Women and Education in Islam
Dr Raheeq Ahmad Abbasi
Gender inequality is a common accusation made against Islam and a disparity in educational opportunities between men and women in many Muslim countries is often cited as a primary example of this. Education is seen as one of the pivotal factors in determining the economic, social and political advancement of a society and if, those making up over fifty percent of that society, are denied such a basic fundamental right then needless to say human rights activists will seek to find reasons for this disparity. Religion, particularly Islam is cited as a major stumbling block for women’s advancement. Studies have shown that in many parts of Africa and South East Asia women’s acquisition of knowledge is either fervently opposed; regulated to secondary importance as compared to men or encumbered with so many restrictions as to make it almost impossible for female students to acquire a decent standard of education.
This is a sad reflection upon Muslims and the societies that we have built since knowledge is one of the important pillars upon which the edifice of Islam has been raised. The very fact that the first revelation upon the Holy Prophet (blessings and peace be upon him) contained the commandment to ‘read’ speaks volumes of the emphasis Islam lays on education. Within Islam there is no disagreement found on acquisition of knowledge being binding and obligatory. The importance and excellence of knowledge has been highlighted both directly and indirectly in over five hundred places in the Holy Qur’an. Indeed one of the essential duties and responsibilities of Prophethood was the dissemination of knowledge and wisdom to all. Allah Almighty says:
﴿كَمَآ أَرْسَلْنَا فِيكُمْ رَسُولاً مِّنكُمْ يَتْلُواْ عَلَيْكُمْ ءَايَــــٰـــتِنَا وَيُزَكِّيكُمْ وَيُعَلِّمُكُمُ ٱلْكِتَــــٰـــبَ وَٱلْحِكْمَةَ وَيُعَلِّمُكُم مَّا لَمْ تَكُونُواْ تَعْلَمُونَ﴾
Likewise, We have sent you (Our) Messenger (blessings and peace be upon him) from amongst yourselves who recites to you Our Revelations and purifies and sanctifies (your hearts and ill-commanding selves) and teaches you the Book and inculcates in you logic and wisdom and enlightens you (on the mysteries of spiritual gnosis and divine truth) which you did not know. [al-Baqara, 2:151.]
﴿هُوَ ٱلَّذِى بَعَثَ فِى ٱلْأُمِّيِّـينَ رَسُولاً مِّنْهُمْ يَتْلُواْ عَلَيْهِمْ ءَايَــــٰـــتِهِ وَيُزَكِّيهِمْ وَيُعَلِّمُهُمُ ٱلْكِتَــــٰـــبَ وَٱلْحِكْمَةَ وَإِن كَانُواْ مِن قَبْلُ لَفِى ضَلَــــٰـــلٍ مُّبِينٍ﴾
He is the One Who sent a (Glorious) Messenger (blessings and peace be upon him) amongst the illiterate people from amongst themselves who recites to them His Revelations and cleanses and purifies them (outwardly and inwardly) and teaches them the Book and wisdom. Indeed, they were in open error before (his most welcome arrival). [al-Jumu‘a, 62:2.]
A basic principle of Islamic Shariah states that when a commandment is revealed, even if the masculine form of word is used the female gender is also included in this commandment. If this principle is rejected then the basic pillars of Islam such as prayer, fasting, pilgrimage and alms-due will become null and void for women. So though God Almighty and the Holy Prophet (blessings and peace be upon him) use the masculine form of sentence to describe most of the commandments, women are also bound to act and follow those rules and regulations.
The study of these verses clearly shows that the prophetic responsibilities of Prophet Muhammad (blessings and peace be upon him) through his Prophethood included recital of the verses, purgation of the self, education of the Book and wisdom and communication of knowledge. Four duties out of five directly talk of knowledge whereas the second and fifth in the sequence refers to a particular kind of knowledge, which is technically defined as mysticism or sufism. However if the doors of acquiring knowledge are closed for women or unjustified restrictions are imposed upon this acquisition, which religion will they act upon? How can they come to know the nature of the verses that have been revealed to them? How will they attain the wisdom and hikma that Allah Almighty wished them to know through the Holy Prophet (blessings and peace be upon him)? How are they to teach the fundamentals of the faith to their children if they have no knowledge of it themselves?
The Holy Qur’an also states:
﴿قُلْ هَلْ يَسْتَوِى ٱلَّذِينَ يَعْلَمُونَ وَٱلَّذِينَ لَا يَعْلَمُونَ إِنَّمَا يَتَذَكَّرُ أُوْلُواْ ٱلْأَلْبَــــٰـــبِ﴾
Say: ‘Can those who have knowledge and those who do not be alike?’ So only the wise do receive the admonition. [al-Zumar, 39:9.]
﴿إِنَّمَا يَخْشَى ٱللَّهَ مِنْ عِبَادِهِ ٱلْعُلَمَــــٰۤـــؤُاْ إِنَّ ٱللَّهَ عَزِيزٌ غَفُورٌ﴾
So only those of His servants who have knowledge (of these realities with a vision and outlook) fear Him. Surely, Allah is Almighty, Most Forgiving. [Fatir, 35:28.]
