History Lost in History

What if…Hillary Clinton had won the 2016 election?

I’ll never forget the celebration that overtook New York City on Nov. 7, 2020, when Joe Biden officially defeated incumbent Donald Trump for the presidency of the United States. My whole neighborhood exploded in parties and celebrations that swarmed so many streets of the city — and so many cities across the nation. There was a palpable sense of relief, all the sweeter when contrasted to the day Donald Trump won the election over Hillary Clinton in 2016. That day, it rained, and I trudged around McCarren Park in Brooklyn with a good friend as we wondered what the future would hold.

I’d like to take us back to 2016, but to a different version of it: one in which Trump lost and Clinton won. What would the world look like today if that had happened? 

Other than Clinton making history as America’s first female president, what is the first thing that comes to mind? Right now, I wonder how different might the US’s response to Covid-19 have looked under Clinton and a Democratic administration? The world may truly never know what she would have done and if lives may have been saved had a different person held the Oval Office, but what is true is that in 2018 the team responsible for pandemic preparedness was partly disbanded.

It’s quite possible had that not happened, America’s response to the pandemic would have been different: perhaps the debate surrounding masking, lockdowns, and vaccine promotion campaigns would have been handled with less controversy. Under Clinton, we probably wouldn’t have had a president who refused to wear a mask, adding fuel to the fire of anti-maskers. 

Other than Clinton making history as America’s first female president, what is the first thing that comes to mind?

But even further back, if Trump had not been elected, I would not have joined the 2017 Women’s March in New York, because it likely wouldn’t have been as necessary as it was at the time (not surprisingly under Trump, the #MeToo Movement was in full swing).

Politically, Clinton is the very opposite of Trump. To mention a few of her stances, she is pro-abortion, pro-marriage equality, and pro-DACA. Life might have looked so different under her administration that just reading this Ballotpedia entry about her campaign kind of made me weepy. 

Other potential differences involve the Supreme Court. At least two current justices, Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett, were appointed by Trump. If Clinton had won she would have been the person appointing both those justices, leading to a strong liberal majority instead of the current conservative, mostly-anti abortion Supreme Court.

If you’ve been following US politics lately, you’ll know that the Supreme Court was involved in a Texas case penalizing abortion providers after six weeks by…refusing to get involved and blocking the law. Now, they may be reviewing cases directly concerning Roe V. Wade, meaning abortion rights are currently on the line. When abortion rights are called into question, women’s rights themselves are at risk. Given Clinton’s stance on abortion, if she had been elected president we likely wouldn’t be having these conversations at all.

Of course, Clinton is not just a politician, but a human, and she would have made mistakes had she become the 45th president in 2017. Even Biden, whom we cheered and celebrated, has made critical errors: notably, the handling of the chaotic removal of US troops from Afghanistan, a lack of follow-through on campaign promises such as student loan forgiveness, and his failure in reducing the border crisis. 

No one can achieve all the promises they make as a candidate. And no one is perfect, meaning some of the promises will have flawed foundations. 

But here’s the thing: I believe in my heart of hearts that Hillary Clinton would have been a less destructive president than Donald Trump was. If for no other reason than the Supreme Court, which has outsized power in US politics, looking differently under her administration, we would have been better off had Democrats been victorious in 2016. 

We can’t change the past now. It’s written. All we can do is change the present to affect the future. And I hope the next time we face a chaotic election 2016’s, that we make the right choices. 

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History Forgotten History Lost in History Historical Badasses

Hurrem Sultan was the Ottoman empire’s femme fatale

I first encountered Hurrem Sultan, the red-haired Ottoman Empress in a Turkish soap opera series, titled The Magnificent Century, which aired in Pakistan a few years ago when I was a teenager. Since Pakistan shares a special affinity with Turkish shows, the show was dubbed in Urdu and became a cult favorite amongst the prime-time audience. 

So this is what I, along with many Pakistanis, learned about Hurrem Sultan from The Magnificent Century

Hurrem Sultan was brought to the imperial court as an enslaved person during the reign of Sultan Suleiman I, the Magnificent (1520-1566). Within the span of a few weeks, she ascended the ranks from a slave girl to the Sultan’s favorite concubine to the Sultan’s chief consort (Haseki Sultan) and eventually his wife. Her trajectory towards the throne was swift because of her power-hungry nature. She crushed all opposition, luring the Sultan towards only her. She turned him against his former favorite concubine, Mahivedran, who had also birthed his first son, Shehzade Mustafa.

Out of jealousy, she demanded monogamy from the king during an epoch where Ottoman emperors had only practiced polygamy. She demanded the King marry her, which broke all traditions in the Ottoman era where Kings did not marry women due to legal complications, but instead only used them to bring heirs into this world. She birthed more than one child, which was a stark violation of the “one concubine, one son” rule that allowed her to wield a monopoly of heirs. 

And lastly, she disobeyed the custom of Sancak Beyliği, which dictated that when the sons came of age, they were to be sent to rule a faraway province with their mothers. The mothers could not return to Istanbul unless the son succeeded to the throne and they became Valide Sultan (mother of the Sultan). She insisted on staying put at Top Kapi Palace. 

One transgression after another. She was a serial rule breaker. 

Popular history caters to the whims and fancies of public opinion which can be swayed by the mention of the scheming foreigner.

She was a threat to the status quo. And in a show which glorified the greatness of the empire, the audiences immediately disliked her. In fact, she entered the show in the space of the “other woman”. And her role in the execution of Shehzade Mustafa, her stepson along with the grand Vizir, Ibrahim Pargali, did not help her popularity. She was the bloodthirsty, manipulative seductress. In fact, in one scene she is seen seeking help from a sorceress to make sure the Sultan remains bewitched by only her. There was even a half-baked subplot about her wanting to marry the Emperor for revenge for the traumas she had had to endure in life. 

