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Ghazālī, Zaynab al-

Valerie J. Hoffman
The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World What is This? Provides comprehensive scholarly coverage of the full geographical and historical extent of Islam

Ghazālī, Zaynab al-

Zaynab al-Ghazālī (1917–2005) was a prominent writer and teacher of the Muslim Brotherhood and the founder of the Muslim Women's Association (1936–1964). The daughter of an al-Azhar–educated independent religious teacher and cotton merchant, she was privately tutored in Islamic studies in the home in addition to attending public school through the secondary level, and she obtained certificates in ḥadīth, preaching, and Qurʿānic exegesis. Her father encouraged her to become an Islamic leader, citing the example of Nusaybah bint Kaʿb al-Māzinīyah, a woman who fought alongside the Prophet in the Battle of Uḥud. Although for a short time she joined Hudā Shaʿrāwī’ s Egyptian Feminist Union, she came to see this as a mistaken path for women, believing that women's rights were guaranteed in Islam. See SHAʿRāWī, Hudā.

At the age of eighteen she founded the Jamāʿat al-Sayyidāt al-Muslimāt (Muslim Women’ s Association), which, she claims, had a membership of 3 million throughout the country by the time it was dissolved by government order in 1964. Her weekly lectures to women at the Ibn Ṭulūn Mosque drew a crowd of three thousand, which grew to five thousand during the holy months of the year (interview with the author, September 13, 1988). Besides offering lessons for women, the association published a magazine, maintained an orphanage, offered assistance to poor families, and mediated family disputes. The association also took a political stance, demanding that Egypt be ruled by the Qurʿān.

The similar goals of the Muslim Brotherhood were noted by its founder, Ḥasan al-Bannāʿ, who requested that al-Ghazālī 's association merge with the Muslim Sisters, the women's branch of his organization. She refused until 1949, shortly before al-Bannāʿ’ s assassination, when, sensing that it was critical for all Muslims to unite behind al-Bannāʿ’ s leadership, she gave him her oath of allegiance and offered him her association. He accepted her oath and said that the Muslim Women’ s Association could remain independent. During the 1950s the Muslim Women’ s Association cooperated with the Muslim Sisters to provide for families who had lost wealth and family members as a result of President Gamal Abdel Nasser’ s crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood.

Al-Ghazālī was instrumental in regrouping the Muslim Brotherhood in the early 1960s. Imprisoned for her activities in 1965, she was sentenced to twenty-five years of hard labor but was released under Anwar el-Sadat 's presidency in 1971. She describes her prison experiences, which included suffering many heinous forms of torture, in a book entitled Ayyām min ḥayātī (Days from My Life; Cairo and Beirut, 1977). She depicts herself as enduring torture with strength beyond that of most men, and she attests to both miracles and visions that strengthened her and enabled her to survive. She saw herself as the object of Nasser’ s personal hatred, for she and her colleague ʿAbd al-Fattāḥ Ismāʿīl “robbed” him of the generation that had been raised on his propaganda (p. 185). She believed that the superpowers were involved in singling her out to Nasser as a threat, and indeed she affirms that Islam 's mission means the annihilation of the power of the United States and the Soviet Union (p. 185). Nonetheless, she denies that the Muslim Brotherhood intended to assassinate Nasser, for “killing the unjust ruler does not do away with the problem” of a society that needs to be entirely reeducated in Islamic values (Ayyām min bayātī, 1978, p. 185). In her book she condemns tactics of murder, torture, and terrorism and denies that the Muslim Brotherhood wanted to usurp power (p. 144). Later, however, she justified the threat of violence against unbelievers in order to bring them forcibly “from darkness to light,” comparing such tactics to snatching poison from the hands of a child (interview with the author, June 1981). She defined the Muslim Brotherhood as the association of all Muslims and said that Muslims who did not belong to it were deficient, although she did not go so far as to call them unbelievers. At that time she supported the Iranian Revolution, but in a later interview (September 13, 1988) she said that both the Shiism of the regime and the tactics of violence against its citizens had led her to conclude that it was not really an Islamic state.

The Muslim Women’ s Association was taken from al-Ghazālī’ s hands in 1965 and merged with a rival association of the same name founded by a former member of her group. The rival group was a religious voluntary association. Such associations, which number in the thousands, have played a major role in the religious life of women in Egypt in this century, offering lessons in the Qurʿān and Islamic law, classes in sewing and other crafts, and pre-schools for children, among other social services.

