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Reviving a Tradition: Muslim Women as Religious Authorities

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  • yogi sikand
    Reviving a Tradition: Muslim Women as Religious Authorities Yoginder Sikand Separate madrasas for Muslim girls are a relatively recent phenomenon in India.
    Message 1 of 1 , Jan 15 2:37 AM
      Reviving a Tradition: Muslim Women as Religious

      Yoginder Sikand

      Separate madrasas for Muslim girls are a relatively
      recent phenomenon in India. Although the number of
      such madrasas is still small, there is a distinct
      trend towards setting up more such institutions, both
      that provide only religious education, as well as
      those that combine both Islamic and modern subjects.
      What impact these institutions might have for the
      reconstruction of contemporary Islamic thought remains
      to be seen, but that the fact that they are helping to
      subtly refashion structures of Indian Muslim religious
      authority, till now largely a male domain, is obvious.

      The setting up of girls' madrasas is a crucial focus
      of many advocates of madrasa reform today. Contrary to
      what is often imagined, numerous male ulema or clerics
      are among the most enthusiastic supporters of this
      cause. In recent years, a steady stream of writings on
      the subject has emerged, arguing the case for such
      institutions from within an Islamic paradigm. It may
      well be said to reflect, in a certain sense, the
      emergence of a gender-friendly understanding of Islam
      that critiques male, patriarchal control of religious
      knowledge as 'anti-Islamic'.

      A passionate argument for Muslim girls' education,
      including girls' madrasas, is presented in a recent
      work by a noted Hyderabad-based Islamic scholar, Mufti
      Muhammad Mustafa Abdul Quddus Nadvi. A graduate of the
      renowned Nawat ul-Ulama madrasa in Lucknow, the Mufti
      teaches at the Mahad al-Ali al-Islami, headed by
      Maulana Khalid Saifullah Rahmani, a widely-respected
      Indian Muslim scholar.

      Titled 'Talibat Ki Dini wa Asri Talim Aur Unki
      Darsgahen' ('Women's Religious and Modern Education
      and Their Institutions'), this book stresses the
      importance of both secular as well as religious
      education for Muslim women, marshalling Islamic
      arguments for this purpose. If women, who constitute
      half of the Muslim population, continue to be
      educationally deprived, he says, Muslim society cannot
      progress, particularly since mothers exercise an
      important influence on their children.

      To press his case, the Mufti refers to verses in the
      Quran and the corpus of Hadith, the traditions
      attributed to the Prophet Muhammad, that stress the
      importance of education and to instances of well-known
      women scholars in early Muslim history. All forms of
      'useful' knowledge, the Mufti says, are allowed for in
      Islam, be they useful for the life after death or in
      this world. The latter include subjects such as
      languages, the social and the natural sciences,
      medicine, engineering and so on. The Quran exhorts all
      Muslims, males and females, to acquire useful
      knowledge. Without such knowledge, the Mufti says,
      people cannot 'walk on the right path'. Using this
      knowledge, he goes on, women can even seek employment
      outside the house, provided they do not, as a result,
      neglect their familial responsibilities and also do
      not transgress the limits set by the shariah. He
      refers to a tradition attributed to the Prophet, who
      is said to have declared that a man should treat his
      daughter in a good manner. 'What could be better',
      asks the Mufti, 'than providing her with a good

      Every Muslim, male and female, must also have at least
      a basic knowledge of Islam, writers the Mufti. Hence
      the need for girls' madrasas. He cites the fact that
      the Prophet was requested by some Muslim women to
      provide them, in addition to their men-folk, religious
      instruction, which he acceded to. Because, in contrast
      to many other religions, Islam positively encourages
      women to acquire religious knowledge, there were
      several woman religious specialists among the early
      Muslims, particularly among the sahabiyat or female
      companions of the Prophet. These, the Mufti points
      out, included several female Quranic commentators
      (mufassir), narrators of hadith reports ( muhaddith),
      jurisprudents (faqiha) and scholars (alima).

      The most notable of these early Muslim women scholars,
      the Mufti writes, was Hazrat Ayesha, the youngest wife
      of the Prophet. He describes her as being an expert in
      Quranic commentary. Besides, she, almost with some
      other wives of the Prophet, narrated numerous Hadith
      reports. She is also said to have delivered numerous
      fatwas or opinions on jurisprudential issues ( fiqhi
      masail) and thus was among the first female muftis
      (muftia). On certain matters on which there was no
      explicit reference in the Quran and the Hadith, she is
      said to have exercised her own judgment or ijtihad,
      which made her one of the first Muslim mujtahids. Some
      other wives of the Prophet and certain other sahabiyat
      also gave fatwas, and male companions of the Prophet
      or sahaba are said to have consulted them. In that
      sense, they served the function of Muftis.

      Hazrat Ayesha, the Mufti goes on, was also one of the
      few early Muslims who had a deep understanding of the
      'secrets of the faith' ( asrar ud-din), including of
      the causes (asbab) and the pronouncement (hukum) on
      certain issues ( masla). Several wives of the Prophet
      would teach other Muslim women about religious
      matters. For her part, Hazrat Ayesha also taught
      numerous male companions of the Prophet after his
      demise. Some of them would recite hadith narrations to
      her, which she would correct. They would also ask her
      for her opinions on various fiqh issues.

      The argument the Mufti puts forward obviously has
      crucial consequences for the pattern and structure of
      religious authority in contemporary Muslim societies.
      Since several early Muslim women had a specialized
      knowledge of different branches of Islamic learning,
      some of them even excelling men in their fields of
      learning, the Mufti suggests that there is nothing to
      prevent Muslim women today from emulating their
      example. Indeed, he positively exhorts them to do so.
      If these early female Muslim scholars had acquired
      such a stature that even some male companions of the
      Prophet sought knowledge from them, today the doors to
      becoming muftis and religious experts are still open
      to Muslim women.

      In line with his understanding that there is no rigid
      distinction between 'religious' and 'secular'
      knowledge in Islam and that all forms of 'useful'
      knowledge are Islamically legitimate, the Mufti goes
      on to argue that Islam allows for women to acquire
      'secular' knowledge as well, along with religious
      education. Here, too, he cites the instances of some
      noted female companions of the Prophet, presenting
      them as role models for Muslim women today. Thus, he
      notes, Hazrat Ayesha taught a woman to write, and
      several other sahabiyat, too, were literate. Hazrat
      Khansa was said to excel even men in poetry. Sakina
      bint Abu Abdullah had a good knowledge of astronomy.
      Hazrat Umm Salim is said to have crafted a weapon.
      Numerous Muslim women helped the injured in battles
      led by the Prophet. Hazrat Ibn Masud's wife was a
      craftsperson and used her skills to financially
      support her family. Hazrat Asma bin Mukharama used to
      sell perfumes. And so on.

      In short, the Mufti argues, Muslim women can or,
      indeed, should acquire both 'secular' and religious
      knowledge. In addition, they can train to become
      religious authorities. To do so would not be a
      wrongful innovation, nor would it lead women astray,
      as is sometimes argued. Rather, it would be a revival
      of a precedent and a religiously-sanctioned and
      historical tradition that needs to be resurrected.

      Sukhia Sab Sansar Khaye Aur Soye
      Dukhia Das Kabir Jagey Aur Roye

      The world is 'happy', eating and sleeping
      The forlorn Kabir Das is awake and weeping

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