The Lost Female Legacy: Women Scholars in Islam

The Legacy of Female Muslim Scholarship
Dr Akram Nadwi


The following are my notes taken from Dr Akram Nadwi’s lecture, so if there is anything not comprehensible it is the failure of my note taking skills. For further clarification and any critical notes please comment below. ( i arrived 20 mins late)

Feminist movement, no one thought about the khāliq, did He make the women less than men. There were no women to be found amongst the Greek philosophers. There were enough muḥaddithīn then why more women muḥaddithāt, our aslāf never asked this question. Allah created mankind for His worship, so they both have a responsibility. So every generation should teach the following one, that’s why we have the notion of the family. In learning there is no difference between a man and a woman, the difference is only their function within the family.

{Worship >;;;;; Family created to follow and pass the worship to the next generation}

The Qur’an does not differentiate between men and women, the story of men are examples for both e.g. Ibrahim (as) and his family. Ismail and mother left in barren land. When there is equal story the Qur’an suffices with male story. However, when there is a unique message in the narrative of a women then the Qur’an mentions it e.g. story of Pharaoh’s wife: she is mentioned because of her du’ā that she wanted to be nearer and closer to Allah, ‘رَبِّ ٱبْنِ لِي عِندَكَ بَيْتاً فِي ٱلْجَنَّة (Qur’an 66:11). The Qur’an is not a book of feminism. Al-jār qabl al-dār. So the Qur’an mentions women where you cannot find such stories amongst the men.

Whilst on ḥajj Dr Nadwi wrote ‘armaghān e ḥajj’, he wanted to mention the names of the women present on the journey but the people told him you do not need the names of our women just write wife of so and so ‘zawjah’. Musa (A.S.)’s story, only one daughter was sent to bring him home. Something unimaginable today. Musa (A.S.) asks Allah for help in time of such difficulty ‘ربِّ إِنِّي لِمَآ أَنزَلْتَ إِلَيَّ مِنْ خَيْرٍ فَقِيرٌ’ ‘My Lord, I am in dire need of whatever good thing You may send me’ (Qur’an 28:24). In the Quran women are independent beings. The verse of bay’ah was revealed in the context of women.

Ibn Mas’ūd (R.A)’s wife Zainab used to make things with her hand, hence she was rich and paid zakāt and ibn Mas’ūd (R.A.) was so poor that she wanted to give zakat to him. When she came to the Prophet to enquire of its permissibility, the Prophet was told that Zainab has come, on hearing this the Prophet (S.A.W) asked, ayyu Zayaanib? Which Zainab? Hence, we learn that the Prophet (S.A.W.) knew the names of the women of his time, and there is nothing wrong with that and we also learn that women can give zakāt to husbands and not vice versa.

[In persia kajkolahi, wearing hat bent, which became symbol of Kings and only for them. A man did that and paid daily fine but one day didn’t.]

In ‘īd gāh (field, where the ‘īd ṣalāh was performed in congregation), even women were told to come even those with ḥayḍ (in their menses) so that they too could benefit at least from the advice of the Prophet (A.S.). Single females were also told to come to the ‘īd gāh.

Fāṭimah bint Qays (R.A.) learnt the lengthy lecture of the Prophet regarding Tamim al-Daari’s journey to the island.

Umar ibn al-khaṭṭāb (R.A.) appointed women for the market supervision, which at the time was the most complex market selling goods from Persia and Byzantium. There were men available and among them great faqīhs, but ‘Umar (R.A.) chose women. Hence, those who argue that we have enough male imams and muftīs (jurist consults) and there is ‘no need’ for females, should rethink their idea, which seems is influenced by Greek philosophy according to Dr Nadwi’s research.

Ibn Najjār had 400 female teachers, imagine how many more there were at the time! Women would ask questions to the Prophet directly. Abu Bakr (R.A) used to go to the tent of the women and advise them. Umar (R.A.) accepts the argument of the woman, during his lecture, who said that Umar (R.A.) cannot condition that which Allah has not and read the verse regarding qintār.

Is a woman’s ‘aql less than that of a man? If so how can they accept ḥadīth from women. Dhuhr four sunnats before farḍ according to aḥnāf are accepted because sunan are usually performed in the house and it is from the females that this ḥadīth is narrated.

You will never find female scholars amongst the mu’tazila and philosophers because Greek philosophy has always been indifferent towards women and argue that, ‘women are inferior to men’. Dr Nadwī throughout his research of the topic, which concluded with a ‘52 volume book’, did not find learned women amongst mu’tazila and falsafiyyūn and on the contrary there are thousand amongst the muḥaddithīn. Hence from his research he found that when Greek philosophy had influence over Islamic learning, women have been put aside and when ḥadīth and revelation are influencing the times then you will find ample volumes filled with the names of these learned Muslim women. First three centuries scholarship was good, 4 and 5 it declines then in 6th , 7th , 8th and 9th there is a rise in shām. This is then followed by a decline in the 10th and 11th centuries. In the 12th century there is a rise again in hind with Shāh Waliyullāh. Now again there is a rise in Syria due to which thirty Muslim women have memorized ṣaḥīḥ Muslim by heart.

Overview of the Rise and Decline of Women scholarship in History:

1st Century (A.H.) = RISE
2nd Century (A.H.) = RISE
3rd Century (A.H.) = RISE
4th Century (A.H.) = DECLINE
5th Century (A.H.) = DECLINE
6th Century (A.H.) = RISE
7th Century (A.H.) = RISE
8th Century (A.H.) = RISE
9th Century (A.H.) = RISE
10th Century (A.H.) = DECLINE
11th Century (A.H.) = DECLINE
12th Century (A.H.) = RISE
13th Century (A.H.) = DECLINE
14th Century (A.H.) = RISING

Dr Nadwi disagrees with the notion that women have to look after the children and homes therefore cannot learn as the man. He argues that women who narrated ḥadīth too had children of their own and despite that they spent so much time in learning and passing on the ‘ilm.

Some argue, due to the presence of women there is a high chance of fitnah. Dr Nadwi replies that if there is a problem in the finger don’t cut the finger but cure the finger.

Samar al-‘Ashar, has memorized ṣaḥīḥ Muslim and has written a book on how to memorise ṣaḥīḥ Muslim.

Women are far away from taḥqīq (research) today. An example of a muḥadditha and muḥaqqiqa of the post-Waliyullāh period is Amatullāh bint ‘Abd al-Ghaniyy al-Dihlawiyy. She taught the ṣiḥāḥ sittas and also taught the aḥādīth al-musalsalāt. Amongst the musalsalāt there is the tradition of qabḍ al-liḥyā, so when the Prophet spoke the words he held his beard, and this tradition followed on from his companions doing the same onto our times. However, when Amatullāh taught this particular musalsal ḥadīth she would hold onto her chin.



What were the venues of the learning? It was sometimes in the homes, homes of others, shops, gardens, colleges, and places where men learnt women learnt alongside them.

In India and Pakistan women never go to the masjid so this has an effect on the mind. Sunnah is a continuous practice that goes back to the Prophet (S.A.W.). Women not going to the masjid is a practice that does not go back to the Prophet (S.A.W.). During the Prophet (S.A.W.)’s time the women could see the ‘aura of some of the men, hence they exclaimed, ‘wāru ‘annā ‘awrata imāmikum’.
It could have been easy for the people to make a barrier but they did not.
No jurist says that women cannot go to the masjid.
‘Ātika the wife of ‘Umar (R.A.) was very beautiful, despite this she was not stopped from going to the masjid. During the era of the khulafā (Caliph’s) time they never stopped women from coming to the masjid.

Umm Dardā’ was a tābi’iyyah, her ḥadīth are in Bukhari etc. She taught six months in Dimishq Jāmi’ (Grand Mosque of Damascus) and six months in masjid al-‘Aqṣā, Jerusalem. Her classes were attended by ‘Abd al-Malik ibn Marwān, and he himself was a great learned person and the ruler of the time. After class at the time of ṣalāh would help her to the women’s rows because she was an old woman. Even in the masjid of the Prophet (S.A.W.), Fāṭima bint Ibrāhīm – the teacher of Imām Subki et al – taught ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhāri. That is the highest post in madrasa. She was requested by ‘ulamā’ to teach in masjid al-nabawi. One notes, ‘when I came to the Masjid, she used to teach by the grave of the Prophet (S.A.W.), opposite the blessed head of the Prophet (S.A.W.) , and sometimes she would lean against the grave. At the end of the class she would give ijāza.

Two big Mosques in Syria: al-Jāmi’ al-Muẓaffarī, and al-Jāmi’ al-‘umawiyyīn. In both mosques men and women both have been teaching.
….. [name forgotten]… Abū ‘Abd Allāh al-Zabīdī (630 A.H.) was asked to teach Bukhārī in both mosques, and every day the names of students were written and many of them were female students. They wrote the names of women (As today, amongst the Indo-Pak community this is seen as an ‘aura) . However, Wazīra al-Tanūkhiyyah was also his student; al-Dhahabī studied under her; and she died 812 A.H; she taught 82 years after Imam Bukhari himself. During her ḥadīth career, Egypt realized the decline of ḥadīth on her soil and wrote a letter to her to teach Bukhari in the big Mosque, college and palaces of Egypt. She died at the age of 89 and whilst teaching ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī.

‘Ā’isha bint ibn al-Hādī teacher of ibn Ḥajar al-‘Asqalānī, taught him 80 books of ḥadīth, and this took place in al-Jāmi’ al-‘Umawi. 22 sound hadith have been narrated with only 14 narrators in the chain to Imām Bukārī, 18 in total to the Prophet (S.A.W.): and [‘Ā’isha or Fāṭima] is in that chain of narrators.

Zainab bint Kamāl (740 A.H) taught at jāmi’ al-Muẓaffarī and al-‘Umawī and other big madāris there. She would also lecture at the mosque near her home. After every hearing they wrote down the place and attendees of the lecture: some classes would include 400 people. She had been teaching 400 books, whereas now in traditional madāris one teaches a maximum of 6 or 7 books. Her class ran from morning till evening. She was very patient, 30 to 40 students came to her home. We should be grateful to these women.

Fāṭimah Al-Iṣfahāniyyah Al-Jūzdāniyyah, taught the whole book (Al-mu’jam al-Kabīr li al-Ṭabarānī: 25 vols, and still parts missing), and this book became known worldwide because of her. Amongst her famous students was Fāṭimah bint Sa’d al-Khayr, who was actually born in China, she was Spanish as her father had migrated from Valencia and took her to a small village called Jūzdān. Both were experts, when she came to Egypt the science of ḥadīth was dying out and she revived it. Some women used to even teach in shops: they would be teaching ḥadīth and if a buyer walked in she would pause serve the buyer and then resume with the lecture.

The current state of female scholarship and learning has not always been as it is. You do not find female scholarship in European, Chinese and also Jewish history. But in Islam almost 1/4 of the fiqh madhāhib teachings are coming from the women.

Rubayyi’ah bint al-Mu’awwiz (R.A) was an orphan. The Prophet (S.A.W) came to her house and he sat next to her on the same bed. She saw the Prophet (S.A.W) doing wuḍū’ as a bride and she taught the male ṣahāba about the Prophet (S.A.W)’s wuḍū’ including ibn ‘Abbās (R.A). Even the teachings of ghuṣl are coming from the women.

Ṣafiyyah the sister of Mukhtār was a tābi’iyyah: she narrated ḥadīth of the Prophet (S.A.W) to her husband ‘Abdullāh ibn ‘Umar, who was a close companion of the Prophet (S.A.W).

[Saeed Musayyab’s daugher. Story about man shouting from roof]

Kāsāni was the student of ‘Alā’uddin, and he wanted to marry his daughter. ‘Alā’uddin said “no” unless you write a book on the Ḥanafī Fiqh. When he completed the book, which is studied till this day in ḥanafī madāris, he allowed Kāsānī to marry his daughter. Later Kāsānī taught in Ḥalab, when he never knew answers to some of the ‘ibārāt she used to explain to him before he went to teach. And at times when he was questioned by students on problematic masā’il, he would go home and confirm with his wife. It was only when his students asked where he would go and get the answers that he told them and hence this information reaches us.

If you do not give women the opportunity to learn you bury them alive!

