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Muslim Women Scholars Must Bloom Again - Islam City

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  • Zafar Khan
    Muslim Women Scholars Must Bloom Again 7/30/2004 - Social Education - Article Ref: IC0407-2404 By: Dr. Mohammad Omar Farooq IslamiCity* -
    Message 1 of 1 , Aug 2, 2004
      Muslim Women Scholars Must Bloom Again
      7/30/2004 - Social Education - Article Ref:
      By: Dr. Mohammad Omar Farooq
      IslamiCity* -


      Ever since becoming conscious about Islam on one hand
      and the contemporary social reality on the other, I
      have often been disturbed by realizing that, in many
      aspects, there is a huge gap between what Islam stands
      for and what the social reality is. A vital area where
      this gap is so pronounced is gender issues. After
      tying the knot with my beloved wife and then joining
      the parents club through two most wonderful daughters,
      I was compelled to take a much closer look at gender

      I have remained keen over the years to learn more
      about these issues. However, I have been increasingly
      dissatisfied as I continued to discover directly from
      the Qur'an, Qur'anic literature, Hadith, Seerah and
      history that what we are generally adhering to, and
      traditionally defending and promoting in regard to
      gender issues stands in sharp contrast to the Qur'anic
      and Prophetic vision as well as the heritage.

      There is a general notion among the religious
      establishment of Islam, and derived there from, among
      the common Muslims, that Islam recognizes superiority
      of men over women. Even Sayyid Abul Ala Maudoodi, in
      his commentary on verse 4 of Surah an-Nisa in Tafhimul
      Qur'an (Toward Understanding the Qur'an; older
      translation by Zafar Ishaq Ansari) argues that men has
      been given superiority/excellence (fadhilat) over
      women, but not in the sense that they are above them
      in honor and excellence.

      Well, even though he added some qualifier, as far as
      his qualifier is concerned, if honor and excellence
      are excluded from the scope of superiority/excellence,
      what exactly is the meaning and basis of superiority
      then? Indeed, completely discounting birth-related
      distinctions, he commented on verse 13 of Surah
      al-Hujurat: "... In that (Islamic) society there is no
      distinction based on color, race, language, or
      nationality. ..." (tr.).

      One should be impressed by Maulana Maudoodi's
      articulation as to the sweeping implication of the
      verse that destroyed the foundation of any other
      concept of superiority/excellence. However, is it not
      proper to include gender in that list, too? Once
      again, unless we are willing to accept the implication
      that this Qur'anic declaration (49:13) - Verily the
      most honored of you in the sight of Allah is (the
      person who is) the most Allah-conscious. - applies to
      males only, it is only Islamic that Maulana Maudoodi's
      comment should have read, inclusive of gender, as
      following: "... In that society there is no
      distinction based on color, race, language,
      nationality or gender. ..."

      Muslims routinely take the position that Islam does
      not recognize any unfair distinction based on color,
      race, language, or nationality. Unfortunately,
      however, even in this age of gender consciousness, we
      are failing to uphold and present Islam in consonance
      with the full scope of the Qur'anic vision and the
      Prophetic heritage.

      Not too long ago, a friend of mine from Los Angeles,
      California (teaching at a university there) called me
      and among other things, lamented the fact that his
      otherwise devoted Muslim family is finding a difficult
      time to have rooms assigned for them in Masjid with
      appropriate or adequate ventilation. Might a little
      bit of natural light and wind be hazardous to our
      women's as well as our spiritual health and

      There are many Muslim countries where women going out
      for their regular needs find little or no facility for
      women to wash and pray. Several years ago I
      participated in the Shura (consultative) committee of
      one of the Islamic Centers in USA. By the vote of the
      community, the elected chairman of the Shura was
      joined by his wife (also elected as a member) in the
      Shura as well. At the very first meeting, one of the
      brothers - who must have felt that the presence of the
      sister, even with her husband present, was a violation
      of Islam - to protect his own piety and lodge his
      silent but otherwise conspicuous protest, stood up and

