Tree Of Pearls: The Tragedy Of The First Female Ruler In Islam

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we are very happy that MintPress published Dr. Rampoldi’s article about Shajarat ad-Durr by Mahmud Badawy yesterday.

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The Editorial Team of ProMosaik e.V.

Tree Of Pearls: The Tragedy Of The First Female Ruler In Islam


Cairo's Citadel, an ancient medieval fortification overlooking the city.
Shajarat ad-Durr, A Tragedy by Mahmud Badawy, now available in English translation

Published by the German association for intercultural and interreligious dialogue and human rights ProMosaik e.V.
this year in Berlin, in this book I present the adapted and commented
English translation of an extraordinary historical drama. This
tragedy retells the political career, the intrigues and the destiny of
“the First Female Ruler in Islam” as the author Mahmud Badawy calls the
ruler Shajarat ad-Durr, who marked the end of the Ayyubid and the
starting of the Mamluk era in today’s Egypt.

English translation her name means “Tree of Pearls.” And in fact,
Shajarat ad-Durr was at the same time wise and beautiful. For me
personally, in spite of her final failure and challenging power
struggle, she has to be elevated to a real symbol of Muslim feminism and
political engagement of Muslim women within the dialogue between
“Realpolitik” and Islamic political utopia. Today’s Muslim women should
be aware of the difficulties of fighting for women’s rights and at the
same time constructively consider their own achievements, even if they
are just the beginning of a long and challenging path made of a
continuous struggle between failure and success.

As we know from
Muslim history, there were female sovereigns before Shajarat ad-Durr,
and in my other books about Muslim feminism I also consider the Quranic
Queen of Sheeba the first Islamic ruler in a comprehensive sense — if we
identify Islam with the submission to God (“Gottesergebenheit”)
according to J.W. v. Goethe’s words: “If Islam means submission to God
then we all live and die as Muslims.”
But even if the title of
this tragedy is only partially correct from a historical point of view, I
am convinced that the Egyptian author Mahmud Badawy, who wrote this
piece in the 1930’s, was very brave in approaching this challenging
topic. The queen Shajarat ad-Durr is the example of a brave and
brilliant woman; she tried to assert herself in a male-dominated and
misogynistic political world.

From my point of view, Badawy’s work
is an extremely important literary contribution at the intersection of
Arabic literature, philosophical dialogue and the Medieval history of
Islam. At a formal level, this tragedy also satisfies the ideal of
Aristotelian tragedy by making an important contribution to both
intercultural dialogue and the philosophical foundation of Muslim and
Islamic feminism. To support this thesis, I would like to mention the
following quotation from the “Poetics” of Aristotle:

is an imitation of an action that is serious, complete, and of a
certain magnitude; in language embellished with each kind of artistic
ornament, the several kinds being found in separate parts of the play;
in the form of action, not of narrative; through pity (eleos) and fear
(phobos) effecting the proper purgation of these emotions.

a consequence, the tragedy also presents a literary form for
considering political and biographic matters within Islam and the
Islamic world from an innovative female perspective. In Badawy’s work,
it is clearly shown that today’s Muslim women can proudly look back on
the Muslim past to find intelligent and brave women acting in politics,
and even governing countries in the male-dominated Middle Ages.

Badawy chose to bring on stage a tragedy, a good choice regarding a
life like that of Shajarat ad-Durr: characterised by power struggles,
love, betrayal, envy, and at the same time by justice and awareness of
her own limits. Below, I’ll share a speech by the Caliph’s messenger
just before her abdication to give the readers of this review an idea
about the elaborate style of writing favored by this Egyptian author.
giving away the plot of the five acts of the tragedy, this short
passage also transmits the difficulties a Muslim woman in politics had
and has to face to this day because of the restrictive interpretation of
the following tradition of the Prophet Muhammad by Muslim scholars in
history: “A people governed by a woman will never succeed.” In reality,
this tradition referred to the historical conflict with Sassanid Persia
and does not stand for a total and definitive exclusion of Muslim women
from Muslim politics and society.

Caliph’s messenger:  (Opens
the letter and reads) In the name of Allah the Most Gracious the Most
Merciful, and we ask help from Him. This is from Abu Ahmed Abdullah
Al-Mustasim-Billah bin Al-Mustansir-Billah, the Abbasid prince of
believers in Baghdad, to the princes and ministries of Egypt, and
especially its people. Peace and mercy of Allah be upon you.

Many voices: Peace and mercy and blessings of Allah be upon you.

Caliph’s messenger: We
heard the news of your gaining victory over the enemy of Islamic
religion; therefore, we praised Allah Who honoured His religion by you
and relieved Egypt from the hands of our enemies. However, messengers
came to us with news includes that you entrusted your affairs to
Shajarat Ad-Dur, the widow of King Al-Salih, may Allah mercy him.
Whereupon, as long as giving women kingship’s affairs is unprecedented
act in Islam, we felt sad for this. Moreover, as long as it is the right
of Muslims to appoint for them someone qualified for the burdens of
authority, we would like to ask you. If you no longer have men valid for
taking the authority, we may send for you someone valid for it. The
Messenger of Allah (prayers and peace of Allah be upon him) said: “There
will be no success for the people who entrust their affairs to a
woman.” And peace be upon who follows the right path.

today not only feminists but also male scholars of Islam doubt the
general validity of this hadith. As a most critical example I would like
to mention the Turkish Islamic scholar Prof. Mehmet Azimli.
fact, it is this monistic interpretation of the tradition of the Prophet
mentioned above — a reference to a specific historical event during the
reign of Persian King Chosrau II who nominated his daughter as his
successor — that step-by-step caused the permanent exclusion of women
from political leadership.
I am convinced that in that concrete
historical context, the Prophet Muhammed had expressed his opinion about
the daughter of the Persian. And I do not think it should be extended
to the whole world of Islamic politics by an misogynistic interpretation
that totally excludes women from political leadership.

ad-Durr’s clever political move after her abdication consisted in the
alliance with the powerful slave Aybek, who became Sultan of Egypt by
marrying her on her initiative and next to whom she could continue to
rule. But he betrayed her by violently excluding her from co-leadership.
So, in the last act of Badawy’s tragedy, she kills her husband Aybek,
ultimately following the rules of rude and calculated Realpolitik and
betraying her initial desire for a political Islamic utopia she
expresses in her extraordinary speech to the Caliph’s messenger.

would like to conclude this review without giving away too much of the
content of the tragedy. If you are interested in reading the book you
can find it on Amazon here.