ING Celebrates Women’s History Month: The Tradition of Muslim Women’s Leadership

In the first post in celebration of Women’s History Month we looked at a few of the thousands of Muslim women scholars and transmitters of Prophetic sayings (Hadith). Below, we take a look at early female rulers, philanthropists, librarians, and Muslim women in the military from the first century of Islamic history.

Muslim Women Rulers and Queens in History

Muslim women can be found in important leadership roles starting from the time of the Prophet Muhammad and going up to the present day.  Indeed, there have been a significant number of women rulers or women who were politically prominent in various Muslim ruling dynasties. One of the earliest women rulers was Arwa al-Sulayhi (d. 1138), who ruled Yemen from 1067 until she died in 1138. She was considered one of the greatest rulers in the Sulayhid dynasty and popularly referred to as the “Noble Lady” and “the Little Queen of Sheba.”
Sultana Shajarat ad-Durr  (d.1257) took control over Egypt for three months when her ruling husband died. She is famous for concealing his death and helping to lead the resistance against the 7th Crusade. As the ruler she had coins struck in her name and her name is mentioned in the weekly Friday prayers, the two acts that were only done in the name of the ruler. Palace intrigue and ambition eventually lead to her fall from power and resultant death.

Sultana Razia (d. 1240) was the only woman ever to sit on the throne of Delhi, India. After her father and brother’s death, she became the ruler in 1236, a fulfillment of the original wish of her father. During her four year rule, she established peace and order, encouraged trade, built roads, planted trees, dug wells, supported poets, painters, and musicians, and constructed schools and libraries.

Al Udar al-Karimah Shihaab ad Din Salaah took over the reins of leadership in Yemen in her son’s absence for 14 months. She was a pious woman, known for her intellect, resolve, and political abilities. She was a patroness of scholars, and a benefactress of the poor and needy, and she built schools and mosques throughout Yemen.

A more contemporary example of female leadership, is the family of women rulers known as “begums” who ruled the principality of Bhopal in Central India between 1819 and 1926. The first, Qudsia Begum took over rule when her husband was assassinated. She was the first female ruler of Bhopal and although illiterate, ruled well. Sikandar Begum took authority in 1844, since the recognized ruler, her daughter Shah Jahan was only six.  She also is said to have run Bhopal well, paying off the deficit in only six years and abolishing many of the heavy taxes.

Shah Jahan succeeded her mother as Begum of Bhopal upon her death in 1868 and ruled until her death in 1901. Shah Janan was succeeded by her daughter, Begum Kaikhusrau Jahan (d. 1930), who ruled until 1926. The Begums are credited with providing the city with a railways, postal system and waterworks.

There have been many Muslim women heads of state in the contemporary era, which  will be discussed in the coming weeks

Muslim Women Philanthropists

Probably the most famous woman philanthropist was Queen Zubaydah (d. 831), the wife of the Abbasid caliph, Harun ar-Rashid. One of the wealthiest and most powerful woman of her time, she was a noble woman of not only great wealth, but great generosity. She was also known for her sharp intellect and profound opinions and was a master of eloquence and political thought. She was a patroness of writers and poets, irrespective of their religion, as well as physicians, religious scholars, and the needy. She is best known for her building of wells and guest houses along the route to Mecca to ease the journey for pilgrims traveling the long journey to make the hajj. This route became known as the “Route of Zubaydah.”  She was also responsible for the building of an underground aqueduct from a spring running into Mecca to supply the pilgrims with a constant source of water. She also built canals and reservoirs.

Another famous patron is Fatimah al-Fihriyah (d. 265 AH/880), known as  the “Saint of Fez.”  She was from a very affluent family and inherited a considerable amount of wealth which she used to build a mosque and school in Fez, Morocco.  She founded al-Qarawiyyin mosque
in 859. It eventually became a center of Islamic teaching and one of the world’s oldest kulliat or colleges, which is still in operation today. Fatima’s sister built al-Andalus mosque in Fez and which later became a branch of al-Qarawiyyin.

There are many other women who built schools, and other institutions including two notable women in Baghdad and Yemen. Banafshaa’ ar-Rumiyah (d. 1008) helped renovate Baghdad by restoring schools, bridges, and public housing for homeless women as well as her own school and endowment. Al-Udar al Karimah of Yemen Shihaab ad Din Salaah (d. 1360) was a patroness of scholars and the needy, who built schools and mosques throughout the country.


Muslims learned the art of paper-making from the Chinese in the 8th century and books soon became common in Muslim lands. Library clerks, many of whom were women, copied books by hand. One prominent example of this is, Fatima of Cordoba who was a 10th century librarian entrusted with overseeing 70 public libraries, which had 400,000 volumes. It was Fatima’s job to scour the book markets of Cairo, Damascus, Baghdad, and Samarkand for rare books which she purchased with her unlimited expense account and then had shipped back to Cordoba.

Muslim Women in the Military

In the first Islamic century Muslim women often tended to the wounded during the early battles with the Meccans, but there are also examples of Muslim women who took part in battles.  The most famous Muslim military woman of this time was Nusaybah who took part in many battles and is said to have fought valiantly during the Battle of Uhud, receiving 13 wounds. Rumaysah also participated in early battles. The Prophet Muhammad’s wife Aisha bint Abu Bakr lead a battle which was named the “Battle of the Camel” after her mount, illustrating the authority she commanded.


The figure of Khawla bint al-Azwar remains legendary to this day. Arab historians laud her feats in battle, particularly in one instance where she fought in disguise to rescue her brother after he was captured by the Romans in a 7th century battle. According to historical accounts, the commander of the army, the famous Khalid ibn al-Walid, and other soldiers watched in admiration as the mysterious knight fought courageously with little regard for safety. At the end of the battle Khalid looked for the daring knight and asked him to reveal his identity. When she revealed her name and the fact that she was a woman, Khalid assigned her as leader in the chase against the fleeing army, which had taken the prisoners with them. She led a hot chase and managed to save the prisoners, including her brother. From that point forward she continued to take part in the campaign, including a battle where she personally rallied the Muslims after a huge defeat, re-organized them, and led them in counter-attack.

ING offers a presentation entitled Muslim Women Beyond the Stereotypes that is suitable for high schools, universities and colleges, and community organizations. The presentation examines some of the common stereotypes about Muslim women before discussing Qur’anic teachings that emphasize the equality and dignity of women. The presentation also features surprising data from recent polls and describes notable Muslim women in history and today. To schedule a presentation about Muslim women, please contact [email protected] or request the presentation online.