      Several years ago, I visited a Masjid in one of the
      Midwestern states in USA, where I found the facilities
      for washing for men was not that good but survivable.
      However, due to neglect or poor maintenance, whatever
      might be, my young daughter, going around by herself
      into the women's section, later on, came out crying at
      what she experienced there. A non-Muslim woman in one
      of the places of America was refused the taxi-service
      by a Muslim driver because she had a dog with her. It
      did not matter that she was blind. The brother,
      feeling duty bound (?), offered a prodigious lecture
      to this blind, non-Muslim lady. Although there are
      many examples to the contrary, there are some
      disturbing patterns that Muslims themselves should be
      confronting and scrutinizing in a self-critical and
      proactive manner.

      The literacy rate is already poor in the Muslim
      countries and the rate for women is disproportionately
      lower. Let us not talk about the poor women in various
      countries who are without any protection and whose
      life, honor and property are anybody's game. Women
      were robbed of their professional and out-of-the home
      positions under strict public code in Taliban's
      "Islamic" Republic of Afghanistan. In contrast, Muslim
      women in Iran are doing relatively a lot better, but
      the top-tier religious hierarchy is still a drag on
      the society's overall progress. In the heartland of
      Islam with Makkah and Medina, controlled by a
      externally-installed dynasty and dominated by
      Wahhabism, women don't have the right to drive. It is
      so ironic and outrageous, because the sacred city of
      Makkah was founded through the valiant and exemplary
      struggle and sacrifice of a lone woman, Hajera, the
      wife of Ibrahim and the mother of Ismail (a). Yet, now
      a woman does not have the right to drive by herself.

      More seriously, quite often we hear about women being
      meted out capital punishment for illicit sexual
      relations. Usually, women bear the brunt of the
      orthodox Shariah codes, even though we all know that
      even when raped, women, for a multitude of reasons,
      can't be so easily expected to step up and claim to
      have been raped. In many countries, women are
      routinely deprived of their property and inheritance.
      As personal and family matters, women rarely can
      secure their rights even from their relatives. In many
      Muslim countries, women are routinely subjected to
      physical violence, often lethally, which is condoned
      or tolerated by the broader society as personal or
      family matter. Vulnerable women are routinely married
      to be added to a husband's collection and also
      divorced at random as it pleases the husbands. The
      existing laws, values, customs and power structures -
      in combination - make and keep women weak, vulnerable,
      marginalized, and even oppressed.

      Of course, women are completely absent from the
      pertinent discourse to shape and reshape the Islamic
      laws and codes. Islamic movements in various parts of
      the world are chanting about the progress they have
      made in promoting the cause of the women in accordance
      with Islam and vainly arguing how Islam is rightfully
      superior in dealing with women's rights. As they are
      still groping with the issues whether women should
      veil themselves, they have no problem with men playing
      games, such as soccer, with albeit "longer" shorts! In
      some Muslim countries, leading Islamic parties still
      stubbornly insist that women must cover their face as
      well. They might be super-lenient in regard to
      interpreting Islam in matters of political expediency,
      but regarding women's issues they have to be most
      extremely conservative. Many such organizations are
      also promoting separate women's educational
      institutions as well as separate women's organizations
      for Islamic causes. At the same time, Islamic parties
      in many Muslim countries remain at bay without broad
      support, especially from women, while they have to
      contend with challenges from many home-grown,
      viciously anti-Islamic feminists. Indeed, a whole new
      generation of men and women is growing up with the
      entrenched impression - and even conviction - that
      Islam is seriously biased in terms of gender issues.
      These are Islamic movements that seem rather unable to
      MOVE in a contemporary context.

