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October 13, 2010

The Scimitar and the Veil: Extraordinary Women of Islam

Author Heath, Jennifer.
Title The scimitar and the veil : extraordinary women of Islam / Jennifer Heath.
Publisher Mahwah, N.J. : Hidden Spring, c2004.
I. "Paradise lies at the feet of the mothers" : in the beginning : women of the prophetate -- II. "That does not come from you, but from her behind the curtain" : scholars of the Hadith -- III. "Be like wax and illumine the world. Be like a needle and work naked" : ascetics, saints, and mystics -- IV. "If you do not fall in battle, someone is saving you as a token of shame" : warriors and amazons -- V. "Drink from this cup, then be gracious to her who sent it by paying a visit after sunset" : rebels and concubines -- VI. "Listening stirs the heart to see god" : musicians and dancers -- VII. "We have left the account for the day of accountings" : rulers, regents, queen mothers, and philanthropists -- VIII. "To educate a woman is to educate the whole world ..." : tradeswomen and learned ladies -- IX. "Enjoy life! Who cares what people say?" : poets -- The five pillars of Islam.


The Scimitar and the Veil is a book written to introduce, and perhaps improve the perceptions of Western people on Muslim women. It accounts very comprehensively the history of famous or at least recorded Muslim women from the first woman to become a Muslim (Khadijah bint Khuwaylid RA) to queens, poets and tradeswomen of the 19th century.

So it is a very comprehensive book, around 465 pages.. and took me 2 months to finish reading it. And what do I think about it?

Well, the author has really gone to great lengths to research and write on these remarkable Muslim women. I became very engaged in the beginning, in the first section on the first Muslim women, those whose lives are personally touched by the physical presence of Prophet Muhammad SAW. How lucky they are to know him personally.. and to be loved by him! I've read before their stories, especially Prophet Muhammad SAW's wives or Ummul Mu'minin, such as Khadijah bint Khuwaylid RA and Aisyah bint Abu Bakr RA, but I was never able to really engage with it. I guess the stories or books I read were more of a historical account. What is different about this book is that it is (sometimes overly) romanticised. It actually portrayed the personal feelings of these women. Like how Khadijah RA dreamed of Muhammad SAW. It was told in this book that she went up to the roof of her house to get some air, then she watched a group of traders walked past and saw that Muhammad SAW was shining. It accounted, with dialogue, how anxious she was after she proposed to Muhammad SAW. And the part about Aisyah RA were also documented in such a way that I could actually feel what she was feeling and really could imagine what she is like. So it wasn't like reading a textbook (I used to feel this way when reading the previous books on Ummul Mu'minin).

Although, I'm sure a lot of people, particularly Muslim, would object that such great women are portrayed in this way. I mean who really knows for sure that Khadijah actually said or thought, or what the other Ummul Mu'minin thought in their hearts. So I think some of the dialogues are made up, just to spice up the story.. but I love it! I imagine too that those reading this book, especially women, would want a romantic story rather than a textbook-like account.

Other extraordinary women that were portrayed were scholars, warriors, queens, rulers, queen-mothers, tradeswomen, mystics, etc.. but mostly it really showed its "girl power" promise through the accounts of women warriors and rulers. I think the author is trying to say that "girls can really rawk" by going to war and even ruling a whole kingdom and be in power over men. Well, okay. I'm not really into this part. I don't like any accounts of war of violence, especially when women are involved. As for women leaders, well, surprisingly, I'm not into that either. I am totally into girl power, but I believe sometimes women and men have their place, naturally.

I'm not saying I oppose of women leaders and warriors. Just not interested. I am more interested in women who tend to their family more, and do it in piety of Allah and really happy doing it. Now that's girl power. ;)

I'm also not able to engage with chapters III, V and VI on saints/mystics, rebels/concubines and musicians/dancers respectively. Chapter III told about Muslim women ascetics or mystics, or in Islam we call them Sufi. Personally, I don't really approve of Sufism or those who submit to Islam in such a way they ignore other people or the environment around them. As if the only thing matters is their relationship to Allah SWT. Islam, in my view, is a very communal and social religion. That is why it is so comprehensive. So this chapter tells Muslim women, who, through their constant devotion in praying, crying, loving Allah SWT were able to perform miracles. Hmm.. really? I'm a bit skeptic on this.

The chapter on rebels and concubines also didn't appeal to me. Who likes the word "rebel" and "concubine" and have them associated with Muslim woman? Not me. Especially how they stated that Prophet Muhammad SAW had a concubine who was a Christian, Maria al-Qibtiyyah. If concubine here means it is a "secondary wife", then fine. But if it means a woman who is not legally married to him, but cohabits with him.. then I'm a bit concerned. The concubines that were portrayed here were those "residing in a harem and kept, as by a sultan, for sexual purposes". *sigh* Are men allowed to do this? And they are sultan, too! Those with high power. Isn't this zina? Although it is interesting to read about the politics going on in the harem with these concubines, I am a bit upset how it is connected to Islam with its strict sanction of zina. The next chapter on musicians and dancers also gave me a similar feeling with the previous chapter, as musicians and dancers are mostly associated with concubines who had these talents to be presented to please her master or sultan.


To be honest, the only chapter I thoroughly enjoyed was the first one. Towards the end it got boring for me, since it was too long and maybe I just got bored, so I started skipping pages, stories, and sometimes a whole chapter. The last chapter I didn't even bother to read. But I was able to read the part of how the person responsible for trades in Aceh and Gresik are women! I think that's the only time Southeast Asian women were mentioned. Which was sad, Cut Nyak Dien or RA Kartini should have had their places in this book. Most women portrayed originated from the Middle East, Africa or East Asia. Which got me thinking, if a similar book were to be written on Muslim women 20th century onwards..would Indonesia have gained more portion? After all, we are the largest Muslim country in the world...


Nevertheless, although there were some points I didn't agree on, I do agree this book is quite a treasure. Those wanting to learn about real Muslim women in history should read this book, especially women. Though I don't recommend it to men.. they might get boring reading the romanticised parts and may get the wrong ideas on the parts about concubines, polygamy, etc.


And I would just like to clarify some points that could be misleading Islam in this book:
1. Although in Islam polygamy is allowed, as stated in the Qur'an, but the conditions of it have to be met, i.e. the man is able to be just to his wives in all cases, the latter marriage is endorsed by the previous wife, etc.
2. Having concubines, meaning women not legally married to a man but can be involved in sexual relationships with them, are not allowed in Islam. This is called zina, and the sanction in the Qur'an is very severe. In fact, it is said one of the reasons polygamy can be allowed is to prevent committing the sin of zina.
3. The consumption of alcohol for drinks is prohibited in Islam. In this book the characters were described as drinking wine and even getting drunk. Prohibition of alcohol is debatable, though, some say that if it is in an amount that is not dangerous i.e. doesn't get the person drunk, then it is okay. As long as they don't get drunk. But for me, no alcoholic drinks (please note, it's drinks! not legal medicines) can go through my throat, thank you!
4. On the veil. From my readings, discussions, etc.. I have come to believe that the most important is the veil of the heart, rather than physical veil. But I do really recommend women to wear very decent clothes and not showing their body parts. For me, personally, that is a dignified woman who loves herself and most importantly loves Allah SWT. ;)

Wichi's verdict: unputdownable | read | skim | pass

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