This is the second part of a series on Al Miraah featuring forgotten women in which we tell the stories of groundbreaking women whose names are so often excluded from history.
Read part one: Rabbi Regina Jones
The forgotten woman of MENA history that we will be looking at is most commonly known as Lubna of Cordoba, although she is sometimes referred to as Labna or Labhana. A user of the forum at www.ummah.com gave their own insight into why she has been forgotten, by quite simply stating that: ‘she is a woman and has no “famous” husband’, which may very well be the case. Only very little is known about her mainly because there are very few sources about this remarkable woman, and the credibility of these sources can often be questioned. In spite of these setbacks it is still worth mentioning those things that are known, because it is important that people remember her name.
Lubna lived in the 10th century C.E. and was raised in Cordoba at the court of Sultan Abd Al-Rahman III, a descendant of Abd Al-Rahman I who is said to be the only member of the Umayyad dynasty to survive the Abbasid coup of 750. He subsequently fled to Al-Andalus and established his own Sultanate. Many different roles and talents have been attributed to Lubna, though it is not clear how much of this is actually true. A list of roles that have been ascribed to her include: poet, copyist, scribe, royal library’s acquisitions expert, private secretary, and mathematician. As mentioned earlier, it is not known which of these are true, and writer Kamila Shamsie argues there is reason to believe that Lubna could possibly be the embodiment of two or perhaps three women at the court of Cordoba who, combined, were all these things . But let’s first see what is generally said about this one woman known as Lubna of Cordoba before we descend into speculation.
Some say that Lubna was born a Spanish slave girl, which makes her rise to fame and privilege at the Andalusian court all the more remarkable. During her lifetime Lubna became one of the most important figures at the Andalusian court, first as a secretary and scribe, and later as the personal secretary of Abd Al-Rahman’s son Hakam II Ibn Abdur-Rahman. In addition to this, she was entrusted with presiding over the royal library. The royal library of Cordoba was considered to be one of the most important libraries of its time, so it was no mean feat that a woman was put in charge of it. Some sources claim she was personally responsible for acquiring new items for the library, and that she travelled to Cairo, Damascus, and Baghdad to do so .
Her role as a scribe was an equally important one as well, as it went beyond the standard duties of being a writer and translator. She was responsible for the copying of many important texts including works by Euclid and Archimedes, as well as providing her own annotations to the already existing texts.
She was also said to be a great mathematician, and there are sources that claim that she would often walk along the streets of Cordoba to teach mathematical equations to the children. They would follow her whilst reciting the multiplication tables she taught them, until they reached the palace walls beyond which access was restricted.
Historian and chronicler Ibn Bashkaval referred to her in the following manner: ‘She excelled in writing, grammar, and poetry. Her knowledge of mathematics was also immense and she was proficient in other sciences as well. There were none in the Umayyad palace as noble as her’ .
However, regardless of the fact that she had a unique position at court, it is highly unlikely that she was in fact all of these things. As mentioned before, Kamila Shamsie makes the suggestion that the image we have of Lubna today is in fact the combination of two different women. One of them was indeed Lubna, whereas the other was possibly a woman called Fatima. She argues, based on her research, that Lubna was indeed a mathematician, a scribe, a copyist, and a poet. But it was actually Fatima who scoured the book markets of the Arab world in search of works to add to the royal library. The reason why these two women were compressed into one single identity, thus erasing Fatima from history, was done because the writer responsible for this found it impossible to comprehend that there could be two female intellectuals at court at the same time. Or at least this is what Shamsie deems the most logical explanation, which sounds fair. One woman can be seen as an exception, she argues, but the idea that more than one woman could have been successful brings with it a whole new set of expectations about the prevailing culture . And this, at least for chroniclers and historians, was easier to be ignored. There could have been a multitude of male intellectuals and nobody would have thought twice about this, but unfortunately, based on their gender, these two women were not allowed to co-exist on the pages of history.
What is remarkable is that women like Lubna and Fatima were not unique at the time of Hakam II’s reign, yet they weren’t exactly ordinary either. Shamsie says there were somewhere in between the two extremities. There were more female scholars who were skilled mathematicians, poets, grammarians etcetera in 10th century Al-Andalus. The reason why so little is known about them says more about the dominant culture of historians and biographers who chose to omit these women from their accounts, than about the contemporaries of these women. Which is why, in spite of the many uncertainties and historical inaccuracies, their stories need to be told.
Philippa Raphet Meeng holds an MSc in Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies from the University of Edinburgh.Follow @PhilippaFRM