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Seven Daughters and Seven Sons
Book Review As It Relates to the Book’s Use in Humanities For Complementing Studies About Islam and the Muslim World in the Context of World History & Social Studies

Book Title: Seven Daughters and Seven Sons
Author: Barbara Cohen and Bahija Lovejoy
Reviewer: Youssef Ismail

Except for teachers, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without the prior permission of ING (Islamic Networks Group).

The purpose of this review is to produce a synopsis of the book, Seven Daughters and Seven Sons, and critically analyze passages that reflect positively and negatively on Islam and the Muslim world and to correct any misconceptions promoted by this story, as it relates to the book’s use by the humanities for complementing the study of Islam & the Muslim world in the context of World History and Social Studies.

The story is an Iraqi folktale that has been part of an oral tradition in Iraq since the 11th century. Set in Baghdad, it is the story of a young girl named Buran, who is the fourth of seven daughters of a man name Malik, a poor merchant and shopkeeper, who goes by the surname Abul-Banat, or “Father of Girls”. His brother, Abu-Hassan, who is a very rich merchant has seven sons. His oldest son, Hassan, is about to embark on a journey to set up a shop in Alexandria, Egypt. Buran is in love with Hassan, and wants to marry him some day, but his father Abu-Hassan is proud of his wealth, and considers his brother’s daughters unfit to marry his smart and soon to be wealthy sons. This attitude of contempt is displayed continuously as each of Abu-Hassan’s sons leave home to a far off land to set up a shop for their father.

Buran is a feisty girl who unlike her six sisters does not like to gossip, sew, cook or clean. She prefers to spend time with her father, learning to read and write as well as to play chess, which she does each evening with her father. After being humiliated for the last time by her uncle Abu-Hassan, Buran comes up with a plan to bring wealth to her father’s home. She explains the plan to her father and mother about how she will disguise herself as a boy and set out on a journey with the family savings to set up a shop in the city of Tyre, hoping to become rich. Her parents are appalled and refuse to allow her to go, as it was against traditions that a woman should go into business. The incident strains the relationship between Buran and her father for many months to the extent that he doesn’t even speak to her. However, one day her father becomes very ill and can’t operate his small shop in Baghdad. He calls for Buran and tells her that her idea might not be so far fetched. He gives her the family savings of 15 dinars. She goes to the marketplace to buy boy’s clothing, pretending that they are for her brother. The next day she sets out to secure a passage on a caravan disguised as a boy. She finds that the fee for passage was more than she possessed, but cleverly manages to secure passage by acting as a servant to one of the merchants on the caravan. She assumes the name of Nasir Ibn-Malik.

The merchant she works for, named Jihha, is a foul mouthed, arrogant, rich man who is crude and demanding. Coupled with this is Buran’s complete ignorance of how to care for camels or pack and unpack the loads attached to them. Her inexperience is evident and Jihha complains vocally about it. However, Buran is quick to learn by watching the other servants and Jihha notices that as well. At one point, being completely fed up with Jihha’s treatment, she answers him back, but later apologizes to him; as a result he begins to treat her better. In their many conversations, she tells him how she is planning to get rich by identifying a needed commodity and filling that need. Jihha agrees to back her financially when she decides to pursue her plan.

She eventually decides to sell medicinal herbs and Jihha helps her open a shop in Tyre. The governor of Tyre has a son named Mahmud. He is treated as a prince and is well cared for. He is also bored with life and longs for true companionship that he can’t seem to find between his two tag-a-long friends Uthman and Amin. Amin introduces Mahmud to Buran (Nasir) and the four of them immediately become friends, meeting for tea and backgammon, etc. They also start to take long walks and discuss philosophy and a myriad of other topics. Over time the two fall in love with each other and can’t seem to be apart from each other. To Mahmud, this is very troubling because he can’t understand the feelings he finds in his heart for this other man. Buran (Nasir) on the other and understands her feelings very well and is tormented by the dilemma she finds herself in. On the one hand she wants to tell Mahmud the truth, but on the other hand she fears losing her very successful business and the money she sends home to her father. She also fears that telling Mahmud might end their relationship since it was built on a lie. Mahmud and his two friends have their own suspicions, and they devise different ways to determine if Nasir is really a man or a woman. They first attempt to see if Nasir can ride a horse, which certainly a woman could not do. Buran (Nasir) however, learned to ride on her journey, although not that well. When that test proved inconclusive, they ask Nasir to come and play chess, as no woman knows how to play chess. Yet Buran (Nasir) learned to play chess from her father and was quite proficient at it. Finally, Mahmud feigns illness and asks for Nasir to come and visit him. He makes Nasir promise him to come with him to the bathhouse after his illness has passed. To Buran, seeing her beloved Mahmud ill deeply affected her, and the thought of losing him was overwhelming, so she consented to the meeting. This test would be conclusive: if Nasir shows up to the bathhouse, he is a man, and if not, a woman.

