Taking girls out of school
A REPORT in this newspaper last month tells us that a cleric, Maulana Fazlullah, has issued an edict (fatwa), holding that education of girls is un-Islamic, and urging people in the villages of Swat to withdraw their daughters from public schools. Several thousand parents have acted on his advice, and young girls are now playing on the street instead of attending their classes.
Apparently, there is nothing to stop a man from appropriating the prefix, “maulana,” regardless of his educational attainments.
Fazlullah is evidently ignorant of Islamic history and the scholarly achievements of Muslim women. It may not be his fault that he is essentially uneducated. But it is surely a fault on the part of Qazi Hussain Ahmad, Maulana Fazlur Rahman, and their colleagues in the MMA not to go out and remind this man of the Prophet’s (PBUH) saying that the acquisition of knowledge is required of all Muslims, men and women.
I want to call attention to a few women famous for their learning during early and medieval Islam. Let me begin with Ayesha, one of the Prophet’s wives. It is well known that she was a frequently consulted narrator of his sayings and actions. It may not be as well known that she was regarded as an authority on Islamic law (fiqh). She offered interpretations and commentaries on the Quran.
I find a number of women during this period whose accomplishments were of the same order. A quick listing should suffice: Um Adhah al-Adawiyyah (d. 83 AH), reputable scholar and narrator of hadith based on reports of Ali ibn Abu Talib and Ayesha; Amrah bint Abd al-Rahman (d. 98 AH), one of the more prominent students of Ayesha and a known legal scholar in Madina whose opinions overrode those of other jurists of the time; Hafsa bint Sirin al-Ansariyyah (d. approx. 100 AH), also a legal scholar.
The list includes Amah al-Wahid (d. 377 AH), noted jurist of the Shafaii school and a mufti in Baghdad; Karimah bint Ahmad al-Marwaziyyah (d. 463 AH), teacher of hadith (Sahih Bukhari); Zainab bint Abd al-Rahman (d. 615 AH), linguist and teacher of languages in Khorasan.
In addition there were Zainab bint Makki (d. 688 AH), prominent scholar in Damascus, teacher of Ibn Taimiya, the famous jurist of the Hanbali school; Zaynab bint Umar bin Kindi (d. 699 AH), teacher of the famous hadith scholar, al-Mizzi; Fatima bint Abbas (d. 714 AH), legal scholar of the Hanbali school, mufti in Damascus and later in Cairo; Nafisin bint al Hasan taught hadith; Imam Shafaii sat in her teaching circle at the height of his fame in Egypt.
Two Muslim women – Umm Isa bint Ibrahim and Amat al-Wahid – served as muftis in Baghdad. Ayesha al-Banniyyah, a legal scholar in Damascus, wrote several books on Islamic law. Umm al-Banin (d. 848 AH/ 1427 CE) served as a mufti in Morocco. Al Aliyya was a famous teacher whose classes men attended before the noon prayer (Zuhr) and women after the afternoon prayer (Asr).
A Muslim woman of the name of Rusa wrote a textbook on medicine, and another, Ujliyyah bint al-Ijli (d. 944 CE) made instruments to be used by astronomers. During the Mamluk period in Cairo (11th century) women established five universities and 12 schools which women managed.
I should now like to present an account of four Muslim women, each of them illustrious in her own way. The great granddaughter of the Prophet, and daughter of Imam Husain, Sukayna (also “Sakina) was about eight years of age when her father, brothers, and their companions were martyred at Karbala in 680.
These traumatic events left a deep impression on her mind and she grew up to be an outspoken critic of the Umayyads.
She became a political activist, speaking against all kinds of tyranny and personal, social and political iniquities and injustice. She was a fiercely independent woman. She married more than once, and each time she stipulated assurance of her personal autonomy, and the condition of monogamy on the prospective husband’s part, in the marriage contract.
She went about her business freely, attended and addressed meetings, received men of letters, thinkers, and other notables at her home, and debated issues with them. Needless to say that she was an exceedingly well-educated woman who would take no nonsense from anyone howsoever high and mighty he or she might be.
Arwa bint Ahmad bin Mohammad al-Sulayhi (born 1048) was the ruling queen of Yemen for 70 years (1067-1138), briefly, and that only technically, as a co-ruler with her two husbands, but as the sole ruler for most of that time. She is still remembered with a great deal of affection in Yemen as a marvellous queen.