After her release from prison, al-Ghazālī resumed teaching and writing, first for the revived Muslim Brotherhood's monthly magazine, Al-daʿwah, banned by Sadat in September 1981, and then for another Islamist publication, Liwāʿ al-islām. In addition to her articles and prison memoirs, al-Ghazālī published six other books, including a commentary on the first fourteen chapters of the Qurʾān, Naẓarāt fī Kitāb Allah (Reflections on the Book of God, 1944)

Al-Ghazālī described herself as a “mother” to the Muslim Sisters, as well as to the young men she helped organize in the early 1960s. She was editor of a women's and children 's section in Al-daʿwah, in which she encouraged women to become educated, but to be obedient to their husbands and stay at home while raising their children. She blamed many of the ills of society on the absence of mothers from the home. This conservative stance appears to be contradicted by the historical figures she used as models of womanhood in short vignettes in that same section, courageous women warriors from the early period of Islam, including members of the extremist Khārijī Khārijī sect, which was virtually obliterated in warfare with the larger Muslim community.

Al-Ghazālī 's own example as an activist in the public sphere who divorced her first husband for interfering with her Islamic activities and threatened her second husband with the same also appears to contradict her own advice. When asked about this discrepancy, she said that her case was special, because God had given her the “blessing”—although not viewed as such by most people—of not having conceived any children (interview with the author, September 13, 1988). This gave her a great deal of freedom. Her husband was also quite wealthy, so she had servants to do her housework. She further regarded it as a boon that her husband was a polygamist, for whenever he went to see one of his other wives, “it was like a vacation” for her. She insisted, nonetheless, that she has remained obedient to her husband. She believed that Islam allows women to be active in all aspects of public life, as long as it does not interfere with their first and most sacred duty: to be a wife and mother. Her second husband died while she was in prison (having divorced her under threat of imprisonment himself). Having fulfilled her duty of marriage, she feels free to devote all of her energies to the Islamic cause.

Academics have debated the discrepancy between al-Ghazālī’s prescriptions for women’s social roles and her own activism, some seeing her as hypocritically arrogating special privileges to herself that she would deny to other women, while others described her as an “Islamic feminist.” Al-Ghazālī herself saw feminism as a Western conspiracy to undermine Islam and rob women of their humanity, although she also claimed that Islam makes men and women equal. In her later writings she affirmed women’s independent personality and right to balance public activism with domestic duties.

Although the Islamic movement throughout the Muslim world today has attracted large numbers of young women, especially since the 1970s, Zaynab al-Ghazālī stands out thus far as the only woman to distinguish herself as one of its major leaders.



Primary Sources

  • Ayyām min ḥayātī (Days from My Life). Cairo and Beirut, 1977. Al-Ghazālī 's prison memoirs, reprinted in at least eight editions. A detailed review of this book by Valerie Hoffman-Ladd may be found in the newsletter of the Association of Middle East Women’ s Studies, no. 5 (October 1987). Find it in your Library
  • Naḥwa baʿth Jadīd (Toward a New Renaissance). Cairo, 1987. Find it in your Library

Secondary Sources

  • Abu-Lughod, Lila. “The Marriage of Feminism and Islamism in Egypt: Selective Repudiation as a Dynamic of Postcolonial Cultural Politics.” In Anthropology of Globalization, edited by Jonathan Xavier Inda and Renato Rosaldo. Malden, Mass., and Oxford, 2001. Find it in your Library
  • Baron, Beth. Egypt as a Woman: Nationalism, Gender and Politics. Berkeley, Calif., 2005. Find it in your Library
  • Cooke, miriam. Women Claim Islam: Creating Islamic Feminism Through Literature. London, 2000. Find it in your Library
  • Hoffman, Valerie J.“An Islamic Activist: Zaynab al-Ghazālī.” In Women and the Family in the Middle East: New Voices of Change, edited by Elizabeth W. Fernea, pp. 233–254 Austin, Tex., 1985. Includes portions of the author 's June 1981 interview with al-Ghazālī, and a translation of chapter 2 of Ayyām min ḥayātī, which contains the story of how she became involved with the Muslim Brotherhood and helped organize the brotherhood's activities in the early 1960s. Find it in your Library
  • Hoffman-Ladd, Valerie J.“Polemics on the Modesty and Segregation of Women in Contemporary Egypt.”International Journal of Middle East Studies19 (1987): 23–50 Includes al-Ghazālī 's perspectives on women's social roles. Find it in your Library
  • Sullivan, Earl T.Women in Egyptian Public Life. Syracuse, N.Y., 1986. Discusses Zaynab al-Ghazālī on pages 115–117. Find it in your Library
  • Zuhur, Sherifa. Revealing Reveiling: Islamist Gender Ideology in Contemporary Egypt. Albany, N.Y., 1992. Chapter 5, “Construction of the Virtuous Woman,” includes Zaynab al-Ghazālī's perspectives, with portions of an interview conducted by Zuhur. Find it in your Library
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