Women Scholars of Islam

History records few scholarly enterprises, at least before modern times, in which women have played an important and active role side by side with men. The science of hadith forms an outstanding exception in this respect.

Since Islam’s earliest days, women had been taking a prominent part in the preservation and cultivation of hadith, and this function continued down the centuries. At every period in Muslim history, there lived numerous eminent women-traditionists, treated by their brethren with reverence and respect.

During the lifetime of the Prophet, many women had been not only the instance for the evolution of many traditions, but had also been their transmitters to their sisters and brethren in faith[al-Khatib, Sunna, 53-4, 69-70] After the Prophet’s death, many women Companions, particularly his wives, were looked upon as vital custodians of knowledge, and were approached for instruction by the other Companions, to whom they readily dispensed the rich store which they had gathered in the Prophet’s company. The names of Hafsa, Umm Habiba, Maymuna, Umm Salama, and A’isha, are familiar to every student of hadith as being among its earliest and most distinguished transmitters. In particular, A’isha is one of the most important figures in the whole history of hadith literature – not only as one of the earliest reporters of the largest number of hadith, but also as one of their most careful interpreters.

In the period of the Successors, too, women held important positions as traditionists. Hafsa, the daughter of Ibn Sirin, Umm al-Darda the Younger (d.81/700), and ‘Amra bin ‘Abd al-Rahman, are only a few of the key women traditionists of this period. Umm al-Darda’ was held by Iyas ibn Mu’awiya, an important traditionist of the time and a judge of undisputed ability and merit, to be superior to all the other traditionists of the period, including the celebrated masters of hadith like al-Hasan al-Basri and Ibn Sirin. ‘Amra was considered a great authority on traditions related by A’isha. Among her students, Abu Bakr ibn Hazm, the celebrated judge of Medina, was ordered by the caliph Umar ibn Abd al-Aziz to write down all the traditions known on her authority.

After them, ‘Abida al-Madaniyya, ‘Abda bin Bishr, Umm Umar al-Thaqafiyya, Zaynab the granddaughter of Ali ibn Abd Allah ibn Abbas, Nafisa bint al-Hasan ibn Ziyad, Khadija Umm Muhammad, ‘Abda bint Abd al-Rahman, and many other members of the fair sex excelled in delivering public lectures on hadith. These devout women came from the most diverse backgrounds, indicating that neither class nor gender were obstacles to rising through the ranks of Islamic scholarship. For example, Abida, who started life as a slave owned by Muhammad ibn Yazid, learnt a large number of hadiths with the teachers in Median. She was given by her master to Habib Dahhun, the great traditionist of Spain, when he visited the holy city on this way to the Hajj. Dahhun was so impressed by her learning that he freed her, married her, and brought her to Andalusia. It is said that she related ten thousand traditions on the authority of her Medinan teachers.[Maqqari, Nafh, II, 96.]

Zaynab bint Sulayman (d. 142/759), by contrast, was princess by birth. Her father was a cousin of al-Saffah, the founder of the Abbasid dynasty, and had been a governor of Basra, Oman and Bahrayn during the caliphate of al-Mansur. Zaynab, who received a fine education, acquired a mastery of hadith, gained a reputation as one of the most distinguished women traditionists of the time, and counted many important men among her pupils.

A survey of the texts reveals that all the important compilers of traditions from the earliest period received many of them from women shuyukh: every major collection gives the names of many women as the immediate authorities of the author. And when these works had been compiled, the women traditionists themselves mastered them, and delivered lectures to large classes of pupils, to whom they would issue their own ijazas.

In the fourth century, we find Fatima bint Abd al-Rahman (d. 312/924), known as al-Sufiyya on account of her great piety; Fatima (granddaughter of Abu Daud of Sunan fame); Amat al-Wahid (d. 377/987), the daughter of distinguished jurist al-Muhamili; Umm al-Fath Amat as-Salam (d. 390/999), the daughter of the judge Abu Bakr Ahmad (d.350/961); Jumua bint Ahmad, and many other women, whose classes were always attended by reverential audiences.

The Islamic tradition of female hadith scholarship continued in the fifth and sixth centuries of hijra. Fatima bin al-Hasan ibn Ali ibn al-Daqqaq al-Qushayri, was celebrated not only for her piety and her mastery of calligraphy, but also for her knowledge of hadith and the quality of the isnads she knew. Even more distinguished was Karima al-Marwaziyya (d.463/1070), who was considered the best authority on the Sahih of al-Bukhari in her own time. Abu Dharr of Herat, one of the leading scholars of the period, attached such great importance to her authority that he advised his students to study the Sahih under no one else, because of the quality of her scholarship. Among her students were al-Khatib al-Baghdadi and al-Humaydi (428/1036-488/1095).16

Among these, one might mention in particular Fatima bint Muhammad (d.539/1144; Shuhda ‘the Writer’ (d.574/1178), and Sitt al-Wuzara bint Umar (d.716/1316).18 Fatima narrated the book on the authority of the great traditionist Said al-Ayyar; she received from the hadith specialists the proud tittle of Musnida Isfahan (the great hadith authority of Isfahan).

