She was a pious devotee : piety, authority, and women in medieval Islam

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Latif, Saffiya Zainab

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This thesis centers on the study of Muslim women’s piety in the medieval period. Specifically, I examine the biographies of saintly women as found in the work of the 15th-century Shāfiʿī scholar, Taqī al-Dīn al-Ḥiṣnī. In his Kitāb al-muʾmināt wa’l-ṣāliḥāt wa’l-ayqāẓ min al-mahlūkāt (The book of faithful and righteous women, cautious of spiritual vices), one encounters descriptive accounts of pious female devotees performing incredible feats of ritual worship like excessive weeping and continuous prayer. I argue that these pious practices, operating as a form of social power, granted women a degree of social autonomy and religious influence amongst their male peers. In particular, women’s ritual acts enabled them to bypass certain gender-based norms enshrined in the law and achieve spiritual equality, if not superiority, over men. I situate my historical analysis of women’s piety in the context of contemporary scholarship on Muslim women, which has tended to focus on women’s place and power through the lens of the law and its subsidiary discourses. I argue that an exploration of non-legal discourses, such as the one under study, offers alternative understandings into women’s social function and roles in medieval Islam. Finally, this project raises critical questions concerning the possible relevance of piety, as a form of social and religious capital, to the project of developing contemporary Muslim women’s religious authority and power.


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