Contemporary Issues

Women in Muslim Civilization

Muhammad Akram Nadwi, who published a forty-volume biographical dictionary of women muhaddithat (scholars of hadith) gave a speech about the role of women in Islamic civilization in Istanbul on March 13, Saturday. Nadwi is a scholar of hadith and fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence) and is currently a research fellow at the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies. He has published over twenty-five books in the fields of fiqh, hadith, Islamic biography, Arabic grammar and syntax. He has a degree in hadith and fiqh the prestigious Nadwat al Ulama in Lucknow. He received his PhD Lucknow University in the Arabic language.

The status of women in Islam has been a subject that has been debated for many years both in the West and throughout the Muslim world. With this work, Nadwi brings to daylight women scholars who have been forgotten, but who were an indispensable part of forming the shariah and Islamic jurisprudence for hundreds of years.

He describes how Muslim women were active in study circles, and he sites their names, one by one as well as the prestigious centres in which they taught. Nadwi gives examples of Muslim women who taught both women and men at the masjid of Prophet Muhammad in Medina, during his life time and afterwards. For decades the cities of Damascus, Basra and Cairo were centres of Islamic education and hundreds of women scholars taught at madrasas and important mosques. Both men and women scholars would give lectures and teach students at the most prestigious centres, without the latter suffering any form of discrimination.

A striking example of the status of women in Islamic tradition comes the time of Caliph Umar. During his caliphate the inspector of the famous bazaar of Medina was a woman. She would inspect all the transactions and regulations of this bazaar, which was bustling with merchants all over the country. It was no easy task and no one questioned the ability or the discernment of a woman to hold this position.

Nadwi also points out that the current copy of the Qur'an is the copy of Hafsa bint Umar. The first six copies of the Qur'an were made her copy and they were sent all over the Muslim world. No one ever accused Hafsa of not being able to protect the Qur'an properly or taking out verses that she would not find suitable for women. No one ever questioned her trustworthiness in protecting the single most important book of divine revelation for Muslims.

"One-fourth of the Islamic shariah is based on the teachings of women" says Nadwi. The interpretation of women scholars held an essential role in the development of the current forms of the shariah. Many famous scholars, including Imam Abu Hanifa, Imam Malik, Imam Shafi, Imam Bukhari, had women teachers and students. Imam Bukhari says that in Basra alone he studied hadith with seventy women scholars.

Ummu Darda, the wife of the Companion Abu Darda, taught in Damascus for six months of the year and then she would travel to al-Quds (Jerusalem) and teach there for another six months. Ibn Marwan, the caliph at the time, a renowned scholar, was one of her students.

Zainab Bint al Kamal (d. 740 hijri) taught at all the large mosques in Damascus. She also taught at the sufi halaqas. Most of her students were men and after each class all the names of the attendees were recorded. She was a renowned scholar of her time and some of her classes were attended by more than four hundred students, most of whom were men.

At the famous Ummayyah mosque in Damascus only the most prominent scholar of a subject was allowed to teach. Aisha bint al ibn-ul Abdulhadi  (d. 840 hijri) taught the book of Bukhari and was on a stipend the government. Her chain of narration is the best in the field of Sahih al Bukhari. She was appointed by the government to teach at the most prestigious mosques of the country.

Fatma al Juzdaniyya was the village of Juzdan in Iran. She was renowned for her knowledge in hadith and during her lifetime many people all around the Muslim world would go to her village to study with her. One of her students was a seeker of knowledge, a woman scholar Morocco, who first travelled to China and there to Juzdan, Iran, to learn ilm al hadith Fatma.

Nadwi emphasizes that there was no envy felt towards or belittling of women scholars. There were also famous couples who taught together. There were many famous scholars who did not hesitate to give credit to their wives, who were more knowledgeable in the field they were studying. Many of these scholars also had daughters who became famous scholars. Women who gave sound opinions on issues related to Islamic jurisprudence were respected and their judgements were not refused, even if it was in contradiction with other scholars of the time. If the judgements were based on scientific evidence they were not condemned or obstructed, but on the contrary, women were encouraged to put forth their opinions.

Nadwi says that during his studies he found that the number of women scholars had declined over the last four centuries. He ascribes this decline to the effect of Greek philosophy, which held a disparaging view of women. He also states that the current Muslim feminist movement is a reactionary movement that Muslims do not need. Muslims only need to study their religion carefully and to look into their own history, rather than trying to defend themselves against accusations placed on them outside.

Nadwi has many interesting stories and amazing accounts of women hadith narrators and their place in Islamic jurisprudence. The introduction of the book Muhaddithat, in which he wrote many of these interesting accounts, has been translated into English and it seems it will help Muslims rediscover the richness of their tradition and history.



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