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Women’s History Month has special meaning for ING since we’re one of the first Muslim women-founded and operated national nonprofits in the country. During this month, people throughout the country celebrate the important role of women in society, and highlight the accomplishments of notable women. Often missing from these conversations are the many Muslim women throughout history and contemporaneously who have made and are continuing to make important contributions to society and the world. In recognition of these contributions, through the month of March we will look at the lives and contributions of a number of these Muslim women, including rulers and benefactresses in history, and contemporary Muslim women in the world and the United State. Today, we look at early Muslim female scholars.
Prominent Women and Early Female Scholars in Islamic History
Much is known about the heroines of early Islam who include Khadija bin Khuwaylid, the first wife of the Prophet Muhammad and the first Muslim, who was a wealthy businesswoman and trader and while 15 years his senior, proposed marriage to him.. Also renowned is Aisha bint Abi Bakr, his wife after the death of Khadija who was a great scholar and jurist about whom the Prophet said, “Take half of your faith from this young woman.” Fatima, the daughter of the Prophet Muhammad was known for her piety and called the “mother of her father,” due to her love for him. Lastly is, Hafsa bint Umar who was entrusted with preserving the first copy of the Qur’an.
The role and contributions of women in later generations is less known, although there is a great history of female leadership and a deep scholarly tradition which has come to light recently with such publications as: Early Sufi Women, Women of Sufism, and Dr. Umar Faruq Abdullah’s lecture series titled Famous Women in Islam. We will look at a few of these notable women.
One of the earliest noteworthy women was As-Shifa bint Abdullah, who was appointed by the second caliph Umar as muhtasib, responsible for oversight of the financial workings of the marketplace, a position comparable to today’s minister of finance.
Rabia al-Adawiyya is renowned as an early Muslim woman ascetic and Sufi saint who is one of the founders of Sufi thought, including her emphasis on being impoverished before God, divine Love, and utter and total devotion to God.
In the field of hadith (prophetic sayings) transmission, the many women who took part in this field are unique in that, unlike their male counterparts, there are no fabricators identified among them. According to Imam Hakim Nisapuri, “One fourth of our religion depends on the narrations of women.” These female transmitters of hadith include most famously Aisha, who narrated at least 2,000 sayings of the Prophet, as well as less known transmitters such as Rabi’ah Bint Mu’awwad, whose narrations can be found in the canonical hadith collections. She was also a great scholar of Islamic law, who taught scholars of Medina such as Abudullah ibn Abbas and Ali Zain al-Abideen. Umm ‘Atiyyah is also known for having narrated many hadith and teaching various aspects of Islamic law.
There is a great tradition of women scholars in Islam, who not only narrated hadith and taught men in the mosques, but gave binding religious verdicts (fatwas) that often differed from those of their male contemporaries, yet were accepted with the same respect as that of men.
Among the famous female scholars of Islam was A’isha bint Sa’d ibn Abi Waqqas, the daughter of the famous companion of the Prophet. Among her many students were renowned male jurists and scholars, including Imam Malik whom the Maliki school of Islamic jurisprudence is named after. Sayyida Nafisa, the great-great granddaughter of the Prophet Muhammad was a well-known scholar who counted Imam Shafi’, the founder of the Shafi’ school of Islamic jurisprudence among the large number of students who came from different places to learn from her.
Umayyad Mosque in Damascus, Syria
One of the greatest female scholars among the second generation of Muslims was Umm Darda, who taught classes in the great Umayyad Mosque in Damascus as well as in Jerusalem. Her classes were attended by imams, jurists, and scholars of hadith, including the Caliph Abdul Malik b. Marwan himself. In fact it is reported that the Caliph would help her back to the place of prayer after she finished teaching due to her advanced age and the great respect he and others had for her.
Another famous female scholar of this generation was Amrah bint Abdur Rahman who was a jurist, mufti, and a hadith specialist from whom both the Caliph Umar b. ‘Abdul ‘Aziz and Imam Zuhri used to encourage people to learn hadith.
Prophet Muhammad’s Mosque in Medina
Another example of the respect and fame such women held was Fatima bint Ibrahim b. Jowhar, who taught hadith from the canonical collection of Sahih Bukhari. She was so famous that when she came to Medina after performing the pilgrimage, students of hadith requested that she teach at the Prophet’s Mosque. After completing her teaching, she conferred certificates (ijazas) on the students in attendance who had learned the hadith she narrated.
In the 12th century Shuhdah bint Ahmad al-Ibrii of Baghdad studied with the greatest scholars of her age and was one of the greatest jurists of her time among both men and women. She was also a great scholar of hadith, and was known as “Fakhr an-Nisaa,” or the “Pride of Women.”
National Mosque of Nigeria
While the numbers of both men and women scholars decreased in later centuries, the 19th century figure of Nana Asma’u of present day Nigeria was legendary. She was a poet, teacher, scholar of Islam and a key advisor to her father, Uthman dan Fodio.
These are just a glimpse at the thousands of women scholars and luminaries whose names and accounts can be found in books of historical biographies of over fourteen centuries of scholarship that clearly demonstrate the important role of Muslim women as scholars, teachers, and jurists. Al-Muhaddithat: The Women Scholars in Islam, is written in Arabic and demonstrates the central role women had in preserving the Prophet’s teaching. Muslim Women: A Biographical Dictionary is a comprehensive reference source of women throughout Islamic history from the first century of Islam to modern era.
ING offers a presentation based on our Muslim Women Beyond the Stereotypes curriculum that is suitable for high schools, universities and colleges, and community organizations. The presentation examines some of the common stereotypes about Muslim women before discussing Qur’anic teachings that emphasize the equality and dignity of women. The presentation also features surprising data from recent polls and describes notable Muslim women in history and today. To schedule a presentation about Muslim women, please contact [email protected] or request the presentation online.