Female scholars in IslamUnsung guardians of the 'true' tradition
In 1995 Mohammad Akram Nadwi was conducting research at the Centre for Islamic Studies in Oxford. Annoyed by a blanket assertion made by The Times newspaper that the reason Muslim women were so poorly educated was down to Islam, he was moved to take action. He began scouring ancient Arabic manuscripts for women's names, looking specifically for female scholars.
Initially, he hoped to find maybe 20 or 30 women, he says, but: "I soon realised that a huge number of women had been active in the search for knowledge. Sometimes a single scholar would write, 'I studied with 70 women'. Another would pass on a hadith that had been transmitted by a total of 400 women."
Recording the life of the Prophet
After the Koran, the hadiths are the second most important source for very many Muslims. They are written records about the life of the Prophet Muhammad – things he is said to have said, or done. They are vitally important to Muslims because they translate the abstract message of the Koran into everyday specifics. During the early years of Islam, Muslim scholars concerned with establishing hadith authenticity handled their source material critically.
Nadwi began his research by scouring well-known and lesser-known hadith collections for women's names. He also delved into biographies and reports that scholars wrote about their teachers – male and female. What he found exceeded all his expectations.
The article he set out to write turned into a book, the book into an encyclopaedia. In mid-January 2021, after more than 20 years, he finally completed his work. The biographies of more than 10,000 women are now contained in 43 volumes. The final tally even surprised even Islamic theologian Dina El Omari, who conducts research at the University of Munster in Germany. "I was aware that there were many, but that it turned out to be so many in the end was astonishing – indeed, it is what makes the whole project so exciting."
Nadwi also has a few exciting stories to tell. Take Umm al-Darda, for example, a prominent legal scholar in 7th century Damascus. As a young woman, she not only studied together with the men, but she also prayed with them in the men's area of the mosque – something that would be unthinkable in the vast majority of mosques today. Or Karima al-Marwaziyya, who lived in Mecca in the 11th century. Her copy of the most important hadith collection, the al-Buhari collection, is still considered definitive to this day.
Altogether, Nadwi estimates, about a quarter of all hadiths were handed down by women. What's more, they were apparently not only diligent, but also thorough. "When it comes to the Prophet's traditions, very, very many men have been accused of making up hadiths. Yet all the hadith scholars confirm that lying about one of the Prophet's hadiths is not something a woman has ever been accused of, which is amazing."
Men rose to fame, women remained hidden
But if there were so many learned Muslim women and they were so conscientious – how come so few of them are remembered today? Akram Nadwi explains with an example:
"One of Islam's great scholars, Ibn al-Sam'ani, who lived in the 13th or 14th century, records that he wanted to study with a woman called Karima: 'I asked her brother many times to allow me to study with her. But her brother always found excuses.' You can see the problem here: if people had a son or a brother, they wanted them to be famous. If they had a sister, they wanted to keep her hidden."
Nadwi has gone to great lengths to rescue these female scholars from historical obscurity. Yet, he is not necessarily what you would call a liberal Muslim. Nadwi has worked with the European Fatwarat, which is linked to the Muslim Brotherhood. Nor does he call himself a feminist.
"But feminism and I do agree on one thing," Akram Nadwi concedes. "I do believe that women have been oppressed and that we should work hard to defend their rights and give them the honour they deserve. What I don't like is that feminism aims to make men and women equal."
Thwarted in the name of tradition
Nevertheless, his work remains important for Muslim women, since it provides them with convincing arguments when fighting for more say. After all, says Gonul Yerli, even today, some Muslim men still invoke "tradition" in an attempt to keep women out of positions of power.
As deputy director of the mosque in Penzberg, Yerli is one of the very few women at the head of an Islamic community in Germany. Some members of the Bavarian congregation initially had a problem accepting her position. "One of them said: 'You know, there is a hadith: when a woman heads an Islamic community, then the community is cursed, and she will never reach her peaceful goal'," Yerli recalls.
Dina El Omari is also acquainted with instances where men use religious arguments to manipulate women. "We have a tradition that is supposed to have been spoken by the Prophet: that is, if a man invites a woman into his bed and she refuses, then the angels will curse her all night. Of course, that's a very extreme example. But it does show how women are pressured – using religious arguments – to do things they don't actually want to do."
According to Gonul Yerli, there is another, very practical reason why such sayings are so widespread: they are much easier to understand than the Koran. "The language of the Koran is complex, and it doesn't offer an answer to every question. In fact, to be honest, it rarely does."
Questioning misogynistic traditions
Both Gonul Yerli and Dina El Omari try to counter the misogynistic hadiths in their work, their teaching and in pastoral care. El Omari explains, for example, that it is very uncertain whether Mohammed was in fact the originator of these sentiments. After all, none of them turn up in the oldest extant collections. "Which is quite striking. It really does make you pause for thought: these misogynistic traditions are in such stark contrast to the Prophet's biography that they simply don't fit in."
As long as women had a say, El Omari says, the misogynistic traditions were corrected. Aisha, for example, one of the Prophet's favourite wives, often argued with Abu Huraira, one of the Prophet's companions, after her husband's death.
Abu Hureira asserted, for example, that a man's ritual prayer would be invalidated if a woman walked past in his direction of prayer. "And that's when Aisha just put in her vote and said very clearly that the Prophet would never have said something like that," says Omari.
Aisha herself reports in various hadiths that the Prophet prayed in his room, even when she was lying in bed in front of him. It is examples like this that reveal how important it is that these ancient female scholars are finally noticed and recognised again.
Mohammad Akram Nadwi agrees. "If women are not represented, then no-one will represent them. Then false ideas about women will prevail and no-one will be able to defend them."
© Qantara.de 2022