By Shaykha Safia Shahid
Sayidduna Abu Musa al-Ashari (RA), one of the great male companions, said, “No hadith presented us companions of the Prophet (PBUH) with difficulty but that we would ask Sayyida Aisha (RA) about it and we found she had knowledge of it (Tirmidhi).”
Islamic history is replete with examples of women who excelled in Islamic disciplines such as Hadith, Islamic law, Arabic and spirituality. Women used to study, teach, author books and issue legal edicts (fatwas). Moreover, they were sought for their knowledge and were consulted on important affairs.
This heritage has seen some of the most brilliant females, such as Zainab bint al-Kamal, Fatima al-Fihri and Rabia al-Adawiyya, leave a lasting impact on Islamic civilisation.
Zaynab bint al-Kamal, a great hadith scholar, was noted for the numerous ijazas of hadith transmission (a ‘camel load’) she acquired in her lifetime. She delivered lectures in some of the most prestigious institutes in Damascus. The great traveller Ibn Battuta, as well as many others, benefited from her during his stay in Damascus.
Fatima al-Fihri founded the University of Qarawiyyin in Fez, Morocco, the oldest still in existence. She was an educated and ambitious woman who devoted her inherited fortune to pioneering this great centre of learning.
Rabia al-Adawiyya was one of the greatest saints, remembered for her devotion, piety and absorption in the service of God.
Muslim women enjoyed a prominent presence in Islamic scholarly society. The great feats of knowledge they achieved can only be admired by later generations, who can only aspire to revive this lost legacy. Tragically, in the modern age, female achievement in Islamic scholarship is rare. Very few Muslim women are immersing themselves in this course of study and benefitting others with their knowledge.
In the light of these and other past inspirational real life examples of female achievement, this chapter will provide a practical insight into how Muslim women can benefit the communities in which they live.
The importance of seeking knowledge in the Islamic tradition
In Islam, both males and females are encouraged to flourish in society; one of the more profound ways by which they can be elevated to high rank is through the acquisition of knowledge and its practice. Islam places significant virtue on those who follow the path of sacred knowledge. In the Noble Quran, Allah says, “Are those who know equal to those who do not know?” (39:9). The answer is obvious, for how can a pious scholar be equated with one bereft of knowledge? Furthermore, He says, “Allah will exalt in degrees those of you who believe and those who have been granted knowledge.” (Quran: 58:11).
A tradition of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) states, “Whoever Allah wants good for, He gives him understanding of the religion.” (Bukhari). He (PBUH) also said: “The learned are the heirs of the Prophets. The Prophets did not leave behind a legacy of money but they left knowledge. Whoever takes it takes a bountiful share.”
The Islamic tradition does not favour men over females in the attainment of this glory. Far from inhibiting female learning, the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) emphasised this when he said: “Seeking knowledge is obligatory upon every Muslim,” – male and female.
The need for scholarship
Islam provides clarity for the challenges of the modern age. Scholars are required to respond to any challenges regarding the existence of God in light of scientific and philosophical discussions, evolution, the role of women in society, extremism, technology, social media and so on. Women versed in the Islamic tradition are needed to help bridge the gap between traditional knowledge and contemporary debates. They are also needed to fulfil the educational and spiritual needs of other women. Moreover, they are ideal role models for their children and hence play an important role in nurturing the next generation of Muslims.
There is a desperate need to educate and guide in an ever-increasingly confusing world. Teaching is a responsibility of the inheritors of the Prophets, the Ulema (learned scholars). One of the earliest examples of female scholarship in Islam is embodied in the personality and historical role of Sayyida Aisha (RA), the beloved wife of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). Her contribution to the preservation of the religion continues to benefit both men and women to this day. Nurtured in the prophetic household, the legacy of Sayyida Aisha (RA) is testimony to the inclusivity of females in the Islamic tradition and the care of the Prophet (PBUH) in teaching female companions in scholarship.
Steps to becoming a scholar
Females are an integral part of society and Islam grants them the opportunity to inherit the Prophetic legacy. The great legacy of the past needs to be revived so that women can regain the voice that has been blurred in recent times.
An ijazah is a grant of permission that indicates that one has been authorised to transmit a certain subject or text of Islamic knowledge. It enables one to teach and preserves the integrity of the knowledge. Since “This matter is Religion, so be careful from whom you take your religion,” a strong emphasis is placed on obtaining knowledge from sound sources. Scholars usually grant ijazah to those they deem to be qualified.
Many mosques and institutes in the UK are seeking qualified female teachers; there are various opportunities that women may explore in this respect, including teaching adults. Posts may include the teaching of designated texts or assisting in building a curriculum. Such mosques and institutes of learning can nourish spiritual growth for women in the community at the grassroots level, away from worldly distractions.
The Islamic tradition does not deprive women of the care of the soul and sainthood. In their quest for the Divine, women may, in fact, reach ranks their male counterparts may not; Divine Grace may be showered on a wife while her husband is deprived. Female teachers can play the pivotal role of fulfilling the educational and spiritual needs of both males and females.
In children’s madrassas, young Muslims are taught the Noble Quran at an early age and given basic guidance to be good Muslims. This includes the basics of cleanliness and prayer, good manners and morals and basic knowledge relating to beliefs. Those who enjoy working with children may find it very rewarding to help children become grounded in their religion.
If a local community lacks a madrassa, this should not pose an obstacle. Even setting up a madrassa at home serves the very important function of imparting the foundations of religion to children. Those who wish to open a public madrassa may secure a venue for this purpose.
Women may also hold gatherings for the remembrance of Allah Ta’ala at mosques, institutes or homes. These gatherings help to reconnect to Allah Ta’ala and purify the heart. Allah Ta’ala says, “O you who believe, make abundant remembrance of Allah.” (Quran: 33:41).
Recognition of one’s condition of service before one’s Creator is a means to a spiritually fulfilling life. Participating in such gatherings assists in nourishing the soul and attaining the mercy of Allah. The Prophet (PBUH) said, “No people sit and remember Allah except that the angels surround them, mercy covers them, tranquillity descends upon them, and Allah mentions them to those who are with Him (Muslim).” He further said, “Surely, there are angels of Allah who conduct patrolling in search of remembrance assemblies (Majalis al-Dhikr). When they find such an assembly, they join and sit with them…(Muslim).”
Organisation of activities such as archery, camping, and retreats, coupled with religious instruction, accomplish the task of engaging youth. Positive role models offer youth protection and safeguards.
No time is as pertinent as now to elucidate the role of Muslim women in scholarship, when Islam is at times portrayed in the media and academia as a misogynistic religion that subjugates women and keeps them illiterate. Such a reminder is particularly needed for Muslims; a retrospection can prove valuable if Muslims wish to regain the glory of their past. The doors of scholarship are open for women today as they were in the past. Let us revive the legacy of the past so that women can once again be at the forefront of Islamic scholarship.