Queens and Prophets

How Arabian Noblewomen and Holy Men Shaped Paganism, Christianity and Islam


‘A genuinely paradigm-shifting work by one of the most exciting and innovative scholars in the field... compelling and powerful...’ Reza Aslan

Arab noblewomen of late antiquity were instrumental in shaping the history of the world. Between Rome’s intervention in the Arabian Peninsula and the Arab conquests, they ruled independently, conducting trade and making war. Their power was celebrated as queen, priestess and goddess. With time some even delegated authority to the most important holy men of their age, influencing Arabian paganism, Christianity and Islam.

Empress Zenobia and Queen Mavia supported bishops Paul of Samosata and Moses of Sinai. Paul was declared a heretic by the Roman church, while Moses began the process of mass Arab conversion. The teachings of these men survived under their queens, setting in motion seismic debates that fractured the early churches and laid the groundwork for the rise of Islam. In sixth-century Mecca, Lady Khadijah used her wealth and political influence to employ a younger man then marry him against the wishes of dissenting noblemen. Her husband, whose religious and political career she influenced, was the Prophet Muhammad.

A landmark exploration of the legacy of female power in late antique Arabia, Queens and Prophets is a corrective that is long overdue.

About the author(s)

Emran Iqbal El-Badawi is Program Director and Associate Professor of Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Houston, where he is also Chair of Modern and Classical Languages. He is the author of The Qur’an and the Aramaic Gospel Traditions (Routledge, 2014) and co-editor of Communities of the Qur’an, which is also published by Oneworld. He has contributed to numerous media outlets, including the New York Times, Al-Jazeera, Forbes, Christian Science Monitor and ARTE.


‘A genuinely paradigm-shifting work by one of the most exciting and innovative scholars in the field. Queens and Prophets upends popular assumptions concerning Arab women in late antiquity. Drawing on an impressive range of extensive research, Emran El-Badawi sheds new light on the history of the Near East by studying three female rulers alongside the most significant holy men of the era. In doing so, he reveals the importance of these women to the history of the late antique Near East. It is a compelling and powerful narrative that is sure to provoke thought and discussion amongst scholars and curious readers alike.’

Reza Aslan, author of Zealot and An American Martyr in Persia

‘In this remarkable book, Emran El-Badawi brings to light the stories of influential noblewomen and female deities, to show how female power shaped religion and politics in late antique and early Islamic Arabia. Despite their importance, these female figures have been marginalised in the historical record over time, from Roman and Arabic histories till modern writings about early Islam. El-Badawi sensitively engages the historical memories preserved in these sources, disentangling kernels of truth from topoi, legend, and embellishment. This clear and well-written account should change how we consider women’s impact upon these patriarchal societies.’

Karen Bauer, Senior Research Associate, The Institute of Ismaili Studies

‘A breathtaking journey through the religions and cultures of the late antique Near East. El-Badawi brings to life accounts of warriors and queens who defy standard notions of the social and religious history of the Arabs. His masterful book offers new insights into the intimate relationships between paganism, Christianity, and early Islam in the Near East, and on the distinctive roles that women played in all of these traditions.’

Gabriel Said Reynolds, Crowley Professor of Islamic Studies and Theology, University of Notre Dame

‘Emran El-Badawi provides a landmark contribution to scholarship, grasping the nuance and depth of women’s power, spirituality, and presence in late antique Near East, when pagans, Jews, and Christians allied militarily and worshiped at the Oak of Mamre. Queens and Prophets cogently narrates this complex historical and cultural context, demonstrating the patriarchal polemics of Abrahamic and Roman traditions that gloss this powerful force and ultimately empower the birth of Islam.’

Roberta Sabbath, Religious Studies Director, University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and editor of Troubling Topics, Sacred Texts

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