Saturday, April 11, 2015

Why Muslims Should Educate Their Women, and Learn From Them

Note: This article was first published, with minor changes for format, in The Message, the official magazine publication of the Muslim Students Association at the University of Toronto, Scarborough. To contact The Message, please email

On December 7, 2013, Al Maghreb Institute, a leading institute teaching Islamic education around the world, announced a news so revolutionary, so ground breaking, that it was reported on multiple Islamic websites, channels and forums around the world. A special Youtube commercial was put out days before advertising that a revolutionary announcement was coming. There, in front of a crowd of 10,000 at an Islamic conference, Al Maghreb made the news official. Ustadha Yasmin Mogahed, a qualified Islamic speaker and scholar, was joining Al Maghreb as an instructor, and would be teaching a class on “purification of the heart”. She would become the first female instructor to join Al Maghreb.

Now, if that seems shocking, know this: Mogahed was just walking in the path trod upon by many women scholars before her; yet for some peculiar reason a female instructor teaching Islamic knowledge now seems so out of place, so wrong that it’s shocking. It wasn’t always so.

Sheikh Navaid Aziz once said, “When we look into our deep and rich history we find that women played a big role in Islamic scholarship and academia.” He quotes Abu 'Abdillah Al-Hakim (author of the Mustadrak) as saying, “If we were to abandon the narrations only found by women we would be forced to abandon a quarter of the shariah.” This indicated that not only did women attend the sermons and teachings of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) in the mosque, they narrated them to others after his death.

Indeed the other three quarters also have hadith narrated by both men and women. Aisha bint Abu Bakr, the young wife of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), has recounted a large number of hadith to her nephew Urwah. She also used to hold classes and lecture the masses in the mosque of the Prophet, teaching from behind a curtain. Umm al-Dardaa was another woman whom all seven compilers of Hadith (Bukhari, Muslim, Abu Dawood, Tirmidhi, Nasaai, Ibn Majah, and Ahmad) narrated from. In the 15th century, Fatimayah al-Bataihiyyah taught Hadith in the Prophet’s mosque in Medina, and the chief male scholars of the day, from as far afield as Fez, were her students.

Some of the famous male scholars also had female scholars as their teachers. Imam Bukhari, the famous collector of Hadith, was taught by his mother, a scholar in her own right. Ibn Hajar was taught seventeen books of Hadith by Abdil Hadi, another female scholar. Ibn Hajar’s wife, Anas Khatun, regularly gave public lectures that were attended by both men and women.

Our rich history shows that women were not restricted to religious scholarship alone. While many scholars of science (such as Ibn Haitham, the father of optics) were also religious scholars, by the 9th century students in Islamic lands had lots of options for specialization. The University of Karaouin, currently the world’s oldest university, was established by a Muslim woman in Fez, Morocco in 859 AD. Men and women studied there, as well as in Baghdad, where Caliph Mamun established the House of Wisdom – a university, a library, a research center all in one.

The jewel in the crown is the book by Sheikh Mohammad Akram Nadwi, a famous Indian scholar of fiqh, Hadith and Arabic. In 1999, he started to research on female hadith scholars, or muhaddithat, expecting to find around 20-30 such scholars throughout the 1400 years of Islamic history. Instead, in 2007 he finished writing a 53-volume book documenting the lives of over 8000 such female scholars, starting with Umm al Darda, a Companion of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him).

Looking at all of this rich history of female scholarship, it is really a surprise that today, for Muslims and non-Muslims alike, the stock image of an Islamic scholar is an old gray bearded man. Women are seen often as victims and subjects of Islamic law, rather than its shapers and teachers. Today, many women dare not even pray in the mosque, let alone lecture leaders in them on the finer points of Islamic law. Today, there are a few Muslim countries where men shoot and kill girls as young as ten for the simple “crime” of going to school. They are not allowed to interact, study with, or talk to men. Whereas during the medieval times women used to constitute around 15% of the elite scholarship, today it’s a ground breaking news when one, ONE woman scholar is appointed to teach a single class. Such misogyny, looking from history, has no place in Islam.

The decline has several reasons. In the ninth century the Mu’tazila movement spread in the Muslim capital Baghdad, and even the Caliph was heavily influenced by Greek philosophy. As ancient Greek works and ideas encroached into Islamic thought, so did their views of women as soul less and sub human. The often cited (and scientifically nonsensical) point, “men are smarter than women” or “men are better at science” has its origins in ancient Greek philosophy.

During the tenth to the thirteenth centuries, the Muslim empires (and centres of scholarship) were under constant sustained attack by foreign forces such as the Crusaders and Mongols. Scholarship took a backseat as survival became the name of the game. In fact, many historians say the remnants of the impact of the Mongol devastation of Baghdad can still be felt today – this was the precise moment in history where the Muslims stopped their efforts to lead the world and soon (a few hundred years later), the Western world would pick up that mantle.

Today, we cannot allow this to continue. Women make up to 50% of our population and any nation that ignores half of its resources cannot be fruitful. Even Saudi Arabia recognized this, and the late King Abdullah established the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology where women were allowed to freely study and mix with men in the pursuit of knowledge.

To free our women from this intellectual bondage, and empower them, we don’t need to look far; Allah provides a glorious example in the Quran. The most manliest of all men that we know of is the Prophet Musa (Moses, peace be upon him). One Hadith says Musa (peace be upon him) once punched the Angel of Death, who had appeared in the shape of a man before him, knocking his eye out. This was the brave and fearless man who stood up to an Egyptian who he thought was torturing a Jew. This is the same Musa who single-handedly and bravely stands up against the gang men harassing Saphurah and her sister at the wells of Madian (little knowing that soon he would marry Saphurah). Such was Musa, peace be upon him.

And yet, Allah also mentions the women who all played a part in making Musa (peace be upon him) who he was. We start with his mother, who bravely takes an inspired decision and carries out Allah’s command, even if that meant abandoning her own baby in the river. Her knowledge would later benefit Musa (peace be upon him) when he would say, after killing the Egyptian, “This is from Satan. Oh Allah, forgive me.”

Miriam, his sister, is the intelligent girl who is told to follow the basket down the river. Miriam is the brave girl who follows the basket in a distance. She is living a religious life in a land where she is the oppressed minority, yet she keeps her wits about her when she finds a way to reunite mother and child, thus fulfilling the promise of Allah. Asiah, the wife of the Pharoah, and one whom the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) has said is a lady perfect in her faith, is the next woman to influence Musa (peace be upon him). She tolerates the torture of the Pharoah with patience and forbearance, praying a beautiful prayer to Allah that is mentioned in the Quran. Finally, we have the wife of Musa (peace be upon him), a woman brave enough to go out to work in a land full of dangerous men, a lady bashful and modest enough when her father sends her to fetch Musa (peace be upon him), a lady intelligent enough to spot the potential of Musa (peace be upon him) as she suggests to her father to employ him, a lady religious enough to support her now husband Musa (peace be upon him) as he begins his Prophethood ten years later.
Such were the women mentioned in the Quran as an example for us to follow, and it is about time we followed them.

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