Several days pass as Mahmud continues to feign illness. Finally he sends word to Nasir to meet him at the bathhouse. In the meantime Buran (Nasir) closes up the shop, and hours before they were to meet, goes to the bathhouse dressed as a woman. She leaves Mahmud a message with the gatekeeper to relay to Mahmud: “I came for a purpose and I left for a reason”. This was proof enough for Mahmud that Nasir as actually a woman and this made him very happy. He set out immediately to find her, but just barely misses her. Buran, now dressed as a woman in fine clothing takes the first ship out of the port of Tyre leaving to Alexandria to escape before Mahmud finds her. Mahmud arrives at the port several hours later to find that another ship to Alexandria would not be ready to leave for several days.

When Buran reaches Alexandria, she bumps into her cousin Hassan who has squandered his father’s wealth and is now working as a delivery boy and male prostitute. He offers himself to Buran but she refuses and instead offers Hassan 100 dinars to save face with his father in return that he tattoo the letter ‘B’ over his heart. He agrees. After that, she decides to visit each city where one of her cousins had gone to set up shops. She finds all seven in miserable situations after squandering their wealth. She manages to get each of them to tattoo a ‘B’ over their heart for the payment of 100 dinars or more. As she is now a savvy businesswoman, she also succeeds in doing more trading and increasing her wealth many times over.

After several years she returns home as she had promised her parents. She finds that the money she sent home went to improving the house and even hiring servants. Now wealthy and having gained a reputation, many suitors come to ask for her hand in marriage. She refuses them all as her heart is still attached to Mahmud, although she has little hope of being with him. She even refuses to marry her cousin Hassan by telling her father that she can never marry a man who was owned by someone else, and that she would only agree to marry him if he agreed to an examination of his body for tattoos and there were none. Hassan of course refuses, as do all of his brothers, which is humiliating for their father who used to ridicule them when they were poor. At length, her father, frustrated with her refusal to marry anyone asks her why, and she tells him the whole story. However try as he may, her father could not get Buran to tell him whom she had fallen in love with. So, he decides to go out and spread the story of how she gained her great wealth in the marketplace. Her story spreads far and wide over the land, and soon she is receiving suitors from as far away as Orontes. When she confronts her father with this, his only reply was, “Oh, good will come of it”.

One morning, after the wedding of her sister Aminah, she could not sleep. She woke and left her house for a walk. She wandered for several hours heartbroken wondering what had become of Mahmud. As dawn was about to break, she found herself outside the city in a farmer’s fields when she sees a small caravan in the distance. As it approaches a voice calls out asking what she was doing out at night alone. It was a voice that she recognizes and when she calls out to him, she finds it is her beloved Mahmud. She leads him back to her father’s house and introduces him to her parents and they sit and listen to the adventure Mahmud undertook to find her. It was only hearing her story from a merchant that actually led him to Baghdad. In the end they marry and she moves back to Tyre to rule that city with Mahmud.

General Critique:

While the story is entertaining and perhaps reflective of cultural practices of the time, many aspects are directly contradictory to the teachings of Islam, and in fact reinforce common misconceptions and stereotypes about the religion of Islam. Since the characters are all Muslim, who relate their actions to the teachings of Islam or invoke God or the Prophet Muhammad, students will assume their behavior is representative of Islamic teachings. It is therefore important to clarify aspects that are not representative of Islam.

Specific Analysis:

Page 1: “…her father had taught her to read and write when she was very young, even though it was not the custom in their time for girls to learn such things…”

Analysis: This is not customary in Islam however. Both men and women are required to acquire knowledge. Many Islamic traditions speak in general (i.e. gender non-specific) about the importance and value of seeking knowledge.