Also known as an authority on Bukhari was Sitt al-Wuzara, who, besides her acclaimed mastery of Islamic law, was known as ‘the musnida of her time’, and delivered lectures on the Sahih and other works in Damascus and Egypt.

Apart from these women, who seem to have specialized in the great Sahih of Imam al-Bukhari, there were others, whose expertise was centered on other texts. Umm al-Khayr Fatima bint Ali (d.532/1137), and Fatima al-Shahrazuriyya, delivered lectures on the Sahih of Muslim. Fatima al-Jawzdaniyya (d.524/1129) narrated to her students the three Mu’jams of al-Tabarani.
Zaynab of Harran (d.68/1289), whose lectures attracted a large crowd of students, taught them the Musnad of Ahmad ibn Hanbal. Juwayriya bint Umar (d.783/1381), and Zaynab bint Ahmad ibn Umar (d.722/1322), who had travelled widely in pursuit of hadith and delivered lectures in Egypt as well as Medina, narrated to her students the collections of al-Darimi and Abd ibn Humayd;

In his work al-Durar al-Karima, Ibn Hajar gives short biographical notices of about 170 prominent women of the eighth century, most of whom are traditionists, and under many of whom the author himself had studied. Some of these women were acknowledged as the best traditionists of the period. For instance, Juwayriya bint Ahmad, to whom we have already referred, studied a range of works on traditions, under scholars both male and female, who taught at the great colleges of the time, and then proceeded to give famous lectures on the Islamic disciplines.

Information on women traditionists of the ninth century is given in a work by Muhammad ibn Abd al-Rahman al-Sakhawi (830-897/1427-1489), called al-Daw al-Lami, which is a biographical dictionary of eminent persons of the ninth century.A further source is the Mu’jam al-Shuyukh of Abd al-Aziz ibn Umar ibn Fahd (812-871/1409-1466), compiled in 861 AH and devoted to the biographical notices of more than 1,100 of the author’s teachers, including over 130 women scholars under whom he had studied. Umm Hani Maryam (778-871/1376-1466), for instance, learnt the Qur’an by heart when still a child, acquired all the Islamic sciences then being taught, including theology, law, history, and grammar, and then travelled to pursue hadith with the best traditionists of her time in Cairo and Mecca. She was also celebrated for her mastery of calligraphy, her command of the Arabic language, and her natural aptitude in poetry, as also her strict observance of the duties of religion (she performed the hajj no fewer than thirteen times). Her son, who became a noted scholar of the tenth century, showed the greatest veneration for her, and constantly waited on her towards the end of her life. She pursued an intensive program of learning in the great college of Cairo, giving ijazas to many scholars, Ibn Fahd himself studied several technical works on hadith under her.

So far as may be gathered from the sources, the involvement of women in hadith scholarships, and in the Islamic disciplines generally, seems to have declined considerably from the tenth century of the hijra. Books such as al-Nur al-Safir of al-Aydarus, the Khulasat al-Akhbar of al-Muhibbi, and the al-Suluh al-Wabila of Muhammad ibn Abd Allah (which are biographical dictionaries of eminent persons of the tenth, eleventh and twelfth centuries of the hijra respectively) contain the names of barely a dozen eminent women traditionists.
Some women traditionists, who gained good reputations in the ninth century, lived well into the tenth, and continued their services to the sunna.

The last woman traditionist of the first rank who is known to us was Fatima al-Fudayliya, also known as al-Shaykha al-Fudayliya. She was born before the end of the twelfth Islamic century, and soon excelled in the art of calligraphy and the various Islamic sciences. She had a special interest in hadith, read a good deal on the subject, received the diplomas of a good many scholars, and acquired a reputation as an important traditionist in her own right. Towards the end of her life, she settled at Mecca, where she founded a rich public library. In the Holy City she was attended by many eminent traditionists, who attended her lectures and received certificates from her. Among them, one could mention in particular Shaykh Umar al-Hanafi and Shaykh Muhammad Sali. She died in 1247/1831.52

Throughout the history of feminine scholarship in Islam it is clear that the women involved did not confine their study to a personal interest in traditions, or to the private coaching of a few individuals, but took their seats as students as well as teachers in pubic educational institutions, side by side with their brothers in faith.

[by Dr. Muhammad Zubayr Siddiqi]