None of these verses specify that only ‘wise men’ receive admonition or that only ‘male servants’ who have knowledge fear Him. If reference to the importance of knowledge has not been restricted within the purview of men by Almighty God, why do we persevere in creating them ourselves? A number of Prophetic traditions also talk directly about knowledge being obligatory and binding in character.
The Holy Prophet (blessings and peace be upon him) said:
«طَلَبُ الْعِلْمِ فَرِيضَةٌ عَلَى كُلِّ مُسْلِمٍ».
Acquisition of knowledge is binding on all Muslims (both men and women without any discrimination). [Narrated by Ibn Maja in al-Sunan, 1:81 §224.]
The Holy Prophet (blessings and peace be upon him) also said at another place:
«اُطْلُبُوا الْعِلْمَ وَلَوْ بِالصِّينِ».
Acquire knowledge even if you may have to go to China for it. [Narrated by al-Bazzar in al-Musnad, 1:175 §95.]
He (blessings and peace be upon him) said at another place:
«مَنْ سَلَكَ طَرِيقًا يَلْتَمِسُ فِيهِ عِلْمًا سَهَّلَ اللهُ لَهُ بِهِ طَرِيقًا إِلَى الْجَنَّةِ».
Allah Almighty makes the path to paradise easier for him who walks on it for getting knowledge. [Narrated by Muslim in al-Sahih, 4:2074 §2699.]
It is apparent from the Holy Qur’an and hadiths that the acquisition of knowledge is obligatory for women in the same way as in the case of men. The study of the life of the Holy Prophet (blessings and peace be upon him) also shows that he himself made special arrangements for the education and training of women.
Abu Sa‘id al-Khudri reports that some women said to the Holy Prophet (blessings and peace be upon him): ‘men have gone ahead of us (in terms of acquisition of knowledge). Therefore, appoint a special day for our benefit as well.’ The Holy Prophet (blessings and peace be upon him) fixed one day for them. He (blessings and peace be upon him) would meet them on that day, advise them and educate them about commandments of Allah Almighty. [Narrated by al-Bukhari in al-Sahih, 1:50.]
‘A’isha al-Siddiqa, mother of the faithful, was a hadith-narrator, scholar, intellectual and jurist of great standing. She is believed to have reported 2,210 traditions. Abu Hurayra, ‘Abd Allah b. ‘Amr and Anas b. Malik (may Allah be well pleased with them) were the only ones from amongst male hadith-narrators who had narrated more traditions than she did. This itself illustrates that women could not only teach women but also men after fulfilling certain preconditions.
‘A’isha bint Talha (may Allah be well pleased with her) reports:
I stayed with ‘A’isha. People from every city would come to me including the old ones (who would put forward questions) because they knew that I am her servant. And the students who were young would treat me like their sister and would present gifts (to ‘A’isha through me). Many would also write me letters (so that I could reply them back after soliciting answers from ‘A’isha. I would submit: O aunt! Mr so and so has written a letter and there is his present as well. ‘A’isha would say in reply to this: O daughter! Answer his query and give him present in exchange as well. If you have nothing to give, let me know, I will give. So she would return (the present in exchange and I would send it back along with the letter). [Narrated by al-Bukhari in al-Adab al-Mufrad.]
It is important to note here that the concept of knowledge in Islam covers a broad spectrum of subjects. All interpreters of the Holy Qur’an are in agreement that the first five verses of chapter al-‘Alaq form the beginning of the sending of revelation:
﴿ٱقْرَأْ بِٱسْمِ رَبِّكَ ٱلَّذِى خَلَقَ. خَلَقَ ٱلْإِنسَــــٰـــنَ مِنْ عَلَقٍ. ٱقْرَأْ وَرَبُّكَ ٱلْأَكْرَمُ. ٱلَّذِى عَلَّمَ بِٱلْقَلَمِ. عَلَّمَ ٱلْإِنسَــــٰـــنَ مَا لَمْ يَعْلَمْ﴾
(O Beloved!) Read (commencing) with the Name of Allah, Who has created (everything). He created man from a hanging mass (clinging) like a leech (to the mother’s womb). Read, and your Lord is Most Generous, Who taught man (reading and writing) by the pen, Who (besides that) taught man (all that) which he did not know. [al-‘Alaq, 96:1–5.]
The first commandment contained in these verses relates to ‘reading’ as a part of a process of acquisition of knowledge. In addition to the description of Allah Almighty being the Creator and Sustainer, two branches of knowledge are mentioned, embryology and sociology. Whilst indicating knowledge of biology and morality in these verses, the Qur’an explains the Islamic concept of knowledge as being very vast. Acquisition of knowledge embraces within in its fold all of its branches, both religious and secular, which are productive for mankind. It is important to note that this is not restricted to the purview of the traditional religious sciences. Instead many verses of the Holy Qur’an invite man to ponder and meditate over the creation of the universe. Thus it would be wrong to allow women to just partake in learning of the religious sciences and prohibit her from gaining a wider scope in her learning.
