Extraordinary Women of Al-Andalus
For nearly a century, scholars have
been fascinated by women's social status in Al-Andalus.
They considered Al-Andalus “a place apart,” in which
patterns of life transcended those in Medieval Europe and
the eastern Muslim lands.
women of Islamic Spain like their counterparts in many
pre-modern Muslim societies were active participants in
political and cultural affairs. They helped shape the
cosmopolitan civilization associated with the Muslims.
The Umayyads ruled Al-Andalus for the first three centuries
of Muslim rule in Iberia (roughly 711-1031 CE). The Umayyad
household provided a strong, centralized vision for developing a distinct Andalusi culture. Women of the
royal household. along with other courtly women, played prominent
roles within this culture. Some of the most influential women of Al-Andalus' included:
Al-Zahra, concubine of the caliph
Abd al-Rahman III, for whom his new palace complex was
most likely named
Subh, the wife of caliph Al-Hakam
II and architect of secretary Al-Mansur’s rise as chief
minister and army commander
Itimad al-Rumaykiyya, poetess and
wife of taifa king al-Mutamid of Seville
One historical account states that the
Umayyad chancery employed 70 women copyists and Qur’an
calligraphers. Hundreds of other women served the vast
Perhaps the most famous female Umayyad scion is Walladah
bint Mustakfi (d. 1091 CE). Despite the decline of the
caliphate, Walladah styled herself as the reigning debutante
of Córdoba, hosting exclusive salons for poets, musicians
and artists. She challenged certain upper class social
conventions such as veiling.
Walladah possessed an irrepressible spirit, symbolized by her public
love affair with the virtuoso poet, Ibn Zaydun. Her confident nature
was clearly evidenced by the words stitched on her sleeve: "I am, by
God, fit for high positions."
Women in ruling Amazigh (Berber) households, likewise, commanded
respect. They also participated in leadership roles.
The taifa king and Zirid ruler of Granada, Abdullah Ibn
Buluggin, wrote about the role of women in his memoirs, The
He notes that in the leading Amazigh (Berber) families, mothers and other women
of the household participated in a shura council that made collective
political and military decisions the ruler would enact.
The Amazigh (Berber) commander Yusuf Ibn Tashufin -- whose Almoravid
forces brought Ibn Buluggin’s rule to an abrupt end in 1090
CE -- relied heavily on his wife, Zaynab, for strategic
advice. He trusted her to oversee and protect his realm from
Women played significant roles outside the halls of power,
celebrated mystic, Ibn Arabi of Murcia (died 1240), recounts in his
biographical dictionary of Andalusi Sufis, Al-Durrat Al-Fakhira, how
certain women had a profound influence upon him. Ibn Arabi met Shams of
Marchena in her 80s. He describes how she had the ability to
communicate with others over great distances. Shams of Marchena relates how a visitor
en route to see her confirmed hearing her voice on the way.
Abu Hayyan reveals his daughter's stature among the
period's intellectual elites in an elegy, entitled Al-Nudar an al-Maslah an
Nudar ("Pure Gold for Solace for Nudar"). He praises her with the words: "In excellence, no other woman could compare -- can a rock ever match a jewel?"
Andalusi scholar Ali Ibn Hazm (died 1064 CE) -- advocate of a literal
reading of the Qur’an expressed his opinion that women could have
been prophets of God in the past. He also asserts that women could play
a role in leadership.
women were active patrons and sponsors of public works. Women of means
have historically supported many public fountains, gardens, hospitals,
and inns through their own assets and property. They also have endowed
mosques, such as the Al-Qarawiyyin in Fes, Morocco.