By Moin Qazi, New Age Islam
27 September 2023
"A mother is a school. Empower her, and you empower a great nation."
—Hafez Ibrahim, Egyptian philosopher
When Imam Zuhri, a famous scholar of the Sunnah, indicated to Qasim ibn Muhammad, a scholar of the Qur'an, a desire to seek knowledge, Qasim advised him to join the assembly of a well-known woman jurist of the day, Amara bin Al-Rahman. Imam Zuhri attended her assembly and later described her as "a boundless ocean of knowledge". Amra tutored several famous scholars, such as Abu Bakr Muhammad ibn Hazama and Yahya Ibn Said. Amra was not an anomaly in Islamic history, it actually abounds with famous female narrators of jurisprudence, starting with Aisha, Muhammad's wife. A conservative count would reveal at least 2,500 extraordinary women jurists, narrators of Muhammad's sayings (hadith), and poets. Yet, their stories are not always well-known or widely acknowledged. Ground-breaking accomplishments by women have always occurred. We need to dig deep enough in history to find these gems. And Muslim women are just starting to get their similar due.
Thanks to the painstaking research of Islamic scholar Mohammad Akram Nadwi, the dean of Cambridge Islamic College, the stories of accomplished Muslim female scholars, jurists and judges have been unearthed. Over the past 20 years, Mr Nadwi's research of biographical dictionaries, classical texts, madrasa chronicles and letters has led to a listing of about 10,000 Muslim women who have contributed toward various fields of Islamic knowledge over 10 centuries. Muslims have just begun to discover their own "hidden figures, " and many more are yet to find. If we fail to deal with the present-day sexism that has eroded the egalitarian nature of our historical communities, this excavation becomes all the more difficult.
Not only is the sheer number impressive, but so is how these women operated: Many were encouraged by their fathers at an early age to acquire knowledge, and many travelled to seek a more profound understanding of Islamic sciences. They sat in study circles – with men – at the renowned learning centres, debating and questioning alongside their male counterparts. And they taught their study circles to men and women alike. Some were so revered that students came from near and far to absorb their wisdom. They approved certifications of learning and provided fatwas (non-binding religious opinions); as judges, they delivered essential rulings.
A few notable examples include Aisha, the youngest wife of Prophet Mohammed, who was known for her expertise in the Koran, Arabic literature, history, general medicine and juridical matters in Islam. She was a primary source of authentic hadith, or traditions of the Prophet, which form part of the foundation of Sunni Islam. Umm al-Darda was a 7th-century scholar who taught students in the mosques of Damascus and Jerusalem, including the caliph Abd al-Malik ibn Marwan. She was considered among the best traditionalists of her time. And one of the greatest was the 8th-century scholar Fatima al-Batayahiyyah, who taught in Damascus. During the Hajj, leading male scholars flocked to her lectures. She later moved to Medina, where she taught students in the revered mosque of the Prophet. When she tired, she rested her head on the grave of Mohammed. Fatimah bint Mohammed al Samarqandi, a 12th-century jurist, advised her more famous husband, 'Ala' al-Din al-Kasani, on how to issue his fatwas; she also mentored Salahuddin.
There are but a few of the thousand luminaries found by Nadwi, a classically trained Islamic scholar. Initially, he thought he would see 20 or 30 women; his compilation now fills 40 volumes. While a 400-page preface (Al-Muhaddithat: The Women Scholars in Islam) has been published, Nadwi's work, indeed a Muslim country or UNESCO, can help disseminate it.
The Fading Trend
However, that trend is now history. Nowadays, we hardly ever encounter female Islamic jurists. Women are all but absent from Islamic public and intellectual life. If we scan the records of the centuries of Islamic history, we find many women active in all areas of life, only to see them marginalised dramatically later. So, what happened? How and why have things changed in the last three hundred years to the extent that it is unusual to find women involved in Islamic sciences? Unlike in the past, significantly few Muslim men would even consider being taught by a Muslim woman.
