The title of this article might surprise many people. The reader might expect to find a short list of women, perhaps the wives of Prophet Muhammad, may the mercy and blessings of God be upon him, or a smattering of the daughters of great Muslim male scholars. That however is just not the reality; the entire fourteen hundred years of Islamic history is crowded with women scholars. And they were not only teaching women, they were teaching men.
Although it is sometimes overlooked, Islam gave women rights they had never had before, and that included the right to an education. The modern world seems to have forgotten that women hold a treasured place in Islam, and it is certainly not because they require constant guidance and direction. Prophet Muhammad taught that gender made no difference to a person’s worth. Male and female, he said, have the same rights and duties to learn and to teach. Both men and women should learn and pass on the words of the Quran and the Sunnah.
We know that the subjugation of women is not the result of Islamic teaching, quite the contrary Islam empowered women but somewhere along the timeline of history the rights of women have been eroded to a point where they now have to struggle to find space in the mosques. How can that be when our history shows nothing but respect of women’s rights, abilities and opinions? Aisha the daughter of Abu Bakr and wife of Prophet Muhammad contributed more than 2000 hadith to humankind. Umar ibn al-Khattab, the third Caliph, appointed a woman, Shifa bint Abdullah, as the administrator of the Medina market.
Dr. Mohammad Akram Nadwi from the Cambridge Islamic College has recently published his ground-breaking research on the female scholars in the field of hadith. His research spanned a period of 15 years and resulted in a 57-volume work detailing and analyzing the biographies of over 9000 female scholars from the time of Prophet Muhammad until today. He has said in several interviews that he hopes to encourage women to pursue education and knowledge. And sadly, he found it necessary to remind men that women’s scholarship will never recover to its previous levels if men do not relearn how to respect women.
In 7th century Arabia women had few if any rights. In just twenty-three years Prophet Muhammad turned everything around and founded a society based on clear principles and justice for all. No person was better than another except by virtue of their piety. In the 21st century humankind has done its best to subjugate women to a point that in some countries their lives are little different from pre-Islamic Arabia. "The disempowerment of Muslim women is a major reason for the retrogression of many Muslim societies", says Dr. Umar Farooq Abdallah in his paper titled "Living Islam with Purpose." He goes on to say that "Muslim women excelled as leaders, poets, scholars, philanthropists, spiritual guides, and in other capacities. Renewal of their legacy is essential for the future of Muslim communities everywhere." Therefore, in light of these wise words let us examine the lives of some of the women scholars of the past and reflect on their achievements.
Apart from being the young and beloved wife of Prophet Muhammad, Aisha is also remembered as a scholar of hadith and jurisprudence, an educator, and an orator. The women of her time always went to her with their questions. She was an intelligent person with a good memory and is credited with narrating over 2000 hadith, and she was also known as a great interpreter of the Quran. Aisha’s mind was said to be sharp and her judgment excellent. After Prophet Muhammad’s death she continued to teach and had more than 200 students. Umar ibn al-Khattab, the second Caliph, frequently asked her advice.
Rubiyya's entire family was killed during the Battle of Uhud. However, she lived on to become a great narrator of hadith. Her narrations can be found in the books of Bukhari, Muslim, Ibn Majah, and others. She narrated how the Prophet performed ablution after actually witnessing his performance of the ritual. Other companions would go to learn from her despite the fact so many men were present in Medina at the time. She was regarded as the foremost expert, and her students included Abdullah ibn Abbas and his father, the great Quranic commentator.
Amra was amongst the greatest scholars from the generation that came after Prophet Muhammad and his companions. She was a student of Aisha bint Abi Bakr, the wife of Prophet Muhammad, becoming well-known as a jurist giving Islamic rulings (fatwas) and a hadith specialist. The Caliph Umar ibn Abdul Aziz (d. 720 CE) said, "If you want to learn hadith go to Amra." Imam Zuhri, who is believed to have compiled the first systematically edited collection of hadith said, "Go to Amra, she is the vast vessel of hadith."
