A HISTORY OF ISLAM IN 21 WOMEN by Hossein Kamaly


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Life histories of famed Muslim women across the centuries.

Kamaly (Islamic Studies/Hartford Seminary; God and Man in Tehran: Contending Visions of the Divine From the Qajars to the Islamic Republic, 2018) sets out to prove that “in the past and today women have shaped many aspects of Islam and deserve a more central place in the historical narrative.” To that end, the author introduces 21 Muslim women from the sixth century to the present age. With a few exceptions, however, his choices are not the most convincing as comprising a “history of Islam.” The author begins with three women who were indeed tightly connected to the beginnings of Islam: Khadija, the famed wife of the Prophet Muhammad; his daughter, Fatima; and his later child-bride, Aisha. After these three minibiographies, Kamaly focuses on a string of women rulers, in chronological order, from places as diverse as modern-day Iran, Morocco, and Indonesia. Though some of the stories are intriguing, and most make for worthwhile reading, only one or two of the women have had a significant impact on Islam. Most are female rulers who happened to be Muslim. Readers must wait until the text reaches the 19th century before encountering a woman who was not a ruler or of the ruling class, leaving a void regarding what it meant to be an average Muslim woman through most of history. Even most of the modern women Kamaly profiles tell little about the story of Islam but instead just happen to be Muslim—e.g., architect Zaha Hadid and mathematician Maryam Mirzakhani. The author also tends to understate misogyny in modern Islam: “The situation of women in most contemporary Muslim-majority countries today…remains far from ideal.” Since Kamaly concentrates on early Muslim political figures, many readers will be disappointed that such groundbreaking figures as Benazir Bhutto are left off the list.

A well-intentioned but unsuccessful attempt to frame Islam through the lives of women practitioners.

Pub Date: March 10th, 2020
ISBN: 978-1-78607-643-4
Page count: 304pp
Publisher: Oneworld Publications
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1st, 2020


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