Another misnomer is the view that suggests women are only allowed to gain knowledge from female teachers and that instruction from men is prohibited due to the demands of purdah. Although an ideal environment would dictate women teaching women, we do not live in an ideal world where this is always possible. Since Islam is a religion for all nations and all times, it is based on practical reality. There is no stipulation that only women can teach other women or a bar regarding male teachers for women. If the rules of attire and dress are properly observed then men can teach female students under Sharia. This is also apparent from the above mentioned hadith where the Holy Prophet (blessings and peace be upon him) himself made arrangements for the education and training of women where one day was particularly specified for women in the Prophet’s Mosque.
Indeed those who quote the verses of the Holy Qur’an regarding the veil as an argument against women leaving the home in pursuit of knowledge are also severely misguided. If attending a school or college in the pursuit of knowledge constitutes breaking the laws of purdah then anytime a women steps out of her home would entail the same breakage of laws. This would of course create a ludicrous situation where a woman could never leave her home for any reason. If one looks at the verses regarding the veil Allah Almighty states:
﴿وَقُل لِّلْمُؤْمِنَــــٰـــتِ يَغْضُضْنَ مِنْ أَبْصَــــٰـــرِهِنَّ وَيَحْفَظْنَ فُرُوجَهُنَّ وَلَا يُبْدِينَ زِينَتَهُنَّ إِلَّا مَا ظَهَرَ مِنْهَا﴾
And direct the believing women that they (too) must keep their eyes lowered and guard their chastity, and must not show off their adornments and beautification except that (part of it) which becomes visible itself. [al-Nur, 24:31.]
﴿يَــــٰۤـــأَيُّهَا ٱلنَّبِىُّ قُل لِّأَزْوَاجِكَ وَبَنَاتِكَ وَنِسَآءِ ٱلْمُؤْمِنِينَ يُدْنِينَ عَلَيْهِنَّ مِن جَلَــــٰـــبِيبِهِنَّ ذَالِكَ أَدْنَىٰۤ أَن يُعْرَفْنَ فَلَا يُؤْذَيْنَ وَكَانَ ٱللَّهُ غَفُورًا رَّحِيمًا﴾
O Prophet! Say to your wives, your daughters and the women of believers that, (whilst going out,) they should draw their veils as coverings over them. It is more likely that this way they may be recognized (as pious, free women), and may not be hurt (considered by mistake as roving slave girls). And Allah is Most Forgiving, Ever-Merciful. [12 al-Ahzab, 33:59.]
Neither of these verses prohibits a woman leaving her house. In fact they merely stipulate that when she leaves the house she should observe the veil whilst outside. Indeed these commandments are themselves a great justification for women stepping out of their homes and becoming active members within society. Moreover if the act of a woman stepping out of her home was prohibited, why did the revered wives of the Holy Prophet (blessings and peace be upon him) participate in battles? If we study the following traditions we come to know the range of functions women performed during the period of Prophethood.
Anas b. Malik (may Allah be well pleased with him) narrates: when people became separated from the Holy Prophet (blessings and peace be upon him), I saw ‘A’isha bint Abi Bakr and Umm Sulaym (may Allah be well pleased with them) were completely covered in attire. They would bring water-bags upon their back, offer it to the thirsty Muslims and then return. They would bring water-bags again and made the thirsty Muslims drink it. [Narrated by al-Bukhari in al-Sahih, 3:1055 §2724.]
Umm ‘Atiya (may Allah be well pleased with her) says: I participated in six battles with the Holy Prophet (blessings and peace be upon him). I would pursue the Ghazis in their tracks, cook food for them and do dressing for the injured and make arrangements for treatment of the diseased. [Narrated by al-Bukhari in al-Sahih, 1:333 §937 & 2:595 §1569.]
This practice continued in the period of the rightly-guided Caliphs after the period of Prophethood. It is related in the books of sira that women were part of the parliament (majlis al-shura) during the period of ‘Umar b. al-Khattab (may Allah be well pleased with him). [Narrated by ‘Abd al-Razzaq in al-Musannaf, 6:180 §10420.] During the rule of ‘Uthman (may Allah be well pleased with him), women were designated as ambassadors to other countries. [Related by al-Tabari in Tarikh al-Umam wa al-Muluk, 2:601.]
In a similar manner the history of Islam is replete with the mention of women who obtained distinguished positions in the fields of hadith sciences, the science of interpretation, jurisprudence, medical science, poetry and calligraphy. [Shaykh-ul-Islam Dr Muhammad Tahir-ul-Qadri, Women Rights in Islam.]
It is thus imperative, if a nation wishes to be successful and move towards a sustainable reality, the women of that society must be given every opportunity to attain knowledge and education which is not only her due but a right that has been ordained to her by Almighty Allah.