For some reason, history teaches us to study about certain people, cultures and places but not all! Such is the case when it comes to Muslim scholars - unless one takes deep interest in the subject matter. This is perhaps one of the reasons why our generations are often unaware of the contributions made by female Islamic scholars.
This article highlights the remarkable talents of six influential women who served as great scholars in the advent of Islam.
Aisha bint Abu Bakr - The Mother of the Believers
Aisha, may Allah be pleased with her, was the daughter of Abu Bakr - one of the Prophet Muhammad’s, peace and blessings be upon him, closest companions and advisors. She was shaped by her father’s virtuous character in the early days of Islam.
After getting married to the Messenger of Allah at a very young age, she was further able to pursue her passion for learning and transmitting knowledge to others. She was considered one of the earliest legal scholars in Islam among others which included Umar ibn al-Khattab, Ali ibn Abi Talib, and Abdullah ibn Abbas, may Allah be pleased with them.
Aisha was naturally gifted with astounding memory. She is officially recognized as one of the four persons to narrate over 2,000 hadith - the sayings and actions that were recorded - of the Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him. The other three include Abu Hurayrah, Abdullah ibn Umar, and Anas ibn Malik.
These hadith largely cover the teachings from the Prophet's, peace and blessings be upon him, personal life, which includes the most intimate aspects of personal conduct as well matters pertaining to subjects like justice, marriage, inheritance, pilgrimage, and more. Many of the senior companions of the Prophet also came to her to ask for advice concerning questions of inheritance, which required a highly-skilled mathematical mind.
She was also reputed as an authority for the interpretation of the Quran. This again, was rare among women of the time. Her esteemed knowledge allowed her to issue fatwas or rulings on dubious matters, in order to help eradicate confusion and serve justice. Women commonly turned to Aisha to consult on various issues in their lives as well as marital advice. Once, during the life of the Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, a girl came to Aisha and told her that her father was forcing marriage upon her. Aisha immediately brought the matter to the Prophet's attention, and it was the first time that a woman's choice in marriage was to be given priority and made compulsory.
With her vast knowledge, she actively participated in educational and social reforms. She served as a great teacher and role model for both men and women. Her persuasive speech brought many scholars and experts from far and wide to attend her lectures. She took the responsibility to train and educate many boys and girls, some of whom were orphans, too. Her house was eventually converted to an educational institute.
It is known that Aisha's knowledge on hadith was written down and passed on by at least three people. One of which was her nephew Urwah, who also validated that she was not only proficient in Islamic fiqh or rulings, but also medicine and poetry. Urwah, later became a well-known scholar, too, among the generation after the companions of the Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him.
Aisha - The Mother of the Believers - serves as a much revered role model for girls young and old.
Hafsa bint Umar - The Memorizer of the Quran
Hafsa, may Allah be pleased with her, was the daughter of the notable Caliph, Umar ibn al-Khattab. She was prominently recognized for being strong, inquisitive and also opinionated. She learned to read and write at a very early age, which was rare among women in the early Islamic era. Having grown up amidst the senior companions of the Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, she observed their characteristics and adopted their ways.
After her late husband Khunays ibn Hudhafah was martyred in the Battle of Badr, Hafsa was married to the Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him. She would often observe fasts and stay awake most of her nights offering Tahajjud prayers. It is known that the Angel Jibrael also attested to her traits, saying:
“She fasts often and frequently prays at night; she will be your wife in Paradise.”
Still very young, Hafsa, memorized the entire Quran at a time when it was only an oral text. This led her to be recognized as the preserver of the Quran. She inspired many other women to also learn and memorize the Quran. Soon after the Quran was produced in its first written form, it was Hafsa bint Umar who was made responsible for its safekeeping. It is known that once Marwan, a political figure and then governor of Madinah, requested Hafsa to send him the folios of the Quran, which she out rightly declined. Hence, many attribute the successful preservation of the noble book to her efforts to safeguard it. During the era of Uthman's Caliphate, several copies were made from the version of the Quran preserved by Hafsa and distributed throughout the Muslim world.
Hafsa's devotion towards memorizing and preserving the message of Allah serves as a source of inspiration for the present generation, women and men, girls and boys, alike.
Amrah bint Abd Al-Rahman - The Early Jurist and Hadith Transmitter
Amrah bint Abdur-Rahman, may Allah be pleased with her, was a student of Aisha bint Abu Bakr. She took great pride in being in the company of Aisha and in receiving knowledge directly from her. She became known for owning the best asset in the form of the hadith, which were passed down to her by Aisha. Amrah maintained a special presence in the life of Aisha, acting as her secretary. She was trusted by Aisha so much that she was made responsible for all correspondence related matters.
According to Imam Az- Zuhri, Amrah was "a boundless ocean of knowledge." Many famous scholars of their time were tutored by Amrah such as Abu Bakr ibn Mohammad ibn Hazm, a famous sunni scholar of Madinah, and Yahya ibn Sa'id, a hadith reporter as well as a senior judge of Madinah.
Owing to her extensive knowledge relating to hadith, she held an authoritative voice. It was reported in an instance whereby the Judge of Madinah had given the ruling for a Syrian Christian's hand to be severed due to his involvement in theft. Upon hearing this news, Amrah bint Abdur Rahman immediately sent one of her students to inform the Judge that his decision must be overruled. This was because the value of the stolen item was less than one dinar, and hence, the man deserved the right to be set free. The Judge, trusting Amrah's wealth of knowledge, set the victim free, without seeking or considering a second opinion from other scholars.