      I should clarify that my arguments and opinions herein
      are to be applicable within the context of Islam. For
      example, when I am referring to the insistence by
      Jamaat-e-Islami in Bangladesh on veiling of women, it
      is because I consider this veiling Islamically
      unacceptable. Such position is based on extreme
      conservatism, especially when it comes to gender
      issues. Let me raise some further questions now. Are
      men really superior to women according to Islam? Why
      don't we have women Islamic scholars, experts, and
      Mujtahids (jurisprudents)? To solve the problems of
      women, do we need, or is it Islamic, to have separate
      Islamic schools/colleges/mosques? Is it alright for
      women to give lectures to a mixed gathering of Muslim
      men and women? How about doing so at Islamic

      I hope that I have not already rung too many alarm
      bells. Based on my study of the Qur'an, Hadith, Seerah
      and history, I have concluded quite a while ago that
      what we are promoting, both by saying and doing, today
      are mostly opposite to what Islam teaches. Then,
      several years ago it was by chance I came across a
      book Struggling to Surrender by a new American Muslim,
      Dr. Jeffrey Lang. The book was captivating. But apart
      from its richness in terms of the experience he
      frankly shared and thoughts he provoked, it was an
      important eye-opening experience for me in regard to
      gender issues. We are generally aware that Muslim
      women, such as Hadhrat Aishah, Fatima, Khadija (r),
      and others, have played distinguished role during and
      immediately after the period of the Prophet. In that
      book, there were some brief references to a forgotten,
      but very distinctive role Muslim women have played in
      Islamic history.

      My interest was deeply aroused. I followed up by
      reading the original reference, Hadith Literature: Its
      Origin, Development, Special Features & Criticism by
      Dr. Muhammad Zubayr Siddiqi, a late scholar from
      Calcutta University [Cambridge: The Islamic Texts
      Society, 1993]. This book had a chapter titled "Women
      Scholars of Hadith," [pp. 117-123] which was an
      eye-opener for me.

      For the first time I realized one of the most basic
      defects in our contemporary Muslim attitude and
      thinking in regard to gender issues. We all know that
      beyond the few towering women personalities in the
      earliest part of the Prophetic era, we can hardly name
      any woman scholar. It is well-known that in our
      contemporary century, Islamic scholars, Imams,
      experts, as well as leaders of Islamic movements, have
      not been educated by men and women. Going back
      further, even noted scholars such as Shah Waliullah
      Dehlavi and Shaikh Ahmad of Sarhind, popularly known
      as Mujaddid Alf Sani (correct me, if I am wrong) did
      not have any woman among their educators. It was
      simply not possible, because "women scholars" of Islam
      - teaching men and women, in public context, where
      many of them were, overall the best of the best of
      their time, not just among women - have become an
      extinct species.

      What am I saying? Learning of Islam by men from men
      and women? Tell me, isn't it true that the founder of
      Tabligh Jamaat (Maulana Muhammad Ilyas), founder of
      Ikhwan al-Muslimoon ( Shaikh Hasan al-Banna), Saudi
      Arabia's late chief Mufti Shaikh Ibn Bazz, or even the
      founder of Jamaate Islami (Sayyid Abul Ala Maudoodi)
      did not have among their educators any contemporary
      women scholar? How many of us have ever heard or known
      that there were times spanning many centuries when top
      male Islamic scholars sometimes used to recommend
      their mixed groups of students, men and women, to
      learn a particular text such as Sahih al-Bukhari or
      Sahih Muslim from none other than some specific woman
      scholar? If we have not, the attitude of these
      generations of Muslims, including their leaders,
      scholars, mentors, vis-a-vis women, can be better

      The role of women scholars of hadith is unique in the
      human history, prior to our modern times. There is
      simply no parallel to this special and valuable role
      played by women scholars in the development,
      preservation and dissemination of Islamic knowledge.
      In the words of Dr. Zubayr Siddiqi, "History records
      few scholarly enterprises, at least before modern
      times, in which women have played an important and
      active role side by side with men. The science of
      hadith forms an outstanding exception in this respect.
      ... Islam produced a large number of outstanding
      female scholars, on whose testimony and sound judgment
      much of the edifice of Islam depends. ... Since
      Islam's earliest days, women had been taking a
      prominent part in the preservation and cultivation of
      hadith, and this function continued down the
      centuries. At every period in Muslim history, there
      lived numerous eminent women-traditionists, treated by
      their brethren with reverence and respect." [p. 117]