Page 3: “…Allah had not seen fit to bless him with sons, and all that happened afterwards stemmed from that fact….the ways of Allah are beyond human understanding.”

Analysis: This quote reflects the notion that sons are better than daughters. Islamic teachings place no greater worth on a son than a daughter and in fact both are considered a blessing from God. In fact, there is an Islamic tradition that states, “Whoever raises three daughters, treating them well, will be admitted to Paradise.” No such tradition is mentioned with regard to sons.

Students should also know that the word “Allah” is the Arabic word for God, as are the Hebrew word, “Eloh” and Aramaic word, “Allaha”. Aramaic was the language spoken by Jesus.

Page 9: “All of Baghdad considered him, with his seven daughters, as cursed as his brother of seven sons was blessed.”

Analysis: Again as in the analysis of the passage on page 3, Islam places no higher blessing in a son than in a daughter. Both are blessings. In pre-Islamic times, baby girls were buried at birth as they were seen as a burden and an embarrassment. Islamic teachings prohibited such practices, instructing parents to treat their sons and daughters the same.

Page 12: “’I don’t like to imagine whose sons they will be,’” he added unnecessarily, “’since you can provide them with nothing.’”

Analysis: This passage suggests that in a marriage contract, it is the bride’s side that must provide a dowry or marriage gift to the groom’s side. Islamically, when a man and woman are married, the contract that is executed between them has as one of its conditions a wedding gift, known in Arabic as mahr, which is a gift from the groom to the bride (not the other way around) to show his affection and commitment to the marriage. This gift is her property once she receives it and no one, not even her father or guardian has any claim over it.

Page 16: “Who were the husbands of girls without money? Poor farmers from the country, for whom a wife was a beast of burden, cheaper to feed than a donkey. Rich old men, who already had two or three others, and were looking now for a very young one to warm their ancient bones and to further increase the consequence of the first wife, the one who counted. Thieves and assassins who sought women with no family or with families powerless to protect their daughters from whatever abominations their husbands chose to inflict upon them. ‘Think of your father,’ my mother said. ‘Think of him. He’s my husband, and he took me though I came to him with nothing. Could I have gotten a better husband if I had brought with me gifts worth a thousand dinars?’”

Analysis: This passage again alludes to the status of women. According to Islamic teachings, women who become wives, and women in general, are not considered beasts of burden. In the Quran, God describes women and men as “protecting friends of one another.”

This passage also alludes to the practice of polygamy, which prior to Islam was a practice that didn’t limit the number of wives a man could marry. Islamically, a man is allowed to marry more than one wife, provided that certain conditions exist and he is able to maintain each household equally in every respect, otherwise he must have only one wife. So, the norm in Islam is monogamy, not polygamy. The verse of the Quran in which this issue is addressed was revealed in the context of a period of war in the life of early Muslims (who were being attacked by the Meccans for their monotheistic belief), leaving many women and their children without care or support. Rather than leaving these women and orphans to fend for themselves, early Muslims were given permission to take more than one wife provided that the man is able to care for his first wife, and any additional wives (limited to four) equally. But in the same verse of the Quran, God states that it is impossible to care for more than one equally, so it is best to keep only one.

This passage also alludes to the abuse of women, which is categorically prohibited in Islam, as is abuse of any person or animal. It also implies once again that women give a dowry to the husband when they are married, which is contrary to what Islamic law dictates, as mentioned above.

Page 20: “It wouldn’t have been three hundred years before, or two hundred years before, or two hundred years before, or even a hundred years before. I’d learned that from the books my father borrowed from my uncle and let me read too. Had not Shahrazad kept herself alive through a thousand and one nights by virtue of her cleverness and knowledge, to become the beloved and long-lived queen of the sultan Shahriah? Had not Buran, for whom I was named, influenced the policies of the caliph himself? Once women had been musicians, scholars, warriors, poets, and merchants. But the descendants of the caliphs who’d founded Baghdad forgot their desert heritage. Addicted to nothing but luxury, they’d permitted actual power to fall in to the hands of Persian conquerors, who brought with them their own customs, including the hijab, the veil for women. It was their way of distinguishing free women from concubines. Turks had followed Persians, but the veil remained. In the end, of course, all women wore it, and none of them were free.”

