Women’s role in Islamic art, architecture highlighted
KARACHI: History has been unkind to women. There is an apparent gap left that relegates their contributions to the abyss of times, crediting them sparingly for some achievement or the other. This trend is also prevalent in art and architecture and so it was a relief to come across historical documentation of the contributions of women in Islamic art and architecture, at a talk at T2f on Saturday.
Led by Noha Sadek, a specialist in Yemeni art and architecture, the focus of the presentation was on “women as patrons and as creators of art and architecture in the Islamic world”. It has always been a fact that only women enjoying a certain stature and privilege became prolific patrons, and as a result of their significance in society, their work got documented.
One of the main reasons, according to Ms Sadek, why women rampantly indulged in this patronage was because they considered it a charity; they also wished to leave their individual mark on society which is why most of the work commissioned by such women carries a distinctive flavour of the times they were built in and as well as the position the patron enjoyed.
Presenting snippets of history and the various contributions of women to art and architecture, the presentation revealed some valuable information. One such was the story of the Darb Zubaydah, a 900-mile pilgrimage road beginning at Kufa in Iraq and ending at Makkah. Ms Sadek spoke of how the road had a series of wells, reservoirs and artificial pools built as ordered by one of the Abbasid princesses, Zubaydah bint Ja`far. In lieu of her contributions, the road was renamed in her honour and had a lasting impact on Muslim pilgrims travelling back and forth.
Zubaydah’s endeavours were later emulated by another significant historical character, the wife of Suleiman the Magnificent, Hurrem Sultan, who shaped much of the architecture in 16th century Ottoman period. Ms Sadek showed many images of buildings that Hurrem had commissioned that greatly “testify to the considerable wealth she must have accumulated”. She is credited for building a mosque which comprised a school, an extensive library and even a soup kitchen. The hospital for women that she set up is still functional. Her daughter Mihrimah is credited for the grand Mihrimah Sultan Mosque in Istanbul.
Another interesting element of the discussion was the endowment both women enjoyed. Ms Sadek displayed images of the vakfiye or the deed of endowment that established the meticulous documentation of the properties both owned as well as stipulating “the salaries and duties of the staff”. For Ms Sadek this is probably one of the first instances of the use of such a deed, one that is being replicated in the modern world in many charitable institutions.
Ms Sadek insisted on the significance of these historical sights and documents and how “the presence of women in terms of architecture can be felt all over the Islamic world” employing examples from different parts of the Islamic world, such as Yemen, Syria, Central Asia and Ottoman Turkey to showcase the nature of this patronage. Another trend that she credits to Muslim women is that of the mausoleum. According to historical records, this trend can be attributed to Shajar Al-Durr, who ruled Egypt after the death of her husband, Sultan Al-Salih Najm al-Din Ayyub. In memory of her late husband, she built a mausoleum in 1250 which is now known as the mausoleum of Al-Salih Najm al-Din Ayyub.
For Ms Sadek, almost all architecture commissioned by known and obscure women was generally marked with political intrigues. However, this does not in any manner mitigate the importance of their impact on the Islamic world. She went into great detail about the construction of these monuments as well as the materials and aesthetics employed. There were also references to subcontinental art and architecture, especially the contributions of Nur Jahan.
The audience especially appreciated Ms Sadek’s extensive knowledge about women calligraphers. Giving examples from the 10th century Cordoba and Tunisia, slides depicted different scripts of Quranic calligraphy as practised by women calligraphers. Even though many were proficient enough to become masters and teach professionally, their names are lost as the practice of calligraphers signing their names was not widely practised.
The well-researched talk reinforced the premise that women did hold a particular position as patrons of art and architecture in a male-dominated industry, and their aesthetic influence shaped further eras, though history does not recognise them in the manner they deserve.