Medrese; the Çifte Medrese (Twin Medrese); or as the Gıyasiye Medrese, after Ghiyath al-Din Kaykhusraw I, who was responsible for its construction. The tomb within the medrese is said to belong to Gevher Nesibe.”(Source)

“Melike Mama Hatun, or simply Mama Hatun, was a female ruler of the Saltukid dynasty, with its capital in Erzurum, for an estimated nine years between 1191 to 1200. During her reign she had a caravanserai, a mosque, a bridge, and a hammam built in the town of Tercan, located midway between Erzincan and Erzurum, which are still standing and are named after her. Her tomb is also in Tercan. The town itself was called Mamahatun until recently, and is still referred to as such locally. Mama Hatun also remains a vivacious figure in Turkish folk literature to this day.” (Source) Mama Hatun Kulliyesi (Kulliye means complex of buildings adjacent to a mosque, “Collage” in modern English).