Analysis: The paragraph speaks about the status of women centuries before the story takes place, including that fact that women had been musicians, scholars, warriors, poets, and merchants. She makes the little known point that the custom of wearing a face veil is not an Islamic tradition, but one which was adopted from the Persians, who used it to distinguish free women from slave women. While the head covering is mentioned in the Qur’an, it does not include covering the face as became a common practice in later times. Also adopted from the Persians women was the practice of seclusion and segregation of noble women as a means of elevating them above the commoner. The head covering or hijab, on the other hand came to honor, distinguish and protect all women from being viewed or valued for their physical characteristics, not to harm, oppress, enslave or abuse women. Wearing hijab or any other Islamic practice, Muslims believe, should be for the sake of pleasing God, not out of coercion or fear.

Page 20: “’You’re very wise, Buran,’ he said. ‘You should have been born a man.’”

Analysis: This passage again is derogatory towards women by alluding that women cannot be wise. Many Islamic traditions tell of the wisdom of women, from the Prophet Muhammad’s first wife of 25 years, Khadijah, who was a business woman for whom the Prophet Muhammad worked, to one of the most knowledgeable of women Aisha, who was known as a scholar. There are also many Islamic traditions that tell of women throughout Islamic history that enjoyed status and prestige for their intelligence and accomplishments, whom men sought for their wisdom and scholarship.

Page 20: “’Yes’, I replied, letting out a little of the bitterness that had festered inside of me for as long as I could remember. ‘If I were a man, I could help you; I could help my sisters. I could help myself. You know I’m as able as any man. It isn’t fair. My being born a girl was a mistake.’”

Analysis: This passage once again is derogatory towards women in their abilities and potential. Students should understand that this same thread throughout the book does NOT reflect Islamic teachings or practice, but most probably the culture of the time. But even in Arab culture, Arab women today are some of the most educated and accomplished in the world.

Page 23: “’…except by selling herself. I’d kill her before I’d let her do that.’”

Analysis: Both ideas presented in this passage are prohibited in Islamic teachings. The first implying prostitution, and the second, vigilantism and honor killings.

Page 25: “…raise a great lamentation and rend our clothing, mourning for your lost reason.”

Analysis: This passage refers to a pre-Islamic practice when women were hired to lament the death of person or some other catastrophe to increase the compassion of others for the plight that has befallen the family who hired the lamenters. Islamic teachings discourage such displays of grief after someone dies and limits mourning to three days after the death of a person. Even though grief extends for sometime after three days, Islamic teachings encourage people to keep focused on life and the worship of God and not the person who died.

Page 25: “’Women don’t go into business.’”

Analysis: This again is an idea that is not reflected in Islamic teachings or actual practices, which in no way prohibits women from such endeavors. In fact, the wife of the Prophet Muhammad, Khadijah was a successful merchant. She directed her business from Mecca and employed men to carry out the buying, selling and traveling across the desert by caravan to centers of commerce in her time. The Prophet Muhammad was one of her most successful employees and honorable agents and it was because of his honesty in business that she proposed marriage to him at the age of 40, when Muhammad was 25. She was his first wife for 25 years before her death. Another famous Muslim woman was As-Shifa bint Abdullah who was made the head of the marketplace at the time of Umar, the second caliph after Abu-Bakr. She held the position of what would be today, the Minister of Finance.

Page 26: “My mother turned to my father. ‘You could beat her,’ she said. ‘If the old woman’s elixir doesn’t work you could beat her. Beating is one of the best methods for driving out evil spirits.’”

Analysis: According to Islamic teachings, beating another person, particularly a woman or a child, let alone an animal is strictly prohibited. If a parent does abuse a child, an Islamic judge can order the child to be taken away from the parent and given to another relative for care.

Page 30: “If things kept on as they had been going just before my father fell ill, in time he might teach her to read and write as he had taught me.”

Analysis: In the story Buran lost the favor of her father due to her plan to disguise herself as a boy and go out in the world to do business. As a result, he started to ask her sister to help him while he was ill. Buran felt that her father would only teach the one he favored.

