Reclaiming the Women of Arabic Popular Epics

As Women in Translation Month rolls on, Amanda Hannoosh Steinberg looks at the women who seem to have disappeared in scholarship about the Arabic popular epics:

By Amanda Hannoosh Steinberg

A recent Twitter thread by medievalist Erik Wade, in which he describes fighting against bias and erasure in medieval sources, made me think about how my dissertation research started.

I study a medieval form of Arabic literature called the sīrah sha’biyyah, often translated as “popular epic.” Around the time of the Mongol invasions of Islamic lands in the 13th century, lengthy serial tales of heroism, adventure, and love began to be performed by oral storytellers on the streets of Baghdad, Cairo, and other cultural centers. These stories were loosely based on the lives of Arab or Persian forebears, which led to their designation as sīrahs, or biographies. Denigrated by both contemporary and later critics and scholars, they were exceedingly popular amongst the general public, and have persisted until the present day in the form of comics, radio plays, and television serials. The original tales could run for over a year if performed nightly from start to finish, and contained a mixture of poetry and prose, dialect and formal language, and genre-bending content. They are often coarse, casual, and humorous, and privilege action over explanation. They are also, though you would not necessarily know it from the secondary literature, absolutely full of female characters.

I entered graduate school as a modernist. I’d fallen in love with the poetry of Badr Shakr al-Sayyab, got riled up by Mahmoud Darwish, and developed a connection to my ancestral homeland through Khalil Gibran. As someone who wrote poetry in part to impose order upon my messy native language, I adored the mathematical, orderly rules of Classical Arabic and delighted in how the best poets adapted them. I didn’t come into my program with a research topic, but I knew one thing: it wouldn’t be gender. As a woman in a heavily male field, I felt that studying gender was expected of me, and I did not want to fall into what I saw as the trap of gender studies: having to argue either that Arab women were oppressed or, apologetically, that they weren’t.

Then came an experimental class, taught by Dr. Joe Lowry, on “Finding Women in Medieval Sources.” The proposal was such: it was possible, given gender biases of earlier scholars, that females were in fact included in medieval biographical dictionaries, poetry anthologies, and other sources, but were ignored or erased from later scholarship. By reading the originals, perhaps we could uncover these figures. I both helped prepare the syllabus for this course as an independent study with Dr. Lowry, and then participated in it. Going through the indexes of biographical dictionaries, I found some (not many) female names. Reading about Sufi saints, I found the representation was higher but still low. As for poets, there were many—mostly concubines, mostly writing love poems. They had been studied extensively already.

The secondary literature we read drew conclusions about medieval Islamic society from this absence of evidence. In her influential book Woman’s Body, Woman’s Word, for example, Fedwa Malti-Douglas looked at elite medieval literary and religious works and concluded that “An Islamic misogynist worldview implies the absence of the female, preferably a total absence” (109).[1] In elite works, the occasional clever women were delightful oddities, similar to the character of “the wise fool.” It seemed the goal of the class would remain unfulfilled.

But then, looking for a final paper topic that intersected with my interest in literature, I stumbled upon some excerpts of Arabic sīrahs and was dazzled. Women on nearly every page, in such varied roles! Tricksters, clever princesses, powerful queens. Merchants and foster-mothers and sorceresses and warriors. I couldn’t believe the difference in these narratives compared to what we had been reading in the course. Whoever had put these tales together certainly hadn’t tried to achieve an absence of the female! I immediately started looking for secondary sources and translations, and was taken aback at what I found there:

“Collectively [female characters] start from a position of inferiority,” wrote Malcolm Lyons, whose three-volume collection of summaries is considered the main reference work for the sīrahs. He continued, “With their ‘trivial, light dispositions’ they ‘lack intelligence and faith’…they both are, and see themselves to be, unimportant in the scheme of things” (1:35).[2]

His summaries describe the activities of a huge number of female characters, and so how he came to this conclusion was beyond me. It was right in front of his eyes, their power and their importance! I finally got the feeling of discovery that I hadn’t managed to with any of my modern studies. Yes, it was gender-related—and yes, it was medieval. But yes, it was fascinating—and yes, I was hooked.

My dissertation project started, then, with what I saw as a misinterpretation. But it soon became clear that it was more of a blindness, or even a block. I felt my sources were working against me—Lyons’ attitude was not uncommon. Even those few scholars who focused on the women of the sīrahs in their studies (like Remke Kruk, to whose work I am deeply indebted) always separated the warrior women from all the rest. The warrior women are of course surprising, spectacular, and fascinating, but the ways in which women obtained power by non-military means struck me as more interesting.

