A successful caliphate in six simple steps

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By Khaled Diab

ISIS really doesn’t get what restoring the caliphate means. Here’s how in six simple steps, from Caliphornian wine to cultural melting pots.

Painting by Yahyâ ibn Mahmûd al-Wâsitî Image source: Yorck Project

Painting by Yahyâ ibn Mahmûd al-Wâsitî
Image source: Yorck Project

Tuesday 17 June 2014

To the Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS),

I understand you wish to restore the caliphate in Iraq and Syria. But are you sure this is really what you want? As a secular, liberal Arab living in the 21st century, I’m not keen on turning back the clock in this way, but I think I’m better prepared for it than you.

Judging by your brutal and bloodthirsty behaviour and the twisted rulebook you’ve released, I have this sneaking suspicion that you have no idea what bringing back the caliphate actually means or involves. Let me give you a clue, it would entail thriving in diversity, penning odes to wine, investing in science, patronizing the arts… not to mention appointing a gay court poet.

For your benefit and other jihadist novices, here is my guide to how to build a successful caliphate – or “bring back glory of the Islamic Caliphate”, to quote you – in half a dozen simple steps:

  1. Caliphornian wine and Caliphornication

In spring if a houri-like sweetheart

Gives me a cup of wine on the edge of a green cornfield,

Though to the vulgar this would be blasphemy,

If I mentioned any other Paradise, I’d be worse than a dog.

Omar al-Khayyam (translated by Karim Emami)

ISIS has banned alcohol, as well as drugs and cigarettes, in the domain under its control. But what these fanatics seem to misunderstand is that alcohol may be prohibited religiously (haram) in Islam, but there was plenty of full-bodied Caliphornian wine around,  as the above verse by Omar al-Khayyam illustrates, which follows in the tradition of khamariyat, or wine poetry.

“Commanders of the faithful” they may have been but Caliphs were known to indulge in the unholy grape. These included the Umayyads and the Abbasids. Even Harun al-Rashid, who is regarded as the most “rightly guided” of the later caliphs, is reputed to have drunk. And even if al-Rashid himself did not partake, his court did, as mythologised in many stories of the 1,001 Arabian Nights, especially his gay court poet Abu Nuwas, who definitely preferred wine to girls.

Don’t cry for Leila and don’t rejoice over Hind

Instead drink to the rose from a rosy red wine.

A glass which, when tipped down the drinker’s throat,

Leaves its redness in both the eye and the cheek.

Camp, outrageous, irreverent and witty, Abu Nuwas was considered the greatest poet of his time and is still up there among the greats, despite the more puritanical age we live in, where his odes to male love would make a modern Muslim blush.

Come right in, boys. I’m

a mine of luxury – dig me.

Well-aged brilliant wines made by

monks in a monastery! shish-kebabs!

Roast chickens! Eat! Drink! Get happy!

and afterwards you can take turns

shampooing my tool.

During to the apparent jealousy of his mentor in Harun al-Rashid’s court, Ziryab, the Sultan of Style, fled to the rival Umayyad court in Cordoba, where, among other things, he taught Europeans how to become fashion slaves.

  1. Strength in diversity

Diversity and multiculturalism were the hallmark of Islam’s most successful caliphates and caliphs. In fact, the lightning speed with which the Arabs were able to conquer a vast empire was partly faciliated by the greater freedom and lower taxes they offered local populations compared to the bickering former imperial masters. This was coupled with an early form of welfare state established by the second caliph, the austere Umar Ibn al-Khattab who lived in a simple mud hut to be close to the poor and believed in social and economic equality.

Under the Umayyads, whether centred in Damascus or Cordoba, and the early Abbasids, Islam’s “golden age” was characterised, rather like today’s America, by a complex synthesis and symbiosis between the cultures which fell under Islamic control as well as neighbouring civilisations. It incorporated Christian, Jewish, ancient Greek, Byzantine, Persian and even Chinese ideas and added to them to create a new, dynamic whole. The Ottomans were also at their most successful when they tolerated and promoted diversity.