In fact, Islam teaches that seeking knowledge and becoming educated is incumbent upon every individual and it is a parent’s responsibility to educate the children. It is also prohibited to favor one child over the other.

Page 33: “…let alone give you marriage gifts sufficient for a respectable match.”

Analysis: This passage again refers to women giving a dowry to the husband. This is opposite to what Islam dictates, as mentioned previously.

Page 33: “It’s wrong to fly in the face of custom. Each of us has a place, and if we fall out of it, the world will turn upside down”

Analysis: The concept here of each having a place in the world is something that is acceptable according to Islamic teachings, however, advancing from that place to something better can only make the world better and not turn it upside down. Islam encourages the betterment of self, spiritually as well as materially so that civilization can be advanced for the good of humanity, not to the detriment of it. In fact, Islamic civilization was one of the most advanced & modern (in its time) in human history, and was the catalyst for the Renaissance of Europe.

Page 38: “I put the piece in my money belt. ‘It’s my talisman,’ I said, ‘my treasure. As long as I have it, I know I’ll be safe.’”

Analysis: The idea in this passage probably reflects a cultural practice than a religious one. The belief in Islam is that nothing can benefit or harm a person except God. Safety and security only come from God and harm and fear come when God’s protection is removed. Talismans play no part in protecting anyone any more than they can protect themselves.

Page 42: “Next to the gate, built into the wall, was a great tank hewn out of stone and kept full of water for the benefit of all who passed, thanks to an endowment left by a wealthy citizen insuring through blessed charity his place in Paradise…”

Analysis: The institution of endowments was one of the great contributions to civilization made by Islam and the Muslims. An Islamic tradition states that there are three things that will continue to acquire good deeds for a person after their death: a righteous child that prays for the parent, beneficial knowledge taught to others that benefits those it was taught to and who also teach it to others, and perpetual charity that continues to benefit others. It is in reference to the perpetual charity that the concept of an endowment came into existence. It is through endowments that water tanks were erected, hospitals and universities were built and even the care of blind cats until their death was instituted in the times when Islamic civilization was at its height.

Page 51: “’It’s lucky for you that you’re down there and I’m up here, or I’d beat you within an inch of your life.’”

Analysis: Again physical abuse of employees was and is not a practice condoned by Islam. Islamic traditions instruct Muslims to never raise their hands against a woman, a child, nor an employee as a form of discipline or punishment.

Page 73: “On the other hand, the fortune-teller with whom you chatted in the suq [marketplace] said we’re in a cycle of seven warm winters to be followed by seven cold ones. But then again, how much does a fortune-teller really know?”

Analysis: Seeking fortune-tellers for advice about the future is prohibited under Islamic law, as it again negates the belief in God’s divine will. Muslims believe that only God knows what the future will bring.

Page 84: “I thought I was content with the slave girls I called for whenever the mood struck me. I did not need a wife, who would intrude upon my studies, my work, my recreations – at least not yet.”

Analysis: Slavery was banned through Islamic law. Therefore, the student should understand that this passage, while it might reflect cultural practices of the time of the story, it is does not reflect the religion of Islam. .

Also, marriage in Islam is considered an integral part of one’s faith and therefore highly encouraged. There are many Islamic traditions that encourage marriage and speak to the nature and tone of marriage in Islam, such as “Marriage is half of one’s faith”; “And among God’s signs is that He created mates from among yourselves that you may live in tranquility with them, and He has put love and mercy between your hearts.” (Quran, Chapter 30: 21). This verse in particular describes the idea of marriage as a place of tranquility, love and mercy.

Page 85: “In the name of the Prophet,…”

Analysis: Muslims do not invoke oaths in the name of anyone or anything besides the name of God as it negates the belief that God is the source of everything. Muslims believe that the Prophet Muhammad, as is the case with all the other Prophets was a messenger of God, and therefore not the object of worship.

Page 95: “’Of course, of course,’” I replied. “’But what are six daughters, or eleven daughters, compared to one son?’”

Analysis: Again, this passage degrades women, which does not represent Islamic teachings or practices. See earlier notes on the same subject. Men and women are equal before God.

Page 104: “’That’s ridiculous, Nasir’ I said. ‘Women are concerned with children and housekeeping and adorning their bodies. How can you possibly share anything with any of them? Little Darirah will never really grow up. Women are like children.’”

