A Glimpse at Early Women Islamic Scholars
By Dr. Mohammad Akram Nadwi
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)
From the very beginning of the human saga, Allah 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 Allah (peace upon him) at a time when women were being humiliated and tortured.
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.
It is related that he was consoled by Khadijah (may Allah be pleased with her) who believed in him and comforted him in a time of great need and distress. She was the backbone of his initial efforts for the advancement of the new faith, and a noble business woman of high lineage.
After three years of secrecy he was ordered by Allah to call his own family to the faith. He (peace upon him) gathered his family and openly called upon the tribe of Hashim and the tribe of `Abdul-Muttalib to believe in his message.
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.
Furthermore, Umm Habibah became a believer while her father, Abu Sufyan, (may Allah be pleased with them both), was a staunch opponent of the Prophet (peace upon him). He possessed neither the power nor privilege to influence her independent choice.
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, totally divorced from any involvement in public affairs.
Women Perserving the Qur’an
The Qur’an, the most sacred and important source in Islam, was memorized by many of the companions. After the Battle of Yamamah, where a large number of those memorizers were killed, `Umar (may Allah be pleased with him) advised Abu Bakr to issue a standardized edition of the entire Qur’an in the dialect of Quraish, whose protection he vouchsafed.
Abu Bakr (may Allah be pleased with him) issued such an edition. After his death it passed into the protection of `Umar (may Allah be pleased with him), and after his passing, it was given to Hafsah bint `Umar (may Allah be pleased with her) to be carefully guarded and preserved.
During the caliphate of `Uthman (may Allah be pleased with him) it was noticed that divergent and erroneous recitations of the Qur’an were emerging among the newly converted non-Arab people in places like and .
`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
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 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).
Abu Hanifah argues that since the Prophet (peace upon him), used to pray supererogatory prayers in his house, the narration of his wives (may Allah be pleased with them) is stronger.
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.
Her narrations can be found in Bukhari, Muslim, Ibn Majah, and other compilations. She narrated how the Prophet (peace upon him), performed ablution after actually witnessing his performance of the purificatory ritual.
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.
Amrah bint Abdur-Rahman was amongst the greatest of the female Successors, the generation that came after that of the companions of the Prophet (peace upon him). She was a jurist, a mufti, and a Hadith specialist.
The great Caliph `Umar ibn ‘Abdul-`Aziz used to say: “If you want to learn Hadith go to Amrah.” Imam Zuhri, who is credited with compiling the first systematically edited compilation of Hadith used to say: “Go to Amrah, she is the vast vessel of Hadith.”
During that time, the Judge of Madinah ruled in a case involving a Christian thief from 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.
He did not question her authority, nor did he seek a second opinion from other scholars, who were quite numerous in Madinah at the time. They included the likes of Sa`id ibn Al-Musayyib. This incident is recorded in the Muwatta’ of Imam Malik, and this ruling is also his opinion in such cases.
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.
When `Abdullah reached old age, the people asked him: “Who should we seek religious verdicts from after you?” He replied: “Marwan has a son (Abdul-Malik), who is a jurist so ask him.” Hence, Abdul-Malik was endorsed by Abdullah. Yet even Abdul-Malik ibn Marwan would attend the classes of Umm Darda and he would never feel ashamed of learning from her.
Furthermore, he would humbly serve her. It has been recorded that when Umm Darda was teaching she would lean on the shoulder of Abdul-Malik ibn Marwan, due to her being advanced years, to go to mosque for salah. He would help her return to her place of teaching after the prayer.
The fact that these women taught men who were themselves regarded as great scholars indicates the respect and status they had attained.
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.
When she came for the pilgrimage (Hajj) her fame was such that as soon as the students of Hadith heard that she had reached Madinah, they requested her to teach in the mosque of the Prophet (peace upon him).
Ibn Rushayd Al-Subki, who traveled from Marrakesh , describes one of her classes thus: “She was sitting in front of the blessed head of Prophet (peace upon him), and [due to her advanced years] she would lean on his grave. She would finish by writing and signing the license to transmit her narrations (ijazah ), personally, for all of the Hadiths that were read by every student present.”
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.
Today, it would be difficult to find a “sheikh” who even knows the names of her books, to say nothing of having read them. In addition to her intellectual acumen, her chain of narration in Hadith is regarded as the strongest from her generation back to the Prophet (peace upon him). Between her and Imam Al-Bukhari are eight transmitters, and between Imam Al-Bukhari and the Prophet (peace upon him) there are variously, three, four or five transmitters. No other chain of narrators allows one to reach the Prophet (peace upon him) with an equal or smaller number of narrators.
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 , 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.
Not a single scholar alive today has studied this book, or even part of it with a teacher. Furthermore, we do not have a single narration of this book except from women, because it was forgotten by the male Hadith scholars.
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.
At this very time, there was a woman in , who was also known for her scholarship and the powerful positive influence she had on society. She helped in the reformation of communities in Damascus and Cairo by enjoining good and forbidding evil.
Ibn Kathir, the student of Ibn Taymiyya, has written in his highly acclaimed work of history, Al-Bidaya wal-Nihaya: “She reformed society by enjoining good and forbidding evil, she accomplished what men are unable to do, that is to say, she did more than the male scholars of her time.” This testimony was written by a man. Hence, no one can say it is the biased opinion of a woman, and thereby question its authenticity. This was a golden age full of proactive, confident and talented women.
Hisham ibn `Urwah ibn Zubair (may Allah be pleased with him), is the teacher of Imam Malik, Abu Hanifa, Sufyan al-Thawri, Saeed Qahtan, and is acknowledged as a great Hadith scholar of that era. The most reliable Hadiths narrated by him, found in both Bukhari and Muslim, are those he narrates from his wife, Fatimah bint Mundhir. Sadly, many Muslim men today would not marry a woman more knowledgeable than themselves. The men of our past would proudly marry and learn from them.
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.
Imam Kasani’s students narrate: “We saw our teacher at times would leave the classroom when he could not answer a certain difficult question. After a while he would return to elucidate the answer in great detail. Only later on did we learn that he would go home to put the same question to his wife in order to hear her explanation.” Clearly, he depended on his wife in his scholarly life.
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.
This incident is interesting in that it presents the opinion of a woman that advances a ruling that is not deemed favorable to woman. In so doing she opposes an opinion advanced by men that is deemed favorable to women. If this incident had occurred in our times it would have surely been the point of much contention and discussion.
The above are just some of the evidence that establishes the enormous contribution of women to the Islamic scholarly enterprise. The book it is excerpted from contains many more arguments and can be found at http://www.interfacepublications.com.
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).
* This article originally appeared in www.newislamicdirections.com.It is republished here with kind permission.
Dr. Mohammad Akram Nadwi is currently a Research Fellow at the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies, Oxford . He specialized and taught Hanafi fiqh at the Nadwat al-‘Ulama (). He has written over20 books in Arabic — biographical studies of Islamic scholars, Arabic grammar and syntax, Qur’anic sciences and Hadith sciences. He is currently working on the introduction to a (just completed) 40-volume biographical dictionary of women scholars of hadith in the Islamic world. He has just begun to write books in English. The following are forthcoming in 2007: al-Fiqh al-Islami (Angelwing); al-Muhaddithat: Women Scholars in Islam (Interface Publications,October 2006); and Madrasah Life: A Day in the Life of a Student in Nadwatul Ulama (al-Turath Publications).