Usama ibn Munqidh’s Medieval Muslim Women in the 12th Century
In Usama Ibn Munqidh’s The Book of Contemplation, we are given access to some of the few depictions of medieval Muslim women. A sort of autobiography, Usama’s book covers a vast array of subjects – ranging from observations of lions to Saladin, who who recaptured Jerusalem.
No fewer than seven stories are told about Muslim women, their characteristics and their deeds. In one passage, Usama tells us of his aunt, fully clad in armour with a sword in-hand, scolding his cousin for attempting to leave his family in the middle of a battle. His cousin’s cowardice aside, of note here is his aunt’s warrior apparel. Why was she dressed like this? Was she returning from battle? If this was the case we see a rather big reveal; the status of women in his family, and perhaps more widely in his home town of Shayzar. It is telling of the status of women and their prowess here. She demonstrates her ability to castrate men; a man who is the same age as Usama, a seasoned warrior, but as of yet one who has failed to see battle. Yet here we see his aunt, who appears to have sidestepped the traditional limitations placed on women, defending her hometown in battle. Warrior women in Islam are not unprecedented; in fact, they can trace their history back to the time of Prophet Muhammad. Khawlah bint al-Azwar famously led an army of women during the Battle of Yarmouk against the Byzantines in 636.
Usama not only discusses a woman’s warrior nature but he gives us an insight to the wisdom of women, in particular his grandmother. She scolds, there is a theme here, Usama for murdering a lion arguing that this would not impress his uncle, Sultan, the emir of Shayzar. He argues to and fro only for him to admit that ‘she was giving me wise counsel with these words and speaking the truth. By my life these are indeed the mothers of men!’ It is clear how much women were respected in the Shayzar community. He comments on her zealousness, how she refused her son’s suggestion to take a seat and pray choosing instead to stand. Women took their place in his community not as secondary citizens but as those who clearly led by example and those who exuded wisdom.
It is important to note that while these passages in the The Book of Contemplation highlight the status and importance of women they also highlight the exact opposite. The very fact that they are given separate attention is telling; it is clear that this was the exception rather than the rule. Usama felt it important to tell the story of the important women in his life, of his aunt, mother and even his grandmother. Powerful women were not as rare as it appears on the surface, then. But it is also important that in Paul Cobb’s translation he notes that no woman is mentioned more than twice.
While this piece has chosen to look solely at medieval Muslim women it must be noted that strong women existed all across the medieval stage: Mongol women held a respectable place in their communities and many Christian females would lead as influential queens and regents. Women’s History Month has highlighted that female history goes deeper than what appears on the surface. A lot of this is focused on modern history, what has developed in the last two or three centuries. It would be indolent to not look deeper. Women’s history is not a new, modern phenomenon; it is the expansion to their rights, standings and overall quality of life that has seen focus in recent years.