The best books about women in medieval Near Eastern history

Why am I passionate about this?

I’m a historian of Muslim – non-Muslim relations in medieval Islam. In all of my publications I've been concerned with the social intersections of different religious communities in the medieval Islamic world, whether through human agency or via institutional arrangements. My goal has been to de-center Islamic history by approaching it from its margins. Hence the choice to study the role of women as agents of religious change in my last monograph Female Power and Religious Change in the Medieval Near East. In this book I address two historical questions which I've always been passionate about, namely the Islamization of the Near East and the place of women in pre-modern Near Eastern societies. 


I wrote...

Female Power and Religious Change in the Medieval Near East

By Uriel Simonsohn,

Book cover of Female Power and Religious Change in the Medieval Near East

What is my book about?

Female Power and Religious Change in the Medieval Near East engages with two levels of scholarly discussion that are too often dealt with separately in modern scholarship: the Islamization of the Near East and the place of women in pre-modern Near Eastern societies. It outlines how these two lines of inquiry can and should be read in an integrative manner. Major historical themes such as conversion to Islam, Islamization, religious violence, and the regulation of Muslim/non-Muslim ties are addressed and reframed by attending to the relatively hidden, yet highly meaningful, role that women played throughout this period.

Rather than locating signs of female autonomy or authority in the political, intellectual, religious, or economic spheres,  this book is concerned with the capacity of women to affect religious communal affiliations thanks to their kinship ties.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Muslim Midwives: The Craft of Birthing in the Premodern Middle East

Uriel Simonsohn Why did I love this book?

Giladi's Muslim Midwives takes the reader into the hidden layers of the domicile; an intimate space, where only few could participate in one of the most dramatic moments, if not the most of them, in a human's life – birth.

Midwives, although biologically apart, were assigned with a crucial place within the household, thus assuming capacities that by far exceeded their formal tasks within their respective communities.

By Avner Giladi,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Muslim Midwives as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This book reconstructs the role of midwives in medieval to early modern Islamic history through a careful reading of a wide range of classical and medieval Arabic sources. The author casts the midwife's social status in premodern Islam as a privileged position from which she could mediate between male authority in patriarchal society and female reproductive power within the family. This study also takes a broader historical view of midwifery in the Middle East by examining the tensions between learned medicine (male) and popular, medico-religious practices (female) from early Islam into the Ottoman period and addressing the confrontation between traditional…


Book cover of Coming of Age in Medieval Egypt: Female Adolescence, Jewish Law, and Ordinary Culture

Uriel Simonsohn Why did I love this book?

Krakowski's Coming of Age in Medieval Egypt offers not only offers a sophisticated critique of scholarship on medieval kinship arrangements, but also casts light on the social agency of young women during the few years between the age of their formal maturity and their matrimonial engagement.

Krakowski's wonderful achievement is made possible thanks to her exceptional familiarity with the documents of the Cairo Geniza and her ability to take a step back and observe the broad social picture they reflect.

By Eve Krakowski,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Coming of Age in Medieval Egypt as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Much of what we know about life in the medieval Islamic Middle East comes from texts written to impart religious ideals or to chronicle the movements of great men. How did women participate in the societies these texts describe? What about non-Muslims, whose own religious traditions descended partly from pre-Islamic late antiquity?

Coming of Age in Medieval Egypt approaches these questions through Jewish women's adolescence in Fatimid and Ayyubid Egypt and Syria (c. 969-1250). Using hundreds of everyday papers preserved in the Cairo Geniza, Eve Krakowski follows the lives of girls from different social classes-rich and poor, secluded and physically…


Book cover of The Warrior Women of Islam: Female Empowerment in Arabic Popular Literature

Uriel Simonsohn Why did I love this book?

Warrior Women of Islam opens a window into the world of medieval Muslim authors as they drew upon a mixture of fiction and reality in order to captivate the imagination of their readers/auditors.

Yet although fictitious, not to mention fantastic, Kruk demonstrates how the female protagonists of medieval Islamic epics served to promote ideals of female piety, devotion, and courage in moments of religious conflict.

