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Unveiling the Hidden History of Women Ulema
Reviewed by: Yoginder Sikand

Banat-e Islam Ki Dini Wa Ilmi Khidmat
(‘The Religious and Intellectual Contributions of Muslim Women’)
Author: Maulana Qazi Athar Mubarakpuri
Publisher: Islamic Book Foundation, 1781 Hauz Suiwalan, New Delhi 110002
Year: 2006
Pages: 104
Price: Rs. 40

Books in English and Urdu on Muslim history rarely, if ever, mention the role and contribution of numerous remarkable Muslim women scholars. Yet, as the author of this fascinating monograph, the late Qazi Athar Mubarakpuri (1916-1996), points out, early Muslim history records many such women, several of whose names are mentioned in contemporary Arab chronicles. Indeed, he asserts, many of these texts had separate chapters devoted to such women. Some early Arab Muslim writers even penned separate books dealing with women scholars.

Notable among these, Mubarakpuri mentions, are Asharat ul-Nisa by Imam Tabari, a book by the same name authored by Hafiz Abul Qasim Sulaiman bin Muhammad bin Ahmad Shami, Balaghat ul-Nisa by Ibn Taifur, Akhbar ul-Nisa by Imam Ibn Qayyim, Adab ul-Nisa by Ibn Jawziya, Kitab ul-Nisa by Imam Musalmah bin Qasim Andalusi, Ashar ul-Nisa by Allama Marzbani and Nuzhat ul-Jalsa fi Ashar ul-Nisa by the well-known Imam Suyuti.

In this monograph, Mubarakpuri provides us glimpses of some of these early Muslim women scholars, for the most part Arab and Persian. Many of them were recognised for their knowledge of various Islamic sciences, a remarkable contrast to today where few such Muslim women scholars exist, and where often it is assumed that religious scholarship is a male domain. The question thus arises that if early Muslim women could achieve such scholarly heights, inspired by their own faith, what is to stop their sisters today from trodding the same path?

Many of these early Muslim women scholars were experts in the science of Hadith, traditions attributed to the Prophet. These included several wives of the Prophet, numerous other Sahabiyat or women who had seen the Prophet, as well as others in succeeding generations. These women narrated Hadith reports from various sources, including their male and female relatives, and several of them were considered as venerable authorities even by male scholars. Thus, for instance, Mubarakpuri tells us that Umra bint Abdur Rahman Ansariya of Medina was so well-known for her knowledge of Hadith that the Caliph Umar bin Abdul Aziz advised Abu Bakr bin Muhammad bin Hazm to learn the subject from her. The daughter of one Tayyeb bin Keran delivered lectures to men and women in the famous Masjid al-Andalus in Morocco, a mosque constructed by a woman. Some female scholars would also hold special learning sessions or majalis for women alone. Many of these were also Sufis in their own right, such as Umm Ahmad Zuleikha of Ghazni, Taj ul-Nisa bint Rustam of Isfahan, Fatima bint Husain Raziya, and Fatima of Nishapur, a noted commentator (mufassira) of the Quran, who was considered by the famous Sufi Hazrat Zul Nun Misri as a ‘saint’ and as his teacher. Some women scholars of Hadith were so famous that they attracted male students from far off-lands to learn from them even when they had reached a ripe and venerable age. Thus, Umm Muhammad bin Zainab Ahmad bin Umar Maqdisia would deliver lectures on Hadith till the age of 90, including while on her travels to Makkah and Egypt. Likewise, Umm Ahmad Zainab bin Makki Harraniya taught her students till she attained the age of 94. Ulliya bint Hasan, mother of the famous Hadith scholar Ibn Aliya, attracted shaikhs and scholars of fiqh or Muslim jurisprudence from Baghdad for regular intellectual exchanges, as did, so Ibn Jawziya records, the famous Muhadditha or female Hadith scholar Reta bint Abdullah. Hafsa bint Sirin was considered to be such a reputed scholar that Ayas bin Muawiya asserted that he had not seen a scholar who could be considered superior to her’. Social status did not always constitute a bar for such intellectual exchange and learning between the genders, Mubarakpuri suggests. Thus, Humaira, a woman slave of Abul Fatah bin Abul Fawares, narrated Hadith reports to numerous men. Aliya bint Hasan of Basra, another slave woman, was the teacher of numerous male ulema.