To be honest, I could not help but hate her. Every show needs a villain, and she fit the archetype perfectly. Everything from her expressions to her dialogue, to the background soundtrack, emphasized her treachery and deceit

With Netflix airing the show a couple of years ago, and with my recent intrigue for Ottoman history and some nuance in my perception, I decided to re-watch it. I decided to re-watch it, not through the eyes of a gullible audience, but one that can detect the infiltration of fiction into the narrative. I was taken aback, by the concoction of popular history and the host of myths surrounding the most influential woman in the Ottoman Empire. I delved deeper into her life and this is what I found:

Hurrem Sultan was just a woman playing by the rules of imperial court politics.

Alexandra or Roxelana (her original name remains obscure) was captured brutally by a bunch of Crimean Tatars who sold her to the Ottomans. She was separated from her hometown and her family as a teenager. As a Christian, she entered a predominantly Islamic empire and was considered acceptable only as a slave girl or a concubine. When she decided to convert to Islam, her decision was met with skepticism. She navigated through a maze of court conspiracies which ranged from murder plots to being ostracized.

She fell in love with the Sultan deeply, wrote poetry in letters to him when he was on military expeditions. She birthed six of his children. After becoming a mother of the first child, she wanted to be freed of her status as a slave so that she could be with the Sultan out of consent, not coercion. The Sultan named her “Hurrem” (the cheerful one) because of her positive demeanor. But this “positive” woman also witnessed much heartache; one of her own children was executed by his father (the king) for causing much unrest in the empire. Brutal? I know. But where legacy and power is concerned, blood ties begin to mean little. I mean, we’ve all watched Game of Thrones, right?

Anyway, I digress. 

She was a philanthropist who commissioned many public works including a charity soup kitchen in Mecca for poor pilgrims. She advised the King on matters of foreign policy and helped diplomacy between the Ottomans and other foreign states owing through her unique vantage point as a foreign empress. Today her final resting place is in Suleymaniye mosque (Istanbul) which was built as an homage to her. 

See what I mean? 

[Image Description: Hurrem (played by Meryem Uzerli) standing next to Sultan Suleiman (played by Halit Ergenc) in a still shot from the Magnificent Century.] via Turkey Country Guide
One is the narrative spun with the threads of court gossip which we now know as popular history. Popular history caters to the whims and fancies of public opinion which can be swayed by the mention of the scheming foreigner. It can be titillated by the exotic Other who once seduced their Emperor into challenging the tradition.

The counter-narrative is hard historical facts supported by evidence. Within this narrative, Hurrem Sultan was just a woman playing by the rules of imperial court politics. She was a foreigner stuck in an alien land, which insisted on objectifying her. She was just learning the language (literally) of the people who bought her. She was just insisting on some dignity in her personal relationship by requesting the King not to see other courtesans. Maybe she was just competing for her husband’s attention, not an Emperor’s favors. 

 It’s the same woman – just two different ways of looking at her. 

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History Lost in History Historical Badasses

Eliza Hamilton, America’s forgotten founding mother

Witty. Beguiling. Relentless. Compassionate. These are some of the words I would use to describe Eliza Hamilton. Although I think that the Hamilton musical is nothing short of theatrical brilliance, I have to say – it did not do Eliza justice.

Her main songs throughout the musical only highlight the aspects of her life as Hamilton’s wife. During the song Helpless, we see her fall in love with Hamilton, and during Burn, we witness the anger she felt after getting cheated on by him. Yes, those experiences are a vital part of her story – but so many other aspects of her life go untouched and untold.

It is only in the very last song, Who lives? Who dies? Who tells your story? that we get a mere glimpse of all the tremendous efforts Eliza had put in to defend Hamilton’s legacy.

Elizabeth Hamilton came from a powerful family in which her father, Philip Schuyler, was a war hero. Due to her father’s military status, Eliza grew up constantly being visited by military officers. One of these officers was Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Hamilton, who- like everyone else – found himself absolutely immersed in Eliza’s beauty and charm.

Fast forward a couple of years later, Hamilton was shaping the economic system of a new nation, while Eliza was tasked with raising eight children. Not only was Eliza a wonderful mother and wife, but she also supported Hamilton in his writing and many of his political affairs.

[Image Description: black and white portrait of Elizabeth Hamilton.] via Library of Congress.
[Image Description: black and white portrait of Elizabeth Hamilton.] via Library of Congress.

Eliza served as a negotiator between Alexander and his publishers when he was writing The Federalist Papers. She also copied out portions of Alexander’s defense of the Bank of the United States. Not to mention her crucial role in the drafting of Washington’s Farewell Address, staying up late with Alexander as he read her every word as he wrote it.

 Eliza supported Hamilton in his writing and political affairs.

With the turn of the century, a pattern of tragedy disrupted Eliza’s life. On November 24, 1801, her son, Philip Hamilton, died. Upon the death of Eliza’s oldest son, her oldest daughter, Angelica, became overcome with grief and despair to an extent that it impaired her completely. She never recovered from this breakdown.

Eliza lost two children within less than two years. Her father also died soon after, in the November of 1804, leaving Eliza with the task of keeping her own family afloat, both financially and emotionally.

Three years after Philip’s death, on July 12th, 1804, Alexander died in a duel, using the exact same pistols as his son. Alexander had now left Eliza widowed with their seven children and crippling debt.


In his landmark biography of Alexander Hamilton, Ron Chernow states that he thinks “anyone else would have been broken” by the tragedies Elizabeth faced. Yet, “Not only did she live, she prevailed.”

Eliza, now heartbroken, devastated, and on the brink of poverty knew that she had to be resourceful. She set up a trust fund with the help of her friends, which provided her with a small sum of money. Unfortunately, this alone was not enough. Alexander and Eliza’s charming family country house, named The Grange, became repossessed by creditors in an effort to rid Eliza of debt.

Although Eliza Hamilton carried out a plethora of charitable projects in the fifty years after Alexander’s death, there is one that outshines the others. The orphanage.

