Reviving a Tradition: Muslim Women as Religious Authorities

Yoginder Sikand

Posted Jan 15, 2008      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version
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Reviving a Tradition: Muslim Women as Religious Authorities

by Yoginder Sikand



Separate madrasas for Muslim girls are a relatively recent phenomenon
in India. Although the number of such madrasas is still small, there
is a distinct trend towards setting up more such institutions, both
that provide only religious education, as well as those that combine
both Islamic and modern subjects. What impact these institutions might
have for the reconstruction of contemporary Islamic thought remains to
be seen, but that the fact that they are helping to subtly refashion
structures of Indian Muslim religious authority, till now largely a
male domain, is obvious.


The setting up of girls’ madrasas is a crucial focus of many advocates
of madrasa reform today. Contrary to what is often imagined, numerous
male ulema or clerics are among the most enthusiastic supporters of
this cause. In recent years, a steady stream of writings on the
subject has emerged, arguing the case for such institutions from
within an Islamic paradigm. It may well be said to reflect, in a
certain sense, the emergence of a gender-friendly understanding of
Islam that critiques male, patriarchal control of religious knowledge
as ‘anti-Islamic’.


A passionate argument for Muslim girls’ education, including girls’
madrasas, is presented in a recent work by a noted Hyderabad-based
Islamic scholar, Mufti Muhammad Mustafa Abdul Quddus Nadvi. A graduate
of the renowned Nawat ul-Ulama madrasa in Lucknow, the Mufti teaches
at the Mahad al-Ali al-Islami, headed by Maulana Khalid Saifullah
Rahmani, a widely-respected Indian Muslim scholar.


Titled ‘Talibat Ki Dini wa Asri Talim Aur Unki Darsgahen’ (‘Women’s
Religious and Modern Education and Their Institutions’), this book
stresses the importance of both secular as well as religious education
for Muslim women, marshalling Islamic arguments for this purpose. If
women, who constitute half of the Muslim population, continue to be
educationally deprived, he says, Muslim society cannot progress,
particularly since mothers exercise an important influence on their


To press his case, the Mufti refers to verses in the Quran and the
corpus of Hadith, the traditions attributed to the Prophet Muhammad,
that stress the importance of education and to instances of well-known
women scholars in early Muslim history. All forms of ‘useful’
knowledge, the Mufti says, are allowed for in Islam, be they useful
for the life after death or in this world. The latter include subjects
such as languages, the social and the natural sciences, medicine,
engineering and so on. The Quran exhorts all Muslims, males and
females, to acquire useful knowledge. Without such knowledge, the
Mufti says, people cannot ‘walk on the right path’. Using this
knowledge, he goes on, women can even seek employment outside the
house, provided they do not, as a result, neglect their familial
responsibilities and also do not transgress the limits set by the
shariah. He refers to a tradition attributed to the Prophet, who is
said to have declared that a man should treat his daughter in a good
manner. ‘What could be better’, asks the Mufti, ‘than providing her
with a good education?’.


Every Muslim, male and female, must also have at least a basic
knowledge of Islam, writers the Mufti. Hence the need for girls’
madrasas. He cites the fact that the Prophet was requested by some
Muslim women to provide them, in addition to their men-folk, religious
instruction, which he acceded to. Because, in contrast to many other
religions, Islam positively encourages women to acquire religious
knowledge, there were several woman religious specialists among the
early Muslims, particularly among the sahabiyat or female companions
of the Prophet. These, the Mufti points out, included several female
Quranic commentators (mufassir), narrators of hadith reports (
muhaddith), jurisprudents (faqiha) and scholars (alima).


The most notable of these early Muslim women scholars, the Mufti
writes, was Hazrat Ayesha, the youngest wife of the Prophet. He
describes her as being an expert in Quranic commentary. Besides, she,
almost with some other wives of the Prophet, narrated numerous Hadith
reports. She is also said to have delivered numerous fatwas or
opinions on jurisprudential issues ( fiqhi masail) and thus was among
the first female muftis (muftia). On certain matters on which there
was no explicit reference in the Quran and the Hadith, she is said to
have exercised her own judgment or ijtihad, which made her one of the
first Muslim mujtahids. Some other wives of the Prophet and certain
other sahabiyat also gave fatwas, and male companions of the Prophet
or sahaba are said to have consulted them. In that sense, they served
the function of Muftis.


Hazrat Ayesha, the Mufti goes on, was also one of the few early
Muslims who had a deep understanding of the ‘secrets of the faith’ (
asrar ud-din), including of the causes (asbab) and the pronouncement
(hukum) on certain issues ( masla). Several wives of the Prophet would
teach other Muslim women about religious matters. For her part, Hazrat
Ayesha also taught numerous male companions of the Prophet after his
demise. Some of them would recite hadith narrations to her, which she
would correct. They would also ask her for her opinions on various
fiqh issues.


The argument the Mufti puts forward obviously has crucial consequences
for the pattern and structure of religious authority in contemporary
Muslim societies. Since several early Muslim women had a specialized
knowledge of different branches of Islamic learning, some of them even
excelling men in their fields of learning, the Mufti suggests that
there is nothing to prevent Muslim women today from emulating their
example. Indeed, he positively exhorts them to do so. If these early
female Muslim scholars had acquired such a stature that even some male
companions of the Prophet sought knowledge from them, today the doors
to becoming muftis and religious experts are still open to Muslim


In line with his understanding that there is no rigid distinction
between ‘religious’ and ‘secular’ knowledge in Islam and that all
forms of ‘useful’ knowledge are Islamically legitimate, the Mufti goes
on to argue that Islam allows for women to acquire ‘secular’ knowledge
as well, along with religious education. Here, too, he cites the
instances of some noted female companions of the Prophet, presenting
them as role models for Muslim women today. Thus, he notes, Hazrat
Ayesha taught a woman to write, and several other sahabiyat, too, were
literate. Hazrat Khansa was said to excel even men in poetry. Sakina
bint Abu Abdullah had a good knowledge of astronomy.  Hazrat Umm Salim
is said to have crafted a weapon. Numerous Muslim women helped the
injured in battles led by the Prophet. Hazrat Ibn Masud’s wife was a
craftsperson and used her skills to financially support her family.
Hazrat Asma bin Mukharama used to sell perfumes.  And so on.


In short, the Mufti argues, Muslim women can or, indeed, should
acquire both ‘secular’ and religious knowledge. In addition, they can
train to become religious authorities. To do so would not be a
wrongful innovation, nor would it lead women astray, as is sometimes
argued. Rather, it would be a revival of a precedent and a
religiously-sanctioned and historical tradition that needs to be

Sukhia Sab Sansar Khaye Aur Soye
Dukhia Das Kabir Jagey Aur Roye

The world is ‘happy’, eating and sleeping
The forlorn Kabir Das is awake and weeping