Women are the great pride of Islam!

Marginalising women in Islam is neither prophetic nor historical

Irresponsible groups that feel that hiding women in their kitchen is the best policy is following a cultural practice that has little normative value in Islamic history and discourse. In fact, throughout Islamic history, women have been at the forefront of almost every endeavour.

The Qur’anic worldview on women is beautifully laiden below:

Men and women who have surrendered,
believing men and believing women,
obedient men and obedient women,
truthful men and truthful women,
enduring men and enduring women,
humble men and humble women,
men and women who give charity, men who fast and women who fast,
men and women who guard their chastity,
men and women who remember God in abundance —
for them God has prepared forgiveness and a great reward.

(Qur’an, 33:35)

The context of the above verse is clear. Some women were discontented that the Qur’an kept addressing men and left them out as a gender and so, out of concern for their spiritual welfare, they approached the Prophet s.a.w. to ask him if there was anything about women in the Qur’an, to which the above verse was revealed.

The ‘Asbab al-Nuzul’ of Abul Hasan Ali al-Wahidi records the incident at length:

قال مقاتل بن حيان: بلغني أن أسماء بنت عُمَيْس لما رجعت من الحبشة معها زوجها جعفر بن أبي طالب، دخلت على نساء النبي صلى الله عليه وسلم فقالت: هل نزل فينا شيء من القرآن؟ قلن: لا، فأتت رسول الله عليه وسلم فقالت: يا رسول الله، إن النساء لفي خيبة وخسار، قال: ومم ذلك؟ قالت: لأنهن لا يذكرون بالخير كما يذكر الرجال، فأنزل الله تعالى: {إِنَّ ٱلْمُسْلِمِينَ وَٱلْمُسْلِمَاتِ} إلى آخرها.

“Muqatil bin Hayyan r.a. said, “I was told that when Asma’ bint ‘Umays r.a. returned with her husband, Ja’far bin Abi Talib r.a., from Abyssinia. She went to the wives of the Prophet s.a.w., and said, ‘Has anything from the Qur’an been revealed about us [women]?’ They answered that nothing was revealed about them, and so she went to the Messenger of Allah s.a.w. and said, ‘O Messenger of Allah, women are disappointed and at a loss!’ He said, ‘How is that?’ She said, ‘They are not mentioned [in the Qur’an] in goodness as the men are’. [As a response,] Allah, exalted is He, revealed (Lo! men who surrender unto Allah, and women who surrender…) up to the end of the verse”” [1]

In a famous narration recorded by Bukhari in his Sahih, Kitab al-Adab, Abu Hurayrah r.a. reports that a man came to the Prophet s.a.w. and asked him:

“O Messenger of Allah, who rightfully deserves the best treatment from me?”
“Your mother,” replied the Prophet.
Who is next?” asked the man.
“Your mother,” said the Prophet.
“Who comes next?” the man asked again.
“Your mother,” replied the Prophet.
“Who is after that?” insisted the man.
“Your father,” said the noble Prophet s.a.w.

We should ask ourselves the question, “Is compelling our mothers to live out their lives in the confines of the back room in our house or the kitchen the best way to treat them?”

Should women really be forced to cook our favourite meal and bake cakes for the weekend but never to work beyond the home? Is that their only lot in life? In answering this question, the eminent Cambridge scholar that is dubbed the al-Ghazali of Britain, Sheikh Dr. Abdal Hakim Murad (Timothy J. Winter), Dean of the Islamic College of Cambridge and Dr. John A. Williams of the College of William and Mary give examples of illustrious women that most certainly worked beyond the four walls of the home:

“In the early days of Islam women went out to work, and participated in all feasible social and cultural activities. A famous case is Shifa bin Abdallah, who was appointed by the caliph Omar to be chief inspector of markets in the Islamic capital of Madina. Today, women are engineers, professors, deans, cabinet ministers, company directors and physicians in many Muslim lands. By Islamic law, their salaries are their own property, and their husbands are still obligated to support them if the women wish it.

