One of the most challenging aspects of teaching the history of women in Islamic Empires is getting the students to recognize the humanity of those they are studying. Because of the remote context of the history in time and place, students may have a difficult time feeling that they relate to the people they are learning about. However, this module deals with many issues that students today grapple with in their own society: questions of marriage, family, dress, and behavior are all relevant points of reference to their own emotional worlds, making the women of the Islamic empires easier for students to understand and to relate to.

Another challenge in teaching Islamic history in modern American classrooms is the fact that Islamic societies and cultures have been denigrated in popular media accounts and by many religious and secular organizations. Muslim women, in particular, have been singled out as “benchmarks” for Islamic societies and the way they are judged as either “civilized” or “uncivilized” by Westerners. Images of Muslim women as oppressed slaves of Islamic patriarchy, coupled with images of Muslim women as sexual objects, are common fixtures everywhere, from Oprah to Disney’s Aladdin to Fox News. Thus, students should be exposed to more nuanced images of Muslim women, and, in particular, the balanced view of women found in the Qur’an and the Hadith.

Finally, it is important to remind students that the experiences of Muslim women in the world today are as diverse as those in history. “Muslim” is not a race or ethnic group, nor a nationality, although it is often referred to in that way in American discourse. Muslim women's history runs concurrent with the history being studied, that is, it is not stagnant. Orientalist discourse has presented the Islamic world as one unit, fixed in ancient times. Islamic history, both at its beginnings and up to the present day, is dynamic and variable. Thus, issues of race, class, gender, and historical specificity must be kept in mind when teaching about women in Islamic history.

Discussion Questions:

  1. What are the ramifications for allowing women to be valid reporters of the hadith? What does it tell us about the nature of gender relations during the time of the first umma? Do you think that influenced later roles for women, according to the sources you have studied? Why or why not?
  2. Compare and contrast the images of women and their equality with men in the eyes of God from the Qur’an with the poem mourning the death of Hasan ibn al-Firat’s daughter. How do you reconcile these differences in value of women? Explain, using comparisons with other societies you have studied, as well as various times and places in Islamic history.