A Way Forward – Reviving Female Scholarship in Islam
Religious scholarship is not just the domain of men. And looking back through Islamic history gives us an accurate depiction of why it is essential for women to be actively engaged in scholarship.
By Feda Abdo
Islamic scholarship is perceived as being the domain of men. But knowledge, of course, knows no gender. This is not a revolutionary concept. It is imperative that Muslim women revive the legacy of female Islamic scholarship—particularly in a modern, Western, context.
Knowledge is the key to scholarship. Scholarship is not defined by one’s gender. It is not defined by one’s race or culture. Scholarship is defined by one’s knowledge, skills and expertise.
From an Islamic perspective, a scholar is someone with traditional Islamic knowledge, including advanced skill sets in particular Islamic sciences. Additionally, the scholar strives to uphold the values and morals central to their faith. The definition is gender neutral. It always has been.
If we consider Islamic scholarship from a Western perspective, a contextualised understanding of Islam is essential. This means that Islam is understood and applied in the context of the society in which we live, on an individual and communal level. Therefore, the Islamic scholar is also equipped with an awareness, an understanding and a sense of belonging to the broader society.
The Islamic scholar becomes a catalyst for positive change and benefit in society. This is based on the Prophetic saying “The best of you are those who are most beneficial to one another.” Again, no distinction is made based on race, age or gender.
Scholarship becomes a means to an end. And that end is a harmonious society, where people respect one another and are confident in who they are. They are not all the same, and this difference is acknowledged and celebrated. In Islam, sound knowledge and understanding is not something which restricts. Knowledge is that which liberates. This is why it is critical to have men and women within society that are fulfilling these scholarly roles.
There is no doubt that Islam is most often perceived as a male-centric religion. That it is understood, taught and transmitted by men. However, this perception runs contrary to the history of Islamic scholarship. Some of the greatest scholars of Islam were females. Starting from Aisha bint Abu Bakr, the wife of the Prophet Muhammad, who is considered to be one of the greatest authorities and a teacher to some of the greatest scholars Islam has ever produced—male and female.
Women in positions of scholarship are not a new concept. We can list numerous examples here. From Aisha bint Abu Bakr through to the generation after her, with Amrah bint Abdur Rahman who was considered among the greatest scholars of her time. The Caliph of that period himself, Umar bin Abdul Aziz, would advise his people, men and women, that if they wanted to learn prophetic traditions, then they should go to Amrah. And one cannot discuss female scholarship in Islam without mentioning Fatima al Fihri, who founded the world’s first, and longest running, university in the ninth century in Fez, Morocco.
Women Teachers in Mosques
This is what men and women were achieving in the history of Islam. They were building institutions that ensured equal access to education for all.
Facilities that were founded on the fundamental tenets of freedom and equality in Islam. There was never an issue in Islamic history with men being taught by women. The seeker of knowledge would strive to attain it from the best sources he or she could access. Women would teach in mosques, educational institutions, from their homes, or wherever it was possible to disseminate knowledge. The unique value that women bring to scholarship is noted within the history of Islam, and is apparent in the numerous examples we have of female Muslim scholars throughout history.
Women need to be represented. This applies to all aspects of society, including scholarship, as demonstrated through the Prophetic saying: “Seeking knowledge is an obligation on every Muslim.” There is no distinction made based on race, gender, age, or social standing.
Confident, Empowered Women
Women around the world today are campaigning for equality of representation. For Muslim women, this will only be achieved if we are able to revive the legacy of Islamic female scholarship that was once flourishing. Religious scholarship is not just the domain of men. And looking back through Islamic history gives us an accurate depiction of why it is essential for women to be actively engaged in scholarship.
When you have confident, empowered women whose abilities and skills are based on sound knowledge that is when you are setting up society for success. We need to empower women to take ownership of their Islam. And inspire them to believe that they can achieve this without compromising any part of their identity. The empowering of Muslim women to assert their Islamic identity and excel in Islamic knowledge only serves to enhance the society in which we live.
(Feda Abdo is the Communications Manager for the Muslim Women Association and a teacher of Islamic sciences for various institutions around Sydney).