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Islam's Women Scholars
By Yoginder Sikand

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.  

send an email to - ysikand@yahoo.com,   

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