Women, Islam, and Abbasid Identity

28.04.2016, Buchpräsentation, OI Beirut

In most medieval Islamic cultures, Arab Islam stood in opposition to jahl, or the state of impurity and corruption that existed prior to Islam’s founding. Over time, the concept of jahl evolved into a more general term describing a condition of ignorance and barbarism—as well as a condition specifically associated in Abbasid discourse with women. Concepts of womanhood and gender became a major organizing principle for articulating Muslim identity. Groups whose beliefs and behaviors were perceived by the Abbasids as a threat—not only the jāhilīs who lived before the prophet Muḥammad but peoples living beyond the borders of their empire, such as the Byzantines, and heretics who defied the strictures of their rule, such as the Qarāmiṭa—were represented in Abbasid texts through gendered metaphors and concepts of sexual difference. These in turn influenced how women were viewed, and thus contributed to the historical construction of Muslim women’s identity.

Through its investigation of how gender and sexuality were used to articulate cultural differences and formulate identities in Abbasid systems of power and thought, Women, Islam, and Abbasid Identity demonstrates the importance of women to the writing of early Islamic history.

Short biography

Nadia Maria El Cheikh is Professor of History at the American University of Beirut (AUB). She received her Ph.D. in History and Middle Eastern Studies from Harvard University in 1992 and has served as Director of the Center for Arab and Middle Eastern Studies and as Chair of the Department of History and Archaeology at AUB. Her book, Byzantium Viewed by the Arabs, was published by the Harvard Middle Eastern Monographs in 2004 and translated into Turkish and Greek. She has co-authored a book entitled Crisis and Continuity at the Abbasid Court. Formal and Informal Politics in the Caliphate of al-Muqtadir (295-320/908-932), Leiden: Brill, 2013. Her most recent book, Women, Islam and Abbasid Identity was published in 2015 by Harvard University Press.