      Muslims are generally familiar with a handful of
      female luminaries from the time of the Prophet.
      However, what they are generally unfamiliar with is a
      large number of women scholars over many centuries
      after the first generation. This is an unforgivable
      lapse for the Ummah.

      Just to mention a few, hopefully, would spark our
      interest in learning about this neglected dimension of
      our remarkable history. Do we know that Umm al-Darda
      (d. 81/700) was regarded by some of her contemporary
      leading male traditionists as "superior to all the
      other traditionists of the period, including the
      celebrated masters of hadith like al-Hasan al-Basri
      and Ibn Sirin." 'Amra was specially recognized for her
      authority on traditions related by A'isha and among
      her many notable students was Abu Bakr ibn Hazm, the
      celebrated judge of Medina, who was ordered by none
      other than the caliph Umar ibn Abd al-Aziz himself to
      write down all the traditions known on her authority.
      [p. 118]

      Zaynab bint Sulayman (d. 142/759) "gained a reputation
      as one of the most distinguished women traditionists
      of the time, and counted many important men among her
      pupils." [p. 118] Almost without any exception, the
      compilers of major collections of hadith also lists a
      good number of women traditionists and scholars as
      their teachers. "A survey of the texts reveals that
      all the important compilers of traditions from the
      earliest period received many of them from women
      shuyukh: every major collection gives the names of
      many women as the immediate authorities of the author.
      And when these works had been compiled, the women
      traditionists themselves mastered them, and delivered
      lectures to large classes of pupils, to whom they
      would issue their own ijazas." [pp. 118-119]

      It is so unfortunate and ironic that now this hadith
      literature in particular is used to suppress and deny
      the role, rights and status of women and confine them
      to the corners of our households. During the fourth
      century, there were women scholars, whose classes were
      always attended by many other scholars of great
      repute. Karima al-Marwaziyya (d. 463/1070), is one of
      those names that we should proudly know and remember,
      "who was considered the best authority on the Sahih of
      al-Bukhari in her own time. Abu Dharr of Herat, one of
      the leading scholars of the period, attached such
      great importance to her authority that he advised his
      students to study the Sahih under no one else, because
      of the quality of her scholarship." Among her students
      were al-Khatib al-Baghdadi, a noted Islamic scholar
      and historian. [p. 119]

      Fatima bint Muhammad (d.539/1144) received from her
      contemporary hadith specialists "the proud title of
      Musnida Isfahan (the great hadith authority of
      Isfahan)." Shuhda 'the Writer' (d.574/1178) "was a
      famous calligrapher and a traditionist of great repute
      ... Her lectures on Sahih al-Bukhari and other hadith
      collections were attended by large crowds of students;
      and on account of her great reputation, some people
      even falsely claimed to have been her disciples. [p.

      Sitt al-Wuzara became well-known as an authority on
      Bukhari. Her acclaimed mastery included Islamic law as
      well. Crowned as 'the musnida of her time', she
      delivered public lectures on the Sahih and other works
      in Damascus and Egypt. [p. 120]

      In fourteenth century, Zaynab bint Ahmad (d.740/1339)
      used to deliver public lectures the Musnad of Abu
      Hanifa, the Shamail of al-Tirmidhi, and the Sharh
      Ma'ani al-Athar of al-Tahawi. Do we remember the great
      traveler Ibn Battuta? He studied hadith with her and
      various other women during his stay at Damascus. [p.

