The Female Glories of Islamic Spain

In an article on poets from Al Andalus, an interesting lesson:  Muslim but not Jewish women wrote significant poetry. Another, then:  women were among the great poets of Islam at the period when it was at its height.
What is surprising is that during this period, there were numerous Muslim women whose poetry has been preserved. Although Muslims refer to the Jews as ahl al-kitab or “people of the book,” Muslim women seem to have been more successful in creating lasting poetic works. 
It is rather difficult to account for this discrepancy, for it seems odd to imagine that Muslim women in medieval Spain were far more educated than their Jewish counterparts. Arabic became the lingua franca following the Muslim conquest of the country in 711. When Jewish poets began to compose in Arabic and later in Hebrew, were the women entirely excluded? 
There are very few extant poems written by Jewish women dating to this period. Although only a fraction of all poems from that time have survived, this does not mean more were not written. The poems that are available are of a high quality, but the problem of quantity cannot be ignored. 
Kasmunah (“little charming one” or “one with a beautiful face”) of Andalusia in southern Spain was the daughter of Isma’il ibn Bagdala “the Jew.” Her Arabic verses were included in a 15th-century anthology of women’s verses (compiled by an Egyptian). Little is known about her; there are debates as to whether she lived in the 11th or 12th century. Some of those favoring the earlier date contend that she was none other than the daughter of Samuel Hanagid, who was also known as ibn Nagrella (he indeed had a daughter). The assumption is that Bagdala and Nagrella are similar enough to have been confused. 
At any rate, Kasmunah’s father taught her by means of intellectually creative collaboration. He composed two lines; she needed to respond in kind. 
The style he chose is known as muwwashah, a rather difficult genre of poetry in which both he and his protégé excelled. Reading her verses reveals a tremendous originality and expertise in Arabic poetry, as well as the gentleness of this cultured woman. 
The wife of Dunash ibn Labrat lived at the end of the 10th century; very little is known about her. Her husband was born in Fez, studied in Baghdad with Rabbi Sa’adia Gaon and spent time in Cordoba in the court of the eminent diplomat Hasdai ibn Shaprut. Her name is not recorded anywhere, but this does not detract from the fact that her erudition and expertise in Hebrew poetry are astounding. 
In truth, the scholars of medieval Hebrew poetry, such as Haim Shirman and Ezra Fleischer, were convinced that this was a field entirely reserved for men. However, a series of discoveries of fragments from three different collections in the Cairo Geniza produced evidence to the contrary. 
In 1947, a fragment of a poem was found and published by Nehemia Allony, who surmised that it dealt with a bride and groom, or possibly a separation. In 1971, the tables turned when a complete copy of this poem appeared (albeit with the lines in the incorrect order); the missing lines revealed that it referred to a couple and their child. The husband had left his beloved wife and child behind in Spain, and their future was unclear. A third discovery solved the mystery of the poem’s authorship because of its header: “from the wife of Dunash ibn Labrat to him.” This fragment included a second poem written by the absentee husband, defending himself and professing his love to “an erudite woman like you” (see Ezra Fleischer, “About Dunash Ibn Labrat and his wife and son,” Jerusalem Studies in Hebrew Literature, 5 (1984) in Hebrew). 
This detective work revealed beautiful poetry and the correct identity of the sources; it reflected the talents of the eminent poet’s wife as well as that of her husband. Mr. and Mrs. ibn Labrat, although separated, and Kasmunah were creative and impressive poets who made important contributions to the medieval Spanish literary heritage.
Medieval Islamic Spain seems to me to hold much that we ought to try to recover.  Modern Islam would find in it much native pride, as it represents the height of their religion's worldwide civilization.  The rest of the world would find it a means of helping guide their Islamic neighbors onto a more wholesome course than is sometimes the case.


Cassandra said...

Muslim but not Jewish women wrote significant poetry. Another, then: women were among the great poets of Islam at the period when it was at its height.

Careful, Grim :) You're in danger of violating what has come to be an article of faith on conservative blogs. *Everyone* knows that women have never done anything of note in human history... this is proof positive that women are inferior to men.

