Muslim women

Muslim Women: Achievements and Virtues

By Mufti Abdur-Rahman ibn Yusuf


How does a woman fulfill her relationship with Allah Most High, and at the same time, also serve the community?

There are many extremes in this.  For example, some people believe that women should not be educated at all; that they should be kept completely ignorant so that they don’t know anything beyond the basics of their faith. This is completely rejected by our deen. Mawlana Ashraf Ali Thanawi, for example, compiled the famous work Bahishti Zewar and aimed it particularly toward women. The comprehensiveness of the book suggests it is a work that ought to live on the bookshelf of every home and used as a guidance for every aspect of a woman’s (and indeed her family’s) life. Indeed, such is the usefulness of the book that it is not uncommon to find muftis using Bahishti Zewar as a reference point nowadays.

There is the other extreme, too. There are women who discover some Islamic knowledge by way of their own research and suddenly, they believe they are qualified to derive and deliver Islamic rulings. Seeking knowledge is commendable in its own right, as is the desire to follow Islamic rulings.  At the same time, one must realise that there is an established and functional system that exists for Muslims to acquire knowledge and rulings.  It is when individuals fail to appreciate and engage with this conventional, mainstream system that rogue, isolated and wayward ideas and theories are formulated.

There was a case a few years back where a woman gave the adhan for Friday prayer and another woman led a congregation of men and women.  Needless to say, both actions are contrary to the Shar’ia.  Of course, in both of these examples the women felt they were doing the right thing. Some would argue these women were bringing Islam into the twenty-first century by introducing gender equality to the mosque.  What the women failed to realize is that Islam welcomes individuals looking to revive the faith, but does not require individuals to innovate new practices. After all, Islam has its own code of equality which was established over a thousand years ago independent of any western ideas. Why would Islam suddenly need to be introduced to a modern-day conception of equality?

Here, I would like to mention narrations that show the role of women in education and transmission of knowledge from one generation to another. Undoubtedly, mothers are the first source of information for their children. A look into Islamic history throws up many examples of great scholarly figures like ibn Hajar al-Asqalani, Imam Bukhari and Muslim, and we find that they were brought up in the laps of their mothers. Who knew that young Abu ‘Abdillah Muhammad ibn Isma‘il of Bukhara, later known as Imam Bukhari, would shape the understanding of many Muslim scholars and laymen that came after him?   There can be no doubt that the mothers of these monumental scholars made a significant contribution to their success.  The famous idiom “Behind every great man is a great woman” could not be more relevant than in the life of Imam Shafi’i, who was brought up by his mother alone, who was a widow.   Clearly, many women get closer to Allah Most High than men do because of their devotion and sacrifice for Islam. This is something that our Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) did not overlook; our Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) would frequently consult with his wives.

Umm Salama (may Allah be pleased with her), the Wife of the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace)

The first example is a very famous incident about Umm Salama (may Allah be pleased with her) during the Treaty of Hudaybiya. The Companions travelled from Madina to Makka with the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) to perform the umra but were prevented from doing so by the non-Muslim Makkans. The stand-off was overcome when an agreement—the Treaty of Hudaibiya—was signed, permitting the Muslims to perform umra the following year. Because the Muslims had come with a desire to perform umra this year, they were very disappointed and disheartened. The Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) asked them to shave their heads and sacrifice their accompanying animals, so they could come out of the state of ihram (pilgrim sanctity).  However, due to their disappointment, they appeared reluctant to do so.  So, the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) went inside his tent with concern and told Umm Salama, his wife, about what was going on. She told him (Allah bless him and give him peace) to go and sacrifice his animal and shave his own head in front of everyone. The Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) came out from his tent and did exactly what Umm Salama (may Allah be pleased with her) suggested.  The advice of Umm Salama (may Allah be pleased with her) proved sound, as the Companions immediately tried to emulate the Prophet’s actions and thus carried out his command.

The Daughter of Abu Bakr, Asma’ (may Allah be pleased with them)

Asma’ bint Abi Bakr was a great Companion from the time she was young. She was the older sister of ‘A’isha and the daughter of Abu Bakr (may Allah be pleased with them all). When the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) and Abu Bakr (may Allah be pleased with him) were migrating to Madinah, Abu Bakr (may Allah be pleased with him) took all of his wealth with him. He did not leave much behind for his family. In his home, there were a few family members; his two daughters, his blind father and perhaps one or two other people. Abu Bakr’s father kept complaining and asking about what Abu Bakr had left behind for them. So Asma’ (may Allah be pleased with her) got some pebbles and covered them up with a cloth and then took her grandfather’s hand, letting him feel the pebbles from over the cloth. Thinking they were coins, the grandfather said that Abu Bakr has left a lot for them. From this we can see how Asma’ (may Allah be pleased with her) used her wit to deal with the situation.