      Learning was by both men and women. So was teaching,
      and the environment definitely was not a segregated
      one, where the learning as well as teaching took
      place. There were hardly any notable men during those
      centuries who did not receive teaching from women
      scholars as well. Furthermore, it was not just one or
      a few isolated cases. But there were a large number of
      women whose contribution to the field of learning and
      teaching remains an honored tradition that we may have
      altogether forgotten and neglected. Worse; many of us
      become vehemently opposed to it.

      The famous historian of Damascus, Ibn Asakir, studied
      under more than 1,200 men and 80 women. He obtained
      the special ijaza of Zaynab bint Abd al-Rahman for the
      Muwatta of Imam Malik. The famous Qur'anic commentator
      Jalal al-Din al-Suyuti studied the Risala of Imam
      Shafii with Hajar bint Muhammad. Zaynab bint al-Sha'ri
      (d.524/615-1129/1218) studied hadith under several
      important traditionists, and in turn taught many
      students - "some of who gained great repute -
      including Ibn Khallikan, author of the well-known
      biographical dictionary Wafayat al-Ayan." [pp.

      Further account of the women scholars' contribution
      can be found in the works of Ibn Hajar, the author of
      the most important commentary on Sahih al-Bukhari. In
      one of his works, he provides short biographical
      accounts of no less than about 170 prominent women of
      the eighth century. Most of them were hadith scholars
      and under many of whom the author himself had studied.
      According to him, some of these women were
      acknowledged as the best traditionists of the period.
      For example, Juwayriya bint Ahmad, studied a range of
      works on traditions, under scholars both male and
      female. She then taught at the great colleges of the
      time, and then offered famous lectures on various
      Islamic disciplines, which used to attract an audience
      of high reputes. Some of Ibn Hajar's own teachers and
      many of his contemporaries attended her discourses.
      Another teacher of him was A'isha bin Abd al-Hadi
      (723-816). She was regarded as the finest traditionist
      of her time. Students from diverse backgrounds used to
      travel long distances "in order to sit at her feet and
      study the truths of religion." [p. 121]

      In a book al-Daw al-Lami, biographical dictionary of
      eminent persons of the ninth century, Muhammad ibn Abd
      al-Rahman al-Sakhawi (830-897/1427-1489) provides
      information about the great women scholars of that
      period. In another book, Mu'jam al-Shuyukh, Abd
      al-Aziz ibn Umar ibn Fahd (812-871/1409-1466),
      provides biographical notes about "1,100 of the
      author's teachers, including over 130 women scholars
      under whom he had studied." Many of these women
      scholars were of the highest repute and trained many
      of the great scholars of the following generation. [p.

      There were women scholars whose field of expertise
      went far beyond hadith. "Umm Hani Maryam
      (778-871/1376-1466), for instance, learnt the Qur'an
      by heart when still a child, acquired all the Islamic
      sciences then being taught, including theology, law,
      history, and grammar, and then traveled to pursue
      hadith with the best traditionists of her time in
      Cairo and Mecca. ... She pursued an intensive program
      of learning in the great college of Cairo, giving
      ijazas to many scholars, Ibn Fahd himself studied
      several technical works on hadith under her." [pp.

      A'isha bin Ibrahim (760/1358-842/1438) studied
      traditions in Damascus and Cairo, and "delivered
      lectures which eminent scholars of the day spared no
      efforts to attend." [p. 122]

      For various reasons that should be subject of a
      serious study, the "involvement of women in hadith
      scholarships, and in the Islamic disciplines
      generally, seems to have declined considerably from
      the tenth century of the hijra." [p. 122] There are
      several other biographical dictionaries that list
      names of women scholars of the subsequent period, but
      in vastly reduced numbers. Yet, as part of an
      endangered group, there were women who continued their
      valuable contribution. Asma bint Kamal al-Din
      (d.904/1498) wielded great public influence. She
      delivered public lectures on hadith, and trained women
      in various Islamic sciences. A'isha bint Muhammad
      (d.906/1500) taught hadith to many students. She was a
      professor at the Salihiyya College in Damascus. [p.

