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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 in
terms. 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 stands
today, role models are often idealized to an extent that we can't see the live person any longer. This is true for the
Prophet and close male companions of his like Abu Bakr, 'Umar, Uthman or Ali as well as scholars and rulers in
our history. It the more true for female role models. Muslims who read the Qur'an are usually fascinated reading
about the miracle of Mary (Maryam) giving birth to Jesus ('Isa), or they feel pleased to hear the Prophet's
statement 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 and
his relationship with them as his wives rather than their own activities, personalities, interests - and personal
struggle. 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 family
ideals on our minds - happy mothers with their children, while the man is the breadwinner "outside" - we might
forget 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 something
new and revolutionary.

However, already the Qur'an challenges such ideas, presenting men and women as human beings with shared
religious 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 on
whom 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 the
reader to think more carefully. Thus, Surah 66:11-12 (at-Tahrim), points out Pharoah's wife, traditionally called
Assiyah, 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 up
without the care of a father. A third example is the queen of Shebah, traditionally called Bilqis, in Surah
27:20-44 (an-Naml) who is described as a wise ruler: instead of following her ambitious advisors, she pursues
her own peaceful diplomacy that eventually opens the way for insight and guidance: she surrenders "with
Solomon" 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 greatest
spiritual, 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 be
respected in a role most unusual in pre-Islamic society. I think you are all familiar with the story how she
employed and then married young Muhammad with whose sincerity and reliability she was impressed. But let
us 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 Syria
herself - 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 in
mind both their personalities and later Islamic property rules, they cannot have been far away from continuing
the existing partnership, but how did she cope with that and their children? Some of the answers can be found by
drawing conclusions from various traditions. There we learn a more interesting details about her personality and
what she shared with the Prophet besides business and family commitments. Khadijah was committed to the
cause of the poor: she had contributed to projects like sponsoring and running a hospital during the plague
epidemics; Muhammad was involved in the Hilf al-Fudul movement to stand up for the rights of the
underprivileged. And finally: from the way she recognized the importance of his message and supported him
after 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 message
since her childhood to the extent that she learned all the revealed texts by heart. People whose imagination runs
wild 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 married
the Prophet after the hijra. As a response to an evil case of slander against her, the Qur'an severely criticizes
slander, 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 most
important scholars and teachers of her community and a recognized authority for traditions as well as for issues
of 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 emigrated
to 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 returned
to Makkah, only to find that the persecution continued. Having decided to emigrate to Madinah, Umm Salamah
was captured by her clan and separated from her husband and child; she had to overcome a lot of trouble before
the boy was returned to her and she was free to join her husband and the other Muslims in Madinah. When Abu
Salamah died from his wounds after a war, the Prophet received her and her four children into his family. She
accompanied him on several expeditions. With her presence of mind and her wise counsel she played a decisive
role when the peace treaty of Hudaibiya was made. Later on, her daughter Zaynab became one of the best
scholars 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 care
the 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 she
influenced 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 were
involved in all kinds of activities like agriculture, home industry and crafts, or simply in "buying and selling
goods". 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 who
were 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 had
to enforce the rules concerning measures, weights and business transactions.

These examples from the Prophet's contemporaries are anything but complete. However, it becomes evident that
all these women had a formative role in the history of the young Muslim community. They not only made an
active contribution for the cause of Islam but also gave an example for the women and girls of later generations
all 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 just
word 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-known
speech afterwards, she reproached Yazid for his behaviour against the Prophet's family members and thus saved
her nephew Ali Zainul-Abidîn's life with her courageous intervention, exposing injustice and cruelty so that the
fear 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 Islamic
law. 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 and
generous manner.

