Review: The Forgotten Queens of Islam


Fatima Mernissi is a controversial figure in traditional Islamic circles. Her book Forgotten Queens is not for the faint hearts as Mernissi challenges traditionally held views about what it means for a woman to rule and a detailed discussion about the definition of ‘queen’ and the definition of a ruler.

Mernissi’s introduction “Was Benazir the first?” is very thought provoking, “…Either women heads of states never existed…or in the past there have been women who led Muslim states, but have been rubbed out of official history.” She claims that this book does not redefine the Muslim women’s role, but simply challenges the premise that there were no women ever who ruled, and explores in what capacity they ruled. Forgotten Queens takes the reader through 15 centuries of colourful history, interpreted through a woman’s eye.

The book is divided into three parts, part one is titled “Queens and Courtesans’. Courtesans were a reality during many Caliphates, where the rulers maintained harems, which by their very nature are contradictory to Islamic teachings. Mernissi, describes how women here wielded power that affected the Caliph. Part two is called ‘Sovereignty in Islam’ and deals with the definition of sovereignty. The part I found interesting was the chapter dedicated to ‘Fifteen Queens’. These include a look at all the Muslims Dynasties and their ‘first women’, so to say. Finally part three is dedicated to ‘The Arab Queens’, and has historical information about the dynasties in Yemen, Cairo and the Queen of Sheba.

Besides the historical aspect, the book sheds light on a modern phenomenon, that women have become generally more educated than men. In the past, the women Mernissi talks about faced similar situations. Being more educated, maybe more capable, but excluded from politics and public life, how do Muslim women make their voice heard? That is the fundamental question I asked myself as I read the book.

“There is no feminine form of the word ‘imam’ or ‘caliph’, the two words embody the concept of power in the Arabic language…How did the women of former times manage such an achievement…In many Muslim countries there is a sort of acceptance of democracy…Muslim women going to the voting booth…Nevertheless, rare are institutions in which women figure.”

Though the historical aspect of the book is enjoyable, the conclusion is disturbing. Mernissi concludes, “…Believers do not have the right to say or write what they want, and especially what comes to their head….” My objection to this is that part of my Iman is obeying Allah and His prophet (sa) without question. A caliph cannot be a woman, no matter how accomplished, that is an irrefutable fact. Challenging traditional roles, which are in fact based on Islam and its code of conduct, is also not acceptable. So, ignoring Mernissi’s philosophical debate, the historical aspect of the book is worth your time. I would like to conclude saying that reading literature and learning to be critical is an essential skill for a Muslim. This is the reason why this book is recommended.

Forgotten Queens can be downloaded in .pdf format at: