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Posted: 10/24/2012 11:43 am
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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 (CGNews).
BLOOMINGTON, Indiana -- As someone who writes and lectures about
women and gender in Islam, I am often asked if women had any role in the
making of the Islamic tradition. Happily, the answer is always yes.
There were in fact many prominent women in the early history of Islam.
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 counselled 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 Quran. 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 toward 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 ninth 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
encyclopaedic 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
recognised for what it is: a violation of fundamental Islamic principles
and one that should not be granted even the veneer of religious
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
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.
Source: Common Ground News Service (CGNews), 23 October 2012, www.commongroundnews.org.
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