The Daughter-In-Law of Umar bin Khattab (may Allah be pleased with him)

When ‘Umar ibn al-Khattab (may Allah be pleased with him) was the caliph, he was patrolling the streets at night. He decided to take a break and was resting in front of a house. From inside the house he heard a mother and a daughter talking. The mother instructed the daughter to add water to the milk they had so that they would have more to sell. The daughter reminded her that the caliph had outlawed this practice. Though the mother retorted that the caliph wasn’t around to witness this rather dubious practice, the daughter asserted that Allah Most High was the Ever Present, the Ever Watchful and refused to do it.

Like any father, ‘Umar (may Allah be pleased with him) wanted pious spouses for his children. The following day, he ascertained that one of his sons, ‘Asim, was looking to get married.  ‘Umar (may Allah be pleased with him) proposed a marriage between ‘Asim and the girl and they got married. ‘Asim and his wife had a daughter who was known as Umm ‘Asim, who later on married ‘Abd al-‘Aziz ibn Marwan, the brother of ‘Abd al-Malik ibn Marwan (one of the powerful caliphs of the Umayyad dynasty). This daughter gave birth to the great caliph ‘Umar ibn ‘Abd al-‘Aziz. ‘Umar ibn ‘Abd al-‘Aziz was the one who, in a period of two and a half years, sorted out the situation of the Muslim ummah for a while and dealt with all the injustices that had taken place. So it can be seen how piety, especially in women, filters down to others because they have such a great influence and impact on their children and grandchildren.

Owing to the amount of time a mother and child spend together, a more direct and intimate relationship is established. It could be said that the mother’s characteristics are passed down to her child and therefore there is great responsibility on a mother to be an excellent role model.

The Daughter of Imam Malik

It is said that when Imam Malik, a great Imam of fiqh and hadith, was teaching, there would be pin drop silence despite the very large class size. The respect he had for the prophetic hadiths would also be seen in the people who listened to him; people would sit in awe whilst studying hadith with the Imam. The Imam would listen to his students and whenever a student would make a mistake, there would be a knock on the door near to where Imam Malik would sit to alert them to the mistake.  The knock was from his daughter who had memorized her father’s entire hadith collection, the Muwatta’.  Sometimes a young man would pass by the gathering and Imam Malik would remark that Allah Most High grants knowledge and tawfiq only to those He wishes. The boy, who was his son, was not interested in studying and when he would pass by, Imam Malik would make this comment. His daughter, on the other hand, was memorizing and learning from a young age. Imam Malik never prohibited her from engaging in the class. After all, she was observing the etiquette of hijab. There has been no prohibition for women studying the religion as long as the rules and regulations of hijab are observed.

The Daughter of ‘Allama Samarqandi

Among the Hanafi scholars of the 4th and 5th century, there is a great scholar by the name of ‘Allama Samarqandi, the author of Tuhfat al-Fuqaha’ (The gift to the jurists). Among his students was Badr al-Din al-Kasani who also became a great jurist, may be even greater than his teacher. Among the other students of Allama Samarqandi was his own daughter. She was such a great jurist that many people asked for her hand in marriage but she refused. She said that she would only marry someone who could teach her something new. ‘Allama Kasani wrote a commentary on his teacher’s work called Bada’i’ al-Sana’i’. He presented the work to his teacher and when she read it, she realized and appreciated the knowledge that he possessed and accepted his proposal.  Thereafter, all subsequent fatwas issued by this household were jointly signed by the father daughter and son-in-law.  This shows that a woman, too, can be a muftiya and jurist. Unfortunately, we do not see enough of this today. The more sacred knowledge that a woman sincerely acquires, the more observant she becomes of her religion and the more she becomes modest in the sight of Allah Most High.

The mother of the last ruler of Granada, Spain

‘A’isha Umm Muhammad was the mother of Muhammad, the last ruler of Granada, Spain. On the day that he had to surrender Granada to the Christians, he began weeping. What his mother said to him on this occasion has been written down in books and recorded in history. She said to her son:

“O person of vile nature, were you not from noble Arab ancestry? I am ashamed that you were born to me. Your senselessness and impotency has ashamed me to even own you. Were a stone born to me instead!Don’t cry today like a woman over what you could not defend like a man.”