The Qur'an enshrined a new status for women and gave them rights that they could have only dreamed of before in Arabia; so why the seeming disparity between what once was and what now appears to be? This is a phenomenon that requires in-depth research. It is time to re-examine the sources and reassess how Muslim women in the past achieved such glory so that we can rid our society of the constraining perspectives that have become the norm.
Customs have characterised cultures that arose since then and localised leanings more than genuine Islamic values. The lives of the first Muslim women represent valuable models, transcending time and physical boundaries; therefore, these models can serve as powerful, culturally authentic tools in advancing the human rights agenda toward increased female empowerment in the political, social, and economic spheres in Muslim communities. The contributions of these women to the Muslim community are undeniable; to some, they even appear almost mythical. They mistakenly subscribe to the erroneous notion that contemporary Muslim women cannot attain such stature. However, these women represent others who lived, fought, learned, worked, and led during Islam's foundational period and beyond. Their male companions, the caliphs who assumed Muslim rule following the demise of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), treated them with respect, admiration, appreciation, and as equals. Society needs to guard the female community's progress actively; otherwise, they can regress.
The most common justification for ridiculing Islam is that the religion is "backward", particularly regarding women as a fundamental part of its beliefs. The portrayal of Muslim women in the media arena is grim and sad. The public perception concerning them is one of the stubborn stereotypes. Supposedly powerless and oppressed, behind walls and veils, demure, voiceless, and silent figures, discriminated against.
At the same time, the position of women in Islamic countries has dramatically changed in a few decades, with access to education, birth control, and jobs. But each advance is resisted, and attitudes are harder to change than laws. From Morocco to Iran, women—secular, liberal, and religious, sometimes alone, together—are challenging traditions, demanding greater rights, and reinterpreting the Holy Qur'an and Muslim history.
As in other areas of life, Muslim women have proven resourceful, creative, and dedicated to claiming ownership and responsibility for their faith individually and communally. This is despite the challenges they have often faced in gaining access to the appropriate religious training facilities and establishing credibility with the male religious establishments, particularly the clerical class.
Today, Muslim women are active in Qur'anic study circles, mosque-based activities, community services sponsored by religious organisations, and Islamic education as students and teachers. There are a rising number of female Qur'an reciters, Islamic lawyers and professors of Islamic studies throughout the world. This process is also helping to shake up some traditionally held cultural misconceptions. All Muslims can further activate the reform process by re-examining the lives of the first Muslim women who lived during Islam's formative period, not just as historical figures but as modern Islamic models that can be emulated today.
While many Muslims around the world learn about such exceptional Muslim women in school, their relevance to the contemporary context is frequently overlooked. Most critical aspects of their personalities are glossed over. Through learning and celebrating their examples, men and women can better understand and build upon notions of the role of Muslim women in a culturally authentic paradigm. Muslim women's activism around education and equal opportunities is often underpinned by their emancipatory readings of foundational Islamic texts. They are also challenging the patriarchy that most women experience around unequal power hierarchies in society and the objectification of women's bodies in sections of the media. They believe that rights have been accorded to them in foundational Islamic texts but that cultural interpretation of these texts disallows what is rightfully theirs. They do not call this a feminist struggle but describe it as a reclamation of their faith. They stand with their sisters of all backgrounds in this quest.
Although traditionally excluded from the male public domain, Muslim women have been privately involved in the study and oral transmission of Islamic texts (the Qur'an and hadith). In modern times, they have entered both secular and religious forms of education with enthusiasm, supporting their long-standing role as family educators and moral exemplars, as well as training for professional careers at the workplace outside the home. Central to Islamic belief is the importance and high value attached to education. From the actual Islamic point of view, education should be freely and equally available to women as much as men.
Elsewhere, the fully empowered Muslim woman sounds like a self-assured, post-feminist individual who draws her inspiration from the example of Sukayna, the brilliant, beautiful great-granddaughter of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). She was married several times and, at least in one of her marriages, stipulated in writing that her husband was forbidden to disagree with her about anything.