Seriously, if I had to name one reason I enjoy your writing, it's that you have always seemed less interested in having your opinions confirmed than in finding the truth (whatever that may be).

In a lifetime of dealing with men, I've noticed many times over how important it is to some men to compete and dominate. But many, many men are not that way - and consequently, other men often claim credit for their work and achievements.

How hard is it to figure that that throughout most of human history, women have not had the same opportunities and freedoms as men. Our biology has dictated that our formative years - the ones when men are most likely to achieve - are consumed with childbirth and the care of small children? Now all of a sudden women DO have the same opportunities, though biology certainly has not gone away. And (at least on the InterTubes) men are up in arms about the horrible, horrible unfairness of it all :p

Since when has life EVER been fair? I am all for treating the sexes as equally as possible. We do have real differences, in the aggregate at least. But it grieves me to see men who share most of my beliefs acting so close minded. I've had my criticisms of feminism, mostly centered around women demanding special privileges. Now I see conservative men making the same arguments and using the same excuses that feminists were justly derided for using.

It seems to me that if those arguments were wrong then, they're wrong now. Or perhaps they actually had some merit then (and now) but the proposed remedies were wrong headed. This is my view.

Oh well. Back to work!

Thanks for the ray of hope.

Grim said...

It's kind of an interesting article, isn't it? Medieval Christian society had quite a few female poets of note -- which is unusual, historically, with a more average situation being that a civilization produces only a handful of noteworthy female writers.

To some degree this is a failure of scholarship. This article demonstrates two who were always there, but about whom we simply didn't know until the scholars produced evidence. By the same token, scholars are just now demonstrating fairly massive amounts of medieval Christian female writing that went on inside of religious communities, and which has simply not been available to us.

Still, how unexpected to find that in the same period Islamic women more poetic and vocal than Jewish ones. Some of the more conservative Jewish communities tend to suppress womens' voices, of course. At its height of confidence and power, perhaps Islamic society offered women a liberty that the Jewish communities of Andalusia didn't.

Cass said...

I must have led a very sheltered life. Before being on the Internet, my experience of men was that most men honored and accepted female intelligence and ability and genuinely liked women. I knew there were men out there who did not, but I always thought they were a tiny fringe element and they were easy enough to ignore.

My real life experiences shaped my views of feminism, for instance. Rarely having experienced jerks, they were easy to marginalize as rare exceptions to the general rule. I have been genuinely appalled at the open derision and denigration of women I see on many mainstream conservative blogs. I used to think only sites like Pandagon encouraged that sort of stupidity. It has been a real eye opener to me.

I don't view the whole "failure of scholarship" question as some sort of male conspiracy to keep womynfolk down. I think it may be a combination of social mores, our natural tendencies as men and women, etc. But being on the Internet has opened my eyes to how many men seem to take the idea that women can do ANY of the things men do, well as some sort of personal threat or insult.

Depressing, and just one more reason to value the ones who are secure. I *want* to be surrounded by smart and competent people. Their abilities are no threat to me, but rather a gift. I don't know how people become so insecure that they have to diminish other people to prop up their own egos.

re: Jewish vs. Muslim women. Women in general tend not to push the boundaries the way men do, so it would not surprise me if cultural restrictions affected their behavior. It's surprising to think of Muslim culture being LESS restrictive than Jewish/Western culture but there we go with expectations again!

Grim said...

I'm not suggesting a conspiracy by scholars either, just that they haven't been looking in the right places. Now, if you were looking for women writers in the middle ages, the obvious place to look would have been in abbeys and nunneries: they had the potential for literacy, and time for reflection, and solitude. Those are the usual pre-requisites for doing a lot of writing, and learning to do it well.

Historians haven't been all that interested in the records of medieval nunneries, though. There are a lot of reasons for that, none of which suggest a conspiracy to suppress female voices; but nevertheless, until recently it's given us a biased picture.

If this article is right, two of the top three best-selling authors of all time are female: Agatha Christie and a romance novelist from the UK I haven't heard of before. The only man who competes with them is Shakespeare. You can argue about whether romance novels constitute great literature (or even whether mysteries do, I suppose), but it's clear that they were massively popular. There's something to be said for that.

