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Muslimah: Leaders of Tomorrow

Muslimah: Leaders of Tomorrow

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Published by: Radical Middle Way on May 04, 2011
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Muslimah: Leaders of Tomorrow
Green Street Community Centre, Desborough Street, High Wycombe
Muslim women and leadership - if we go by the public stereotypes, this sounds almost like a contradiction interms. One of the reasons is that bad news gets around faster and with a more lasting effect than good news.Unfortunately this is not only true for the mass media. Another reason is that in Muslim tradition, as it standstoday, role models are often idealized to an extent that we can't see the live person any longer. This is true for theProphet and close male companions of his like Abu Bakr, 'Umar, Uthman or Ali as well as scholars and rulers inour history. It the more true for female role models. Muslims who read the Qur'an are usually fascinated readingabout the miracle of Mary (Maryam) giving birth to Jesus ('Isa), or they feel pleased to hear the Prophet'sstatement that " Paradise lies at the feet of mothers" or the hadith that reports how the angels greeted Khadijah.As for more details, however, the stories of the Mothers of the Faithful focus, in most cases, on the Prophet andhis relationship with them as his wives rather than their own activities, personalities, interests - and personalstruggle. Still another reason may be that many Muslims have internalized traditional or romantic expectations,and habitual perspectives, allowing them to influence their perception. Thus, e.g. with strong middle-class familyideals on our minds - happy mothers with their children, while the man is the breadwinner "outside" - we mightforget that no society as a whole could ever afford having only half of their adult population active in economic,social and political life. From this perspective, the idea of Muslim women leadership comes across as somethingnew and revolutionary.However, already the Qur'an challenges such ideas, presenting men and women as human beings with sharedreligious obligations and social responsibility:The faithful men and the faithful women are protecting friends of each other. They enjoin what is good and prohibit what is evil and establish prayer and give the Zakat and obey God and His messenger. They are those onwhom God has mercy. God is Mighty, Wise. (Surah 9:71 - at-Tawbah).These rather abstract principles are illustrated by some examples that the Qur'an uses in order to inspire thereader to think more carefully. Thus, Surah 66:11-12 (at-Tahrim), points out Pharoah's wife, traditionally calledAssiyah, and Mary (Maryam) as "examples for those who have faith" (both men and women, as the grammar indicates). Both show remarkable confidence and courage - Assiyah by persuading her tyrant husband to let her  bring up baby Moses (Musa); Mary by confronting her clan with baby Jesus ('Isa) whom she then brings upwithout the care of a father. A third example is the queen of Shebah, traditionally called Bilqis, in Surah27:20-44 (an-Naml) who is described as a wise ruler: instead of following her ambitious advisors, she pursuesher own peaceful diplomacy that eventually opens the way for insight and guidance: she surrenders "withSolomon" to the Lord of the worlds. All three of them are exactly the opposite of the socially convenient"religious" woman who uncritically conforms to a role that is expected of her.How were these concepts reflected by Muslim women at the time of the Prophet and later in Muslim history?Here are a few examples.
Khadîjah bint Khuwailid
is often proudly mentioned as the first Muslim and one of the the Prophet's greatestspiritual, emotional and material supporters. She was an accomplished business woman who, after the death of two earlier husbands, had succeeded in continuing their business for the benefit of her children, and to berespected in a role most unusual in pre-Islamic society. I think you are all familiar with the story how sheemployed and then married young Muhammad with whose sincerity and reliability she was impressed. But letus have a look at some "our of the box" questions about the context. How did she manage to become the business woman she was, at a time when many newborn girls were buried alive? Why did she not travel to Syriaherself - were business trips abroad impossible or unacceptable for a woman, or were her children too young for her to get away? We hear how impressed she was with Muhammad's reliability, but would that be enough for marriage, even considering that, in principle, the idea of a marriage contract is not too far away from a business
 