She founded the first private orphanage in New York city, the Orphan Asylum Society, now known as the Graham Windham foundation. Serving as the First Directress of the orphanage, she raised funds, collected donated goods, and supervised the upbringing of 800 orphans.

A large group of children is gathered on the steps of the Graham Windham orphanage. The children are of various ages. All the children have cheery expressions on their faces, and some are waving.
[Image description: A large group of children is gathered on the steps of the Graham Windham orphanage. The children are of various ages. All the children have cheery expressions on their faces, and some are waving.] Via Graham Windham.
Eliza took a particular liking to a young boy by the name of Henry McKavett, whose parents had died in a fire when he was barely old enough to talk. Eliza saw so much of her late husband in Henry – his ambition, his courage, his warmth – she personally paid for his schooling, and she made sure that he got a prime military position within the army. When Henry was killed in combat, he left his entire estate to the orphanage.
Eliza disliked the spotlight; she spent most of her life grappling to get recognition for her husband and his work. Even 40 years after Alexander’s death, Eliza continued to send out dozens of questionnaires to his former colleges, verifying details of his letters and work.

It was also during this time that Eliza fought to gain recognition for Alexander as the main author behind Washington’s Farewell Address, which James Madison had been wrongly credited with. She also petitioned Congress to publish many of Alexander’s writings, which covered topics like the Revolution, adoption of the Constitution, and the administration of George Washington, and succeeded.

Anyone else would have been broken by the tragedies Elizabeth faced. Not her.

Eliza tried her best to find a suitable editor for her husband’s biography, a project she hoped would immortalize him and his achievements. Eventually, her son, John Church Hamilton edited the collection. Sadly, the biography was not completed until seven years after Eliza’s death.

We have to acknowledge that without Eliza, we might have never known about Alexander Hamilton. Chernow’s biography of Hamilton would have never been written, and therefore, the magnificent Broadway musical based on it would have never been created.

“Her efforts made it easier to research Alexander’s life because after his death, his enemies were in power,” Chernow says. “Elizabeth was working against the political system of the time, and time itself.”

Although she had many visitors towards the end of her life, one, in particular, stands out. Former president James Monroe – the man responsible for leaking the details of the Hamilton-Reynolds affair. He came with an offer of reconciliation and an apology. Eliza harshly declined his apology saying that “no lapse of time, no nearness to the grave, makes any difference”.

Eliza lived to be 97 years old. Even towards the very end of her life, she never lost her effortless charisma. Eliza was invited by President James K Polk to a dinner party, during which he was fascinated by her quick wit coupled with her soft nature.

He wrote in his diary, “Mrs. General Hamilton, is a very remarkable person. She retains her intellect and memory perfectly, and my conversation with her was highly interesting.”

Eliza is the forgotten founding mother of America. She upheld Hamilton’s legacy because she knew that his story had the potential to inspire, and ultimately change the world.

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History Lost in History

Olga Bancic is the badass Resistance freedom fighter you need to know about

Olga Bancic was a force to be reckoned with. Her bravery and determination to always stand up for what was right should be an inspiration to us all. But who was she? Bancic was born in 1912 to a working-class Romanian Jewish family, and her life wasn’t easy. She began working in a mattress factory at the age of 12 in order to support her family. The conditions spurred her to join a workers’ union and participate in a strike. Despite her young age, she was beaten and arrested by strikebreakers, sparking her strong belief in workers’ rights. 

Bancic would later become a strong force in unionist and left-wing activism in Romania. She faced arrest and imprisonment multiple times, but never stopped fighting. 

As fascism started to spread throughout Europe, Bancic’s political activism ramped up. She joined the Spanish Republican cause, made up of liberal democrats, socialists, communists, and anarchists, to fight the fascist takeover of Spain during the Spanish Civil War. During that time, Bancic transported weapons and assisted soldiers at the front. She, unfortunately, had to flee in 1938 when it became apparent that fascist victory was in sight. She later moved to Paris where she met and married Alexandru Jar and gave birth to their daughter, Dolores.

Bancic was always a fighter, but it was during World War II that she truly became a hero. Since Bancic and her family were Jewish, they were in grave danger when Nazi Germans occupied Paris. She and her husband left their daughter with a sympathetic French family and took up arms in the French Resistance. They joined the FTP-MOI (Francs-Tireurs et Partisans de la Main d’Oeuvre Immigrée), a group of immigrants and refugees who fought against Nazi occupiers. She took part in dozens of acts of sabotage against the Nazis occupiers, working as a manufacturer and transporter of explosives as well as a messenger.

Unfortunately, authorities put an end to their Resistance activities in 1944, near the end of the war. As immigrants and political dissidents, they lacked the same kind of protection that other French Resistance members had. The Gestapo specifically targeted them, releasing propaganda posters denouncing them as foreign terrorists and calling for the arrest of the “Manouchian group,” so named after the group’s leader, Missak Manouchian. The French police worked with the Gestapo to arrest the fighters. Bancic and twenty of her comrades were arrested and tortured.

The courts handed down a death sentence to the entire group without a proper trial. As the only woman of the condemned group, she was executed separately from the other members. It was illegal to execute women on French grounds, so her captors cruelly executed her in Germany. Her husband and daughter survived the war and were able to keep her memory alive. 

Olga Bancic was a strong and tireless advocate for human rights. She sacrificed herself for a country that disowned her and refused to protect her. France was not willing to defend her rights as an immigrant and a Jewish woman, yet she gave her life to defend the citizens of France. She faced betrayal and hostility from her government, but she fought for those who couldn’t fight.

Bancic fought to secure a better future for her daughter and so many others like her. It’s hard not to tear up reading her last letter to her daughter. In the letter, she tells her not to cry because “I believe that your life and your future will be much happier and brighter than your mother’s.” Up until her last moment, she thought of the future she hoped to secure for her daughter. 