Cassandra said...

Oh, I know you weren't suggesting a conspiracy. I said that mainly to refute a meme that has been advanced by some feminists.

It makes no more sense than the arguments I see being thrown out there by some men. Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, especially when there are very good reasons why there might not be evidence out there.

What's really ironic is that these same folks are arguing that boys aren't doing well in school these days because society doesn't appreciate male achievement.


The obvious corollary of this bold theory is, of course, completely invalid because ... ummm.... JUST BECAUSE, DURNITALL!!!!!!11! :p

Life is usually a bit more complicated that that.

Texan99 said...

But it is interesting, isn't it, how often societies can overlook the riches in their midst? Sometimes it's natural resources that they're sitting right on top of but don't know how to exploit, like pre-Spindletop Texas. Sometimes it's human potential that simply can't be valued because its possessors are of the wrong caste. The Nazis chased off as many Jews as they could and killed the rest, never dreaming that they were sending to their enemies all the scientists who might later turn the tide of the war.

Sometimes whole cultures begin to succeed just by acknowledging some valuable trait among their own members that tradition had discouraged anyone from seeing before. So it's too bad that, hard on the heels of ignoring what women can do, we have developed a new tradition of denigrating men. As they say, anything that stupid should hurt.

But, like you, I first have to chuckle a little over the outrage, which manifests itself so often without a trace of awareness of the irony. Surely every now and then someone should say, "Oh, now I see what you were on about. It really bites when my talents are overlooked because they don't fit someone else's dumb script." So, OK, now I've indulged myself a little and am ready to return to the quest for equity.

Cass said...

Here's what gets me. How do you (logically) get from a position that women are inherently different from men and are only suited for sex and childbearing to a position that says it's sexist to award child custody to the parent who was the primary caretaker BEFORE the divorce or to maintain [gasp!!!!!!] that the financial obligation to support our offspring doesn't end upon divorce?

I will readily grant that society is predisposed to assume that mothers are better suited to raise children than fathers. Most men wouldn't argue with that one either :p And I will readily grant that this is, in fact, NOT always the case. There are plenty of bad moms out there and plenty of devoted dads.

But the standards in most family law statutes are gender neutral. The standard for custody is "best interest of the child" and custody is usually awarded either to the parent who can prove he/she has spent the most time (and therefore has the most experience) with the kids, or to the parent who can provide the most stable home environment (and that means being there for the kids).

The standard for alimony, which I believe should be abolished except in extreme cases, is that the lower earning spouse should not suffer a dramatic drop in income when a marriage dissolves. It is no coincidence that now that more women are the primary breadwinners, more men are [double gasp!!!] being awarded alimony, even when they have no kids and are perfectly capable of working.

There are human biases that favor men and human biases that favor women but the arguments of many of the family law crowd amount to some twisted form of "disparate impact" (a legal rationale conservatives despise in pretty much every other context, mind you). IOW, the law isn't discriminatory on its face. It's discriminatory because it disparately impacts men, those pesky differences between men and women notwithstanding!

Dishonestly characterizing child support as alimony is... well, dishonest. So is maintaining that women are biologically better suited to child rearing and complaining when 50% of men don't get custody (without even bothering to examine the pesky question of what percentage of fathers ASK for custody).

It's amazing how we're rarely bothered by bias until it begins to affect us.

/vent over :)

Cass said...

One more comment here.

The single best way to cut the divorce rate would be for more men to demand sole custody of the children.

Of course they would have to be willing to make the sacrifices demanded of a parent who has sole custody. These sacrifices include putting career aspirations on hold in order to provide stability and guidance for one's minor children.

I believe many men would do so, but I also believe that quite a few men are NOT willing to make these sacrifices. The parent who will do what is best for the children should get custody.

Gender is irrelevant.

Texan99 said...

Yes, and it will be fatal to the man's case if his enthusiasm for taking on a primary hands-on child-rearing role suddenly manifested itself just as he found out he didn't much care for his wife any more.