About Pet Sins Webzine
Skip navigation and go to main content
Pet Sins March 2003

Book Review: The Forgotten Queens of Islam

The Forgotten Queens of Islam presents a series of female rulers in the medieval Islamic world. These were women who either became monarchs in their own right, or were powerful consorts who acted as de facto heads of states. Author Fatima Mernissi provides a challenge to modern misogynists who claim it is 'un-Islamic' or 'untraditional' for a woman to rule.

Mernissi's work also serves to dispel Western stereotypes of Islamic womanhood. By telling the remakable stories of her 15 queens, who reigned from Asia to North Africa, Mernissi introduces us to the diversity of women's experiences in the Muslim world.

The Forgotten Queens of Islam is more than a string of extraordinary anecdotes. Mernissi provides historical background on the times and locations of her characters. She contextualizes the lives of these "exceptional" women by weaving in the histories of the Abbasids, the Ummayads, the Fatimids, and the coming of Islam in the non-Arab world.

Mernissi's female sovereigns hail from North Africa, West Asia, Central Asia, South Asia and Southeast Asia. Mernissi devoted 2 whole chapters to 2 Arab female sovereigns who ruled in Yemen. Asma and Arwa received special focus because they were the only Arab queens to have their names announced during services in the mosque - an honor bestowed only on a Muslim monarch and not on a mere consort. This proves undeniably that the queens were acknowledged by all their subjects as sovereigns on equal footing with their husbands.

However, I am disappointed that the book did not venture into subSaharan Africa in its search for Muslim queens. Ibn Battuta, the famed medieval North African traveler, wrote about Qasa, the head wife of Mansa Suleiman of the Mali empire. He reported: "the queen is his partner in the kingship, after the custom of the blacks. Her name is mentioned with his from the pulpit." Qasa of Mali shared the following traits with Arwa of Yemen:

  • She and her husband were partners in power
  • The queen's name was announced together with the king's name at mosque services
  • The queen herself was of royal lineage. Both Arwa and Qasa were the daughters of their husbands' paternal uncles
Qasa, wife of the Emperor Sulaiman, would probably qualify for a place in this book. Further research may even turn up more Malian queens who shared power with their husbands, as Ibn Battuta tantalizingly reveals "the queen is his partner in the kingship, after the custom of the blacks."

Another West African Muslim sovereign was Queen Amina of the Hausa state of Zauzau. She inherited the throne from her parents and became famous as a warrior and a conqueror. Though Queen Amina was a controversial figure who did not conform to the strictures of the Islamic moral code, neither did many of characters, male or female, who appeared in the pages of this book.

Despite the conspicuous absence of sub-Saharan Africa, The Forgotten Queens of Islam is still an eye-opening and educational read for the casual reader interested in learning more about the Muslim world.

The Forgotten Queens of Islam was first published in France as Sultanes oubliƩes in 1990. The University of Minnesota Press published an English translation.