Râbi'ah al-Adawîya has become proverbial for the exclusive love of God. She was born around 717 C.A., lost
her parents at an early age, and was enslaved. However, her master who had ambitious plans with her was so
impressed 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 like
Sufyan ath-Thawri who used to challenge her with complicated questions, and she had several male and female
students. Some of her prayers and poems are still available today. Râbi'a was one of the first to teach the pure
love 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 various
calculations 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 and
girls 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-do
families. Mosques were not only places of prayer but important centres of teaching religious and general
knowledge and for intellectual and spiritual exchange. Teachers used to offer lectures and classes there - unless
they offered them in their homes. In the Classical Age, the more important mosques developed into academies
and 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 they
shared 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 teachers
were 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 branches
of theology. A younger contemporary was Zaynab bint Abil-Qasim Abdurrahman ash-Shari who studied
with the commentator of the Qur'an as-Zamakhshari; among her students there were some who became famous
later 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 was
fortunate enough to be able to travel in order to complete her studies, taught in Egypt and Medina, and the
students 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 the
slave market - they often overcame this obstacle by accompanying male family members or by meeting scholars
from all over the world during the pilgrimage to Mecca. The world traveller Ibn Battuta mentions among the
women with whom he studied in Damascus, Jerusalem and Baghdad one Zaynab (d. 1339 C.A.) who had
acquired "a camel load of certificates". In Andalusia and some other places, women scholars opened salons for
the cultivation of sciences and literature. Quite a number of women were experts for law. According to at-Tabari,
women can be judges in all cases; Abu Hanifa actually demanded that there should be women judges in every
city "in order that women's rights can be guaranteed". Even where women as rulers or judges were under debate,
women were accepted as muftis.

In later societies where segregation of the sexes often limited women's access to the public sphere, we repeatedly
come across women who made profitable use of the rights guaranteed in Islamic law by managing and investing
their property, either directly or though their agents. For example, going back to a class of slave soldiers with a
high mortality rate among men, the Mamluks in Egypt used to leave the management of their property to their
wives. Many ladies became famous for sponsoring and managing awqâf, endowments for needy relatives or
philanthropic endowments like hospitals, colleges, sufi convents, libraries, mosques, or orphan's projects, but
also roads, bazaars and rest houses that paid the way for the former.

I could continue for a long time and with many more details but time is running away. Therefore these examples
cannot be more than a little taste.

One might wonder what happened, where the distorted image and self-image of Muslim women comes from. As
the Qur'an says, "God does not change the situation of a people before they change what is within themselves."
But the more urgent question is: how can we reclaim the heritage that is rightfully ours? What can we learn from
the strong Muslim women in history that can help and encourage us when we shape our future?

One key is the Prophet's statement: "Acquiring knowledge is a religious obligation (faridah) for every Muslim,
male or female." The achievements of Muslims in the Classical Age were a result of following this injunction:
just as Muslims prayed and gave charity, they made efforts to learn, sometimes even travelling to distant
countries in order to meet scholars or to find books. The Prophet also said, "Knowledge is the believer's lost
camel. Whoever catches it, has the greatest right to it." Today, we no longer have to travel to distant countries in
order to meet teachers and find books, but may grab one of the many study and training opportunities that are
available to find that we will be rewarded many blessings.

Another key is mutual support. Informal sharing of information and networking can be first steps. In the long
run, more systematic steps are needed to create a supportive infra-structure for women in their struggle to
combine study, work and family commitments. Besides, we should get used to appreciate each other's efforts to
realize our visions and encourage each other rather than finding faults. As the Qur'an said, "People are in a state
of loss, except for those who have faith and do good actions and encourage each other to truth and justices and
encourage each other to patience and constancy." .

A third key is iman. Faith not only implies believing "in God and His angels and His scriptures and His
messengers" etc. but also the confidence that our efforts will be blessed and the values of justice and peace will
eventually be realized in our society. This will help us to fulfil our responsibility to speak out for what is right,
enjoining what is good and prohibiting what is evil, in our personal lives, in our families, in our community, and
in our society, and to work towards a revival of the richness of our heritage and a healthy development of our
Ummah in the modern age, for the greater benefit of human society as a whole in sha'Allah.