This is a far cry from the uniform puritanism ISIS seeks to impose on its self-described caliphate.

  1. Tolerance is a duty

The ISIS advance has resulted in the mass flight of Christians from northern Iraq. And the Chaldean Catholic Archbishop of Mosul fears they will never return, while the ancient Assyrian community of Bartella wait in terror.

This fear is hardly surprising given the treatment ISIS has meted out on fellow Muslims, such as the mass executions of Shi’a soldiers, not to mention the oppressive rules ISIS has outlined for Muslims in its conquered territory.

This is very different from the ideals of religious tolerance which Islam’s various caliphates often aspired to, with probably the Umayyads and Ottomans in their heydays winning top prize in this category, and qualifying as the most enlightened of their age.

Even the traditional notion that non-Muslims are dhimmis (protected minorities) who are free to practise their faith but are inferior to Muslims contradicts the principles of equality embedded in Islam. This is amply illustrated in the Constitution of Medina drafted by Muhammad himself which stipulates that Muslims, Jews, Christians and pagans all have the same political and cultural rights. So it would seem that Islam, as practised by its prophet, gave Muslims an advantage in the hereafter, not the here and now.

Moreover, the Quranic injunction on “no compulsion in religion” also means that ISIS has no right to force Muslims to pray, whether in the mosque or otherwise.

  1. Ijtihad and the greater jihad

ISIS and other violent jihadists not only conduct “holy war” incorrectly, inhumanely and for the wrong reasons, they also ignore the “greater jihad”, the struggle to build a better self and society.

In addition, their fixation on implementing “sharia” is baffling. This is partly because their interpretation of it is at odds with traditional scholarship. Moreover, sharia has differed significantly over time and place.

More fundamentally, the bulk of what is regarded as Islamic law today was reached through the reasoning of early Islamic scholars. Since we live in radically different times, it is high time to reopen the gates of ijtihad – which were sealed by the Abbasids in a bid to cement their authority – and to rethink and reinvent the Islamic legal system.

In its heyday, the Abbasid Caliphate’s capital Baghdad – which ISIS are perilously close to conquering – was a centre of science, culture, philosophy and invention. This was epitomised by the Bayt al-Hekma, which was a world-leading institute of learning until the Mongols sacked Baghdad in 1258, devastating Abbasid society to a similar degree as the US invasion of Iraq in 2003.

  1. A woman’s place is in… public

ISIS has informed women that their place is in the home and that outdoors they must wear “full, wide Islamic dress”.

Well, they should start with themselves and wear the hijab too, since, if it is an obligation at all, it is one that applies to men too.

Although Islam is a typical patriarchal society, women’s place has never been solely in the home, except in a minority of cultures. It might shock ISIS to learn that the idea of cloistering women out of the public eye may not have been an Islamic idea at all but one borrowed from the Byzantines.

Women played a key role in the spread of Islam by the word, such as Khadija and Aisha, and by the sword, such as Hind bint Utbah and Asma’a bint Abi Bakr – sort of Kill Bill characters of the medieval world – who were instrumental in the defeat of the Byzantine forces in one of the most decisive battles in history.

In addition, women made important contributions to science, philosophy and society throughout Islamic history – a role that has been under-researched but is eliciting more interest today. They even ran empires, albeit discretely.

Most importantly, Islam’s attitudes to women have varied according to local culture. Iraqi and especially Syrian women have been on a long road towards emancipation, and even the faithful among them see no contradiction between their religion and gender equality.

  1. Secularism is the solution

Muhammad never nominated a successor (caliph) nor spelt out a method for identifying one, hence Islam does not prescribe, nor does it need a caliphate. In addition, the caliphate often led to instability due to the absence of clear rules for the transfer of power, and contributed to the absolutists attitudes the region’s leaders traditionally have to power.

In addition, the prophet never established an “Islamic state”. In fact, his rule of Medina was incredibly secular. Moreover, Islam’s greatest successes were achieved by rulers who were largely secular, especially when compared to their times.