Such was his mother. Instead of succumbing to the maternal instinct of consoling her child, she objectively accounted her son.  This is a great example of how women, at times, keep their senses in situations where men may become despondent and defeated. This is really important given a woman’s influence within the Muslim community. Nobody is going to deny a woman’s contribution to the Muslim society as long as it is done in the right way. The problem we have today is that people are pursuing liberalism and buying into aspects of extreme feminism.  Though some goals of it may be praiseworthy, it is largely misguided.

Motherhood is an extremely cherished concept not only in our faith, but in any human civilization. The problem with some feminists is that motherhood is looked down upon. A woman that chooses to be a housewife or a full-time mother is perceived as less successful than a career woman. A woman being on the board of a big company, meanwhile, is a special thing; it seemingly raises her esteem in the eyes of others and almost gives people a cause for celebration.  But a woman raising great sons and daughters, for example, doesn’t really attract the same kind of celebration. Celebration of motherhood is very important. The way to deal with feminism today is to celebrate motherhood as much as possible.

Celebration of Motherhood: the Story of Hajar (Upon Her be Peace)

Hajar (upon her be peace) was left in the desert by her husband Ibrahim (upon him be peace) according to the command of Allah Most High. She had nothing. No food. No extra clothing. No water.  Ibrahim (upon him be peace) did not even initially provide her an explanation as to why he was leaving her there in Makka. He just took her there, turned around and started to leave. She managed to ask whether this was according to a command of Allah Most High. When he responded in the affirmative, she told him that Allah Most High will not abandon her. Immediately, her maternal instincts kicked in. Her son became thirsty, and she began to run back and forth searching for water seven times in between the mounts of Safa and Marwa. This act of hers was so significant that, thousands of years on, millions of Muslims still emulate this action of hers as a rite of hajj.  Her action of searching for water appeared so simple but Allah Most High made it so significant. It is an achievement of motherhood. It is from this event that we get the blessed water of ZamZam. One could say zamzam is a gift of motherhood.  Also, this is probably the only religious rite the world over in the major religions that celebrates a woman’s action.

The Story of Umm Sharik (may Allah be pleased with her)

At the time of the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace), there was a female Companion by the name of Umm Sharik (may Allah be pleased with her). She embraced Islam early on and was a very active member of the community. Umm Sharik decided to give da’wa to the people of the community. She went to the houses of those who were not Muslim and talked to the women about the new faith of Islam, and they started embracing it. Umm Sharik was very successful, and eventually, her tribe found out what was happening. They wanted to punish her and stop her propagation. Her tribe was travelling somewhere and she was tied up outside a tent in the hot desert without any water or shade for several days. After a few days, she became dehydrated and was completely disoriented, so much so, that she did not know what was happening anymore.  One day at noon, when the sun was at its peak and it was really hot, the members of her tribe retired into their tents to take an afternoon nap leaving her alone outside. At this point, she suddenly saw a pot of water coming down from the heaven towards her. She drank from it. It moved away, then it returned and she drank from it again until she was completely satiated and refreshed. Once her tribe woke up and they saw how refreshed she was, they began to wonder what had happened. She told them about the occurrence and how she had received the water, but nobody believed her. They said that she must have taken the water from their supplies somehow while they were asleep. The tribespeople began to check their water supply and found that no water was missing. It was at this point that the truth of her words dawned on them and they all accepted Islam. Her example shows us that if the active people in the community take their obligations seriously, then they can be a source of guidance for their entire community. Likewise, if people are active in wrongdoing, it can filter down to their community and bring about unwanted consequences.

Most problems today exist because of ignorance. There are individuals who are successful in their secular work or career but are not too concerned about their faith.  Sometimes, when such people decide to do something for their faith, they may do so with a lot of zeal but it is generally with superficial knowledge of the faith.  Their Islamic knowledge is sometimes not even enough to get them through their day-to-day obligations, let alone refute or convince others. Such people then stand up to defend the faith against Islamaphobia and other vile attacks against Islam. Although their intention may be praiseworthy, their defense takes the form of “reforming the faith.” They end up trying to apologetically convince people that Islam shares the same values as the secularists, and suddenly you have women leading Friday prayers, calling the adhan and other such activities that are unsanctioned in the faith. These people feel they are sincere in their faith, and want to do something for it, but often forget they lack the correct knowledge or qualification. So out of their ignorance, they engage in ideas and actions that are contrary and far removed from Islam. Such people think they are helping Islam, when, in fact, they are actually hurting it.