Analysis: This is quite a derogatory remark concerning women and it is not the Islamic position. Women are highly respected members of the Islamic community, which gives them a very high rank, as opposed to how some cultures regard women. For example the mother is regarded as three times more important than the father in a family structure. The Prophet Muhammad was asked by a companion of his, “who was most deserving of his companionship” and the Prophet replied, ‘your mother’. The Prophet was then asked two times again, “who after her [the mother]”, and the Prophet replied two more times, ‘your mother’ and then finally, ‘your father’. Furthermore, there were many Muslim women who were intellectuals of their times. In Islamic history, there is no notable Islamic Scholar who did not have at least one woman in the list of his teachers, who was most likely, a scholar herself.

Page 108: “’…my favorite, danced the most sinuously of all. But I did not call for her. I let her go, as was polite, to one of the guests.’”

Analysis: Once again, slavery was actually banned by Islamic Law.

Page 122: “Though wine is forbidden to the followers of Mohammed, we kept some in the palace with which to entertain our frequent Christian, Jewish and pagan guests. I sent for a bottle, drained it to the dregs, and then went to sleep.”

Analysis: As mentioned in the passage itself, Islamic Law prohibits the consumption of wine or any other alcohol or intoxicating substance. It is also prohibited to serve it or sell it. The prohibition stems from the third purpose of Islamic Law, which is the preservation of the intellect. The other five being, the preservation of life, the preservation of religion, the preservation of wealth, the preservation of linage, and the preservation of one’s honor. Since intoxication relinquishes a person of their intellect while intoxicated, it is prohibited.

This passage also speaks to the good relations Muslims enjoyed with people of other faiths, which was characteristic of Islamic civilization.

Page 155: “As I put them on, their flimsy silk felt strange against my skin, but not uncomfortable. I veiled my face heavily because I didn’t want to be recognized when I went out in the street, and I didn’t want to appear anything but a modest woman.”

Analysis: The use of the word, “veil,” here is misleading. The covering of the hair by a scarf and modest, loose-fitting dress, commonly referred to by Muslims as “hijab” becomes obligatory for a woman when she reaches puberty. It should not be confused with the face veil, which is often cultural. The purpose of the hijab is so that a woman is not judged by her physical appearance or sexuality, but rather her character, behavior and intelligence.

Page 158: “I had been spared a fate I’d always dreaded. I would never have to share the bed of a man I didn’t want or who didn’t want me.”

Analysis: Islamically, the bride has the final say as to whom she will marry. It is one of the Islamic conditions of marriage that she consent to her marriage. Therefore, Islamically, the marriage contract is not valid without the bride’s consent.

Page 167: “’Lady’, Hassan replied quietly, ‘I don’t know what your motive is, but I know perfectly well what it isn’t. It isn’t to fulfill the commands of Mohammed. Perhaps some man wronged you once, and you take revenge on me instead.’”

Analysis: Revenge is also discouraged in Islam and instead forgiveness with regards to being wronged is encouraged. Unless tried in court before a judge a person is innocent. Vigilantism and revenge is not considered valid law enforcement in Islam.

Page 174-175: “His tone implied his answer was self-evident. ‘I want to ask him to give you in marriage to my son. We’ll expect no wedding gifts. Your person will be sufficient.’”

Analysis: Again as mentioned in passages above, the marriage gift, or mahr in Arabic, is given by the groom to the bride and not the opposite in an Islamic marriage contract.

Page 176: “’…you can’t defy the laws of Allah, Women were meant to marry whomever their fathers decree.’ I didn’t know where in the Koran those words were written, but I didn’t say that out loud either.”

Analysis: This passage again conveys a common misconception about marriage in Islam. No such thing is written in the Quran. Based on Islamic teachings and practices, a woman does not have to marry the man her father chooses, and has the final say as to whom she will marry. She must consent to her marriage in order for the marriage to be legal and valid.

Page 202: “’I swear by my father’s head…’”

Analysis: As stated in an earlier passage, Muslims do not invoke oaths in the name of anyone or anything besides the name of God as it negates the belief that God is the source of everything.


Last updated Monday, January 30, 2006 12:08 PM
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