Tracing the Forgotten Women Scholars of Islam


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Umm Isam

Umm Isam is a writer and human resource trainer, based in Karachi.

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Tracing the Forgotten Women Scholars of Islam

By Umm Isam – Writer and human resource trainer

Muslim societies debate on a plethora of issues, but when the conversations drift to the role of women in Islam, there are fireworks you would never see before. Opinions are sharply divided. As Eileen Collins became the first woman to command the space shuttle, some Muslims were still debating the right of women to drive a car on the road.

Sheikh Nadwi, a research fellow at the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies, after a decade-long research wrote a book titled: “Al-Muhaddithat: The Women Scholars in Islam.” The motivation behind this project was to seek out the real historical record on women’s place in the Islamic tradition. Comprehending the just nature of Islam, what he discovered hardly comes as a surprise.

The Era of Female Scholarship

Sheikh Nadwi unearths: “Since women today participate so little in the teaching of Ahadeeth and the issuing of Fatwas, there is a wide misconception that historically they have never played this role.”

Some 8,000 biographical accounts of female scholars have been unravelled in his study. Furthermore, Imam Dhahabi’s findings confirm that there have been no fabricators among the female narrators of Ahadeeth. Muslim women carried out the responsibility of preservation and development of Islamic learning since the time of Muhammad (sa).

These women were of high calibre in their intellectual achievements. Some even excelled far beyond their male contemporaries. They were exceptional women, who not only actively participated in the society but essentially reformed it. They were narrators of Hadeeth, teachers of theology, logic, philosophy, calligraphy and many other Islamic crafts.

One might assume that this allowed free-mixing and opened doors to Fitnah. These scholars not only had towering intellectual reputations but also immaculate social statuses. By observing the veil and Islamic mannerisms, they were able to seek and impart knowledge to men with dignity.

Just a Few Noteworthy Names

A prominent name is Aisha Siddiqa (rta), who was directly groomed and guided by our beloved Prophet (sa). Her role and contributions as a scholar of Islam continued long after her husband’s death.

It was Hafsah (rta) to whom the original record of the Quran, as it was revealed, was entrusted on parchments and animal bones. It was due to this preserved record that Caliph Usman (rta) was able to disseminate six standardised versions of the Quran to the major political and cultural centres of his times.

In the eigth century, Fatima Al-Batayahi taught Sahih Al-Bukhari to students in Damascus. During the Hajj, male scholars from far flocked to hear her speak in person.

In the twelfth century, Zainab Binte Kamal is known to have taught more than four hundred books of Hadeeth. She was a natural teacher, exhibiting exceptional patience with her students.

Fatimah Bint Muhammad As-Samarqandi was a jurist, who advised her husband (who happened to be more popular than her) on how to issue Fatwas.

Umm Ad-Darda was a scholar who used to attend discourses in the same Masjid as her male counterparts. She assumed the role of a teacher of Fiqh and Hadeeth and taught men. One of her students was a caliph of Damascus.

How Did They Disappear?

The contributing factors towards gross violations of women today and the disappearance of their intellectual contributions are many. Today, some of us are in complete awe of the Western world and eager to follow their footsteps. But how many of us comprehend that women have always had a problematic position in the Judeo-Christian tradition? The most obvious example is the fall of Adam (as) and Hawa (as) from the Garden of Paradise, for which they bitterly accuse Hawa (as). They squarely place the blame on her and consider the pains of childbirth that every woman bears as atonement for the original sin committed by her.

Until the sixteenth century, Western Europe was debating whether or not women have souls. Should they be given rights equal to men? Finally, women’s equality was established (at least on documents) by the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. When Western authorities began to colonize Muslim societies, the first step taken was to exclude women from teaching in Masajid and assuming political roles. Thus, the trend began to be implanted by the Western colonizers among Muslim men, who by now were a frail picture of cultural baggage, unaware of their own rich Islamic history.

The gradual retraction of women from the public and scholarship circles eventually happened.

The Reactive Measures

When we began to lose balance between genders in the Muslim world, two extreme corrective measures emerged on the horizon. Muslim feminists threw women forward as a model of gender-less Islam, free from the shackles of male scholarship. They propelled women to become Imams and state leaders, in desperation to find a voice for them.

On the other extreme, countless religious clerics began to perceive women’s rights as an import from the Western culture. Hence, they put up their best defence and locked their women inside, keeping them away from education, work and self-awareness. Thus, there is little that separates some misogynistic Mullahs from progressive feminists. Both are reactions to a crisis of confidence in their own faith.

Throughout Muslim history, women who assumed the roles of leadership in scholarship are the same women who followed male Imams in a Masjid and observed the veil. They were nurturing mothers, comforting companions, inspiring teachers and contributing citizens.

Need of the Hour

We need to understand that the Quran lays down the fundamental equality of men and women. Our Prophet (sa) propagated that there is no difference of worth between the believers on account of their gender.

Relegating women only to the role of a mother and a housewife is a phenomenon that has emerged in the recent years. Consequently, women who have little education and plentiful time indulge in fanning home rifts and viewing substandard TV shows. Others, who have a decent education and privileges, prefer to engage in frivolous pastimes. Learning and dispensing Islamic education is not a prerogative.

Aisha (rta) was the beloved companion of our Prophet (sa) yet, didn’t she lead an army? Umm Salamah (rta) was known for her piety and as an exemplary wife. Didn’t she counsel our Prophet (sa) at the crisis of Hudaibiyah?

I can’t but sadly agree with Sheikh Nadwi’s conclusion that “the irony of our forgotten women scholars is that they spent their lives in the pursuit of historical facts, whereas Muslims have long forgotten the fact of their contribution”.

  1. I have read this book, it s excellent and I think this is an important topic as women are increasingly confused about their role in life…

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