A historian of Islam explains the vastly different experiences of women in the religion


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Book review by Noah Friedman

Chase F. Robinson, a historian on Islam, author of “Islamic Civilization in Thirty Lives,” and president of the CUNY Graduate Center, explains the misconception many Americans have about the role of women in Islam. He describes the lives of two women from the 8th and 9th centuries to show the diverse range of experiences of Muslim women.


Americans, your typical non-Muslim Western reader has a number of misconceptions about Islam. One relates to the role of women. I treat four women in the book and I think two are especially revealing.

Rabi’a is a mystic who devotes her life to the lonely task of describing her love for God. ‘Arib follows a path of almost spectacular celebrity, a mix of Amy Winehouse and Elizabeth Taylor.

Both belong to the 8th and the 9th century. Both born in Iraq. Both born to wealthy families, but they took radically different decisions and radically different courses in their lives.

One became someone who was so deeply enamored of God’s love, as she understood it in the Qur’an and sayings about the Prophet, sayings about God, that she devoted her entire life to an attempt to commune with God. She wrote poetry about God’s love and her love for God. She refused to marry. She even was reluctant to mix with many fellow Muslims.

At the same time, another woman born to very comparable circumstances, took, as I said, a radically different course of life. She became a very high prestige musical performer. Not only a performer of music, but she was a consort. She was a woman who mixed with the wealthiest men, politicians, merchants, really the elite of Baghdad in the middle of the 9th century.

So, two women who I think do a pretty good job of illustrating the very different experiences that women could have within the Islamic tradition.

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