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Female Mystics in Mediaeval Islam: The Quiet Legacy

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image of Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient

Abstract Historians and analysts of current affairs alike are interested in the role that women have played in Islam, including the extent to which women were the agents and creators of Islamic mysticism. We still know surprisingly little about premodern learned women, particularly from the eastern Iranian world. This article describes one female mystic, Umm ʿAlī, who flourished in ninth-century Balkh and has so far eluded modern scholarship. A historiographical study of her provides insight into how the representations of mystical women changed over time. From the earlier sources, we learn that Umm ʿAlī applied creative and interesting strategies that provided her access to the highest sources of learning. Umm ʿAlī’s case also allows for some tentative conclusions on the importance of pedigree, and the practice of strategic marriages that connect local power-holders with the ʿulamāʾ.


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