contract? What were her arrangements with him about how to continue business after their marriage? Keeping inmind both their personalities and later Islamic property rules, they cannot have been far away from continuingthe existing partnership, but how did she cope with that and their children? Some of the answers can be found bydrawing conclusions from various traditions. There we learn a more interesting details about her personality andwhat she shared with the Prophet besides business and family commitments. Khadijah was committed to thecause of the poor: she had contributed to projects like sponsoring and running a hospital during the plagueepidemics; Muhammad was involved in the Hilf al-Fudul movement to stand up for the rights of theunderprivileged. And finally: from the way she recognized the importance of his message and supported himafter his deeply unsettling first experience of revelation, her own spiritual maturity becomes obvious.
Aisha, the daughter of Abu Bakr
, was one of the very early Muslims and interested in the Prophet's messagesince her childhood to the extent that she learned all the revealed texts by heart. People whose imagination runswild discussing her age at marriage forget both this and the fact that she was engaged to a young man beforehand whose parents then objected, saying to Abu Bakr, "If we would permit our son to marry your daughter, she would certainly divert him from our religion and persuade him to join your religion!" She marriedthe Prophet after the hijra. As a response to an evil case of slander against her, the Qur'an severely criticizesslander, backbiting, gossip, and exaggerated suspicion. She never had any children, but not many people bother to wonder about details of her everyday life until, after the death of the Prophet, she emerges as one of the mostimportant scholars and teachers of her community and a recognized authority for traditions as well as for issuesof law and theology. In fact, books on the history of Islamic law mention her as one of the first muftis.Another well-known scholar and teacher among the Mothers of the Faithful was
Umm Salamah
. She emigratedto Abyssinia with her first husband and we owe her the most detailed reports on how the Muslims were granted protection by the local Christian emperor against the persecution by the Quraish. The young family then returnedto Makkah, only to find that the persecution continued. Having decided to emigrate to Madinah, Umm Salamahwas captured by her clan and separated from her husband and child; she had to overcome a lot of trouble beforethe boy was returned to her and she was free to join her husband and the other Muslims in Madinah. When AbuSalamah died from his wounds after a war, the Prophet received her and her four children into his family. Sheaccompanied him on several expeditions. With her presence of mind and her wise counsel she played a decisiverole when the peace treaty of Hudaibiya was made. Later on, her daughter Zaynab became one of the bestscholars of her time.These are just three examples from the Prophet's own household. I could continue with many more like
Hafsa the daughter of 'Umar
who was widowed after Uhud - another teacher of the community to whose carethe original volume of the Qur'an was entrusted; or 
Umm Habîba, the daughter of Abu Sufyân
who married the Prophet after her husband left her - eventually sheinfluenced her father who had made war against the Prophet for so long to change his mind.In fact, if we look at hadîth literature more carefully, we actually come across a number of women who wereinvolved in all kinds of activities like agriculture, home industry and crafts, or simply in "buying and sellinggoods". We hear about midwives, perfume makers and a number of other professions. We hear about
Zaynab bint Abi Mu'awiya
who "used to provide for (her husband) Abdullah (b. Mas'ûd) and the orphans whowere in her care;" by making and selling handicrafts, or of 
Shifâ'
who taught reading and writing and whom the Caliph 'Umar employed as a market inspector, i.e. she hadto enforce the rules concerning measures, weights and business transactions.These examples from the Prophet's contemporaries are anything but complete. However, it becomes evident thatall these women had a formative role in the history of the young Muslim community. They not only made anactive contribution for the cause of Islam but also gave an example for the women and girls of later generationsall the way to our own time and age. A few examples from later histrory:The Prophet's granddaughter 
Zaynab
is, as it were, an embodiment of his statement, "The greatest jihad is a justword in front of an unjust ruler." Being the sister of Hasan and Husayn and a scholar in her own right, she was a
 