I often felt that I was starting not just from the ground up with my study, but rather buried underneath several feet of preconceptions and obscuring detail, through which I had to dig before reaching ground level. As I wanted to do a comparative study, it was not feasible to read every sīrah from start to finish. They ranged from one to twelve volumes in length, and I wanted to compare twelve of them.

Thus, I decided on a compromise. In searching through Lyons’ summaries in detail, there were already a plethora of female characters to whom no one (including him) had paid any attention. I would start from there, then go back to the texts to check the details and find the context (once I found his versions of the narratives, which was another problem altogether—most were printed by booksellers in cheap editions, undated and very difficult to track down).

I suspected that, though Lyons’ translations would point me to relevant episodes, I could not trust his framing of the characters’ actions. And indeed, I found that he frequently left out important details with a bearing on gender roles. Just as an example, in Sirat Baybars, a romantic retelling of the life of the former slave who ruled Egypt from 1260-1277, the queen Shajar al-Durr decides she will rule on her own after her husband al-Salih’s death. However, higher powers object. As Lyons translates it, “the emir of Mecca objects, saying that this is a foreign custom and that a man must be chosen.” However, in the Arabic, the words are actually far more evocative: The emir says “Women can never have power over men in the lands of Islam, this is a custom of the Unbelievers!” Thus, Lyons has changed a religious pronouncement on the role of women into a political pronouncement instead. In another example from the same narrative, Lyons merely mentions that Shajar al-Durr “suggests that they adopt” Baybars. In the primary text, the description is more detailed. Shajar al-Durr says to her husband, “I have not given you any sons, and I want to do that for you… I want to make him our son.” This is interesting both because it speaks to the importance of bearing sons as a “gift” to one’s husband, and because it suggests that adopting a son could fill this gap. “Real” adoption (as opposed to fostering) is not something traditionally allowed in Islamic law, and the Mamluk context of Sirat Baybars actually makes it more unlikely: his adoption has traditionally been seen as adoption into the “false family” of a Mamluk military clan.[3] However, this quote suggests it was “real” adoption into the natal family instead.

Lyons never claims that his summaries are any more than that—short overviews of the main action in the narratives. However, given the length of these narratives and the time and effort one would need to put into their translation, there is a tendency to think that these summaries are enough. If there is anything that looking through the lens of gender proves, it is that no translation or interpretation is unbiased, especially in choosing what “the main action in the narratives” may be. I am hoping that my recent dissertation acts as an introduction to gender-based trends in these narratives, and also as a call to arms to create more translations and studies that focus on those characters who may not seem at first glance like “main actors,” but who actually tell us a great deal about the attitudes, prejudices, and motivations of those who created these tales that have been so popular for so long. As Erik Wade pointed out in the Twitter thread referenced above, secondary sources actively work against us when we study the subaltern, and there is so much work to be done!

Melanie Magidow is currently at work on the first full translation of the Sirat Dhat al-Himmah, the only sīrah featuring a main female hero. While you’re waiting anxiously for that, here are the translations I would recommend:

The Adventures of Sayf Ben Dhi Yazan: An Arab Folk Epic, trans. Lena Jayyusi. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999.

This version is part translation and part interpretation, shortening a four-volume narrative to one. It also makes it a quick, fun, and engaging read for one of the sīrahs that features the most female characters.

Sirat Bani Hilal Digital Archive:       

Dr. Dwight Reynolds’ website contains translations, transcripts, and recordings of the only sīrah still performed regularly.

Antar: A Bedoueen Romance, trans. Terrick Hamilton. London: John Murray, 1819-1820. 4 vols.

Yes, this translation is very old—and it is indeed dated. But Hamilton did his best to produce a literal translation, and it remains the most accurate introduction to the first third of this lengthy sīrah.

[1] Woman’s Body, Woman’s Word: Gender and Discourse in Arabo- Islamic Writing. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991.

[2] Malcolm Lyons. The Arabian Epic: Heroic and oral story-telling. 3 vols. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995. 

[3]  For more on this see Koby, Yosef. Usages of Kinship Terminology during the Mamluk Sultanate and the Notion of the ‘Mamlūk Family’ in Yuval Ben-Bassat (ed.), Developing Perspectives in Mamluk History: Essays in Honor of Amalia Levanoni (Leiden: Brill, 2017).

Amanda Hannoosh Steinberg is the Visual Resources Librarian for Islamic Art and Architecture at Harvard University’s Fine Arts Library. She is also a scholar of medieval Arabic popular literature. Her dissertation, entitled “Wives, Witches, and Warriors: Women in Arabic Popular Epic,” examines how female characters access power in a medieval form of epic storytelling. You can find her on Twitter @MENALibAHS.


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