by Paola Garcia
The discussion of women in Islam is a highly charged one. It is an issue infected with Orientalist and Islamophobic rhetoric about the assumed inferiority and subjugation of women intrinsic in Islam. Patriarchal and oppressive cultural norms are often couched in religious terminology and deemed “Islamic” in order to justify and validate them. However, notions that Islam is inherently oppressive to women are contradicted not only by an in-depth analysis of the Qur’ān but also by extensive evidence that demonstrates that women, during the formative years of Islam, enjoyed a high standing and were included in every aspect of life.
From the time of Prophet Muhammad, there were thousands of women scholars and jurists who exercised the same authority as men and taught male and female disciples, including judges and caliphs.1 Women who lived during the time of the Prophet, whose life example is seen by Muslims as the most perfect manifestation of the spirit of the Qur’ān,2 felt they had full rights and used to go to the mosque, pray next to men, pray in close proximity to the Prophet, fight in battles, teach men and women, move about freely, and interrupt scholars as they spoke to ask questions for which they demanded answers.
All this history has been forgotten or deliberately buried and erased. Recently, a conservative Sunni scholar of hadīth, Sheikh Mohammad Akram Nadwi, found written evidence of the existence of over nine thousand prominent women scholars and jurists who lived during the formative era of Islam. While in residence at the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies, Nadwi produced a forty-volume work on Muslim women scholars, jurists and prayer leaders.
This scholar, who studied in a traditional madrasa in Lucknow, India, came across countless mentions of women in early hadīth manuscripts and thus began to investigate, taking a detour from his intended work. He first assumed the detour would be a short one and that he would produce a small volume. However, he kept discovering more and more women scholars and concluded that “he does not know of another religious tradition in which women were so central, so present, so active in its formative history.”3
Nadwi explains that for centuries, women traveled intensively, fulfilling their religious duty of seeking knowledge and attending prestigious mosques and madrassas throughout the Islamic world.
Nadwi discovered a reality that surprised him and that is, unfortunately, quite different from the one many Muslim women experience today, primarily due to mistaken interpretations that aim at preserving patriarchal systems. Nadwi explains that for centuries, women traveled intensively, fulfilling their religious duty of seeking knowledge and attending prestigious mosques and madrassas throughout the Islamic world. The fact that over nine thousand women scholars were found by chance and are mentioned in writing means that there were countless more. It is commonly known that men did not want the names of their wives or daughters published.
Some interesting examples of the women scholars discovered by Nadwi are the following: In Samarkand, during the 12th century, Fatimah As-Samarqandiyyah, trained by her father in hadīth and fiqh, used to teach men and women, train judges, and judge court cases. She also issued fatwās and advised her well known husband on how to issue his.
Another woman scholar, Umm Al-Darda, was a companion of the Prophet and a prominent jurist and hadīth scholar in seventh-century Damascus and Jerusalem. Among her students was the caliph ‘Abd al-Mālik ibn Marwān. Umm Al-Darda was declared by Iyas ibn Mu’āwiya Al-Muzani, a qāḍī (Muslim judge) of undisputed ability and merit, known for her immense cleverness, to be a scholar superior to all the other scholars of the period.
In Medieval Mauritania, there is evidence of hundreds of girls who memorized books of fiqh by heart. Fatimah al-Batainiyyah was a fourteenth century Syrian scholar who taught men and women in the Prophet’s mosque in Medina. Students traveled from all over the Muslim world, some from as far as Fez, to study with her. She used to lean against the Prophet’s tomb as she taught, placing herself right beside the Prophet’s head.
A remarkable woman who took extremely seriously the duty to seek knowledge was Fatimah bint Sa’d al-Khayr. She traveled all over Asia studying with various prominent teachers, including another woman scholar in Isfahan, Fatimah al-Juzdaniyah, who was the primary narrator of a massive thirty-seven-volume hadīth collections of Al-Tabarani. Al Juzdaniyah was a student of al-Tabarani, who characterized her scholarship as possessing one of the highest chains with the shortest links to the Prophet in her lifetime, which Fatimah bint Sa’d al Khayr learned and began to transmit as well.4
Throughout his life, the Prophet himself was surrounded by women he greatly respected. He constantly worked to raise their status. Ibn Ḥaẓm (994-1064), an Andalusian scholar who produced a reported four-hundred works on Islamic jurisprudence, history, ethics, comparative religion, and theology, cites a number of hadīths that prove that in the days of the Prophet, women moved freely and prayed next to men, a practice that has been curtailed today because it is viewed as “un-Islamic.”