well-known teacher and a recognized authority on religious questions. Being especially close to her brother Husayn, she left her family in Medina to accompany him on the journey that was to end in the tragedy of Karbala. In a well-knownspeech afterwards, she reproached Yazid for his behaviour against the Prophet's family members and thus savedher nephew Ali Zainul-Abidîn's life with her courageous intervention, exposing injustice and cruelty so that thefear of the public opinion compelled him to set his prisoners free.
Nafisa,
born in 762 C.A. in Madinah profited from numerous centres of scholarship in her home city. Besides being familiar with the Qur'an and its explanations and commentaries, she had a profound knowledge of Islamiclaw. After moving to Cairo with her husband, Nafisa taught in public lectures and classes and was soon well-known as a scholar. Even ash-Shâfi'i to whom one of the Sunni schools of law is traced back was among her regular audience, discussing various theological and legal issues with her and sharing part of her spiritual life.She was respected and loved far beyond the circles of scholars and students because of her friendly, open andgenerous manner.
Râbi'ah al-Adawîya
has become proverbial for the exclusive love of God. She was born around 717 C.A., losther parents at an early age, and was enslaved. However, her master who had ambitious plans with her was soimpressed with her conscientiousness and religious devotion that he set her free. After a pilgrimage to Mecca,Râbi'ah settled in Basra, studying and teaching. Among her companions there were scholars and mystics likeSufyan ath-Thawri who used to challenge her with complicated questions, and she had several male and femalestudents. Some of her prayers and poems are still available today. Râbi'a was one of the first to teach the purelove for God for His sake rather than for the sake of His gifts.In a completely different field,
Ijlîya bint al-Ijlî al-Asturlâbi
was an astrolab builder who had learned her father's trade and took over his business. An astrolab, like its successor the sextant, is used for variouscalculations in astronomy and navigation. Obviously successful, she was employed at the court of Saif ad-Dawla(in Northern Syria, 944 - 967 C.E.).Let us stop for a while to consider how teaching and research was done in those days. In pre-industrial age,children usually learned their profession from their parents or relatives, normally boys from their fathers andgirls from their mothers. Higher religious and scientific studies were more a matter of interest and opportunities.It was not uncommon that well-trained women were employed as house teachers for the children of well-to-dofamilies. Mosques were not only places of prayer but important centres of teaching religious and generalknowledge and for intellectual and spiritual exchange. Teachers used to offer lectures and classes there - unlessthey offered them in their homes. In the Classical Age, the more important mosques developed into academiesand universities, and hospitals had an important role in training doctors and nurses. We hear of cooperation between a male and a female doctor in a highly gender-segregated society: a doctor married a doctor, then theyshared their work: the female doctor treated the female patients while her husband treated the male ones.From contemporary accounts, we get a rather clear idea of intellectual activities. Women scholars and teacherswere highly respected. One example is
Shuhda
(d 1178 C.A.), nicknamed al-Kâtiba (the Writer), because of her  brilliant mastery of calligraphy; she taught male and female students at Baghdad university in various branchesof theology. A younger contemporary was
Zaynab bint Abil-Qasim Abdurrahman ash-Shari
who studiedwith the commentator of the Qur'an as-Zamakhshari; among her students there were some who became famouslater on, like Ibn Khallikan, who wrote her biography.
Karîma al-Marwazîya
(d. 1070 C.A.) was known as the best contemporary expert for the hadith collection by al-Bukhari.
Zaynab bint Ahmad
(d. 1322 n.C.) who wasfortunate enough to be able to travel in order to complete her studies, taught in Egypt and Medina, and thestudents came from far away to attend her lectures. If travelling in search of knowledge proved difficult for women - after all, contemporary criminals were not only interested in a woman's purse but also in herself for theslave market - they often overcame this obstacle by accompanying male family members or by meeting scholarsfrom all over the world during the pilgrimage to Mecca. The world traveller Ibn Battuta mentions among thewomen with whom he studied in Damascus, Jerusalem and Baghdad one
Zaynab
(d. 1339 C.A.) who hadacquired "a camel load of certificates". In Andalusia and some other places, women scholars opened salons for 

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