In fact, it could be argued that the only truly Islamic state, is a spiritual state, a state of mind.

Contrary to what Islamists tell us, secularism is the solution – but I don’t mind if you call it a “caliphate”.

In fact, if you build a caliphate like this, I can guarantee you, judging by the interest on Twitter, that you’ll be drawing immigrants from all over the Muslim world.


This piece was republished on BuzzFeed on 20 June 2014.

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

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Muhammad: separating the man from the myth

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By Khaled Diab

As a clash of idiocies erupts over the depiction of Muhammad in an obscure Islamophobic film, it’s time for a sober look at the man behind the prophet.

Friday 14 September 2012

A cask by losing centre-piece or cant
Was never shattered so, as I saw one
Rent from the chin to where one breaketh wind.

Between his legs were hanging down his entrails;
His heart was visible, and the dismal sack
That maketh excrement of what is eaten.

Who is this poor man who has just been chopped in half and is literally wearing his guts for garters? And what precisely has he done to deserve such a gruesome fate?

Well, this is not a scene out of the latest slasher film but describes the eternal punishment dreamt up for Muhammad by Dante in his Divine Comedy. The Muslim prophet was condemned by this Italian poet to the ninth bolgia (ditch) of the eighth circle of hell, reserved for “disseminators of scandal and of schism”.

Compare Dante’s words with those of the Sufi scholar Shah Abdul Lateef Bhitai:

Oh Moon, never mind if
I tell you the truth
Sometimes you are dim
Sometimes you are bright
Still, your brightness is not equal
To an atom of the dust
From the foot of Muhammad

Traditionally, Muhammad has represented two polar extremes. Even today, for bigoted Christians,  the Islamic prophet is a symbol of unadulterated evil, as reflected in the crass, vulgar and lurid way in which Muhammad was depicted in a low-budget, low-brow film The Innocence of Muslims. Meanwhile, for too many Muslims, despite Islam’s prohibition of deification, he is the embodiment of unimpeachable good for devout Muslims, which partly explains the rage sparked across the Arab and Muslim world – though it’s also about distrust of the West and its aggressive hegemony, poor education and poverty, the rise of bullying religious extremism and fundamentalism, the need to deflect domestic discontent towards an external targets, and other complex factors.

Nearly a millennium and a half after Muhammad’s death, so many Muslims find it hard to step back and take a clearer-eyed and more critical view of him. After all, even if you do believe in the divinity of Islam, one of its main messages was that Muhammad was a messenger and it was the message, not the man, that counted. He was fond of saying: “I am a man like you. I eat food like you and I also sit down when I am tired like you.”

So, between this demonisation and exaltation, where exactly does the historical Muhammad lie? Who precisely was he? What made him tick and how exactly did he rise to global and timeless prominence?

Muhammad, whose name means “Praiseworthy”, was born in Mecca, the financial and spiritual centre of Arabia, in 570 AD. Although times were booming for Mecca and other Arabian city-states, Muhammad was born in volatile circumstances. In addition to incessant warfare between the Arab tribes, Arabia was surrounded by three mighty empires – Persia, Byzantium and Abyssinia – who, unable to dominate the vast expanses of Arabia directly, tended to prop up local client rulers. In Mecca, the mighty Quraysh tribe, of whom Muhammad was a member, brought peace and stability to the city but at the price of stark socio-economic inequalities.

Despite the wealth of the Quraysh, Muhammad grew up in relative want and loneliness after being orphaned at a very young age. He was to suffer further heartbreak when his beautiful cousin, Fakhita, with whom he was passionately in love, married another man before the shy and sensitive prophet-to-be could pluck up the courage to ask for her hand.

Realising how important wealth was in Mecca, his broken heart prompted him to begin a career as a merchant and he became a caravan agent. His business dealings earned him the epithets al-Sadiq (honest) and al-Amin (trustworthy). Travel is said to broaden the mind and what Muhammad saw on his trade missions heightened his awareness of both the breadth and commonality of humanity.

