Islam's Women Scholars
Yoginder Sikand, May 1, 2008

One indicator of the development of a society is its female literacy rate and, related to this, the number of its female scholars. On both these fronts, India's Muslims are among the lowest of all the communities in the country. This unfortunate fact provides a basis for negative stereotyping of the community, particularly in matters related to inter-gender relations. This, however, is ironical, given that Islam is one of the few religions to have declared education to be a duty binding on all its followers, men as well as women. The irony is further heightened by the fact that early Islamic history provides examples of numerous Muslim women scholars who made valuable contributions to the intellectual life of their communities.

That little known story is precisely what an Urdu book I recently read with avid interest is all about. Penned by a Pakistani alim, Maulana Syeed Ghulam Mustafa Bukhari Aqeel, the book, titled 'Muslim Khawatin Ki Ilmi Khidmat' ('The Intellectual Contributions of Muslim Women') contains vignettes about scores of early Muslim women scholars, who could serve as major sources of inspiration to Muslims, including Muslim women, today if only they were more widely known, a task that the Maulana takes upon himself.

Many of these early Muslim women scholars were experts in various Islamic sciences, in contrast to today's case where we have few, if any, such female scholars. The book refers to Ibn Hajar Asqalani as writing that the early centuries of Islam record more than 1500 female scholars of Hadith, traditions attributed to the Prophet Muhammad, including several wives of the Prophet and his companions as well as women in succeeding generations. Many of these were also narrators of Hadith reports. Fatima bint Qais is said to have had long debates with the caliph Umar on an issue related to fiqh, and, so the book says, the majority of the ulema gave preference to her view. Similarly, the noted historian Khateeb Baghdadi mentions 32 famous female scholars of his times, and one of them, Karina Bint Ahmad Maruzia, taught him the collection of Hadith by Imam Bukhari. Likewise, the noted Muhaddith Imam Zahri described Umra Bint Abdur Rahman, a woman brought up by Hazrat Ayesha, as 'an unending sea of knowledge'.

Several of these women scholars had male students, something quite inconceivable for many Muslims today. Thus, Ayesha Bint Sad bin Al-Waqas, a scholar of Hadith, had a large number of students, including the great Imam Malik. Imam Shafi, so the book tells us, would attend the lectures of Hazrat Nafisa, grand-daughter of Imam Husain. The Abbasid Caliph Malik Marwan would sometimes attend the lectures of a woman scholar Sahima Bint Yahya al-Osabia.

Other women wrote books on religious and other subjects, many of which, unfortunately, have been now lost. Fatima Nishapuri wrote a tafsir or commentary on the Quran; Zainab Bint Usman bin Muhammad authored several books on fiqh; Razia, sister of al-Hakim of Andalusia, wrote extensively on History and Geography; Aisha Khas, a noted calligrapher and musician, translated several books from Sanskrit and Greek and so on. The book also mentions several Indian Muslim families from royal families who were accomplished authors, mainly in the fields of Sufism, history and royal biography.

In this early period of Islamic history, numerous women founded madrasas, including some specifically for Muslim women. Thus, says the book, the first madrasa, as separate from a mosque as a centre for education, was founded by a woman, Fatima Bint Muhammad al-Fahari, in Morocco in the mid-ninth century. The enormous structure of the madrasa could accommodate some thirty thousand worshippers praying together.

Other notable women founders of madrasas in this period included Maryam Bint Yaqub, who established a girls' madrasa in Seville, where besides the Islamic sciences, subjects like Philosophy, History, Geography, Mathematics, Astronomy and various crafts were taught; Bint Qazi Shihabuddin al-Tabari, whose madrasa catered to orphans; Tazkira Rabai Khatun's madrasa in Egypt for poor girls; a school for training women in martial arts set up by Geti Ada Begum, daughter of Murad Khan, ruler of Zabulistan; and the Dar ul-Zubaida, a madrasa built on the spot of the Dar ul-Arqam, the place outside Mecca where the Prophet would himself teach his followers, built by Talib ul-Zaman Habshia, a female slave of the Abbasid Caliph Nasirbillah.

These early Muslim women show how Islam, as they and the men who supported their endeavours understood it, positively facilitated women's scholarship and intellectual pursuit. In a context as in India today, where the number of female Islamic scholars is negligible and even books on Islam and women are still written almost wholly by men and are often shaped by patriarchal prejudices, these women provide numerous lessons that we could well profit from.