From the beginning, Islam stood-up for the rights of the socially weak, the poor, orphans, foreign travelers – and women. Islam abolished the barbaric customs of sons inheriting the wives of fathers, the imprisonment of widows, and live burials of female babies.
Take a journey through the history of female scholarship in Islam – at every turn, you will meet forward-thinking women who fulfilled their share of the responsibility for spreading knowledge. Without these women, one-fourth of the Islamic knowledge we know today would never have reached us.
Let us examine the female scholars of Islam in more detail.
A Court Case
At the turn of the Islamic century, a golden era of knowledge, Madinah was buzzing with scholars. Hadith (Malik) records the incidence of a qadhi (judge) in Madinah, Abu Bakr ibn Muhammad ibn Hazm.
One day, he was sitting surrounded by people when a woman walked in.
She came directly to Qadhi Abu Bakr and said, “Amrah bint Abdur Rahman has sent me here.” These words instantly took Abu Bakr’s attention as Amrah was one of his teachers.
“Amrah says, ‘I heard that you have jailed a Nabatean man for stealing something trivial. Do you want to cut off his hand?’”
Abu Bakr knew of the case. He had sent a non-Muslim man to prison for stealing some iron rings, and he had decided to cut off his hand as the legislated punishment for stealing.
“Yes,” he said to the woman.
She replied, ”Amrah says to you, not to cut off the thief’s hand except for a quarter of a dinar and upwards.”
Abu Bakr realized his mistake. According to Amra, the thief had not stolen anything valuable enough to obligate cutting off his hand.
Abu Bakr did not hesitate – he freed the thief.
Who was this Amrah bint Abdur Rahman, whose message had such a conclusive effect on the famous judge of Madinah?
Amrah bint Abdur Rahman
Although she had never met him, Amrah bint Abdur Rahman was a follower of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), studying under his companions. As a child, Amrah lived in the house of the Prophet’s wife, the Mother of the Believers, Aisha (peace be upon her).
Aisha (peace be upon her) was a significant contributor in narrating hadith, as well as a jurist among the companions of the Prophet (peace be upon him), and her protégé emulated her.
As a wife of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), she had much information about the His inner life that other companions did not have. And Amrah was among the few who transmitted the great bulk of this knowledge from Aisha.
Amrah also narrated Aisha’s fiqh judgments, a valuable resource in itself. Amrah went on to become a jurist herself.
That is why, when the judge of Madinah heard Amrah’s message, he did not feel the need to get a male opinion, although Madinah was then housing the famous Seven Jurists.
Amrah was not just a passive seeker of knowledge. She took an active interest in the news of the day, as shown by her awareness of the Nabatean thief case, and intervened with the sole intention of preventing a miscarriage of justice.
No one questioned the right of Amrah to intervene. There was no call for verification of her statement through two male witnesses. Amra’s word stood on its merit.
More remarkably, no one among the great scholars in Madinah had realized an injustice was about to be made, except a woman.
Where did the theory originate, that the intellect and memory of men were equal to that of two women?
“Two Women are Equal to One Man” – NOT What the Quran Says
Near the end of surah Al-Baqarah, Allah the Almighty discusses the topic of loans, ordering the parties to put the terms in a written contract attested to by two male witnesses. He says:
If two men are not there, then call one man and two women out of those you approve as witnesses, so that if one of the two women should forget the other can remind her. (Quran 2:282)
This verse is about witnessing a specific type of contract, not the relative value of male and female witnesses in general.
At the time, a loan contract involved terminology that men generally knew more about than women. Naturally, someone lacking the technical knowledge required to understand an event would not serve as a good witness.
Shaykh Akram Nadwi cites the example of the modern stock exchange. He is personally unfamiliar with its terminology, making him unlikely to be counted among ‘those you approve as witnesses’ in stock exchange contracts. (Muhaddithat 18)
But many people have generalized the verse and illogically theorized that Allah has created half of the human race with an inherent cognitive handicap.
There is no proof for this theory – neither from the Quran or sunnah nor from science.
An Ocean of Knowledge
When it comes to narrating the hadith of the Prophet (peace be upon him), there is ordinarily no specific terminology. So we find scholars like Aisha and Amrah given the same authority as, sometimes even more than, that of men.
The narrations of Amrah are in all six of the famous books of hadith, including Bukhari and Muslim. She ranked in the second level of hadith authority after the companions.
Imam Ibn Shihab al-Zuhri said, “Go to Amrah for she is the great vessel of Hadith.”
It also is written that he also said, “I went to her and found her to be a vast ocean of knowledge!” The great Caliph `Umar ibn ‘Abdul ‘Aziz who used to say:
“If you want to learn Hadith, go to Amrah.”
Imam Sufyan ibn ‘Uyayynah said: The most knowledgeable people of the hadiths narrated by Lady ‘A’ishah were three: Al-Qasim ibn Muhammad ibn Abi Bakr Al-Siddiq, ‘Urwah ibn Al-Zubair, and Amrah bint Abdul Rahman.
Imam Al-Dhahabi said: She was a scholar, a jurist, an authority, of vast knowledge, and she narrated numerous hadiths in the books meant for the compilation of the Prophetic Hadith.
There are thousands of such female scholars in our history. Each is a shining example of the status the Quran and Sunnah have given to women.
Mohammad Akram Nadwi, Al-Muhaddithat: The Women Scholars in Islam.