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Women and Islam

· ​Editorial ·

The image shown on the cover of this issue is not an icon but illustrates a concept of the sacred that is firmly rooted in Islam. The uniqueness of this Annunciation lies in the presence of three figures: Gabriel, in the centre, turns to Muhammad, who in turn is making a sign to his wife, Khadija. The woman who appears here in the foreground has a central role in the traditional narrative of the Prophet’s life: she is supposed to have taught him to trust in the angel whose first apparitions had made him fear that he was out of his mind or possessed. 

Muhammad and Khadija with the Angel Gabriel (miniature by Siyer-i Nbei, c. 1595, Topkapı Museum, Istanbul

Unlike the angel who manifests God’s power and transmits his law, the Prophet and his wife are veiled: the “holiness” they have in common is not directly offered to our gaze. In Muslim piety, holiness, concealed in the figure of the Prophet by his role as legislator and guide of the community, is not personified by caliphs but by “friends of God” who let themselves be seen only by those who can recognize them. Among these “friends of God” women occupy an all-important place. In this first issue dedicated to Muslim women it thus seemed to us important to start with three figures of holy women in order to provide some keys to the interpretation of the female presence in Islam. The first of these female figures is Zaynab, the patron saint of Cairo and granddaughter of Muhammad and Khadija through Fatimah. Venerated by Sunnis and Shi’ites alike, Zaynab is a figure who exemplifies freedom of speech. The second holy woman, Dervish Hatixhe, is the patron saint of Tirana. A teacher of a Sufi order and the victim of her husband’s violence, she is venerated by women in Albania today. The third figure, Qurratu’l-Ayn, is the poet and heroine of the Bábi movement, born from the messianic ferment in Iran in the 19th century and transformed into a new religion following a violent repression. In spite of her explosive newness, Qurratu’l-Ayn extends a tradition of female authority of which Fatimah is the archetype in the Shi’ite world. Lived experience and research in the field are essential in order to decipher a universe at once as familiar and as alien as Islam. The pioneering research of Germaine Tillion, presented in the opening article, still remains today a lesson in method. (samuela pagani)

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