Monday, April 25, 2011

Muslim Women Scholars in the Golden Age

This is a weekly post by Nidhal Guessoum (see his earlier posts here). Nidhal is an astrophysicist and Professor of Physics at American University of Sharjah and is the author of Islam's Quantum Question: Reconciling Muslim Tradition and Modern Science.
When I read Salman’s recent post in which he mentioned the famous Huff-Saliba debate, I was reminded of the lecture Saliba gave here at my university a few years ago as part of his promotion tour for his book “Islamic Science and the Making of the European Renaissance”.
One of the first questions he was asked was why there are no women among the hundreds of great Muslim scientists of the Golden Age. He replied that there were a few, but that they are rarely given credit, for various socio-historical reasons. He referred to one particular lady who was great at making astrolabes. He did not mention her name, but I think he was referring to Fatima Al-Majritiya, the daughter of Maslama Al-Majriti (d. 1008 or 1007 CE), who was one of the great Muslim astronomers of medieval Andalus (Muslim Spain).
Don’t bother googling for her; you won’t find anything. In fact, I cannot even remember where I found her name. I’ve just searched a few of my books on the history of science in Islam but couldn’t find her. I’ll post a note if/when I do. I had seen or heard mention of her expertise in constructing astrolabes, and I was very happy when one day I finally found her actual name.
Unfortunately, I cannot think of any other female Muslim scientist or even philosopher. When I am asked about this state of affairs, I usually first state that most pre-modern civilizations rarely produced any female thinker or scientist. If you check out the website “Women Scientists in History”, which is presumably devoted to this topic, you will find only two figures from before 1600 CE: the famous Hypatia (370-415) and Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179), who is profiled as the “first woman scientist whose writings still exist… received an education in a convent… became the abbess (leader) of her abbey.”

I should say, however, that this website is quite clearly incomplete, because when I checked the list of names (only 26) of women scientists since 1600, the following great figures were not listed: Caroline Herschel (1750 – 1848); Annie Jump Cannon (1863 – 1941); Maria Mitchell (1818 – 1889: “the first professional woman astronomer in the United States”); Henrietta Swan Leavitt (1868 – 1921); Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin (1900 – 1979); Maria Goeppert-Mayer (1906 – 1972: Nobel Prize winner in Physics), and of course many others… A much better website on the subject is “Famous Women Scientists”, which lists 61 names.

But I digress, so let me go back to Muslim women. If we turn to Wikipedia, we find a long entry on “Women in Science”, and it too proceeds chronologically. One gets quite encouraged by finding a number of women mentioned, by name, even before Hypatia. But then (surprise!), the document jumps to Medieval Europe – not a word on Muslim women, or to the whole Arab-Islamic period/culture/civilization.
Now, in his book titled “Aladdin’s Lamp: How Greek science came to Europe through the Islamic world”, John Freely briefly says that in Cordoba (perhaps the highest and brightest point reached in the Islamic civilization), women did participate in the cultural and scientific life; he wrote: “The Islamic schools of the time in Cordoba employed scores of women copyists, as did the city’s book market. More highly educated women worked as teachers and librarians, and a few even practiced medicine and law.”
I also very often hear Muslim speakers state that there have in fact been great women scholars in the history of Islam! To defend this claim, they say that Aisha (the famous young wife of Prophet Muhammad) was a well-recognized scholar of Islam in her time, because: a) she related hundreds of hadiths; b) many people used to come and ask for her opinion on one Islamic issue or another. Likewise, preachers tend to relate stories about great scholars of Islam (I think Al-Shafi`i is one) having gone to learn from knowledgeable ladies. But one should be careful not to conflate “knowledge” and “scholarship”.
So, perhaps with such bright exceptions as Cordoba, and in the hope of finding names and stories of Arab/Muslim women thinkers (perhaps in some unexplored manuscripts), my initial reply that pre-modern societies rarely gave educational chances, let alone encouragement, to women to pursue knowledge and excellence, that reply remains only a tentative explanation.
But I think that one should not be afraid to look at one’s society and history with critical eyes and point out any of its shortcomings. One must do it objectively, neither exaggerating, nor covering up or finding unjustifiable excuses for it.
I was reminded of this when I found the following passage in John Freely’s afore-mentioned book; he wrote: “Ibn Rushd was the first writer in any language [emphasis added] to complain about discrimination against women, which he felt was one of the most serious problems in Muslim society.” Freely then quotes Ibn Rushd (unfortunately without giving a reference):
“Our society allows no scope for the development of women’s talent. They seem to be destined exclusively to childbirth and the care of children, and this state of servility has destroyed their capacity for larger matters. It is thus that we see no women endowed with moral virtues, they live their lives like vegetables, devoting themselves to their husbands. From this stems the misery that pervades our cities, for women outnumber men by more than double and cannot procure the necessities of life by their own labors.”
First, I must say that I was very surprised by this quote, not because it would not represent Ibn Rushd’s views (I think it very much would), but because it’s hard to reconcile it with our glorious image of Cordoba and Seville in Ibn Rushd’s time. Indeed, this does not fit with the Freely statement I quoted above, unless things varied much in Cordoba from one period to another. I do suspect, however, that what Ibn Rushd described was probably the prevailing situation for women.
Today, as for yesterday, the situation may vary quite a bit from one country to another, and certainly things have evolved greatly in recent times. I will try to look at the present status of Muslim women in science in my next post. In the meantime, if anyone can bring any additional information about Muslim women and scholarship in the classical era (Golden Age), that would be very useful.


Dr. M. Akbar Hussain said...

You are wrong here. Her name is on Google, with reference to your article on Irtiqa now :-)
Surely you brought a smile to her soul for giving the world a hint of her work a millenium after.

Nidhal Guessoum said...

Very nice, Akbar; and you've brought a smile to me... :-)

I'm delighted to be the first to put the name of Fatima Al-Majritiya on Google.

Sara said...

Just found this blog and it's amazing!! Thank you for writing such interesting and thought-provoking posts!

Abdelhaq said...

I guess if one does a more sophisticated search on the daughter of Al-Majriti, Fatima of Madrid, one would find few hits even with a google search.

Check this:

and this as well

As they say: 'We are drowning in a sea of information starving for knowledge".

and I have not done any search in Spanish or in arabic yet.

I guess, this is enough for now.

Nidhal Guessoum said...

Sara, thanks for your kind comment, and glad you're finding our posts thought-provoking. That's indeed the goal.
And thank you, Abdelhaq, for digging up some mentions of Fatima of Madrid, as she is thus referred to by the cognoscenti. Still, she evidently remains obscure. And I'll be very happy if people can find more names and references of Muslim women scholars of the Golden Age.

obreption said...

I enjoyed this post. Your mention of Henrietta Leavitt reminded me of Agnes Pockles, who had more or less been forgotten for her work in Chemistry. Thanks to search engines and recognised orthographies many western names can be easily found. Let us hope that all those who have contributed to science get recognised.

Nidhal Guessoum said...

I have found another name of a female Muslim astronomer of the Golden Age: Maeriam al-Ijliya al-Astrulabi. I found little useful information on her, other than the following: daughter of Kochyar al-Ijli (or al-Jili), lived in Aleppo (Syria) in the 9th century (CE), distinguished herself in improving the astrolabe. This is web info, so I don't guarantee any accuracy of it.

If anyone finds additional, more scholarly, referenced, or guaranteed information, I would be delighted to read.