In Recognition of Women
By Khaled Abou El Fadl
When Imam Zuhri, a famous scholar of sunna (Prophet Muhammad’s traditions), indicated to Qasim ibn Muhammad, a scholar of the Quran, a desire to seek knowledge, Qasim advised him to join the assembly of a well-known woman jurist of the day, Amra bint Al-Rahman. Imam Zuhri attended her assembly and later described her as a boundless ocean of knowledge. In fact, Amra instructed scholars of fame, such as, Abu Bakr Muhammad ibn Hazm, and Yahya ibn Said.
Amra was not an anomaly in Islamic history which is abundant with famous woman narrators or jurists starting with Aisha, the Prophet’s wife. For example, Al-Rubaiyi bint Muawidh advised many men on legal matters including Abdullah ibn Abbas and Abdullah ibn Umar. Aisha, daughter of Sad ibn Waggas, taught famous jurists such as Imam Mallik, and Sayyidah Nafeesa, granddaughter of Hassan, instructed Imam alShafii. A conservative count would reveal at least 2,500 woman jurists, narrators of hadith and poets throughout history.
That was then, but now we cannot even recall an Islamic woman jurist. Women are absent from Islamic public and intellectual life. There are remarkable woman activists in many mosques and there are a few impressive writers such as Zaynab al-Ghazali. But these are exceptions.
One will rarely find a woman lecturing to a mixed audience about a gender neutral topic such as riba (usury), for example. While it is common to encounter professional Muslim women in every walk of life, it is very rare to find Muslim women on the boards of Islamic centers or in the leadership positions. There are several reasons for this alarming phenomenon. One particularly disturbing reason is the derogatory attitude that seems to have infested many Muslim men.
Very few are willing to be instructed or taught by a woman. Muslim men, even in the United States, seem to have developed a woman-phobia that consistently aspires to exclude woman from conferences, meetings, gatherings or even mosques.
It is not uncommon to find women in a mosque sheltered or imprisoned by a curtain not to be seen, heard or even thought of. Any man will quite insolently insist on instructing women on everything from how to raise their children to what garments to wear. But the thought of a woman telling a man that he is inflicted with a mania summarized into hyper antifeminism is an unspeakable act of blasphemy.
May God bless Fatimah bint Qais who tenaciously argued with Umar and Aisha over a legal point, and remained unconvinced and refused to change her opinion, and on Um Yaqab who once heard Abdullah ibn Masud explain a legal point then confidently told him, “I have read the entire Quran but have not found your explanation anywhere in it.”
The fact is that Islam neither limited woman to a private sphere nor gave men supremacy over the public and private spheres. One notices that the Greek and Roman civilizations that preceded the Islamic civilization did not produce a single woman philosopher or jurist.
Likewise, up to the 18th Century, Europe failed to produce a single female social, political or legal theorist. Islam did exactly the opposite in every respect so much so that Omar ibn al-Khattab used to entrust Shaffa bint Abdullah, a woman, as an inspector over the market in Medina. Moreover, Islamic history is replete with examples of female professors who tutored famous male jurists.
The famous Hanbali jurist ibn Qudamah, for instance, was educated by Shahada bint Ibri, a woman. particularly in the 6th century hijra, there were numerous occasions where woman professors issued licenses (ijaza) to men. For instance, the Chinese born Fatima bint Saad licensed, no one less than, al-Hafiz al-Munziri himself.
Yet, the sad legacy of our times is that we have taken woman to the pre-Islamic era by excluding them from public exposure or involvement. A modern scholar Muhammad al-Ghazali once described this phenomenon as the “ascendancy of bedouin fiqh (jurisprudence).” What he meant by this term is that much of the contemporary attitudes toward woman are influenced by cultural values originating in bedouin cultures; cultures in which the world revolves around men and everything is channeled to their service.
F or example, the sunnah of the Prophet reveals that he used to assist his wives in duties of the household. But most modern scholars did not have the probity to suggest that it is recommended, and even required in certain circumstances, that men lend a helping hand in the home. Most men are content to ignore this sunna as they selectively emphasize whatever they find self-serving in the sunna.
It is well-known that women like Aisha, Um Salamah, Laila bint Qasim, Asma bint Abu Baker, Kaula bint Um Darda and many others were trusted with preserving and teaching at least one fourth of our religion. Isn’t it time we trust women to contribute to our public and intellectual lives? May the Muslim community in the United States be the first to produce the first Muslim woman jurist in the last two hundred years. It is long overdue.
Originally published in the July/August 1991 issue ofThe Minaret, and the July-August Summer 1992 print edition of The American Muslim