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ARIF M. KHAN
FAITH & BIGOTRY

Arif Mohammed Khan is a former Union Cabinet minister.

Early Islam saw the rise of women scholars

he lives of many Muslim women of the first and second Islamic centuries show that women can be far more erudite and scholarly than men. History books give detailed accounts of many women who did yeoman's job in the preservation and transmission of the prophetic traditions and enjoyed a great reputation as teachers and accomplished jurists.

Before discussing the names of these scholars it is important to note that the Holy Prophet started to preach publicly only three years after his ordainment and the first people he invited to Islam were his own family — the Banu Hashim. His peroration on this occasion deserves special mention. He addressed his uncle Abbas, aunt Safia and daughter Fatima by name and said, "Ask me of my wealth in this world, but on the Day of Judgement I cannot avail you in any way." The message was clear; each one man or woman shall be accountable personally and individually and no one shall avail another. These teachings created an environment where women took their own decisions independent of the men of their families. In fact, many women, including Umm Habiba, the wife of the Prophet, belonged to families that were staunch enemies of the new religion. But these women, much against the wishes of their families, pledged allegiance and when persecution became severe in Mecca, migrated to Abyssinia first and later to Medina.

The zeal to acquire learning was so strong among the women that they regularly attended the mosque and listened to the speeches of the Prophet. Still, many of them felt that men tended to take more time and requested the Prophet to fix a day exclusively for the education of women. According to Bukhari, their request was granted. This explains the inordinately large number of women scholars of Hadith and jurisprudence in the early years of Islam. This tradition continued for a few hundred years. It is noteworthy that many of these women scholars belonged to a very humble background and some of them were even freed slaves. Aliyah bint Hasan was one such scholar — a freed slave of a tribe in Basra. Her fame as a trusted narrator of prophetic traditions and expert of law attracted many students to her classes. Contemporary scholars like Saleh al-Mari would seek her opinion on important issues. She lived in Basra in the second century.

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It is noteworthy that many of these women scholars belonged to a very humble background and some of them were even freed slaves.

Amina Ramlyah, who lived in the third century, was another scholar who came from a very poor family. Her love of knowledge took her to Mecca where she attended the classes of a prominent teacher. After his death she shifted to Medina and became a pupil of Imam Malik. After a few years she again came to Mecca to learn jurisprudence from Imam Shafai. After the Imam's move to Egypt she shifted to Kufa.

She started her own school in Kufa. Many seekers of knowledge flocked to her lectures. It is reported that the famous Imam Hanbal visited her many times and greatly admired her learning.

Shirin bint Abdullah, who lived in the seventh century, was of Indian origin. She was well known scholar Ibn Bandayhi's slave girl. Bandayhi was so impressed with her knowledge that he set her free. After gaining freedom she attended the lectures of eminent Hadith teacher Abdul Moneim bin Kulayb. Later, she set up her own school and her lectures attracted large numbers of students. One of her students, Abar Kohi acquired fame, which earned her the sobriquet "Shaykha of Abar Kohi".

These are just a few examples from amongst a large number of renowned scholars. They were the product of a time when women enjoyed freedom to pursue avocations of their choice — a time when women were not the subject matter of law, rather they were shapers of law. According to Ibn Qayyim, in the first century Medina alone had 22 women jurists who were considered competent to issue fatwas.

 
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