Women Shariah Scholars

by Gohar Mushtaq, Ph.D.

    Islamic history is full of glittering examples of women shariah scholars —who had mastered Islamic sciences such as exegesis of Qur’an, Hadeeth, Seerah, Islamic Jurisprudence, history, etc. It was only after the fall of Baghdad in the 13th century that Muslims started to believe that women do not have the ability to become scholars of Islam. The situation became worse by the end of 19th century (1850-1899) when the British invaded and colonized almost all Muslim countries and then dismantled the Islamic educational institutions of Muslims and established the secular school system in those Muslim countries instead. As a consequence, for a Muslim woman to become a Shariah scholar is thought to be impossible. Today, Muslim parents might say: “Our daughter is very intelligent. We will make her doctor or engineer.” If you ask them: “Why don’t you make her Shariah scholar?” They will reply: “ How can a girl become scholar of Islam? It is very hard for her.” Actually, these parents are living in such an age in which women are not encouraged to become scholars of Islam. Let’s take a tour in the past to see if women shariah scholars ever existed in Islamic history:

    Ayeshah , the wife of Prophet Muhammad , was such a brilliant scholar of Islam that great sahaabah (companions of Prophet ) used to study Islam from her. She is one of the six sahaabah who narrated the most number of traditions from Rasool Allah .

    Ayeshah , the daughter of Saad bin Waqaas , was a great scholar of Islam and her students included jurists and muhadditheen like Imam Malik  and Ayub Sakhtiani.

·    Ayeshah bint Talha was such a great scholar of Islam that she had a debate with the leading figures of the Ummayad house and she surprised caliph Hisham bin Abdul Malik by her knowledge.

    The students of Umara bint Abdur Rehman included Imam Zuhri , Abu Bakr bin Hazm and Yahya bin Saeed. Caliph Umar bin Abdul Aziz gave so much importance to the traditions of Rasool Allah narrated by her that he told Abu Bakr bin Hazm,governor of Madinah, to compile those traditions in the form of a book.

    One of the teachers from whom Imam Shaafi learned the knowledge of Hadeeth was Syedah Nafeesah, grand daughter of Hasan

    Imam Shaafi taught his daughter and she became such a great Shariah scholar that her opinion would outweigh the opinions of great men scholars of her time.

    Sheikh Usman Dan Fodio, the spiritual and political leader of the Sokoto community in Africa, had five daughters and one of his daughters, Nana Asma’u, was a great poet, teacher, and Islamic scholar. Her erudition can be judged from the fact that she had written a tafseer (exegesis) of the Qur’an in many volumes.

    Imam Ibn-e-Taymiyyah is known by this name because his great-grandmother’s name was ‘Taymiyyah’ who was a scholar of Islam.

    Maryam Jameelah (formerly Margaret Marcos) was a Jew from Brooklyn, New York. She accepted Islam in 1962 and then permanently immigrated to Pakistan. She has written various books on Islam, which present the classical and true picture of Islam.

    These are just a few examples of women Shariah scholars in our history.  Historically, most of the women Shariah scholars have not written any books on Islam but a book is not a requirement to be a scholar of Islam. Instead, in a lot of the cases, those women had ‘written’ (prepared) Islamic personalities. Once the father of Sheikh Hasan Al-Banna Shaheed asked him: “Why are you not writing any book?” Upon hearing that, Sheikh Hasan Al-Banna replied to his father:

    “I write (prepare) personalities and they will write books.”

    That is precisely the role of many Muslim women scholars in the history. Imam Bukhari’s father died at a very early age. His mother and elder sister taught him and he became the greatest scholar of Hadith in Muslim history. Imam Malik’s mother used to inspire him about getting Islamic knowledge and used to teach him to be humble. Sheikh Abdul Qadir Jilaani’s mother not only taught him Islam but also she used to recite Qur’an when she nursed Sheikh Abdul Qadir Jilaani during his infancy so that he would get the light of Qur’an right from the first day from his mother’s milk. Syed Qutb stated in one of his books that his mother used to listen Qur’an for hours and it was because of his mother that he was inspired to write the tafseer of Qur’an.

    This is an age of crisis for the Muslim ummah. Today, Islam is in dire need of both men and women Shariah scholars who would wake up other Muslims and who would become the harbingers of the Renaissance of Muslim nation. We have to remember the advice given to us in Qur’an:

           “And if you turn away (from spreading the message of Islam), He (Allah) will exchange you for some other people, and they will not be your likes.” Surah Muhammad: Ayah No. 38)


Published: March 2005