Establishment of the Qarawiyyin University

While the famous Azhar University is commonly known as being the first university to be established back in 361 A.H., there already existed another less famous university called Jami’ al-Qarawiyyin in Fez, Morocco.  The Qarawiyyin was founded and built by a woman called Umm al-Banin Fatima bint Mohammed ibn Abdillah al-Fihri. Her father was very wealthy and had taught her well. She was a jurist, and used her inheritance to build Qarawiyyin, a madrasa for students to stay in and learn sacred knowledge. Similarly, Fatima’s sister, Maryam bint Abdillah, founded the Jami’ al-Andalus on the other side of Fez. These women used their wealth for the cause of Islam and did something no man had hitherto accomplished. Similarly, the wife of the caliph Harun al-Rashid had a water canal built, called the Zubayda Canal in Makka, as a water source for the pilgrims to address the difficulty that existed of a reliable water supply. An impressive aqueduct was used to carry the water to the pilgrims and can still be seen today.

These examples show that women, like men, can be activists, savvy problem solvers and visionaries. Unfortunately, there are some people who are suppressed so much that they feel they cannot do anything for their faith, while on the other hand there are those who become prey to the Shaytan, and their misplaced zeal leads them to focus on the absolute wrong things and they end up dividing the community.

The Daughter of Sa‘id ibn al-Musayyab

Sa‘id ibn al-Musayyab was a great tabi’i (an immediate successor to the Companions) also known as the leader of the tabi‘in (sayyid al- tabi‘in). His daughter learned all the hadith that he knew. She was so beautiful and knowledgeable that many people sought her hand in marriage. ‘Abd al-Malik ibn Marwan who became the caliph of the Ummayyads also asked for her hand in marriage but Sa‘id ibn al-Musayyab refused. He had her marry an impoverished student of his. Once after marriage, her husband put on his cloak to leave the house. She asked where he was going and he said to study with her father. She told him to take his cloak of and sit down and she would teach him the knowledge of Sa‘id ibn al-Musayyab. Her husband said about her that she was the most beautiful and the most knowledgeable about the Sunna, and she knew the rights of her husband.

Hadith on the Reward for Women

Women are getting rewarded automatically for doing things that they have to do as part of their human life cycle. They are getting the same reward that men would get for doing things which take a long time to do. They are getting so many rewards in those nine months and beyond. Allah Most High has made both men and women different but at the same time they both can achieve the great stations in the sight of Allah Most High.

Asmaa bint Yazeed (may Allah be pleased with her) came to the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) and said may my father and mother be sacrificed for you O Messenger of Allah. I am a representative of the women to you. God has sent you as a messenger to all the men and women, we have believed in you and your God.  Now we women have been confined to the houses, we bear your children, men have been preferred over women in terms of Friday and the other congregational prayers, visiting the sick, attending funerals, doing hajj after hajj, and more than that, jihad in the path of Allah. When you men go out for hajj, umra, or jihad, we look after your property, we weave your clothes, and we bring up your children. Will we not share with you in the reward? [Note here that the women aren’t seeking to do what men do; they recognise their responsibilities but want to know if they will get a share of the reward.] The Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) then completely turned around to the companions and said to them, ‘Have you heard any woman asking about her religion better than this?’ They said, ‘O Messenger of Allah, we never thought any woman could have been guided to do this’. Then the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) turned to her and said ‘Understand O woman, tell the other women behind you, that a wife looking after her husband, seeking his contentment and going along with him is equal to all that.’ The woman went back with her face shining with happiness (Usd al-Ghaba1:1313).

A woman looking after all of her husband’s interests, playing the role of the mother and the woman of the house, is getting an equal amount of reward as her husband when he is out earning a living and generally meeting all his obligations.  The woman is playing a great role which is important for the progeny to continue and for the family to work as a whole.

Shaykh Akram Nadwi, in his book the Muhaddithat, the female hadith scholars in Islam, has compiled numerous volumes on the lives of the women hadith scholars. In his introduction, he writes, “I have worked through much material over a decade and I have spent more than ten years compiling biographical accounts of nearly eight thousand muhaddithat.”  Interestingly, he notes that not one of them has been reported to have considered the domain of family life inferior or to have neglected the duties therein or considered being a woman undesirable or inferior to that of a man.

These stories and incidents are only a few examples to show us the zeal of women, their willingness to participate in society and their desire to achieve great feats in this world. Crucially, women can achieve all this, whilst at the same time playing the role of a daughter, a sister, a wife and a mother.

Transcribed by Rabiah Nargis

Edited by Abdul Aziz

By Ismail ibn Nazir Satia

I'm for the truth no matter who tells it. I'm for justice no matter who it is for or against. I'm a human being first and foremost and for whoever benefits humanity...

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