Several women scholars gave sanads or certificates to transmit Hadith to their male students. These included Umm Muhammad Asma bint Muhammad bin Salim, Umm Muhammad Fatima bint Ibrahim, Karima bint Abdul Wahhab and a host of others whose names now lie buried in relatively inaccessible Arabic tomes. Just as many such women had male students, numerous early Muslim women scholars studied from venerable male shaikhs. Thus, Mubarakpuri narrates, Umm Muhammad Khadijah of Baghdad would attend Imam Ahmad bin Hanbal’s lectures and he gave her special attention. Some women students, Mubarakpuri relates, were granted the coveted title of Khatimat ul-Ashab, given to the last student of a shaikh who narrated a Hadith report from him or her. These included Fatima bint Khatib Izzuddin Ibrahim Maqdisi, the Khatimat ul-Ashab of Shaikh Ibrahim bin Khalil and Umm Hani Affifa bint Ahmad Farqania Isfahani, student of Abdul Wahid Alashaj.

This early period of Muslim history suggests that women scholars, in many places, did enjoy considerable physical mobility to pursue their scholarly interests. Like their male counterparts, numerous women scholars left their homes and traveled to far-off lands in order to study Hadith from noted scholars. Thus, Mubarakpuri tells us, Umm Husain Hujiya bint Ahmad Mahamiyya left her native Nishapur for Baghdad to learn Hadith from scholars there, and among her students was the noted Shaikh Abul Husain Muhammad. Umm Ali Taqiya bint Abol Farj Qays bin Ali traveled from Baghdad to Egypt, where she spent considerable time studying with Imam Abu Tahir Ahmad bin Muhammad in Alexandria.

Mubarakpuri writes that several early Muslim women were authors of tomes on a range of religious subjects, but laments that many of their books are no longer available today. Ajiba bint Hafiz Muhammad bin Abu Ghalib Baqadariyya of Baghdad is said to have written a ten-volume book describing her numerous teachers; Umm Muhammad Fatima Khatun bint Muhammad Khatba of Isfahan authored several books, including the five volume al-Ramuz Min al-Kanuz; Umm Muhammad Shahida bint Kamaluddin Umar put together Hadith reports in the form of numerous books; Aisha bint Ammara bin Yahya of Bujaya in Africa copied in her handwriting a book that ran into 18 volumes; Khadijah bint Shaikh Shihabuddin of Mecca penned numerous texts and corresponded with several ulema. And so on.

The word ‘fatwa’ is now so carelessly hurled about and projected as a tool used by unscrupulous men for suppressing their womenfolk, but this, Mubarakpuri suggests, was not how it was understood in early times. In fact, he notes, several women scholars regularly provided fatwas in their recognised capacity of Muftia or female muftis. Thus,he quotes the noted Imam Qayyim as having related that 22 Sahabiyat were well-known for their authority in matters related to fatwas and fiqh. Fatima, a noted faqiha or female scholar or fiqh, would sign fatwas along with her father, the noted Hanafi scholar Shaikh Alauddin of Samarkand, and her husband, Allauddin Kasami; the Shafi scholar Ummatul Wahid Sittita, daughter of Qazi Abu Abdullah bin Ismail Mahamali, offered fatwas along with the scholar Shah Abu Ali..

Several women scholars, Mubarakpuri tells us, made their mark in subjects other than strictly religious.

Unveiling, as it so brilliantly and succinctly does, the hidden history of Muslim women ulema, this book makes a valuable contribution to our admittedly extremely limited understanding of gender relations in early Muslim societies, a subject of considerable debate and controversy today. Since the author was a traditional alim who had studied and had taught in traditional Indian madrasas, his work is all the more remarkable.