His growing reputation brought him to the attention of Khadijah, “Ameerit Quraysh” (the Princess of Quraysh), Mecca’s wealthiest and most powerful woman, who hired him as her agent on trade caravans. Muhammad turned her a handsome profit and repaid Khadijah’s trust by doubling her earnings, but she gradually grew more interested in the handsome future prophet himself.

There was more to Muhammad than his money-spinning acumen and Khadijah was so impressed by his honesty, humility and modesty that she bucked convention and her own determination not to remarry a third time and proposed marriage to the 25-year-old who was 14 years her junior.

Bucking convention himself, Muhammad agreed to the match. His undying love for Khadija, his refusal to marry any other woman until her death despite the conventions of the age, his willingness all his life to carry out domestic chores (conveniently ignored by generations of scholars!) and her pivotal role in the early development of Islam (she was the world’s first Muslim) are used by Muslim feminists to argue that Islam is woman-friendly and that, if Muhammad were here today, he would be an advocate of women’s rights.

However, detractors compare the status of women and slaves in Islam with modern standards, forgetting that Islam seriously improved their situation, and made men and women equal in many respects. Also, such comparisons are unfair, since it would also, for example, compel us to condemn America’s founding fathers, despite their visions of equality. A millennium after Muhammad, Thomas Jefferson was opposed to slavery but was a slave owner and declared that “all men are created equal”, effectively brushing over half of humanity.

Life is said to begin at 40, and it certainly did for Muhammad. But rather than invest in a Porsche or even a 16-cylinder camel, Muhammad set about to found a new world religion. Disaffected by the socio-economic injustices and conflict around him and the hollowness of Mecca’s materialistic cults, Muhammad began to meditate but was so distressed by his first “revelation” that it required the rock of Khadija, who believed implicitly in her man and became the world’s first Muslim, for him to build up the confidence to begin preaching the new faith.

In retrospect, there were early signs in his behaviour of what was to come. For instance, in his 20s, Muhammad was instrumental in forming a short-lived chivalric association called the “Lovers of Justice” which was established to help a foreign merchant cheated out of his money by a dishonest member of the Quraysh. This pan-clan brotherhood demonstrated to the young Muhammad the benefits of moving beyond tribal loyalties and focusing on common humanity.

I personally don’t believe Muhammad’s revelations were divine, nor those of any other prophet or religion for that matter. But that’s not to say he didn’t believe it himself, seized as he was by mysterious fits. There is a case to be made for the idea that successful prophets could only make it through the unwavering conviction that their unconscious is actually a channel to God. To my mind, this lack of divine intervention makes his achievements all the more remarkable, but also makes him open to the same critical approach applied to any other historical figure.

Modern western historians largely agree that Muhammad “was absolutely sincere and acted in complete good faith“. Would someone who did not truly believe in his message expose himself to the total ridicule and mortal danger which his mission attracted in its early years?

With the odds stacked against his nascent community of believers, Muhammad was dealt a near-mortal blow by the loss of his beloved Khadija in what became known as the Year of Sorrow. Some historians have suggested this may have partly motivated his decision to flee Mecca and set up base in Yathrib (later Medina), where his fortunes as a prophet took a major turn for the better.

And I wonder whether the status of Muslim women might not have been very different if Khadija had outlived her husband? Perhaps if he’d lived to a ripe old monogamous age, he would have exerted more effort to end male-only polygyny rather than limiting it or, at the very least, future generations might have followed his example as they do on other issues.

After a quarter century of faithful monogamy, he embraced polygamy with passion, mainly as a political tool but perhaps also in a futile quest to find another Khadija or to find solace for his lonely heart. Interestingly, the Quran conveniently gave him licence to take as many wives and concubines as he liked.

Some of Muhammad’s post-Khadija relationships have elicited the greatest controversy among non-Muslims, such as his marriage to underage Aisha, and been the most difficult to rationalise by Muslims who prefer to ignore those aspects of his behaviour which conflict with their modern standards. This is one of the biggest issues facing Muslims today, since so much of Islamic jurisprudence is based on Muhammad’s sayings and actions. The question is which of those actions should be interpreted as guidance for all time, and which relate specifically to circumstances in Arabia during his lifetime.