Umm al-Darda was one of the leading Muslim scholars of the second generation after the Prophet Muhammad. She was an important hadith transmitter, teacher, jurist and an expert on the Quran. She met and transmitted hadith from Aisha (beloved wife of Prophet Muhammad) and other companions of the Prophet including, Salman al-Farsi and Abu Hurayrah. After living for most of her life in Medina, she moved to Damascus where she taught hundreds of students, both male and female, and many of them went on to become respected scholars in their own right. One of her students Abd al-Malik ibn Marwan would eventually become the Caliph.
Aisha was one of the most learned scholars of the late 10th century. Almost all the information about her life comes from biographical dictionaries composed by Andalusian scholars between the 12th and 14th centuries CE. The fact that she was still remembered and documented long after her death adds to her prestige. The following is an overview of her life according to Ibn Bashkuwal (d. 1183 CE): She was from Cordoba. The famous historian Ibn Hayyan (d.1076 CE) made mention of her and said, "There was none in the entire Iberian peninsula in her era that could be compared with her in terms of knowledge, excellence, literary skill, poetic ability, eloquence, virtue, purity, generosity, and wisdom. She would often write tributes in praise of the kings of her era and would give speeches in their court. She was a very skilled calligrapher and copied many manuscripts of the Quran and other books. She was an avid collector of books, of which she had a very large amount [sic], and was very concerned with the pursuit of knowledge…"
 Sunnah refers to the teachings and way of life of Prophet Muhammad.
 Hadith is a narrative record of the sayings and actions of Prophet Muhammad and his companions. They are transmitted through chains of narration. From this person, back to the next person, until we reach back to Prophet Muhammad or one of his companions.
 The title Caliph refers to the chief Muslim religious and civil ruler, regarded as the successor of Prophet Muhammad.
Fatima’s family migrated early in the 9th century from Qayrawan in Tunisia to Fes, Morocco. They were an educated family, and Fatima and her sister Mariam learned the Islamic sciences of jurisprudence and hadith. Her father, Muhammad al-Fihri, worked long and hard to become a successful and wealthy merchant, and when Fatima and Mariam inherited their father’s fortune they chose to build mosques and educational facilities. Fatima is chiefly remembered as the founder of the world's first academic degree-granting institution of higher education. The university she founded is still operating today as the University of Qarawiyyin in Fes. The original institution was a mosque that developed into an educational institution. According to UNESCO it is the oldest institution to award degrees, and as such is the first and oldest university.
Al-Qarawiyyin University is credited with producing many distinguished Muslim thinkers including Abdul-Abbas, the jurist Muhammad al-Fasi, and Leo Africanus, the famous author and traveler. Other prominent names associated with the institution include the Maliki jurist Ibn al-Arabi (d. 1148 CE), the historian Ibn Khaldun (d. 1406 CE), and the astronomer al-Bitruji (Alpetragius) (d. 1204 CE).
Non-Muslims were also welcome at Al-Qarawiyyin and past students include Gerber of Auvergne who later became Pope Sylvester II. He went on to introduce Arabic numerals and the concept of zero to medieval Europe. Another well-known student was a Jewish physician and philosopher, Maimonides.
Fatima was born in Samarkand. At that time it was an important centre of Islamic learning, and Fatima was a prominent expert in Islamic law and calligraphy. She was the daughter of a great jurist and scholar, Muhammad ibn Ahmad al-Samarqandi, who wrote the famous work "Tuhfat al-Fuqaha," which is a classic work in Hanafi jurisprudence. Fatima learned from her father and memorized this work. She was familiar with Islamic jurisprudence, the Quran and hadith and was able to issue Islamic rulings (fatwas).