We can all learn from Olga Bancic who was willing to sacrifice everything to create a better future. She braved terrible factory conditions, antisemitism, police beatings, imprisonment, torture, warfare, and even death. She wanted to create a fair and peaceful world. 

We should honor her strength and conviction and know that she did not die in vain. Bancic’s story shows us that it is not only presidents and politicians who create history but ordinary people as well. This woman, a mother, a mattress-factory worker, a convict, and a hero, was braver than some of the most famous men of her time. The world would be better off with more Olga Bancic’s. It is up to us to give power to her memory.

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History Lost in History

This Nigerian scholar used tradition to promote girls’ rights

Some of the most important histories come from what is forgotten. If you’ve never heard of Nana Asma’u, caliphate princess, poet, and educator, it’s likely because you received an education like mine, one that was restricted to the history of the Western world, and little else, in high school textbooks.

In what is now known as Nigeria, Asma’u was born in 1793. Her father was Usman dan Fodio, founder of the Sokoto Caliphate. This made her a princess, but instead of embracing a life of privilege and confinement, Asma’u blazed a path for girls’ education at a time when only men enjoyed those rights.

She was active in politics, education, and social reform. Her goal as a public figure was to educate and empower women throughout sub-Saharan Africa. Asma’u was quadrilingual in Arabic, Fula, Hausa, and Tamacheq Tuareg and her educational background were primarily in the Quranic studies shared by her father. 

It is not surprising that Asma’u devoted her life to education; under her father’s sultanate, the Sokoto Caliphate was one of the largest empires in Africa and was the region’s political and economic hub. Using the pillars of Islam as the foundation of her teachings, Asma’u promoted women’s education, arguing that to bar women from the same opportunities as men were to ignore the talents God bestows to all people. By doing so, you were ignoring God’s will, and that was a sin.

Asma’u promoted women’s education, arguing that to bar women from the same opportunities as men were to ignore the talents God bestows to all people.

It was not long before Asma’u gained a following of pupils, who eventually became teachers themselves, called “jajis”. Together, these women would literally deliver education to girls in isolated, rural areas. On foot, they’d travel from home to home and taught poetry, reading, writing, and philosophy. Those who trained girls to become educators themselves were called “yan-taru”, meaning “those who congregate together, the sisterhood”.

This system of education spread throughout the entire Caliphate, and even today provides the foundation for women’s education in northern Nigeria.

She used the teachings of the Sunnah, spreading the value of living life under the example of the Prophet Muhammad.

As an author, she has composed around 60-70 books on topics related to history, theology, law, and the role of women in Islam. She used the teachings of the Sunnah, spreading the value of living life under the example of the Prophet Muhammad. The Path of TruthA Warning, II, and Sufi Women are some of Asma’u’s greater known works. They all use the pillars of Islam to teach women how to be exemplary in their roles as wives and mothers as taught in the Qur’an, as well as how to connect the spiritual self to daily life, and to link educated women in the Caliphate community to Muslim scholars throughout history. 

Her legacy and influence continue to live on today in present-day Nigeria. Many Islamic education centers and women’s organizations are named after her. One of the most well-known institutions in her name is the Nana Asma’u University of Medical Sciences in the city of Sokoto, Nigeria. 

Like students in today’s Nigeria, I found myself connecting to Asma’u’s legacy. Growing up in a fairly religious Muslim household, it was important to learn about a powerful female scholar of Islam that I could align with. Her legacy proves that Islam and education for everyone, regardless of gender, go hand-in-hand. Asma’u’s life and teachings gave a glimpse into my religion’s history that American high school would never have provided me, and that’s something women everywhere should celebrate.

Do you want to learn more about Nana Asma’u, her life, and her works? Read One Woman’s Jihad: Nana Asma’u, Scholar, and Scribe by Beverly B. Mack and Jean Boyd.

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History Lost in History

There’s no better friend than Public Universal Friend

Have you ever had a friend or family member, maybe that one asshole uncle or aunt who thinks the whole gender thing is just a millennial invention? Maybe they say they support self-expression, but think people are just looking for ways to be offended? Unfortunately, I doubt anything I have to tell you could persuade them that that is patently false, but let me affirm for you that people have been coming out as a different gender than the one they were assigned for centuries.

I have always had a fascination with the Religious Society of Friends, but you would probably recognize them as the Quakers. As an atheist and ordained minister, I find their liberal Quaker movement far more progressive and meaningful than any mainstream Christian group I have interacted with. Hopefully, once I am done telling you about a legend, you will read up on Quakers for yourself and learn why I admire them even if I am not one personally.

In October 1776, Public Universal Friend became a preacher and set out to call for repentance, equality, and advocate that all people had free will. They were born under another, more conventional name and assigned a gender at birth. The Friend began their ministry by declaring that the person people knew by their old name had died and they had been reborn genderless with a mission (they really put the dead in deadname). The Friend dressed in a masculine-of-centre androgynous style: hat and a clergy outfit (which was intended exclusively for men at the time). This all happened in New England with the backdrop of the American Revolution coming to a close, just months after the Founders signed the Declaration of Independence.

The Friend was a polarizing figure. While it wasn’t uncommon for people to run around New England preaching during and after the First Great Awakening, the Friend challenged a lot of then-commonly held ideas about what it meant to be a Christian and a Quaker. They were met with deep suspicion due to the fact that they associated with Christians outside the Quaker circles, their sister was removed from her meeting (equivalent to a congregation) for having a baby out of wedlock, and their brother was removed for training to fight in the American Revolution (Quakers are strict pacifists).

There were Quakers who saw the Friend’s worth. Meetings that had been effectively excommunicated for taking part in the American Revolution welcomed the Friend. Some of those who welcomed the Friend started the Society of Universal Friends. When they preached, the Friend would quote from the Bible as though they had memorized the entire thing. They attracted mostly people under 40, making them the kind of person who would have probably had viral videos on TikTok had it been around at the time.

