Women, Islam, and Abbasid Identity By Nadia Maria El Cheikh (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2015. 176 pages.)

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Yasmin Amin



The book under review, which is divided into five chapters, an introduction,
and a conclusion, investigates how gender, sexuality, and concepts of womanhood
were deployed to express cultural differences in order to formulate
and articulate the Abbasid identity and legitimize the new dynasty’s authority.
El Cheikh argues that Abbasid-era texts used gendered metaphors and concepts
of sexual difference to describe those groups they perceived as a threat.
The “Introduction” opens with an overview of the book’s scope and is
followed by the story of the “harlots of Hadramaut” rejoicing after the
Prophet’s death, how Abu Bakr dealt with it, and why this event was considered
significant. These women’s public celebration was contrasted with
Muslim prescriptions for women as regards obedience, piety, and domesticity.
The purpose here was to juxtapose the era of jāhilīyah, with its idolatry,
tribal feuds, sexual immorality, burial of live infant girls, and the
absence of food taboos and rules of purity, to the mainstream Islamic cultural
construction of the emerging community struggling to define itself.
El Cheikh argues that the Abbasid textual tradition was unsympathetic toward
the Umayyads and thus represented them as corrupt and godless in
order to justify Abbasid rule, which would lead to a new society characterized
by “the cohesive powers of a common language, currency and a unifying
religio-political center” (p. 5) ...

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