This is not a new thing. In medieval times, Muslim women were frequently merchants or physicians. Numerous fascinating biographies exist of countless women who became religious scholars and taught in the mosques and colleges. For instance, the Central Asian Karima al-Marwaziyya (d. 1070) was one of the most famous Islamic scholars of her age. No less distinguished was Fatima bint al-Hasan, who– in addition to being a hadith scholar –was also, with many of her pupils, a renowned calligrapher. Some other names of Muslim women scholars include Shuhda the Scribe (d. 1178), Ajiba bint Abi Bakr (d. 1339) and her pupil Bint al-Kamal (d. 1339), who lectured in Damascus to a number of leading scholars, including the famous Moroccan jurist and traveller Ibn Battuta.

An especially famous scholar was Umm Hani (d. 1466). She memorized the entire Quran while still a child, and then mastered all the great academic disciplines of her time including theology, law, history and grammar, before taking up senior lecturing positions in many of the great academies of Cairo. Her biographers celebrate her for other virtues also, including her skill in composing poetry and the deep religiosity that impelled her to perform the Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca no fewer than thirteen times.” [2]

Most recently, the Oxford scholar Sheikh Dr. Akram Nadwi compiled a magnificent 53-volume work, which is a magnum opus in the field, that records the biographies of over 8000 female scholars throughout Islamic history. Reporting on this scholarly enterprise, Bahar Davary writes:

“Muhammad Akram Nadwi’s research on muhadithat (female hadith scholars) and his 53-volume biographical dictionary in Arabic of 8,000 female hadith scholars is another step forward in women’s Islamic Studies literature. The introduction to the work is translated into English and is entitled Al-Muhadithat: Scholars of Islam (2007). Nadwi’s views on women and education fit well within the established prophetic tradition that supported and encouraged learning and scholarship for women and men…” [3]

Reporting on the same research, Mamiko Saito writes:

“Most of the literature suggests that female access was limited, although a recent study by Dr. Mohammad Nadwi at Oxford University documents more than 8,000 female scholars across the Muslim world who taught both males and females in different institutions, including the madrassas.” [4]

The story of Khawlah

Muslim women did not only excel in academics, but many of them were even fearsome warriors on the battlefield where they frightened the most courageous of men in their trousers. One such astounding character was the companion of the Prophet s.a.w., Khawlah bint al-Azwar r.a.. The following is the story of this mighty woman of Islam:

The herald announced, “The bugle for Jihad has been sounded, and all are invited to pick up their arms and belongings and bid farewell to their families and set out from their homes for Jihad.” The Mujahideen started to assemble at the office which was at once the centre for Jihad and also the office and centre of the government of Islam– the Prophet’s Mosque at Al-Madinah. Every single person was lit up by the fervour and passion of Jihad and martyrdom. The streets of Al-Madinah looked extraordinarily busy with all the comings and goings of the Mujahideen. The solider – poet of the Banu Asad, Dharar bin Azwar (May Allah be pleased with him), started to get ready and put on his armour and weapons. His sister Khawlah bint Azwar (May Allah be pleased with him) asked him where he was going and which battle he was preparing for. He asked her, “Have you not heard the announcement regarding Jihad? I am leaving to fight in the JIhad under the banner of our Caliph, Abu Bakr Siddiq (May Allah be pleased with him).” Khawlah asked plaintively, “Is it our fate that we should sit at home doing nothing? Dear brother you know that I am an expert archer; please ask Amir-ul-Mo’mineen Abu Bakr Siddiq (May Allah be pleased with him) to allow me to take part in Jihad side by side with you.”

Dharar bin Azwar Asadi (May Allah be pleased with him) smiled when he heard the brave and courageous tones of his sister, filled with a passionate desire to take part in the Jihad. He said, “May Allah (SWT) Bless you with happiness; this is a war and not a game for women. You ought to stay at home, since my presence is enough to represent our family.”