      The last known woman traditionist of the first rank,
      Fatima al-Fudayliya, also known as al-Shaykha
      al-Fudayliya, settled at Mecca. She founded a rich
      public library there. "In the Holy City she was
      attended by many eminent traditionists, who attended
      her lectures and received certificates from her." [p.

      History records that these women scholars "took their
      seats as students as well as teachers in pubic
      educational institutions, side by side with their
      brothers in faith. The colophons of many manuscripts
      show them both as students attending large general
      classes, and also as teachers, delivering regular
      courses of lectures." These were NOT gender-wise
      segregated institutions either. "[O]n folio 250, we
      discover that a famous woman traditionist, Umm Abd
      Allah, delivered a course of five lectures on the book
      to a mixed class of more than fifty students, at
      Damascus in the year 837/1433." [p. 123]

      Although one can't draw a superficial connection
      between the decline of the Islamic civilization and
      the gradual disappearance of the women scholarship and
      participation, the reality is that our collective
      foundation of knowledge and heritage is based on the
      proud and noble contribution of scholarship of both
      men and women, as students and teachers, side by side,
      and there must have been substantive consequence from
      this loss of women scholarship.

      The conditions of the Muslim world in general, and
      that of Muslim women in particular, stand in sharp
      contrast with the Islamic vision and heritage that
      continued through many centuries after the Prophet.
      Today, Muslim women are rarely welcome in the public
      life and especially in the mosque, let alone being
      part of our pool of educators, experts and mentors.
      This has created serious disenchantment among the
      women in the Muslim world, and turned some of them
      into bitter opponent to religion in general and Islam
      in particular. The existing conditions are a clear
      perversion of Islamic teachings and guidance. The
      absence of women scholars has also caused a great
      imbalance in our Islamic discourse in general and
      Islamic law (fiqh) in particular, by leaning toward
      the most extremely restrictive positions, opinions and
      provisions for the women.

      In our contemporary time, there are Muslim women,
      particularly educated in the West or in the western
      tradition, who are establishing themselves as scholars
      of Islam. This is a very encouraging development. They
      are making critical contributions toward a new legacy
      of quality scholarship, especially in the field of
      gender issues. However, their emergence is not
      internal to Islam, and the broader Muslim society is
      yet to embrace them as part of the religious
      establishment, toward which they turn to for religious
      scholarship. Of course, the religious establishment
      continues its orthodox resistance against such
      development of women scholarship and participation to
      protect their traditional turf.

      In order to adequately empower women from the Islamic
      perspective, women need to equally and fully
      participate in our society, beginning with education
      and scholarship. The principle of Shura (mutual
      consultation) requires that those whose lives are
      affected by various decisions/opinions of Islamic laws
      and dictates ought to be full participants in the
      pertinent discourse. Women need to take interest in
      and men come forward to facilitate women's development
      in the field of education and scholarship. Muslim men
      need to demand such changes, as our Islamic pursuit
      for positive change can't be either complete or
      balanced without women being our full and equal
      partners. We need to cherish an environment where
      Muslim men, side by side with women, can engage in
      Islamic education and discourse, as students as well
      as teachers. We need women in all fields of Islamic
      and other studies, where men must excel in a
      competitive environment. We need to take this pursuit
      seriously, until we have qualified Islamic
      jurisprudents (mujtahids) and scholars among women,
      side by side with men, whose joint input would reshape
      our Islamic discourse and laws.

      This does require no less than a revolutionary change,
      but it is an Islamic must. It is like turning Islam in
      our lives downside up, because Islam as we understand
      and practice it has been turned upside down. Muslims
      need to coalesce together to revive this glorious
      tradition of women's scholarship. Without them, our
      society would be fundamentally deficient and
      imbalanced, which will be reflected in all walks of
      our lives. That is why we again need women scholars

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