What I love about Public Universal Friend is that they took the ideas established by previous Quakers such as George Fox, Isaac Penington, and James Nayler. These included opposing slavery, demanding religious tolerance for all, and the equal worthiness of women in God’s eyes. They embraced these ideas and made a spectacle of Quakers who had become set in their ways of thinking (primarily, those men were heads of the household). It may sound silly now, but early Quakers were known for stripping naked to make a point. They put the Leveller back into Quaker theology.

The strange part in the story about this unsung hero is that the Friend wasn’t preaching anything radical for Quakers. The most controversial thing was the Friend’s gender and presentation. Quakers had forgotten their theatrical roots or the idea that it was most important to demonstrate faith with actions that had transformative potential.

I think about Public Universal Friend’s commitment to putting faith into action when I think about coming out. For me, coming out was and is an act that expresses my profound faith in humanity to be better than it is now. I believe we will one day reach a point when gender is no longer a focal point of debate and argument. Every time I come out and loudly demand my rights, I put that faith into action.

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History Forgotten History Lost in History Historical Badasses

Jahanara Begum was the princess we should aspire to be

So, most people have heard the story of the Taj Mahal, right? The Mughal Emperor Shah Jehan was so deeply in love with his wife Mumtaz Mahal, that when she died he built and named the Taj Mahal after her as her tomb. It’s a moving and deeply touching love story which has been told for generations and has since come to symbolize old-school historical romance. Less talked about, however, was the void that Mumtaz Mahal’s absence left in Shah Jehan’s life and his first daughter, Princess Jahanara Begum who helped him cope.

Jahanara Begum is arguably the most well-known of the Mughal princesses. That admittedly doesn’t say much given that many of the Mughal royal women and their achievements are forgotten today, much like other female rulers. Known as Begum Sahib (Princess of Princesses), you can imagine that she has a certain amount of street cred in relation to her parents’ story but her legacy extends far beyond that. 

At the tender age of 17, she was given the position and title of Padhsah Begum, essentially becoming the most powerful female in the empire, and being trusted with this position despite her father having two other wives well and alive. Emperor Shah Jehan held Jahanara close to him, as she was the one to bring him out of his long mourning period, and on top of her new position, she became the emperor’s advisor in many court decisions. 

Her father granted her half her mother’s estate while splitting the remaining half amongst his five other children. The money she received was later used to help build mosques and send food to the needy in Mekkah. She was intelligent and was one of the few women in the empire who owned a ship, with which she conducted independent trade to earn extra money, most of which she put into education or helping the people again. She had a love for the arts and was the one who introduced Sufism into the Mughal empire. She and one of her younger brothers, Dara Shikoh, were devoted believers in the practice and she penned several works which are still known today, including commentaries of Rumi’s Mathnawi. She also ordered translations of important Sufi literature, often writing several of them herself. She was also an architect and was put in charge of five of the Imperial buildings as well as Chandni Chowk, a bazaar that still exists in India today.

A picture of Jama Masjid in Chandni Chowk, Delhi which was designed and commissioned by Princess Jahanara.
[Image description: A picture of Jama Masjid in Chandni Chowk, Delhi which was designed and commissioned by Princess Jahanara.] Via Naveed Ahmed on Unsplashed.
Having been raised in the isolated and peaceful harem of the Mughal Empire, Jahanara was no fighter, and she opted for peaceful resolutions where possible. Many people described the princess as a kind and compassionate soul. One example of her constant care for others above herself was an incident in 1644 when Jahanara ended up in an accident where her clothes were set on fire. She was left with life-threatening wounds and spent four months in agony with her father by her side. But she refused to place blame on anyone for the accident, choosing to comfort her father in even her dire state. And during those months in recovery, she tried to still play her role for the family and kingdom. When her brother Aurangzeb was banished by their father she took the time to beg him to reconsider. And then the moment she recovered she chose to celebrate the occasion by distributing her weight in gold to the citizens most in need.

And so, for many years she lived in peace, carrying out her duties as per her assigned title and contributing to the people’s needs and the empire’s development with dedication. But the empire and succession were a volatile atmosphere and a succession war broke out between Dara and Aurangzeb. The war was a brutal affair that ended up pitting the peaceful Jahanara against not only her brother but her younger sister Roshanara as well.  Both sisters chose to support a different brother in the war. Jahanara tried in vain to stop her siblings from fighting, sending letters to try and sway Aurangzeb and then visiting him with the offer of partitioning the empire between the brother. The war ended with Dara dead and Aurangzeb taking over the palace, placing their father under arrest right next to his precious Taj Mahal. Jahanara was stripped of her title and replaced with Roshanara, but she took solace in watching over her father in his remaining days.

But it wasn’t long before her father would pass away. And the aftermath of his death saw Jahanara and Aurangzeb reconciling as she was returned her title and position and was given a new title, Empress of Princesses. Once Jahanara was brought back into the political fold she was given special privileges. Her brother respected her knowledge and would often hear her out even if he did not always listen to her complaints. She argued for his strict tax rules on non-Muslim citizens to be abolished and worked hard to fight his increasingly conservative political views.

Her remaining days saw her doubling down in her efforts to spread the arts. She commissioned several mosques, gardens, and other structures to be built. She also continued painting, wrote poetry, studied and furthered the knowledge of Islamic mysticism. One of her final acts was to commission her own graveyard and tomb. It was not as grand as those of her ancestors and she modeled it after a Sufi saint she admired. She also wrote her tomb’s inscription herself. It reads: 

“Allah is the Living, the Sustaining

Let no one cover my grave except with greenery,

For this very grass suffices as a tomb cover for the poor.

The mortal simplistic Princess Jahanara,

Disciple of Khwaja Moin-ud-Din Chisti,

Daughter of Shah Jahan the conqueror”.

Jahanara Begum dedicated her life to her family, her duty, and her people. She is everything that a princess should be and so much more.