Many of these women used to give fatwā and also corrected judges. Many times fatāwā were signed by husband, wife and daughter. Ibn Najjār studied from 400 women and Ibn Ḥajar al-‘Asqalānī from 80 women. All these great scholars learnt from women.

Amra bint ‘Abd al-Raḥmān was a qāḍī in Madina. Once a Coptic Christian was caught stealing and the qāḍī issued the ruling that his hand must be cut. Amra bint ‘Abd al-Raḥmān disagreed with the ruling and explained her reasons, the judge had to reverse his fatwā and the Copt was released. It is significant here to understand that ‘Amra knew what was happening in the town – outside her home – for her to then be able to critically analyse the notion. The qāḍī felt that her fatwā was valid. Imam Mālik quotes her whole story and then uses her opinion.

Trust of Women in Knowledge.

‘Ā’isha (R.A.) one fatwā that no one follows except for her. A man in any age becomes son of the woman whose milk he drinks as opposed to 2 years according to the other a’immah and 2 ½ years according to Imām Abū Ḥanīfa. However the ṣaḥāba respected her opinion but disagreed. She asked her sister ‘Āsima to give her milk to students she wanted to come to her. No one objected to her fatwa, they respected but disagreed.

Fāṭima bint Qays was a muftiyyah. One fatwā she issued was that when women divorced they have no right on accommodation etc. Dr Nadwī believes women muftis have been tougher on the women compared to the men. This opinion goes against the Qur’an. ‘Umar ibn al-Khaṭṭāb did not take her opinion, despite that people followed and even reconciled their own opinions.

Sam’ān, said I came to Karīma bint Abū Manṣūr (6th century). I asked her brother if he could ask her to teach me, but he refused many times and made excuses. So this problem of keeping the women away from teaching and learning was a problem even then. So the 8000 muḥaddithāt in number is very tiny, there were many others not even recorded.

Quraysh al-Ṭabariyyah was a Ḥāfidha of ḥadīth, which is the highest status in ḥadīth. She revived ḥadīth knowledge in Ḥijāz. She was so learned that if she had been alive and she lead the prayer – a male narrator suggests – I would have prayed behind her. He wrote a comment on this. He does not believe that leading prayer is so amazing in raising their value. Amina Wadud political statement, otherwise do it everyday. No woman has done that in the history of Islam, even ‘Ā’isha (R.A.) would tell her male students to lead the prayer.

Al-Shifā’ al-Adawiyyah (R.A.) was famous for her writing in the time of the Prophet (S.A.W). The Prophet (S.A.W) asked Hafsa (R.A.) to learn writing from her. And some muftis in India had said that writing is not allowed for women. Shuhadā’ al-Kātiba was the writer of the Caliph, and ibn al-Ḥajar knew of her writing. Many people think that ‘Umar ibn al-Khaṭṭāb (R.A.) stopped women from going to the masjid. But this is a misunderstanding, when Al-Shifā’ al-Adawiyyah (R.A.) was appointed as a supervisor by ‘Umar ibn al-Khaṭṭāb (R.A.) of the market of Madinah. Just think! The most complicated market of the world!!!! Where the goods of Persia and Byzantine were sold. She would receive letters from men ad write back to them.

[Woman adorned herself aft giving birth. Abu Sunābi proposed later after disagreeing].

Many fabricated ḥadīth exist, but not a single fabricated ḥadīth narrated by a woman. Because men had other interests and women only did it for the sake of ḥadīth.

Zainab bint Makkī al-Ḥayrāniyyah: even ibn Taymiyyah learns from her.

In Islam most important source is Quran and then Bukhari.
Both two things depended on the women. Qur’an of ‘Uthmān (R.A.) depended on the Qur’an of Hafsa (R.A.). Similarly Bukhari, the most authentic ḥadīth book is also taken from the copy of Karīmah al-Marwaziyyah (d. 463) born in Kushnihān and lived for a hundred years.

Note taker: Hamid Mahmood

To purchase Dr Mohammad Akram Nadwi’s book ‘al-Muḥāddithāt: the women scholars in Islam’ :

Other books by Dr Akram Nadwi:

For more information on Dr Nadwi’s 40 volume project visit his website dedicated specifically to it:

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