I watched an excellent program the other day with Sh. Habib Ali Jifri on the important role women have to play in Islamic scholarship, and the great need we have today for women to study and become teachers, scholars, writers, to give fatawa, etc.
One thing that I find very beautiful in our tradition, but something that is often overlooked, is the critical role women have played in developing our scholarship from the very beginning and for centuries thereafter. It was only when the Muslim world began to degenerate in many different areas, politically, economically, as well as intellectually that we find a disengagement of women from the scholarly arena. (Interestingly enough, some historians cite the influence of Christian thought on the Muslim world as one of the reasons for this reversal of roles for women.)
Here are some points the shaykh said on the program (hafidhahu Allah) that I found very interesting:
— We have Sayyidah ‘Aisha (radhi Allah anhaa), as one of the first examples of a Muslim woman who was a scholar and a faqih, a woman who gave fatawa (religious rulings) and basically had her own madhhab (school of law). Many of the Ummahaat al-Mu’mineen and others of the sahabiyaat (women from the generation of the Prophet (salAllahu alayhi wasalam) were teachers and narrated hadith, and in the following generations we find many, many women scholars. Some of the greatest male scholars that we know of had women teachers. Imam Shafa’ii for example, had a woman as one of his primary teachers, Sayyidah Nafeesa bint al-Hasan. Ibn Hajar al-Asqalani, the Ameer al-Mu’mineen in Hadith, had among his teachers sixteen or seventeen women, all of whom had reached the level of Muhadith. There was a woman scholar (didn’t catch her name which was mentioned on the program) who resided in Damascus, and it is reported that students from many different countries would flock to her to study, crowding outside her door on Mount Qasiyoun. There were women who had majalis of ‘ilm at Jamia’ Umawiyy (the Omayyad Mosque) here in Damascus, and men and women would gather to attend and reap the benefits of their knowledge. He gave many, many examples, but unfortunately I did not take notes during the program so I don’t remember all the names and exact details. (sorry)
— Women especially shined in the field of Hadith in Islamic history, and he had a print-out of some women that related hadith, the number of hadith that they related and the number of their students. A number of these women were from the Ummahaat al-Mu’mineen, such as ‘Aisha, Juwayriyyah and Umm Salamah (radhi Allahu anhunn). He made the point that these women, being mothers of the believers, had some restrictions (relating to the ayaat in the Quran that talk about speaking from ‘waraa’ al-hijaab’ and so forth) and yet we still find them contributing to the knowledge. His point was basically that if there were any women who would have stepped back from studying and teaching because of the restrictions of hijab or aadaab, it would be these women, and yet we find them playing such a vibrant role in teaching.
— The interviewer asked Sh. Habib about women teaching men, something that may be considered odd or even wrong in the Muslim world today. Sh. Habib said that there needs to be a conveyance of knowledge taking place and we should not confine men and women from benefiting from each other, as long as it is based on a relationship of proper adab between teacher and student. When it comes to more basic and fundamental things, which can be taught by a number of different people, the norm should be that women teach women and men teach men. However, he said especially when we are talking about a higher level of knowledge a person should not be prevented from learning from someone because of their gender.
— On the print-out we saw a listing of some women narrators of hadith and the numbers of their students. Consistently, all of the women had more male students than female, and some even had only male students. Sh. Habib said that many people ask the question ‘why do the number of male scholars in our history outnumber that of women?’ He said that the answer can be seen from that chart. Its clear that women had the opportunity to teach and that they were esteemed for their knowledge (which is why they had students from both genders); however the number of women who stepped forward to learn were less than those of men.
And here Sh. Habib made a critical point: Women need to step forward and study. Yes, Muslim societies and male scholars and teachers need to encourage women to take on these roles, and there are many things in the Muslim community that need to be remedied in this regard, but YOU as a woman are not incapable… you are strong and you need not wait for someone to tell you that this is what you should be doing. You need to step forward, just as those women did before us.
He mentioned a modern day example from Syria, that a group of women approached Sh. Nur ad-Din ‘Itr and requested that he teach them, and this really started a movement of women in Syria who are studying and memorizing hadith. There are something like ten women now who have memorized the Six Sound Books in their entirety, with all of their isnaad! He said that he hadn’t even heard of this before, among men or women in our time. Also in Syria tens of women have memorized Bukhari, hundred have memorized Riyadh as-Saliheen…. Sh. Habib said that memorization is not necessarily the focus, but that this is a beautiful example of what can happen when women are passionate and are energized to study and take it upon themselves to seek out knowledge.
I was really moved by the shaykh’s talk, may Allah ennoble and bless him.
I hope that women out there really take this message to heart. Sometimes we are told in subtle or overt ways that in order to use our intellects in a meaningful way we need to ‘reinterpret’ Islam and have a more ‘progressive’ understanding of what our deen is about (read: change it), as if it is something intrisically oppressive of women; and on the other hand we may be told in different ways that our role is confined entirely to domestic tasks.
While the truth is something else, and we just need to go back to the roots of our religion to find it. We are the inheritors of a tradition of women poets, scholars, teachers… who were ennobled and empowered by this deen to share sacred knowledge with others. I ask Allah to make us people who walk in their footsteps, treading a road shaded by angels’ wings and that easens the one to Paradise. May Allah make us people who reflect and study and learn, and who are beautified with knowledge, and share it with others in the best of ways.
wAllahu a’lam. This is what I remember and understood in summary from the interview, and they are not the exact words of the shaykh.
wasalaamu alaykum wa rahmatullah.
PS: Here is an interesting article from the NY Times about a brother’s research into the large number of female Muslim scholars in history: http://www.nytimes.com/2007/02/25/magazine/25wwlnEssay.t.html?ex=1329973200&en=618404334b10ecf0&ei=5124&partner=digg&exprod=digg