All these conditions are based on the canons of Islam and early Muslim practice. A Muslim woman cannot be forced into marriage without her consent; indeed, she has the right to revoke a marriage to which she did not agree in the first place. We now have a curious and empowered female Muslim generation that will not easily accept rules and codes without reasoning and arguing on every strand before embracing them.
Feminism and Muslim Women
Few Muslim women outside the urban domain may want to behave like Western women. A comparison may mean little outside the cultural context, but it is essential to point out that Western women virtually had no rights in law or practice until a hundred years ago. Over 1,000 years before the first European suffragette, Islam gave women far-reaching rights and a defined status.
Muslim women emerged as the centrepiece of the Western narrative of Islam in the nineteenth century and, notably, in the later nineteenth century as Europeans established themselves as colonial powers in Muslim countries. Their descriptions simultaneously and hypocritically perpetuated the Victorian English narrative that European men were superior to women while denigrating Muslim culture for being oppressive to women. But, of late, Muslim women have transformed a great deal. They certainly do not share the Western notion of feminism. These women do not accept that being feminist means being Western and believe Western women should be respectful of other paths to social change. They argue that Western thinkers and practitioners must reconsider their assumptions about the role of Islam in women's rights and approach this topic with a more nuanced lens. They want them to understand the necessity of recognising and consciously accepting the broad cultural differences between Western and non-Western concepts of autonomy and respecting social standards that reflect non-Western values. Muslim women must work in full partnership with Muslim men, reject Western models of liberation, and, more importantly, assert their Islamic feminism, insisting that Islam, at its core, is progressive for women and supports equal opportunities for both men and women.
First, there are multiple causes of discrimination against women, and religion is but one. Secondly, gender relations that structure women's options in all societies must empower women. Thirdly, it is futile to focus on misery elsewhere as an escape from the realities of our own lives. And fourth, the issue of power remains crucial for understanding gender inequality in any society.
Western thinkers and practitioners must reconsider their assumptions about the role of Islam in women's rights and approach this topic with a more nuanced lens. They must understand the necessity of recognising and consciously accepting the broad cultural differences between Western and non-Western concepts of autonomy and respecting social standards that reflect non-Western values.
Historically, Islam was incredibly advanced in providing revolutionary rights for women and uplifting women's status in the seventh century. Many of the revelations in the Qur'an were by nature reform-oriented, transforming critical aspects of pre-Islamic customary laws and practices in progressive ways to eliminate injustice and suffering. Still, it is not enough to merely flaunt these values. We must act on them. The reforms that took place in the early years of Islam were progressive, changing with the needs of society. However, the more detailed rules the classical jurists laid out only allowed many pre-Islamic customs to continue. These rules reflected their society's needs, traditions, and expectations, not the progressive reforms initiated during Prophet Muhammad's (PBUH) time. Hence, the trajectory of reform that began during Muhammad's time was blocked in the medieval period by further elaborating fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence), which was then selectively codified in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
Islam also promotes and teaches humans to practice balance in all aspects of life with moderation. Being humans, we are subjected to influences by our culture and traditions. At the same time, we must acknowledge that our world views and religious views differ from place to place, era to era, and across cultures, thereby continuing to religion, in this case, Islam, to the oppression of women. However, efforts are needed to ensure that such changes do not work to subjugate women. The alleged retrograde practices of the community take the world's focus away from understanding the overwhelming problems of the Muslim world and the cause of its troubles. It provides an easy scapegoat for those looking to legitimise their illegitimate actions, which are detrimental to humanity. It is one of the reasons for this unnecessary bitterness over plainly innocuous symbols which have culturally bonded these cultures over the years.
