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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.

The 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 imperial household. 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 Tibyan. 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 political rivals.

Women played significant roles outside the halls of power, as well.

The 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.

Muslim 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.

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DISCLAIMER: This purpose of this website is to provide supplemental information to the Cities of Light film and is not intended as a scholarly or academic resource. For scholars' sources, see the Recommended Readings section on this site. Articles reprinted from other sources reflect the views and opinions of the authors, and may not necessarily mirror those of UPF.