A Glimpse at Early Women Islamic Scholars
|the following is a transcript of a lecture delivered by dr. mohammad akram nadwi, a research fellow in oxford university's centre for islamic studies, on the role of women scholars in preserving and transmitting prophetic tradition (hadith) in islam. the original transcript has been edited by imam zaid shakir to enhance readability.|
|[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 allah through whom you demand your mutual (rights), and revere the wombs that bore you. surely, allah is ever watching over you.] (an-nisaa' 4:1)|
allah says: […and when the female child, buried alive, will be asked: for what sin was she killed.] (at-takwir 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 from fear of being humiliated in the community, or out of fear that they would not have the means to provide for them.
islam came to eradicate these ignorant practices, amongst others, and after twenty-three years of prophetic teachings, it had conferred unto women a status that was previously unthinkable.
the first revelation: [read in the name of your lord who created…] (al-`alaq 96:1) left the prophet (peace upon him) severely shaken, for he could not comprehend such an event happening to an unlettered, orphaned, desert arab.
towards the end of the narration of this event, he (peace upon him) specifically says to ‘abbas ibn ‘abdul-muttalib (may allah be pleased with him): "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, fatimah (may allah be pleased with both of them). 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 address 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 qur'an affirms that even the wife of a prophet is free to believe or disbelieve.
women perserving the qur'an
`uthman (may allah be pleased with him) then borrowed the edition of the qur'an in hafsah's protection (may allah be pleased with her) 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 (may allah be pleased with her), as to whether she had altered the edition vouchsafed to her in any way.
women and hadith studies
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 ibn `umar (may allah be pleased with him), while abu hanifah relies on umm habiba (may allah be pleased with her) and the other wives of the prophet (peace upon him).
similarly, major events, such as the beginning of the call to the prophetic office, were specifically narrated by women. `ai'shah 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.
to give similar examples, we all know that performing ablution is essential for the validity of ritual prayer (salah). a female companion, rubiyya bint muawidh ibn afrah (may allah have mercy on her), whose family members died in the battle of uhud, was a great narrator of hadith.
the companions would go to learn from her despite the fact that abu bakr, `umar, `uthman, `ali, mu`adh ibn jabal, and `abdullah ibn mas`ud (may allah be pleased with them) were all present in madinah. she was regarded as the expert in the performance of ablution. her students included the likes of `abdullah ibn `abbas (may allah be pleased with him and his father) the great qur'anic exegete, and also a member of the family of the prophet (peace and blessing of allah upon him). 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 (peace upon him) and a great scholar himself. their philosophy 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 a fabricating 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 anyone should be questioned, it should be that of men. women have always truthfully conveyed religious knowledge.
during that time, the judge of madinah ruled in a case involving a christian thief from syria who had stolen something. the judge had ordered that his hand to be severed. when amrah bint abdur-rahman heard of this decision, she immediately told one of her students to go tell the judge that he cannot severe the man's hand because he had stolen something whose value was less than a single gold coin (dinar). as soon as he heard what amrah had said, he ordered that the man be released, unharmed.
one of great successors, umm darda, taught in both damascus, in the great umayyad mosque, and jerusalem. her class was attended by imams, jurists, and hadith scholars. the powerful caliph abdul-malik ibn marwan, who ruled an empire stretching from spain to india, had a teaching license from `abdullah ibn `umar (may allah be pleased with him) who was considered the greatest jurist of his time in madinah.
the mosque of the prophet (peace upon him) is undoubtedly one of the most sacred places in islam, and his blessed grave is even more sacred. around the beginning of the 8th century of the muslim calendar, fatima bint ibrahim ibn jowhar, a famous teacher of al-bukhari, under whom both imams dhahabi and al-subki studied the entirety of sahih al-bukhari appeared.
this, and similarly stories, makes it clear that women can teach in the best of mosques. pathetically, today there are debates in the muslim world as to whether they can even come to the mosque for prayer. this is an indication of our ignorance of our own islamic heritage, and of our digression from the practices of our pious predecessors.
aishah bint abdul-hadi used to teach in the grand mosque of damascus. she was appointed by the sultan of that time as the master of hadith and taught the compilation of imam al-bukhari. she represented the whole community and they could not find any man better than her. ibn hajar al-asqalani, considered by many to be the greatest of all latter day hadith scholars, traveled to damascus and studied more than one hundred books with her.
if we consider the great role of women such as hafsah (may allah be pleased with her and her father) in the compilation of the qur'an, and the role of women like aishah bint abdul-hadi in preserving and accurately conveying hadith, it is clear that the two most fundamental sources of our religion have been secured with the aid and blessing of women.
fatimah al-juzdani, a great scholar from isfahan in present-day iran, read one of the great books of hadith, al-mu`jam al-kabeer, with abu bakr ibn rida, who himself studied the entirety of the book with its author, imam at-tabarani. this book has been published in thirty-seven volumes (unfinished). after mastering the book, she subsequently taught it many times.
in the time of ibn taymiyya, there were other scholars like imam dhahabi, al-mizzi, al-birzali, tajuddin al-subqi, and a little later, ibn kathir, ibn al-qayyim, ibn nasiruddin al-dimishqui, and hafidh ibn hajar al-asqalani. this was the golden age of hadith, when the development of hadith literature and teaching was at its peak. not only were these men scholars, they were also reformers of their society.
one of the best compilations in hanafi fiqh is the masterpiece badaya al-sanaya by imam kasani, whose wife was fatimah al-samarqandiyya, daughter of ala'addin al-samarqandi. this book is a commentary on tuhfat al-fuqaha' written by the latter. fatimah was a great expert in hadith and other religious sciences.
not only were women scholars allowed to give binding religious verdicts (fatwas), but if they differed with their male contemporaries there would be absolutely no objections concerning their pronouncements. this was apparent from the earliest period. illustrative of this is the opinion of fatimah bint qais (may god be pleased with her), who said that a husband need not provide support for his irrevocably divorced wife during her period of waiting (‘iddah). she based her opinion on a narration from the prophet (peace upon him).
despite the fact that `umar (may allah be pleased with him) and other senior companions disagreed with her, based on their understanding of a verse in the qur'an, they did not question her faith, impose sanctions on her, nor did they prevent her from continuing to narrate the hadith and issuing her fatwa.
the above are just some of the evidence that establishes the enormous contribution of women to the islamic scholarly enterprise. i hope that this article empowers us to help women attain the status and dignity that was given to them by our pious predecessors, based on the inspiration they received from the leader of all the prophets, our exemplary master, muhammad, the chosen one, (peace and mercy of god upon him).