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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 children.

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 women.

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 resurrected.