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History Forgotten History Lost in History

Laughter as weapon, the subversive power of fools and jesters

This year’s April Fool’s Day coincidentally transpired a day ahead of Good Friday preceding Easter Sunday, one of the holiest weeks commemorating the sacrifice of Jesus in the Christian tradition. There is a subtle link between these two unrelated occasions, and the connection is more surprising than you think. It lies in one of the most enduring archetypes in history, literature, and popular imagination—the fools and jesters, who weaponize unruliness into expressing forbidden impulses and harsh societal truths.

Fools and jesters historically serve an important function beyond royal entertainers or itinerant performers in fairs for the common folk. Since they typically originated from an inferior social and political class, their clever buffoonery often inoculated them against harsh recriminations. They were perceived as extraneous characters on the political chessboard, unlikely to make inroads for any self-serving ambitions. Donning the fool’s cap gave jesters license to uproariously mock, criticize and parody kings and emperors, allowing them to hold court in contested spheres of authority through subtle wit and candor.

The wise fool figure is a cross-cultural phenomenon appearing in many guises throughout the ages. Historical accounts and literature are littered with them in many parts of the world, known by different names, with eclectic personifications unique to their own landscape. In China, numerous dynastic archives reveal a long tradition of jester-philosophers in court who paired humor with sagacity to prevent emperors from committing irreparable follies.

Parables of Wahab ibn Amr of Abbasid Baghdad, known as Bahlool the Wise Fool, remain as popular injunctions against power and conceit, laced with a philosophical bent. Women, too, were not exempt from this role, evidenced by famous jesters such as Mathurine de Vallois of France, and Jane the Fool of the Tudor court from the time of Henry VIII, held in high regard and affection by the queens that employed her.

A close-up painting of Henry VIII with third his wife, Jane Seymour, and Prince Edward. To the far left stands a woman, possibly a jester named Jane the Fool.
[Image Description: A close-up painting of Henry VIII with third his wife, Jane Seymour, and Prince Edward. To the far left stands a woman, possibly a jester named Jane the Fool.] via Wikimedia Commons
The most iconic foolery belying judiciousness is present in Shakespeare’s plays, who developed the dramatic fool archetype in Ancient Greek theatre into the wise fool known to us today in the Western literary canon. Shakespeare’s bevy of fools, as seen in famous works such as Twelfth Night, As You Like It, and King Lear, demonstrate the fool’s transition from providing comic relief into a more complex, educated dunce through rhetoric and language.

For instance, Fool in King Lear is perhaps the most qualified voice of reason in a disintegrating world sullied by madness, which does not even spare the eponymous king. His proximity to Lear begets an almost symbiotic teacher-student relationship, with Lear acting as a student in subversion of master-servant relations.

Donning the fool’s cap gave jesters license to uproariously mock, criticize and parody kings and emperors, allowing them to hold court in contested spheres of authority through subtle wit and candor.

In religious and mythological symbols, the fool traces its roots to the trickster archetype present in various cultures since ancient times. Situated at the crossroads where corporeal and intangible worlds collide, the trickster’s fluidity in taking different forms becomes a source of fear. For this reason, the trickster is sometimes viewed as an allegory for queerness who upends a binary social order. This is embodied famously in Loki, who possesses the ability to change his appearance and gender, using his powers to simultaneously further malicious intents and solve problems for other gods. The Yoruba deity Exú is a trickster orisha of crossroads, a protective spirit and feared divine messenger between worlds who is contradictory in nature, requiring constant appeasement to carry out his duties.

A close-up of Loki of Asgard with a sinister smile
[Image Description: A close-up of Loki of Asgard from The Avengers film with a sinister smile GIF.] via GIPHY
In the Christian tradition, Jesus of Nazareth has also been interpreted as a trickster figure,  since his rise marked a revolutionary sociological phenomenon challenging the religious and political systems of his time, at the expense of his own life. When Christians commemorate his crucifixion and resurrection during Holy Week, it is, in a sense, a celebration of Jesus’ disobedience to his social milieu, one that prefigured the advent of the world’s largest religion.

[Image Description: Stained glass church artwork depicting crucifixion of Jesus.] via Pexels
[Image Description: Stained glass church artwork depicting the crucifixion of Jesus.] via Pexels
In Medieval Russia, a particular kind of holy fool called iurodivy was an integral part of Russian culture. They were feared and revered as saints who exposed moral hypocrisy through outlandish behaviors and even had the rulers’ ears, acting as their conscience. It is no surprise that by the 18th century, the iurodivy were considered seditious, participating in a form of social mutiny that went against the Tsar’s autocratic establishment.

Though court jesters and fools are no longer in sight, they are survived by satire in the modern world. The court is more democratic than ever. Palace enclosures have paved the way for digital and print media. Satirists are often targeted for censorship, especially in countries where draconian laws are still in place to curtail freedom of expression.

Just look at the case of Egypt’s groundbreaking political satirist Bassem Youssef, who faced arrest and death threats for his show Al-Bernameg during the Arab Spring, and the suspension of Hong Kong’s iconic political satire show Headliner in the wake of pro-democracy protests and the enactment of national security law by Chinese authorities. These incidents, among many others throughout the world, indicate that the fool’s relevance in mastering the interplay of laughter, exposé, and criticism is still feared, for they show us the unvarnished truth of corrupt power.

So, the next time you think grotesque foolishness and wily deceit have no place in serious business, you might do well to remember that laughter has in fact unseated power from its pedestal. Perhaps it is time for the wise fool as truth-teller to make a grand comeback in our current world marked by massive protests against injustice in a global pandemic, to show us that conformity to oppressive systems is a fool’s errand after all. 

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History Lost in History Art History

Have you heard of Bharatnatyam, an endangered form of classical dance?

The cultural denunciation attached to performing arts in all forms – be it music, theatre, or dance – has caused classical dance harm in earning reputation and admiration in the eyes of many in Pakistan. This negligence has resulted in the dance form not gaining much popularity among talented individuals in the country who can help propel this revered form of artistic expression, especially Bharatnatyam.