Amrah bint Abdur Rahman was hence revered by many Islamic scholars in presenting reliable hadith, which helped classify and preserve many acts of law. For her keen observation and passion for transmitting authentic knowledge, Amrah remains a unique figure among the early scholars of Islam.
Nafisa bint Al-Hassan - The Rare Lady of the Egyptians
Sayyidah Nafisa, may Allah be pleased with her, also popularly known as Lady Nafisa, was the great-great-granddaughter of the Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him. Originally from Makkah, her father Sayyid Hassan Al-Anwer believed in raising a well-educated daughter and for this purpose, he took her to Madinah, where she received extensive Islamic education.
Nafisa, being extremely intelligent, studied Islamic jurisprudence and theology in depth and also spent her time memorizing the Quran and learning several ahadith. From a very young age, she was able to share her knowledge and explain the teachings from the Quran.
After getting married, she moved to Egypt with her husband Isaq ibn Ja'far, where she continued to extend her knowledge to the wider community and became one of the most sought-after scholars of her time. She even taught two of the most famous Sunni scholars - Imam Al-Shafi'i and Imam ibn Hanbal, whose teachings are now widely recognized as two of the main Sunni schools of thought.
Already well known for her devotion and intelligence, over time, Nafisa also became known for her abstinence (zuhd) and piety (taqwa). She used to spend days fasting and nights worshiping Allah. Moreover, she performed the act of pilgrimage 30 times in her lifetime!
She was a truly inspirational woman of her time, and resonated well within the hearts of the Egyptians who gave her the title of “Nafisat al-Masriyyin” or the “Rare Lady of the Egyptians.” It is even relayed that she dug her own grave inside her home when she felt herself being drawn closer to death by the day. She would spend time offering extra prayers in her grave and seek the creator's mercy and blessings.
For her exceptionally pious characteristics and devotion, Nafisa bint Al Hassan is a woman who truly deserves our respect. The younger and older generation can both seek inspiration from her supreme character.
Shuhdah al-Baghdadiyyah - The Writer of Baghdad
Admiringly referred to as Fakhr an-Nisa, “The Pride of Womankind” and “The Writer of Baghdad,” Shuhdah al Baghdiyya, may Allah be pleased with her, was the daughter of the famous scholar Abu Nasr Al-Dinawari. Born in Iran, she gained much popularity in the 12th Century owing to her contributions of memorizing and transmitting hadith and for her love of the pen.
Having studied under the guidance of her father and receiving extensive knowledge pertaining to the preachings of the Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, she became recognized as a great lecturer in mosques and universities in Baghdad.
Baghdiyya was also popularly known for her love for calligraphy. This was a skill which she took great pride in and her unique style of writing, known as “Mansub” touched many hearts and carried on for generations after her death. Leaving a legacy behind her.
Young Muslim girls can seek inspiration from the legacy of Shuhdah al-Baghdiyyah, and revive the role of transmitting beneficial knowledge and using the assertive power of the pen.
Fatima Al-Samarqandi - The Scholar and Calligrapher
Fatima Al Samarqandi, may Allah be pleased with her, was the daughter of a great jurist and scholar Mohammed ibn Ahmad Al-Samarqandi. She was born in the 12th century in the city of Samarqand, which is part of present-day Uzbekistan.
Following in her father's footsteps, Fatima took inspiration from him from a tender age and memorized the works of his famous book Tuhfat al Fuqaha meaning “Gifts from the Fiqh,” a classic work in Hanafi fiqh or law. She became so well versed in Islamic jurisprudence, the Quran and Hadith, that she was able to issue fatwas or rulings on dubious matters, which were then signed by her father. She would even make amendments to the fatwas written by her father and later her husband, too.
Samarqandi was highly talented and besides her involvement in seeking and spreading knowledge, she was also a skilled calligrapher. She would often write fatwas in calligraphic style, which seemed rather like a contemporary piece of art.
Many notable kings and princes pursued Fatima's hand in marriage but she declined. Eventually, she married Alaa Al Kasani, who was her father's student as well as a famous Hanafi jurist. For her dowry, Fatima asked for Kasani's famous book Al Badai al Sana'i which was a commentary that he had written in response to her father's book Tuhfat ul Fuqaha. This shows how much she valued knowledge over and above materialism.
Fatima and her husband moved to Aleppo, Syria. There she taught both male and female students along with her husband at the Umayyad Mosque. The famous ruler of the time Nur-al din Zangi was truly inspired by her knowledge and intelligence and appointed her as his personal counselor. She was undoubtedly regarded for her intelligence and it was well known among her husband’s students that he would often approach her for guidance on specific matters. Sometimes, when Kasani would be unsure of an answer, he would seek Fatima's perspective and pass along a detailed response to his students.
Fatima al Samarqandi is a remarkably influential figure for Muslim women across the globe. With her immense love for knowledge and a strong command over subjects like Islamic law and hadith, she is a great scholar and role model.
We need more learned mothers to carry on the message of Islam with the same passion, zeal and fervor. Muslim women must break away from stereotypical attitudes that limit their access and growth in Islamic education. They must follow in the footsteps of our respected ancestors and invest whatever time they can in acquiring, transmitting and spreading beneficial knowledge.
Rabbi zidni ilma.
(Surah Taha, 20:114)
Oh my Lord, increase me in knowledge. Ameen.
Umm Ahmed is an early childhood educator and writer who is passionate about seeking knowledge and passing it onto others. She and her husband are parents to three boys and are currently living in Abu Dhabi.