At its very core, Islam prescribes the principles of justice and equity for peace and human development and compassion for all humanity. We must mention that the same root word of Islam originates from the word salaam (peace). Islam is a universal religion that speaks to humanity. The Prophet summed up his philosophy in his last great address at Arafat by decrying barriers between people. For him, Islam transcended caste, colour, and race divisions. "All mankind is from Adam and Eve, an Arab has no superiority over a non-Arab nor a non-Arab has any superiority over an Arab; also a white has no superiority over a black nor does a black have any superiority over a white except by good action."
They are enlightened and responsive and have the same innovative trait that makes them attuned to their Qur'anic obligations. They have evolved approaches that meet both their secular and religious commitments. Modesty has to do with clothes and should be a voluntary choice for women. Voluntarily. Freedom is about having the option to do and wear what you want; banning clothing would only counter that freedom.
Islam: The Most Discussed Religion
Women are exposed to organised education for the first time and are now enlightened enough to channel their cultural, parental and religious practices and beliefs. Their scepticism on various issues is an understandable reaction from a minority community that has remained pawned in a bewildering swelter of ideologies. Muslim communities, and much of that focuses on women, see Islam as inherently part of the problem—if not the whole situation—that Muslim women face. Muslim women must not be disengaged from the religion. We we can achieve anything close to equality or equality; be provided equality in all spheres, which is their right.
Women are arguing for women's rights within an Islamic discourse. Some leading proponents are men—distinguished scholars who contend that Islam was radically egalitarian for its time and remains so in many of its texts. Islamic feminists claim Islamic law evolved in ways damaging to women, not due to any inevitability but because of selective interpretation by patriarchal leaders. Across the Muslim world, Islamic feminists are combing through centuries of Islamic philosophy to highlight the more progressive aspects of their religion. They seek accommodation between a modern role for women and the Islamic values that more than a billion people follow.
Muslims need to look at themselves realistically instead of their imagined selves. Like their counterparts in other creeds, their scriptures guarantee that we must respect Muslim women's equality. Women also believe foundational Islamic texts have accorded these rights them. Still, interpreting these documents with the prevalent cultural lens disallows what is rightfully theirs.
Quest for Gender Equality
The stereotype of a Muslim woman as a passive victim is a dangerous myth. It is promoted by the opponents of gender equality within and outside Muslim societies and must be abolished. Muslim women's activism around education and equal opportunities is often underpinned by their empowered readings of foundational Islamic texts. They are also challenging the patriarchy that all women experience around unequal social power hierarchies and objectifying women's bodies; in some sections of the media, women are now elbowing their way into politics, civil society, and universities. Despite present cultural and political obstacles, they are finding opportunities to raise their societies. They feel the key to doing so lies within Islamic paradigms. There is a need to engage in Islam from a position of knowing to ensure that Muslim women have access to this knowledge.
Through this knowledge, women can assert their rights and challenge patriarchal interpretations of Islam. While prioritising a literal, puritanical reading of the Qur'an, they want to discard the historical reality of the Muslim world in favour of the ideal society of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) and his companions. Their unifying vision has made collective action possible.
There is no denying that the Muslim world has a significant amount of ground to cover to protect women's rights and freedoms, and the quest for gender equality remains paramount. However, the idea that all Muslim women are oppressed because Muslim men are misogynists is wide off the mark because women's oppression manifests itself in several ways. Not all Muslim men are the oppressors.
It is clear that Muslim women's empowerment, like many things, cannot be imposed on a country or a culture from the outside. Men and women within these conservative communities must find their reasons and justifications to allow women a fuller societal role. Increasingly, they are finding those reasons within Islam. Like men, women deserve to be free. In today's increasingly global world, everyone has higher stakes than ever. Societies that invest in and empower women are on a virtuous cycle. They become more prosperous, stable, better governed, and less prone to fanaticism. Countries that limit women's educational and employment opportunities and political voices get stuck in a downward spiral. They are poorer, more fragile, have higher levels of corruption, and are more prone to extremism.
Moin Qazi is the author of the bestselling book, Village Diary of a Heretic Banker. He has worked in the development finance sector for almost four decades.
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