At the top of the list would have to be Aisha, the widow of the Prophet Muhammad who was renowned for her learning and wit. The Prophet in fact is said to have counseled his followers to “take half of your religion” from Aisha – in recognition of her learning. After his death, she spent the rest of her life transmitting the sayings of her husband and commenting on the Qur’an. Her authoritative pronouncements have decisively shaped the later Islamic legal tradition.
The early period of Islam in particular is peopled with such intelligent, assertive, and pious women. Another name that comes to mind is Umm Umara – although she was a prominent companion of the Prophet Muhammad, whom he regarded highly in her own time, she has become an obscure figure over the centuries. One possible reason for this is that Umm Umara was a “difficult” woman – that is to say, she was someone who asked a lot of questions and who protested loudly when she was faced with inequality, especially in regard to women’s rights. Her passion for justice and outspokenness, however, were hardly out of place in the first century of Islam.
As historical records inform us, women in particular excelled in religious scholarship through the late Mamluk period, the 14th and 15th centuries of the common era. This should not be surprising since women’s right to education is firmly guaranteed by Islam. A well-known saying of the Prophet Muhammad asserts that knowledge is equally obligatory for males and females – which has allowed for considerable Muslim receptivity towards providing education for girls and women alongside their male counterparts through the centuries. As a result, women scholars dot the Islamic intellectual landscape.
The famous 9th century Muslim jurist al-Shafii, widely regarded as the father of Islamic jurisprudence, studied with female teachers. Ibn Hajar, another prominent jurist from the 15th century, gratefully acknowledges his debt to a number of his female professors whose study circles he frequented.
Ibn Hajar’s student, al-Sakhawi, dedicated one whole volume of his encyclopedic biographical work on famous scholars from the Mamluk period to women alone. Among the 1,075 women listed in this volume, over 400 were active in scholarship. One such scholar is on record as having complained that she was not getting adequate compensation for her teaching (a complaint that may sound dismayingly familiar to contemporary professional women the world over today).
Regrettably, the memory of these accomplished women has grown dim over time. As Muslim societies became more patriarchal after the first century of Islam, many of these women have been air-brushed out of the master narrative of Islamic history, leaving us with the impression that the Islamic tradition was shaped mainly by men.
This erasure of women can lead to a dangerously mistaken belief that Islam itself mandates this marginalization of women. The danger is real – as became recently evident in the Taliban’s brutal and misogynist vendetta against the indomitable 14-year-old Malala Yousafzai. A fearless warrior to promote education for females in her native Pakistan, Yousafzai has paid a huge price for her courageous stance, as she now struggles to recover after being shot by the Taliban.
Yousafzai’s fate is a reminder that women’s historical roles in Islamic learning and scholarship need to become much better known among Muslims themselves. This is imperative so that in the future the Taliban’s grotesque interpretation of women’s rights can immediately be recognized for what it is – a violation of fundamental Islamic principles and one that should not be granted even the veneer of religious legitimacy.
In her fearless insistence on the right to be educated and to be heard in public, Yousafzai is following in the footsteps of her illustrious female forebears from the first century of Islam. Learned, feisty and principled women have contributed much to the Islamic heritage.
Her predicament reminds us why this history must be featured prominently in our own times and why women must be reinstated into the very mainstream of the Islamic intellectual tradition. It is the most effective way to keep religious obscurantism at bay in Muslim-majority societies, especially the kind that threatens the well-being of Muslim girls and women.
* Asma Afsaruddin is a professor of Islamic Studies at Indiana University, Bloomington, and a senior editor of the forthcoming Oxford Encyclopedia of Islam and Women (2013).
(This article was written for the Common Ground News Service on Oct. 23, 2012)