“The Spotlight” brings to light the stories of Muslim women of the past and present. In this instalment, Assia Hamdi details the many narratives of the life of Lubna of Cordoba.
A Tale of Rags to Riches
The story of Lubna of Cordoba may be a classic tale of rags to riches; a Spanish slave girl who strived in a male world and became a modern-day rendition of a secretary of state. Lubna is often remembered for being a secretary to Hakam II Ibn Abdur-Rahman. The moral of this story could be one filled with lessons that women could rise to the power and influence that they dared to imagine.
A Tale of an Intellectual Genius
The story of Lubna is the tale of an intellectual genius. Lubna’s eruditeness allowed her a position in court as a ‘master’ of Arabic grammar, mathematics, and poetry. In the 10th century of Andalusia, a period of relative stability, the caliphate of Cordoba was a place of culture and learning and Lubna was an esteemed player in the mission to spread culture. The moral of this story could be one that highlights the often forgotten ending to the famous saying “Jack of all trades, master of none, Jack of all trades better than a master of one”. Lubna was a superwoman.
A Tale of a Librarian Leading a Cultural Movement
The story of Lubna is also one of a woman travelling across cultural capitals in the Islamic empire, acquiring the latest manuscripts for the Royal Library of Cordoba, Medina Azahara, which was home to more than 500,000 books. As a cultural curator, book connoisseur, and translator of great texts. Lubna’s position would be a great reminder to the men of the 10th century Cordoba that a woman was capable and skilled in leading the cultural and intellectual movement. The moral of this story is one of female excellence.
A Tale of Facts and Exaggerations
It is hard to decipher the feminine truth of this legendary woman in a patriarchal reading of the world. Kamila Shamsie, a British-Pakistani author surmises that Lubna could be an image of two intellectual women in the same court due to male historians’ inability to comprehend that there were two influential women players in the Andalusian court. The legend of Lubna of Cordoba is a tale interwoven with facts and exaggerations. The threads of her story highlight a sad truth; history is most often HIS story. Lubna is a victim of patriarchal readings and reflections of history.
A Tale of Patriarchal Readings of History
The details of her life are blurred and the confusion over her achievements and role in the court of Cordoba do not always align perfectly. However, this should not negate her influential existence and the lessons learnt from her stories.
It also sheds light on a message we all know well, “History is written by the victors” and the victor is the patriarchy. Contemporary historians failed to do justice to Lubna’s legacy. The why can be easily answered by the fact that she was a woman. A woman no less who earned her right to fame through skills and hard work. A woman who wasn’t the wife of someone influential, nor the daughter of a famous man. A woman who was an independent intellectual.
A Tale of Female Academics in Cordoba
Furthermore, by discarding the notions of source credibility and chronological storytelling that western knowledge on history imposes, we can discover the many inspiring lessons of Lubna’s existence in historical imagination. Her existence and the list of her possible achievements highlight a wider culture of female intellectualism present in the Andalusian middle ages.
Some sources note that up to 170 women worked as copiers in the eastern suburbs of the city. Critics may claim that this only highlights basic literacy and penmanship but this only highlights their ignorance of the blossoming cultural scene of the 10th century. Andalusia amid political stability was home to a mission of culture. The caliphate’s interest in expanding knowledge in all its forms meant that copiers were not only responsible for scribing but also annotating, commenting, and even adding relevant information. This is similar to our notion of academics today who revisit editions and update important works, these women or those others who were written out of history were intellectual academics of their age.
This only scratches the surface of the role of women in the culture of intellect at the time. It is accepted that there were plenty more women of the same calibre and capacity as Lubna. Mistress’ of mathematics, graceful grammarian, and persuasive poets, these women may have been written out of history by male historians and biographers but they have not been written out of our souls’ history.
A Tale of Us
Lubna of Cordoba is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to women being reimagined and washed out of history. In an effort to stop the patriarchal process of removing female figureheads from history, we can grasp onto the information at hand and know that women like Lubna were many. These inspiring sisters hidden in history should be a reminder that through our DNA runs feminine inspiration and accomplishments. We owe it to them and ourselves to strive, excel, and overcome in whatever we dare to dream.
Assia Hamdi is the Spotlight Editor for The Muslim Women Times. She is a graduate of History and Arabic at SOAS University of London. She is also a lover of travel, writing, spirituality and food.