Muhammad’s time in Medina started well and he was selected as an impartial arbiter between the oasis’s warring factions. In a demonstration of his preference for diplomacy over war, he drafted the Constitution of Medina to resolve the century-old tribal conflict and, in its place, he established an alliance among Yathrib’s eight tribes.

However, it is also in this post-Khadija, post-Mecca era that much of the controversy surrounding his life is focused. It is in Medina that the philosopher, poet, rebel and social reformer also became a warrior and a statesman. Under attack from the mighty Quraysh of Medina and their allies and with his followers suffering from poverty, he became less tolerant of dissent and came down heavily on the city’s Jewish tribes for their opposition to him.

Accused of outright treachery by Muhammad, the Banu Qurayza were to suffer the most of all the Jewish tribes. One of the prophet’s biographers states that Muhammad approved the beheading of up to 900 members of the tribe, while the women and children were sold into slavery. In the contemporary West, this has elicited some accusations of anti-Semitism.

John Esposito, professor of Islamic studies at Gerogetown University, argues that Muhammad’s motivation was political – the Jewish tribes were rich, influential and well-armed – rather than racial, since they were all Arabic-speaking Semites, or theological. In addition, Norman Stillman, chair of Judaic History at Oklahoma University, argues that the slaughter of adult males and the enslavement of women and children cannot be judged, in this context, by modern standards, since it was common practice throughout the ancient world.

Moreover, in his treatment of the Jews of Medina, Muhammad broke his own principles and brought himself into conflict with the Quran’s exaltation of the “People of the Book”. And thanks to this high regard, the treatment of Jews and Christians in the Muslim world was generally better than Europe’s treatment of Jews (not to mention Iberian Muslims) until recent times.

Upon his triumphant return to Mecca, Muhammad went back to being a diplomat and philosopher, and pardoned all his enemies. He even pardoned Abdullah Ibn Saad, who had been so trusted by the prophet that he was assigned the important task of copying down some of the verses of the Quran. This man abandoned the Muslims in Medina and returned to Mecca to denounce Muhammad’s entire revelation as a hoax.

Muhammad died after unifying Arabia and his lifelong declared love of learning protected and added to classical knowledge and carried on the tradition of Persian scholarship during the dark ages of Christendom.

For centuries, Muhammad inspired the Muslim world to thrive economically, scientifically, culturally and artistically. However, nearly 1,400 years on, the presumed divine providence of his philosophy, among myriad other socio-economic and political factors, is acting as an anchor slowing the development of many Muslim countries.


Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

A version of this article first appeared in The Guardian’s Comment is Free on 13 March 2008.

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The bold and the brilliant

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An Arab-American Miss USA may have put Muslim beauty on the western map, but let’s also recall all those women of courage and talent.

It surprised me that my previous article was the most read on CiF on the day of its publication. But equipped with the wonders of hindsight, I should’ve realised that it had all the ingredients of a ripping yarn: a dastardly conspiracy (theory), beautiful but dangerous undercover (or is that uncovered?) double agents armed with sexy bombshells, and mad neo-cons hatching far-fetched plots.

Quite a number of readers found that Miss USA, Rima Fakih, dependent as she is on her looks, was not the most rousing role model for Muslim female empowerment and asked why no similar attention was accorded all those successful and inspirational Muslim women who have made inroads into what is still largely a man’s world.

So, in tribute to the many remarkable women in the Muslim world (including non-Muslims) throughout the centuries – both remembered and forgotten, loved or ridiculed – here’s a list of 10 mould-breaking women. They appear in chronological order.

1.      Mother of the faithful

Khadijah bint Khuwaylid (555-619), “Ameerat Quraysh” (the Princess of Quraysh), Mecca’s wealthiest and most powerful woman, was Muhammad’s first wife. She has the distinction of being the world’s first convert to Islam.