By Remke Kruk,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Warrior Women of Islam as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Colloquial Arabic storytelling is most commonly associated with The Thousandvand One Nights. But few people are aware of a much larger corpus of narrative texts known as popular epic. These heroic romantic tales, originating in the Middle Ages, form vast cycles of adventure stories whose most remarkable feature is their portrayal of powerful and memorable women. Wildly appreciated by medieval audiences, and spread by professional storytellers throughout the cities of the Muslim world, these fictions were printed and reprinted over the centuries and comprise a vital part of Arab culture. Yet virtually none are available in translation, and so remain…


Book cover of Conceiving Identities: Maternity in Medieval Muslim Discourse and Practice

Uriel Simonsohn Why did I love this book?

Motherhood features in diverse literary traditions, from antiquity to the present, as perhaps the most prominent aspect of female power.

Already in the womb and shortly after, during the formative stage of the child's upbringing, the mother occupied a unique, almost exclusive, position vis-à-vis its offspring, imbuing it with character and ideals. It is for this reason that maternal power and roles have been treated so extensively in diverse literary traditions and genres, constituting an object of religiously-charged imageries.

In Conceiving Identity, Keuny masters a rich Islamic literary corpus in order to show how literary images constituted a means for women to negotiate their patriarchal-designated office and imbue their office with their own set of ideals.

By Kathryn M. Kueny,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Conceiving Identities as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Explores how medieval Muslim theologians constructed a female gender identity based on an ideal of maternity and how women contested it.


Book cover of Conquered Populations in Early Islam: Non-Arabs, Slaves and the Sons of Slave Mothers

Uriel Simonsohn Why did I love this book?

Urban’s Conquered Populations in Early Islam is concerned with the absorption of non-Muslims within the Muslim community during the first few centuries of its formation through an Arabian tribal mechanism of patron-client relations. 

As such, it offers a first of its kinds treatment of non-Muslim slave girls and concubines, whose entry into the Muslim fold was made possible thanks to the ties of dependence they forged with their male masters and partners.

Although seemingly powerless, owing to their gender and social rank, these women were in fact in a unique position to negotiate the terms of their enslavement, livelihood, and communal affiliation thanks to their unique services vis-à-vis their patrons.  

By Elizabeth Urban,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Conquered Populations in Early Islam as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This book traces the journey of new Muslims as they joined the early Islamic community and articulated their identities within it. It focuses on Muslims of slave origins, who belonged to the society in which they lived but whose slave background rendered them somehow alien. How did these Muslims at the crossroads of insider and outsider find their place in early Islamic society? How did Islamic society itself change to accommodate these new members?



By analysing how these liminal Muslims resolved the tension between belonging and otherness, Conquered Populations in Early Islam reveals the shifting boundaries of the early Islamic…


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The Forest Knights

By J. K. Swift,

Book cover of The Forest Knights

J. K. Swift Author Of Acre

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

I love a good fight scene! It doesn’t need to be long and gruesome, but it must be visceral and make me nervous for those involved. Don’t get me wrong, I also love a good first-kiss scene but unfortunately, my past has made me more adept at recognizing and writing one over the other. I started training in martial arts at the age of nine and continued for thirty years. I don’t train much these days but I took up bowmaking a few years back and now spend a lot of time carving English longbows and First Nations’ bows. I recently also took up Chinese archery.

J. K.'s book list on with realistic fight scenes

What is my book about?

The greatest underdog story of the medieval age.

A wild land too mountainous to be tamed by plows. A duke of the empire, his cunning overshadowed only by his ambitions. A young priestess of the Old Religion, together with a charismatic outlaw, sparking a rebellion from deep within the forests. And an ex-Hospitaller caught between them all.

The Forest Knights

By J. K. Swift,

What is this book about?

A druid priestess enlists the help of an ex-Hospitaller warrior and a charismatic outlaw to fight Austrian tyranny in medieval Switzerland. A subtle blend of fantasy and history, ALTDORF (Book 1) tells the events leading up to one of the greatest underdog stories of the medieval age, the Battle of MORGARTEN (Book 2).


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Interested in Islam, the Middle Ages, and motherhood?

11,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about Islam, the Middle Ages, and motherhood.

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