The formal convocation ceremony, which was held several years after the first batch of female graduates passed out of the seminary, was an opportunity for the institution to highlight its progressive mission and objectives. These female scholars have already started making their mark in the society in multiple roles. Some of them are working as teachers and lecturers, not only in other seminaries but also in secular schools and colleges. Among the Wafiyyas, there are also writers, orators and active social workers as who conduct workshops and deliver lectures to packed female audiences. Thanks to this latest initiative, a vibrant tradition in Islamic history, one in which women were actively encouraged to pursue religious studies and excel as scholars, is currently being revived.

Reinventing the legacy  

Islamic scholarship has never been a bastion of male chauvinism. Ever since the time of Prophet Muhammad, the proverbial glass ceiling has been stormed from time to time by gifted female scholars who mastered different disciplines of traditional Islamic sciences and played pioneering roles in the transmission and dissemination of prophetic traditions and other sources of knowledge. 

Scholar and education activist Abdul Hakeem Faizy speaks at the Wafy International Conference on Multiculturalism and World Peace (source: YouTube)
Victims of reactionary practices and social customs: "there is no better way of empowering Muslim women than to educate them and give them access to all streams of knowledge. Faith has been used as pretext to block women from education," asserts the Islamic scholar and education activist Abdul Hakeem Faizy

In the first century of Islam, the burgeoning academic firmament was illuminated by a galaxy of exceptional woman scholars, comprising the wives and female companions of the Prophet, on whose rigorous work and sound judgement much of the edifice of Islam was built in later centuries. They contributed significantly to the canonisation of the Koran and were the transmitters of prophetic traditions (hadith); they were held in high esteem and were approached for instruction on religious matters even by senior companions. 

Crowning this list of female achievers was Aisha, the wife of the Prophet, who was a scholar of exemplary erudition and one of the most respected intellectuals of her time.  She was also a well-known authority in medicine, history and rhetoric. Others include Hafsah, Umm Habeebah, Umm Salama etc. who contributed immensely to the proliferation of Hadith literature, by readily dispensing their rich knowledge. Umm Waraqah was appointed by the Prophet as imam over her household. Moreover, it was a women who corrected the authoritative ruling of Caliph Umar on dowry. The credit of founding what is arguably the world′s first degree-awarding educational institution goes to Fatima al-Fihri, who founded the University of Al Quaraouiyine in Fez, Morocco in 859. 

Questioning ossified cultural norms

However, subsequent centuries saw this rich legacy being often masked by patriarchy and bias, with many Muslim women finding barriers to accessing Islamic knowledge. Although most centuries can point to a few notable female Islamic scholars, the number of women active in the enterprise of Islamic scholarship has sunk drastically in more recent times.

Faizy reiterates that the seminaries under the CIC are trying to bridge this gap by helping women to create a world of their own. His vision for the seminary is to help women create an authentic female world. The comprehensive curriculum creates an environment conducive to developing their creative thinking, artistic talent, personality traits, leadership and social skills, physical activities and so on and so forth. 

Faizy maintains that there is no better way of empowering Muslim women than to educate them and give them access to all streams of knowledge, including Islamic theology where they proved their mettle in the first centuries of Islam. He blames certain reactionary practices and social customs for using faith as a pretext to block woman from education, reiterating that it is not religion per se, but certain ossified cultural norms masquerading as religious decrees that prevent women from scaling new heights in areas of their choice. 

Muhammed Nafih     

© Qantara.de 2017

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