2.      Battle of the sexes

The battleground is one oft-forgotten theatre of the battle of the sexes. Although women have fought alongside men ever since the earliest days of Islam right down to the modern struggle for Algerian and Palestinian independence, their direct contribution to the defence of the community is regularly overlooked because it does not conform to the subdued image of the woman as wife and mother.

Muhammad’s youngest wife Aisha bint Abu Bakr (died 678) is a controversial figure, particularly in the west, because of the young age at which she appears to have been betrothed to the elderly prophet. Less well known is that she was not only a central figure in spreading Islam after his death, earning the title Mother of the Believers, but that she also led  an army into battle.

But the title of the fiercest Arab woman of all must go to Hind bint ‘Utbah – despite her demonisation and unfounded rumours of her commiting cannibalism on the battlefield – who was as daring in her opposition to Muhammad before her conversion as she was in his defence after it. 

3.      Universal woman

At 12 centuries old, the University of  al-Qarawiyyin in Fes (Morocco) is reportedly the world’s oldest academic degree-granting university in the world. This esteemed establishment was set up by Fatima al-Fihri (died 880) in 859.

But medieval Muslim women were not only patrons of academic establishments, they were also prominent scholars. According to the 12th-century Sunni scholar Ibn Asakir, girls and women could study and earn ijazahs (academic degrees), and qualify as scholars (ulema) and teachers. He, himself, studied under 80 female teachers. In the 15th century, the Egyptian scholar al-Sakhawi devotes an entire volume of his 12-volume of his biographical dictionary Daw al-lami – an early Who’s Who – to over a thousand female scholars.

However, things got progressively worse for women until the modern emancipation movement began in the late 19th century. Today, female enrolment in universities is as high, or even higher, than male enrolment. However, the number of top women scientists is relatively small due to the ‘glass ceiling’. Nevertheless, there are award-winning women scientists who are at the top of their field.

4.      Around the throne in 80 days

From modest beginnings as a slave of probable Turkic origin in the royal household, Shajaret al-Durr (died 1257 ), whose name means Tree of Pearls, rose to become the wife of the Ayyubid Sultan as-Salih Ayyub. When her husband died at the most inopportune moment possible – during the landing of the Seventh Crusade in Damietta on the Nile Delta – she decided to conceal his death until the successful completion of the campaign to repel the crusaders. 

Amid the political turbulence that ensued, the former slave girl was chosen by the elite slave warriors known as “Mamluks” as Egypt’s Sultana, the first and only female ruler of Egypt in Islamic times. After only 80 days as queen, she passed the throne to her new husband, but continued to rule by proxy, despite her husband’s better efforts to contain her. After she had him murdered, she was confined to a tower and then brutally murdered herself.

Shajaret al-Durr left a profound legacy on her adoptive land: she not only helped defend it against the crusaders but she also established the prosperous and dynamic Mamluk era of Egyptian history when the country underwent the unique experiment of being ruled by elite slaves.

Another prominent woman ruler and contemporary of Shajaret al-Durr – who also happened to be a former slave of Turkic origin – was Razia Sultana who sat on the throne in Delhi from 1236-1240. 

In modern times, many Muslim-majority countries – including Pakistan (Benazir Bhutto), Indonesia (Megawati Sukarnoputri), Bangladesh (Khaleda Zia and Sheikh Hasina) and Turkey (Tansu Çiller) – have been led by women.

5.      Forgotten feminist pioneer

Hoda Sha’rawi is widely considered to be the founder of the modern feminist movement in Egypt and probably the entire Arab world. Given how she rebelled against the male order and placed women at the forefront of the struggle for Egyptian independence, she certainly deserves her place in the history books.

However, she was by no means the first, and she has plenty of predecessors who have been lost to the mists of time. Thanks to the posthumous efforts of her younger brother, the memory of one of these early ‘unknown soldiers’ was rescued from, quite literally, the ‘no man’s land’ of collective oblivion. History, after all, is not only written by the victor, but usually by men.

