Female Scholarship in Islam
By Dr. Mohammad Akram Nadwi
Men and women are equal
“O Mankind! Fear your Lord who has created you from a single soul, and from it He created its mate; and from them both, He brought forth multitudes of men and women. Be mindful of God through Whom you demand your mutual (rights), and revere the wombs that bore you. Surely, God is ever watching over you” (Quran, 4:1).
From the very beginning of the human saga, God makes it quite clear that men and women are equal beings created from one single soul, sharing the same father and mother, and subservient unto the same Lord. The verse mentioned above came to the Messenger of God, peace upon him (pbuh), at a time when women were being humiliated and oppressed.
God says: “…and when the female child, buried alive, will be asked: For what sin was she killed” (Quran, 81:8-9) This refers to an ancient practice of the Arabs (and even some modern societies through abortion) who would kill their female children out of fear of being humiliated in the community as only sons were prized, or out fear that they would not have the means to provide for them. Islam eradicated this heinous practice, amongst others, and after twenty-three years of prophetic teachings it had conferred upon women a status that was previously unthinkable.
Women possess independent religious responsibility
The first revelation—“Read in the name of your Lord who created…” (Quran, 96:1)— left the Prophet, pbuh, severely shaken, for he could not comprehend such an event happening to an unlettered, orphaned, desert Arab. It is related that he was consoled by his wife, Khadijah, may God be pleased with her, who believed in him and comforted him in a time of great need and distress. A successful and independent business woman of noble lineage, she was the backbone of his initial efforts for the advancement of the new faith. (Read more about Khadija here.)
After three years of secrecy, Muhammad was ordered by God to call his own family to the faith. He gathered his family and openly called upon them to believe in his message. Towards the end of the narration of this event, he specifically says to ‘Abbas b. ‘Abdul Muttalib, his uncle: “I cannot benefit you on the Day of Judgment.” He uttered the same statement to his aunt, Safiyyah bint ‘Abdul Muttalib, and to his daughter, Fatima. He added: “Ask me of my wealth in this world, but on the Day of Judgment I cannot avail you in any way.”
In this initial invitation to the faith, the Prophet, peace upon him, specifically named two women and one man, demonstrating that women possess independent religious responsibility that has no connection to their gender. This independence in faith is exemplified by the fact that the wives of Noah and Lot, peace upon them, both rejected faith. Hence, the Quran affirms that even the wife of a Prophet is free to believe or disbelieve.
Furthermore, Umm Habiba became a believer while her father was a staunch opponent of the Prophet (he accepted Islam later in his life). At the second Pledge of Aqabah, a covenant that involved specific political and strategic obligations, the Prophet, peace upon him, took an oath from both men and women. He was not content to have women confined to their houses and divorced from any involvement in public affairs.
‘One fourth of our religion depends on the narrations of women…’
The Quran, the most sacred and important source in Islam, was memorized by many of the Companions. After the Battle of Yamama, where a large number of those memorizers were killed, Umar advised Abu Bakr to issue a standardized edition of the entire Quran in the dialect of the Quraish. Abu Bakr issued such an edition and vouchsafed its protection. After his death, it passed into the protection of Umar and after his passing, it was given to Hafsah, the daughter of Umar, to be carefully guarded and preserved. During the caliphate of Uthman, it was noticed that divergent and erroneous recitations of the Quran were emerging among the newly converted non-Arab people in places like Armenia and Azerbaijan. Uthman then borrowed the edition of the Quran held in Hafsah’s protection to make six standardized copies to send to the major political and cultural centers in the Islamic realm. He ordered all non-standardized editions to be burned. It is clear here that no one questioned Hafsah’s trustworthiness as to whether she would lose, neglect, or alter the edition vouchsafed to her. (Click here to read more about Muslim female scholars.)
In the time of the Companions, the question never arose concerning the validity of learning directly from women. If we were to consider, for example, the books of prophetic tradition (hadith), in every chapter you will find women narrating as well as men. Imam Hakim Naisapuri states: “One fourth of our religion depends on the narrations of women. Were it not for those narrations, we would lose a quarter of our religion.” For example, Abu Hanifah considers there to be four units of supererogatory prayer before the obligatory noon prayer, whereas the remaining Imams say that there are only two. The latter depend on the narration of Abdullah b. Umar while Abu Hanifah relies on Umm Habiba and the other wives of the Prophet, peace upon him. Abu Hanifah argues that since the Prophet used to pray supererogatory prayers in his house, the narration of his wives is stronger.
Similarly, major events such as the beginning of the call to Islam were specifically narrated by women. Ayesha alone narrates the tradition detailing the circumstances of the first revelation, as recorded by Imam Bukhari, immediately after the hadith mentioning that actions are judged based on the intention accompanying them.
Another example regards performing ablution which is essential for the validity of ritual prayer. A female Companion, Rubiyya bint Muawidh b. Afrah, whose family members died in the Battle of Uhud, was a great narrator of hadith. Her narrations can be found in Bukhari, Muslim, Ibn Majah, and other compilations. She narrated how the Prophet performed ablution, actually witnessing his performance of the purification ritual. The Companions would go to learn from her despite the fact that Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman, Ali, Muadh b. Jabal, and Abdullah b. Masood, may God be pleased with them all, were all present in Medina. She was regarded as the expert in the performance of ablution. Her students included the likes of Abdullah b. Abbas and his father, the great Quranic exegete, and also a member of the family of the Prophet. He never asked: “Why should I learn from her when I am from the family of the Prophet and great exegete?” The same is true for Ali Zain ul-Abideen, the great grandson of the Prophet and a great scholar himself. Their resolve was to go to whoever possessed knowledge, irrespective of their gender.
Interestingly, there is no single hadith which has been rejected from a woman on account of her being deemed a fabricator or a liar. Imam Dhahabi affirms: “There are many men who have fabricated hadith. However, no woman in the history of Islam has been accused of fabrication.” In light of this, if the intellectual integrity of either gender would be questioned, it would be that of men. Women have always truthfully conveyed religious knowledge.
Adapted from an article published in Message Magazine.