Ibn Ḥaẓm describes a hadīth where Caliph Umar wanted to prevent women from going to the mosque and was sternly rebuked by his father who stated it would be against the Prophet’s wishes. A hadīth from the Prophet also narrated by Ibn Ḥaẓm states, “Do not prevent the women from going out to the mosques at night.” Ibn Ḥaẓm said that if the Prophet did not prevent women from going to the mosque, then it would be “a sin and bid’ah to do so in one’s own authority.”5
Ibn Hazm adduces a number of traditions that prove that in the days of the Prophet, women frequented the mosque together with men. He reports that, during this time, should anything happen during prayer, such as an error made by the imam, “men should praise God and women should clap their hands.” Similarly, a hadīth reported in the Book of Muslim states that Umm Hisham said “I memorized sura Qaf from hearing it from the Prophet Muhammad because he used to recite it during his sermon on Fridays.” This is a clear indication that Umm Hisham stood in close proximity to the Prophet as there were no microphones or loudspeakers at the time. Finally, Ibn Abbas, the paternal cousin of the Prophet reported in a hadīth with a strong chain of narration that “A beautiful woman, from among the most beautiful of women, used to pray behind the Prophet.”6
A striking example of the status and independence women had during the Prophet’s time is that of Nusaybah bint Kaab. Nusaybah was legendary for her bravery and military skills. She fought in numerous battles and in the battle of Uhud, saved the Prophet’s life. She was wounded severely while defending the Prophet and he said, “whenever I looked to my right or left, I would find Nusaybah fighting defensively” and praised her for her courage. Nusaybah was unwilling to stay at home while her husband and son went to battle, so she decided to join them. At first, her intention was to tend to the wounded and bring water to the warriors, but later, she proved invaluable in the battlefield and turned out to be highly skilled with the sword.7
It is thus clear from these and many other cases of female agency and freedom in the Islamic premodernity, that the problem of oppression does not lie in Islam and is not advocated by the Qur’ān.
It is thus clear from these and many other cases of female agency and freedom in the Islamic premodernity, that the problem of oppression does not lie in Islam and is not advocated by the Qur’ān. In fact, far from subjugating women, the Qur’ān can and should be read as liberating. It is not necessary to resort to secular or Western-style feminism to “empower” Muslim women. It is, however, of crucial importance to engage in interpretations that are in accordance with the Qur’ānic spirit.
The strong refusal in the Qur’ān to perpetuate the religious depictions of God as a father-figure that exist in Judaism and Christianity, and the refusal to engender and sexualize God, can be understood as militating against patriarchy, which Asma Barlas considers to be “the chief instrument of women’s oppression in Muslim societies.”8
Barlas eloquently explains that it would be absurd for a God who is above sex and gender, who is Most Compassionate and Merciful, and will not transgress against the rights of others, to privilege men and take sexual partisanship. Even more absurd would be that this God should advocate the oppression of women. Not only does the Qur’ān not oppress women, “but it also affirms that women and men originated in the same self, have the same capacity for moral choice and personality and, as God’s vice-regents on earth, have a mutual duty to enjoin the right and forbid the wrong.”9
Not only does the Qur’ān not oppress women, “but it also affirms that women and men originated in the same self, have the same capacity for moral choice and personality and, as God’s vice-regents on earth, have a mutual duty to enjoin the right and forbid the wrong.”
The Qur’ān encompasses “a horizon of ethical possibilities and [counsels] to read it for its best meanings.”10 To put it simply, all interpretations that women should be subjugated, or their movements limited, or their choices controlled by men are erroneous interpretations: “Any religious opinion that tries to limit the rights or opportunities of any group of people is a false interpretation.”11
1 Nadwi, Mohammad Akram. Al-Muhaddithat: The Women Scholars in Islam. Oxford: Interface Publications, 2014.
2 His wife Aisha called him “the walking Qur’ān.”
3 Power, Carla. If the Oceans Were Ink. New York: Holt Paperbacks: 2015, p. 130.
4 To clarify: Fatimah bint Sa’d al-Khayr was considered (by the student of Tarabani) to have one of the most reliable chains of transmission for the hadiths she narrated. Meaning, the hadiths she narrated were sound, and with relatively few links between the transmitter and the Prophet himself. It is essential for hadiths to have a sound chain of transmission (i.e., those who passed on the Prophet’s sayings must be reliable in character and sound mind and also, their narrations must have been confirmed by others…of course the closer in time to the Prophet the better a hadith’s chain is).
5 Marin, Manuela and Deguilhem, Randy, Eds. Writing the Feminine: Women in Arab Sources. London, New York: I.B. Tauris, 2002, p. 82., p. 83.
6 This hadīth was judged authentic by Sheikh Al-Albaani in his Silsilat Ahadeeth (Saheehah #2472). This hadīth was narrated by Ibn Majah, Abu Dawud, Attayalisy, Ahmad, and Tirmidhi among others.
7 Lings, Martin. Muhammad: His Life Based on the Earliest Sources. London: Inner Traditions, 2006, p. 181.
8 Barlas, Asma. “Uncrossed bridges: Islam, feminism and secular democracy.” Philosophy and Social Criticism 39(4-5) 417–425, 2013, p. 421.
11 Abdulhameed, Sultan. The Qur’ān and the Life of Excellence. Denver: Outskirts Press, 2010, p. 207.
Abdulhameed, Sultan. The Qur’ān and the Life of Excellence. Denver: Outskirts Press, 2010.
Barlas, Asma. “Uncrossed bridges: Islam, feminism and secular democracy.” Philosophy and Social Criticism 39(4-5) 417–425, 2013.
Lings, Martin. Muhammad: His Life Based on the Earliest Sources. London: Inner Traditions, 2006.
Marin, Manuela and Deguilhem, Randy, Eds. Writing the Feminine: Women in Arab Sources. London, New York: I.B. Tauris, 2002.
Nadwi, Mohammad Akram. Al-Muhaddithat: The Women Scholars in Islam. Oxford: Interface Publications, 2014.
Power, Carla. If the Oceans Were Ink. New York: Holt Paperbacks: 2015.