Empowering a Backward Community
Reviewed by Maqbool Ahmed Siraj
Educational Empowerment of Kerala Muslims
A Socio-Historical Perspective
Prof. U. Mohammed
Other Books, New Way Building,
Railway Link Road, Calicut-673002
Rs. 200, Pages 196

Muslims have a noticeable presence in Kerala. The community represents almost a quarter of the population of the State known for its top ranking on the human development index. Do Muslims share the benefits that accrue due to almost universal literacy and empowerment of women?
Prof. U. Mohammed’s book, Educational Empowerment of Kerala Muslims: A Socio Historical Perspective etches to relief the social and historical factors responsible for tardy progress of the community. Open seas allowed Kerala populace to imbibe foreign influences directly. Persecuted communities, maritime merchants and missionaries settled on the coast over the last two millennia. But Western Ghats insulated it from several socio-political currents of the Peninsular India and the mainland. While the sylvan state had an active Muslim community as early as 8th century AD, Mughal rule could exert no impact on the state inasmuch as Portuguese invaders had been able to clinch an assurance with regard to hands-off by Mughal establishment against their (Portuguese) action directed against Muslim ‘pirates’ in the Arabian Sea during the era of emperor Jehangir. Portuguese maritime invasion ended the glorious era of Kerala Muslims. It spelled doom for their maritime trade with the Middle East. Extension of British rule over Muslim dominant Malabar further loosened their grip over the socio-cultural and economic life. From then on, the community withdrew into a shell.

Educational Backwardness of Kerala Muslims
Facts Speak Out
Literacy stood at merely 2.7 per cent in 1871 among Kerala Muslims while among Christians, it was 13.8 per cent. Hindus had a rate of literacy double of Muslims.
The first college in Kerala was set up in Kottayam (CMS College) by the missionaries in 1816 while the first Muslim college was Farook College which was set up in 1948. This shows a gap of 132 years.
Number of students in 10th standard per 1000 population is the smallest among Muslims (i.e., 2.83) compared to 11.11 among Christians and 6.80 among Ezhavas.
At present, the Christians have 3200 schools in Kerala whereas the Muslims have only 140. In matter of colleges the ratio is 177:46.
The number of Muslim women in Kerala’s Arts and Science college was 7 out of 541 in 1940. Today seven institutions under Farook College have 2,548 Muslim girls against 2,225 Muslim boys.
In 1891, Malayalee Brahmin population in Travancore was only 38,000, but it occupied 38.6 per cent of Govt jobs. 4.83 lakh Nairs shared 57% jobs. Ezhava were 800,000 and Muslims 353,000, but had no government post.

There are similarities between the fears of North Indian Muslims and Mapilla Muslims’ susceptibilities against the British education. Mapilla Ulema dubbed English as a language of hell and British education as a passport to hell. They even hated Malayalam and developed a variant Arabic-Malayalam, which is a kind of Malayalam written in Arabic script. This adversely impacted on their education and alienated them from the mainstream. While anti-colonialism became the crux of Muslim politics for nearly two centuries in the state, anti-Westernisation formed the core of religious activity. Other communities utilized their access to the ruling community intelligently and secured advancement, Muslims remained steeped in backwardness due to opposition to modern education. However ultimately, the same religious and colonial forces worked for their educational upliftment.
The Government therefore changed its policy in 1870 naming it ‘special patronage of Muslim education’. In 1882, the Hunter Education Commission observed that the Mohammedan boys enter the school late and leave earlier than Hindu boys, they are early drop-outs and parents want teachers from their own community. The goal of education was to seek a place for honour in their community rather than in public professions.

But then, the Muslims realised their folly of remaining away from the mainstream, detesting their own mother tongue Malayalam, and laying too much emphasis on Arabic and theological education by the second half of the 18th century. Great many leaders and movements aroused the awareness of embracing the modern and secular education. Gradually the ice melted. British policy of schools for ‘Mohammedans’ introduced the secular education. Opposition to girls’ education-once dubbed makrooh (taboo) by the Kerala Jamiathul Ulema also declined.

Today, Kerala Muslims are approaching universal literacy on par with other communities. While the Muslim enrolment at the lower and upper primary level compares favourably with their numbers today, the community is still far from empowered. Muslim pupils stop going to schools early which results in low educational attainments. Gulf jobs lure away the youth early from education. Muslim reservation quota i.e., 12 per cent, remains underutilized and has to be often offered to the general pool. The community is under represented all across vital sectors of life. Yet the study is optimistic about the future in view of the strenuous effort being exerted by a host of forces to promote rationalism. Yet much remains to be achieved. Need for blending the secular and religious education, expediting women’s education, setting up quality educational institutions should occupy priorities of the community.

The book is a maiden effort to explore the correlation between educational progress and empowerment of the Muslim community in Kerala. Richly endowed with research data the book is a valuable compendium on the issue of Muslim education.