Bharatnatyam is a genre of Indian classical dance which originated in Tamil Nadu during the late 16th and 17th centuries; the term is a combination of the Tamil words ‘Bhava’ meaning expression, ‘Raaga’ that is melody, and ‘Taaga’ that stands for rhythm. Traditionally, Bharatnatyam was performed exclusively by women and expressed Hindu religious themes and spiritual ideas, particularly of Shaivism, Vaishnavism, and Shaktism. In the contemporary version, the dance provides a base for various dances in South Asia and is performed by groups.

“Not many people know what classical dance is,” said Sheema Kermani, a well-known classical dancer and instructor based in Karachi, Pakistan.

[Image Description: Indian Classical Dance GIF By MacArthur Foundation] via GIPHY
“The learning never ends,” she said. She has been teaching dance for at least 50 years yet still feels like a student.

The Ghanshyams were her first gurus. Both Mr and Mrs Ghanshyam had attended the Uday Shankar School of Dance in Almora, India. They were trained by Uday Shankar, the pioneer of modern Indian dance.

“The couple taught me not only the classical styles of Kathak and Bharatnatyam but also Manipuri and Kathakali. Their departure was sudden and hasty — they were forced to leave the country by President General Zia-ul-Haq’s military regime,” she said.

Recalling her first solo performance in 1984, Kermani said there were no other classical dancers in Pakistan when she started. Conservatives have repeatedly tried to stop classical dance using a no-objection certificate (NOC) as a tool and the practice continues after all these years.

[Image Description: Thailand Thai Classical Dance GIF] via GIPHY
“The process in itself is enough to make one not want to organize a dance,” said Kermani.

Kermani underlined that dance and other performing arts were always multicultural, with a fusion of traditions from many countries, namely India and Bangladesh but she stressed that this should not be taken religiously.

“When I started teaching, I created Tehrik-e-Niswan, a women’s movement active in the areas of domestic violence and peacebuilding for whoever is interested in learning. If you are tired of working on your dance techniques, then you can sit back and watch others practise or read books if you like,” she said.

Highlighting the significance of dance, Kermani linked the rhythmic aspect of the art form to the universe in motion.

[Image Description: Thailand Thai Classical Dance GIF] via GIPHY
“Dance is an integral part of culture through which artists express themselves. Those nations that are not in touch with their culture, do not progress,” she said.

Munawar (Mani) Chao, who has learned classical dance from Kermani and is now an instructor at the Arts Council of Pakistan calls Bharatnatyam a ‘real form’ of dance that sends a strong message and tells a story through expressions and movements.

The Arts Council of Pakistan initiated the Karachi Dance Festival in 2017, against all the odds. All major forms of dance, including classical, contemporary, and folk were performed at the two-day event.

President of the Arts Council of Pakistan, Muhammad Ahmed Shah said, “Almost a decade ago, many music and dance academies existed in Karachi. Today, merely a handful of people who privately teach dance are to be found.”

The younger generations want to learn classical dance and many have been trained by instructors like Kermani and Chao. Learning classical dance is a ‘heart to heart process between the giver and the receiver’ because you have to catch the taal (footwork) correctly while moving your body, said Kermani.

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History Forgotten History Lost in History

Before Rumi there was Rabia Basri, the first female Muslim Saint

To read more stories about the forgotten legacy of powerful Muslim women from history, check out our series on Iconic Muslim Women. 

With Oprah Winfrey and Ivanka Trump all using the word “Sufism” to describe their own spiritual journeys, Sufism has been all the rage in pop culture in the past century or so. Though it is a branch of Islamic mysticism that emphasizes introspection and spiritual closeness to God, its popular perception these days is in a secular space, symbolized by qawalis and the dance of the whirling dervishes.

The origins of Sufism have at best been traced back to the 13th-century Persian scholar, Mevlana Jalaluddin Rumi, more popularly known as Rumi. Lesser known, however, is the figure of Rabia Al-Adawaiyya, more commonly known as Rabia Basri, who lived centuries before Rumi and consolidated many beliefs and doctrines for Sufism when it was in its incubatory phase. So a tradition we may see in hindsight as being a male-dominated universe actually had one of its pioneers as a woman. 

Who was Rabia Basri? Well, today her biographical details are so intertwined with myth that it is difficult to separate the two. She was born in 717 CE in Basra, Iraq (during the Abbasid Caliphate). Legend has it that she was born into poverty, raised during a famine, and eventually sold into slavery. At each of these phases, however, were signs from God, prophecies, and premonitions to people around her, of what her stature later in life would be. Farid Al-Din Attar, a Persian poet, and philosopher from the 12th century wrote that when she was born, her family was so bereft of all material possessions that they did not even have oil to light a lamp or a piece of cloth to wrap her up in. And with her first night in the world, the Prophet appeared in her father’s dream saying

“Your newly born daughter is a favorite of the Lord, and shall lead many people to the right path.”

After being orphaned during a famine, she fell into the hands of slavery. Upon finishing her chores tirelessly during the day, she would hold night-long vigils praying. And it was during one of these nights that her master saw her devotion and apparently also a halo surrounding her, which compelled him to free her. It was a sign from God, he thought.

After being freed from slavery, she dedicated her life to God completely. She never got married or had any children of her own. With no family or existing blood ties to speak of, she became a figure of solitude and celibacy. Not only was she distant from people but was also devoid of any material possessions. Her biographers claim that when she passed away, she had nothing but a reed mat, a pottery jug, and a bed that doubled as her prayer rug. It was this airy and light existence that allowed her to lead a nomadic life. It has been said that she once embarked on a pilgrimage to Mecca on foot which was to take seven years at the time. 

