Jennifer HEATH, The Scimitar and the Veil: Extraordinary Women of Islam. Mahwah NJ: HiddenSpring, an imprint of Paulist Press, 2004. pp. 465. $28. hb. ISBN 1-58768-020-3.
Reviewed by Winifred WHELAN, Professor Emerita, St. Bonaventure University, St. Bonaventure NY 14778.

"I remained true to facts as I unearthed them. However... I have—very lightly—filled out, with atmosphere and color the tales and histories as they already exist" (pp. xviii-xiv). This is how the author, Jennifer Heath, describes her writing. The book can be thought of as a kind of book of days, where someone could read and meditate on an Islamic woman as a daily exercise. There are the women who lived at the time of Muhammad, women scholars, ascetics, warriors, rebels, musicians, rulers, tradeswomen and poets. At the beginning of each section there is a general introduction followed by the stories of individual women who embody that category. The introductory parts are more historical, whereas the individual stories are more hagiographical. In the hagiographical part, there are conversations which the author devised to make the stories more interesting.

The introduction to the section on musicians and dancers is especially interesting. It documents the history of music and dance which throughout history is sometimes highly valued and at other times forbidden as being too sensual. Jamila Al-Medina (d. 720) is quoted as saying, "Singing heals the sick, makes the rich richer and the poor more contented." Olayya Bint Al-Mahdi (d. 826) was merry, full of fun and quick with answers.

Heath maintains that Muhammad delighted in the company of women, perhaps because he lost his mother when he was six years old. Muhammad vastly improved the condition of women over what it was at the time. He said that women could keep their own dowries, they could inherit, and "should slay not your children because of poverty" (Quran Surah 6). She affirms therefore that Islam is not a religion that looks down on women. The book, by disclosing the examples of various women in history, attempts to prove that women were and are free to pursue whatever profession they wish. "Nothing in the Quran," she says, "indicates that men and women are not of the same essential nature nor equal in the eyes of God."

The narrative often is very difficult to follow. It goes too quickly over each woman and over the history of the time for the reader to be able to appreciate and understand them. The very brief historical data at the beginning of each individual woman’s story, her dates of birth and death as far as they are known is very helpful, but Heath does not explain well who all of the characters are and what is their purpose. She presumes the reader knows of the battles, the history, the fighting, and what these wars were about. They are fighting for "Islam," but what exactly does this mean? In some of the introductory pieces, the author attempts to give an overview of a group of women, but sometimes it is so scattered, so involved with history which it does not explain, that it raises more questions than it answers. Some confusing statements for example: "Along with women, the majority of Islam’s earliest converts were slaves" (p. 225). Does she mean here that the women were slaves? Heath does not explain what she means by the quote "In her 1924 history, E.M. White sniffs, ‘No modern thinker wishes to uphold polygamy...’" (p. 227). Why "sniffs?" Perhaps the word is called for, but there is no explanation. And on page 231, "These uppity women were all of the elite . . ." But she is praising these women as being aggressive and strong. Why are they "uppity?" Again, perhaps they were, but they do not seem so from a 21st century perspective.

The book is helpful as a reference work, as a supplement to other, more historical works on Islam. It also may serve as an inspiration for young Islamic women and men who want to learn more about the women of their history. It disappoints in that it does not touch on the subjugation of women in Islam, saying only that religions of the West were also repressive of women. There is a glossary of terms and informative endnotes. Strangely, however, the word "scimitar" of the title, is not included.

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