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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.
In 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:
Tragedy 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.
As 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.
Mahmud 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.
Without 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.
However, 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.
In 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.
Shajarat 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.
I 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.