Malak Hifni Nassef (1886-1918) scored a number of impressive firsts in Egypt: the first woman to get a degree from a government school, the first woman to lecture publicly, and the first to publish poetry in a mainstream journal – and at the age of only 13. We know little about her life, but the list of major figures at her funeral attest to the esteem she was held in during her lifetime. And, in contrast to other early women reformers who tended to be from the upper class, Nassef was from the middle class.

Inspired by events in Egypt and the Egyptian Renaissance, women in the Levant also took up their cause. One prominent figure was May Ziade (1886-1941), a Palestinian-Lebanese Christian poet, essayist and translator. 

 6.      A mighty pen

Despite being a physician and psychiatrist by training, Nawal el-Saadawi (born 1931) describes herself as “a novelist first, a novelist second, a novelist third”. She  has, in more than 50 novels, revolutionised the treatment of Egyptian women in fiction, and wielded her pen as her mightiest weapon in the battle for female emancipation.

Her writings have covered numerous controversial feminist themes, including women’s inferior position in religion and female genital mutilation, and their author has endured imprisonment, death threats and attempts to forcibly divorce her from her husband.

Luckily for Egypt, which is in danger of seeing certain gains scored by women reversed, the fight has not died in Saadawi, despite being almost 80. “I am becoming more radical with age,” she recently told the Guardian.

 7.      Bright and constant star

Known as ‘Ambassador to the stars’, Fairuz is not only the national pride of Lebanon but is the most famous living singer in the Arab world. She was born with the name Nouhad Haddad into a poor Maronite Christian family in 1935, and Arabs may have been deprived of her beautiful voice had her conservative father not relented and allowed her to attend the Lebanese Conservatory, albeit with her brother as chaperon.

Her breakthrough into the big time came in 1957 and throughout the 1960s she was the “first lady of Lebanese singing”, although she was overshadowed on the Arab stage by the giant Umm Kalthoum. Widely regarded as the enchanting voice of Arab nationalism, her output has been prolific and has included hundreds of songs and musical operettas.

Throughout her long career Fairuz showed enormous courage: she refused to give private concerts to Arab leaders (for which she once got banned) and never left her country during its tumultuous civil war.

 8.      Across enemy lines

Everyone recalls, whether approvingly or critically, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s audacious trip, in 1977, to Jerusalem to talk peace at the Israeli Knesset. But he was actually beaten there by a fellow Egyptian woman, though history has condemned her to oblivion.

More than three years earlier, at a time when the only Arabs and Israelis who met were soldiers or spies, Sana Hasan, a PhD student in her mid-20s, went to Israel as the Arab world’s first, albeit unofficial and ostracised, peace envoy and probably its most unusual. Her six-week trip turned into a three-year sojourn, from 1974 to 1977, in which she seems to have met, well, just about everyone in Israel, in an attempt to understand her people’s enemy and build bridges to peace.

9.      Scholar and state-builder

When it comes to the Palestinian struggle, one should not forget Hanan Ashrawi (born 1946), who played a pivotal role in the First Intifada and subsequent peace process, where she served as the Palestinian delegations spokesperson.

She has also been elected numerous times to the Palestinian Legislative Council and established the Department of English at Birzeit University. She currently runs Miftah, the Palestinian Initiative for the Promotion of Global Dialogue and Democracy.

10.  The right fight

Across the Arab and Muslim world, courageous women are active as human rights activists. One prominent example is Asma Jahangir (born 1952), the prominent Pakistani lawyer who has built a career defending the rights of women, children and religious minorities. 

During her long career, Jahangir has put herself in the firing line defending Muslims and Christians who have fallen foul of Pakistan’s controversial and intolerant ‘Hudood‘ ordinance and blasphemy laws which were put in place as part of Pakistani dictator General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq’s ‘Islamisation programme‘.

Jahangir is currently the UN’s Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief.

This is the extended version of an article which appeared in The Guardian’s Comment is Free section on 25 May 2010. Read the related debate.

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