Fatima married a student of her father’s, another eminent Hanafi scholar Ala al-Din al-Kassani (d. 1191 EC). Shortly after their marriage, the couple travelled across the Islamic world eventually settling in Aleppo, where they established themselves as leading scholars. A student of Kassani reported, "Sometimes the students would ask al-Kassani difficult questions. He would ask our leave and go to his home. When he came back, he would answer our questions in detail. This happened quite often. Finally, we understood that Imam al-Kassani was going home to ask Fatima about the question and then returning with the answer."
Zaynab was an eminent Islamic scholar in the 14th century. She belonged to the Ḥanbali school of jurisprudence and lived in Damascus. She acquired a number of certifications in different fields, but particularly in hadith studies. She taught such books as Saheeh Bukhari, Saheeh Muslim, the Muwatta of Malik ibn Anas and Sunnah of At-Tirmidhi. North African traveller Ibn Battuta (d. 1369 CE) was one of her students, and her name appears in several dozen chains of narration of Ibn Hajar al-Asqalani (d. 1448 CE).
Fatima lived in the 14th century CE. She taught the entire Bukhari collection of hadith and was so renowned that whenever she travelled for pilgrimage to Mecca, scholars from all over the Muslim world would request to join her teaching circles. Imam Dhahabi and Imam Subqi were taught by her. Fatima was often requested to teach at the Prophet’s Mosque in Medina. It is said that due to her advanced years she would lean upon Prophet Muhammad’s grave. At the end of her classes, she would write and sign a license to transmit her narrations.
Aisha was born in Damascus in the early 14th century and was a teacher in the grand mosque there. She was appointed by the Sultan as the Master of Hadith and taught the compilation of Imam Bukhari. Ibn Hajar al-Asqalani, considered by many to be one of the greatest hadith scholars, travelled to Damascus and studied more than one hundred books with her. Her chain of narration in hadith is regarded as the strongest from her generation back to Prophet Muhammad, may the mercy and blessings of God be upon him. Between her and Imam Bukhari are eight transmitters, and between Imam Bukhari and the Prophet there are variously, three, four or five transmitters. This is the shortest chain of narration back to the Prophet, of any scholar alive during her time.
Fatima was also known as Al-Sheikha al-Fudayliyya and was a jurist and renowned scholar of hadith. Born in Arabia, she studied and excelled in calligraphy and other Islamic sciences but had a special interest in hadith. She studied hadith with many teachers and eventually began teaching and issuing certificates to her students. When she settled in Mecca she founded a public library, and her lectures were attended by many eminent male scholars among them were Umar al-Hanafi and Muhammad Salih. The scholars who studied with her praised her piety, righteousness and beautiful calligraphy.
Nana was the daughter of Sheikh Usman dan Fodio (d. 1817 CE), a jurist, reformer, and founder of the West African Sokoto Muslim nation (present day Nigeria). Her fame was not linked solely with her father’s career; Nana was an important poet, historian, educator, and religious scholar in her own right. She played a major role in the political, cultural and intellectual developments in West Africa for nearly 50 years after her father’s death. Nana, a Maliki jurist was devoted to the education of Muslim women. She established the first major system of schools and other institutions of learning throughout the Sokoto nation.
Nana was fluent in four languages, Arabic, Fula, Hausa and Tuareg. She was a prolific writer of over 70 works on subjects including theology, law, and the role of women in Islam. Her broad-based campaign to empower and educate women secured her a position as one of the most influential women in West Africa in the 19th century.
Bewley, Aisha Abdurrahman. Muslim Women: A Biographical Dictionary. London: Ta-Ha Publishers, 2004.
"15 Important Muslim Women in History." Ballandalus. March 8, 2014. https://ballandalus.wordpress.com/2014/03/08/15-important-muslim-women-in-history/.
Nadwi, Dr Mohammad Akram. Al-Muhaddithat: The Women Scholars in Islam. Oxford: Interface Publications, 2007. [This book is an adaptation of the Preface to Dr Nadwi's multi-volume biographical dictionary of the Muslim women who studied and taught hadith.]
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