Her father died when she was still a child and she moved to live with her uncle, Ali al-Sullayhi, who was the ruler of Yemen at the time. She was raised in the royal palace under the guardianship and tutorship of her aunt, the formidable Queen Asma, co-ruler of Yemen with her husband.
In 1066, when she was a little over 17, she married her cousin, Ahmad al-Mukarram and received the city of Aden as her dowry. Ahmad succeeded to the throne following his father’s death, but delegated all his authority to Arwa because, having suffered injuries in battle and paralysis, he was confined to bed.
Her name was mentioned in the Friday sermons right after that of the Fatimid caliph in Cairo. She built mosques and schools throughout her realm, improved roads, took interest in agriculture and encouraged her country’s economic growth.
Arwa is said to have been an extremely beautiful woman, learned, and cultured. She had a great memory for poems, stories, and accounts of historical events. She had good knowledge of the Quran and Sunnah. She was brave, highly intelligent, devout, with a mind of her own. She was a Shia of the Ismaili persuasion, sent preachers to India, who founded an Ismaili community in Gujarat which still thrives. She was also a competent military strategist.
At one point (1119) the Fatimid caliph sent a general, Najib ad-Dowla, to take over Yemen. Supported by the amirs and her people, she fought back and forced him to go back to Egypt.
She died in 1138 at the ripe old age of 90. A university in Sana’a is named after her, and her mausoleum in Jibla continues to be a place of pilgrimage for Yemenis and others.
Amatal Aziz bint Jafar was nicknamed Zubaida by her grandfather, Al Mansur, because of her “freshness, softness, and white skin.” She grew up to be a lady of stunning beauty, eloquent and charming of speech, and great courage. Perceptive and shrewd, her wisdom and insightfulness inspired immediate admiration and respect.
She married Harun al-Rashid, the legendary Abassid caliph, in 781 and soon became the love of his life. She was his cousin on both sides of their parentage, a first cousin in that her mother, Salsal, had been the sister of Harun’s mother, the indomitable and famous Khaizuran (both of them former slave girls). She came to be an exceedingly wealthy woman, a billionaire so to speak, independently of her husband.
In her middle years she moved out of the royal “harem” and began living in a huge palace of her own, surrounded by acres of gardens that she had got built with her own money. She owned properties all over the empire which dozens of agents in her employ managed for her.
A cultivated woman, pious and well acquainted with the scriptures, Zubaida was also a poetess and a patron of the arts and sciences. She set aside funds to invite hundreds of men of letters, scientists, and thinkers from all over the realm to locate and work in Baghdad.
She spent much of her funds for public purposes. She built roads and bridges, including a 900-mile stretch from Kufa to Makkah, and set up, hostels, eating places, and repair shops along the way, all of which facilitated travel and encouraged enterprise. She built canals for both irrigation and water supply to the people. She spent many millions of dinars on getting a canal built, that went through miles of tunnel through mountains, to increase the water supply in Makkah.
She took a keen interest in the empire’s politics and administration. She employed dozens of secretaries, overseers, and informers to keep her posted of important developments. This was not a covert activity on her part; her interest was known to all concerned. The caliph himself sought her counsel concerning the affairs of state on many occasions and found her advice to be eminently sound and sensible.
After Harun’s death, his successor, Al Mamun, also sought her advice from time to time.
It is said that she was secretly a subscriber to the Ismaili faith but according to some reports her connection with it ceased after the death of the Ismaili imam of her time with whom she used to be in touch. She died in 841 (32 years after Harun’s death).
Before closing this presentation, I want to say a word about Rabi’a al-Adawiyya al-Basri (born about 717), honoured as one of the earliest and greatest sufis in Islam. Orphaned as a child, she was captured and sold into slavery. But later her master let her go. She retreated into the desert and gave herself to a life of worship and contemplation.
She did not marry, and to a man who wanted her hand she said: “I have become naught to self and exist only through Him. I belong wholly to Him. You must ask my hand of Him, not of me.” She preached unselfish love of God, meaning that one must love Him for His own sake and not out of fear or hope of rewards. She had many disciples, both men and women.
This account of five great Muslim women should remove “Maulana” Fazlullah’s ignorance, make him seek God’s forgiveness, and stop him from misleading his congregations.
The writer is professor emeritus of political science at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, US.