[Image Description: Tomb of Rabia Basri in Mount of Olives, Jerusalem.] via Islam Information Portal
Her identity was multifaceted: she was the first Muslim saint, she was a poet, and she was a preacher. She preached outside mosques reciting poetry about the transience of this world (a feat that would shatter stereotypes of Muslim women in today’s world). The fragments of poetry that exist today, though, are perhaps as scarce as her material belongings. Much of her poetry is in verses that were transmitted orally. One of her famous verses are the following: 

“O Lord, if I worship You because of Fear of Hell,

then burn me in Hell;

If I worship You because I desire Paradise,

then exclude me from Paradise;

But if I worship You for Yourself alone,

then deny me not your Eternal Beauty.”

These words establish one hard fact about her: hers was an identity of renunciation. Not only did she renounce worldly luxuries but also any form of indulgence in the afterlife. In these iconic words, she overturns reward and punishment, hell and heaven, in a relentless yearning for the Divine. Her expression of her love for God transcended the material, the bodily, the worldly, and even the afterworld-ly. 

Encountering this enigmatic woman in history meant that I had to unlearn much of my existing knowledge of Sufism. As an avid reader of Rumi’s biographies, I had always noticed how the women in Rumi’s family were overshadowed by his spiritual complexity. With his meeting with Shams-il-Tabriz, it seemed as though, at least at that point in history, it was only possible for men to achieve a certain spiritual status. Because women, often being child-bearers and caretakers became increasingly tied to their own body and their families, traditional gender roles would rarely allow for a woman to spend life in seclusion and asceticism. Rabia Basri’s life, however, denied subservience to any being, much less a man. Her only allegiance was to her Lord. And that servitude ironically was the greatest source of liberation for her.

So why has she not been canonized as much as Rumi? Is it because of the fact that Rumi reigned from an affluent background and had scribes writing down each of his words? Could be. But it could also be because of her gender. Perhaps that is why few to none white men have picked up her existing poetry and life and have decided to write about her, or even tried to excavate the truth about her. Perhaps there is some level of internalized misogyny that prevents writers from incorporating her in mainstream culture, the age-old question: how can a woman transcend the bodily and the worldly, to become nothing but a soul. After all, in all other traditions and religions most saints have been men. 

Whatever the case may be, it was she, the mother of Sufism who taught future mystics, the doctrine of Ishq-e-Haqeeqi (true/Divine love). In the words of Farid Al-Din Attar, praising Rabia Basri’s unparalleled status as a female Sufi saint in the Conference of the Birds:

No, she wasn’t a single woman,

But a hundred men over:

Robed in the quintessence of pain

From foot to face, immersed in the Truth,

Effaced in the radiance of God,

And liberated from all superfluous excess.

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History Forgotten History Lost in History Historical Badasses

Fatima al-Fihri: Founder of the world’s first university

To read more stories about the forgotten legacy of powerful Muslim women from history, check out our series on Iconic Muslim Women. 

Over 1,000 years ago, the dedication and vision of one Muslim woman laid the foundation for the world’s first higher learning institution that continues to grant degrees to this day. Fatima al-Fihri is the founder of the world’s first known university – as acknowledged by the Guinness World Records and UNESCO – the University of al-Qarawiyyin in Fez, Morocco. 

Courtyard of University of Al Qarawiyyin founded 12 centuries ago by Fatima al Fihri
[Image Description: Courtyard of University of Al Qarawiyyin founded 12 centuries ago by Fatima al Fihri] Via Quartz
Born in Tunisia at around 800 AD, very little is known about Fatima’s early life. But it is said that sometime in the early 800s AD, Fatima migrated with her father and sister, Mariam, from Qayrawan (also known as Kairouan) in Tunisia to Fez in Morocco, a flourishing city considered a center of Islamic faith that overflowed with thousands of migrating Muslims from Africa and the Middle East.  

Fatima’s father, a wealthy merchant who valued education, encouraged his daughters to study. Both Fatima and Mariam were well-schooled in subjects like architecture and science and devoutly religious.

Upon the death of their father, Fatima and Mariam both inherited a large fortune. The sisters wanted to invest the money to benefit the Islamic community and the city of Fez, their adopted home. With large numbers of Muslim refugees engulfing the city, the mosques in Fez couldn’t accommodate the increased number of worshippers.  

The sisters were compelled to act. They wanted to provide the people of Fez – many of whom were immigrants as they had once been when they arrived in the city with their father – new spaces to worship and learn. 

With Mariam’s half of the inheritance, she built the Andalusian Mosque, one of the oldest mosques in Morrocco. In 859 AD, Fatima used her half to financially invest and oversee the formation of the mosque and educational institution that would benefit the occupants of Fez. Gradually, the establishment developed into the University of al-Qarawiyyin, naming the establishment after Fatima’s home town in Tunisia.  

At the start, the educational part of al-Qarawiyyin offered courses in religious instruction and the Qur’an, but its curriculum later diversified its content to teach Arabic grammar, natural sciences, languages, mathematics, music, medicine, and astronomy, with Fatima herself enrolling. This new intellectual hub attracted students from all over the world to study the array of subjects the university offered.  

Throughout the university’s history, the institution has educated many notable Muslim and non-Muslim scholars. It is said that even Pope Sylvester II studied at al-Qarawiyyin, and it was he that introduced Arabic numerals to the rest of Europe.

The university is also home to one of the world’s oldest libraries, housing a collection of 4,000 books and ancient Arabic manuscripts written by renowned scholars of the region, including a manuscript of the Qur’an dated back to the 9th century. The library was recently restored by Candian-Moroccan architect Aziza Chouani, with a wing now open to the public. 

Corner of a library at University of Al Qarawiyyin, with books on shelves and stacks of books on tables
[Image Description: Corner of a library at University of Al Qarawiyyin, with books on shelves and stacks of books on tables] Via Quartz
Fatima al-Fihri was wholeheartedly committed to establishing an institution for higher learning that has set the framework of university education we recognize today, advocating the importance of intellectual thinking. With the University of al-Qarawiyyin still considered a leading and respected religious and educational institution in the Muslim world, Fatima al-Fihri’s legacy is one that should be admired and respected. 

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