Khawlah (May Allah be pleased with her) replied, “Brother I will not allow you to go alone. You will just have to get permission from the Caliph for me. If you feel that this game of war is for men, then at least I can quench the thirst of the weary Mujahideen and help to nurse the wounded. I can also revive your spirits when you are tied.” On seeing the brave spirit and high morale of his sister, Dharar (May Allah be pleased with him) asked Abu Bakr Siddiq (May Allah be pleased with him) to allow her to accompany the troops. Thus Khawlah (May Allah be pleased with her) got permission to take part in every battle that was fought between the army of Islam and the Romans.

On one occasion her brother, Dharar (May Allah be pleased with him) was imprisoned by the Romans. She astounded people with her experience, courage and daring and inflicted a fatal wound on the enemy in rescuing her brother. When she heard that her brother had been captured by the enemy, she swiftly put on her veil [5] and picking up her sword hurried out of the tent. The other women asked her what she thought she was doing. Without bothering to answer them, she just dashed out of the text and into the ranks of the Mujahideen. No one could identify this masked Mujahid, who was creating such confusing among the ranks of the enemy. All the Mujahideen started asking each other who this could possibly be, from which tribe he came and wondered why he was wearing a mask. The Commander – in – Chief, Khalid ibn Waleed finally went near her and asked her, “Who are you and what is your name? Your actions in the cause of the Jihad and the strength of your arms are truly praiseworthy.” Then Khawlah answered through her veil that she was the sister of DHarar (May Allah be pleased with him). Khalid bin Waleed (May Allah be pleased with him) was amazed that a woman had performed such feats in the battlefield. He asked her how this idea of entering the battlefield had come to her. She answered, “I was with the other women when I came to hear that my brother had been captured by the enemy. I just could not sit back doing nothing. So in order to rescue him I jumped into the fray.” Khalid ibn Waleed (May Allah be pleased with him) prayed that Allah (SWT) should reward her for her great exploits in the war. [6]

Are some men so emasculated that they would have women fight their battles for them in war and on the battlefield but not allow them, if they so choose, to work safely beyond the confines of the home? Let us be fair to women and let us show them the utmost respect that they deserve as our counterparts in humanity.

Claimants to the prophetic tradition of Islam would do well to heed the noble Prophet’s s.a.w. exhortation as recorded in al-Tirmidhi:

“The most perfect man of religion is one who excels in character. The best among you is he who gives the best treatment to his womenfolk.”

Let us not erase our rich history where both men and women competed with each other in all domains of life, in order, that one part might help the other to excel and let us cast aside anachronistic practices that have little to no place in our esteemed religious tradition.

Notes:

[1] أسباب نزول الآية رقم (35 ) من سورة الأحزاب
Retrieved from http://library.islamweb.net/newlibrary/display_book.php…

[2] Winter, T, J. & Williams, J. A. (2002). Understanding Islam and the Muslims: The Muslim Family Islam and World Peace. Louisville, Kentucky: Fons Vitae. pp. 38-39

[3] Bahar Davary (2013). Islamic Studies. In Suad Joseph, Marilyn Booth, Bahar Davary et. al. (eds), Women and Islamic Cultures: Disciplinary Paradigms and Approaches: 2003-2013. Leiden: Brill. p. 217

[4] Mamiko Saito (2014). Education: Nurturing the Future. In Jennifer Heath & Ashraf Zahedi (eds), Children of Afghanistan: The Path to Peace. Austin, Texas: University of Texas Press. p. 258

[5] The veil that Khawlah r.a. quickly put on before charging into the foray was not the so called ‘niqab’ that many conservative Muslim women today choose to wear. Commenting on this incident, the Maliki scholar Sheikh Dr. Umar Faruq says, “And then to conceal her identity so that they don’t know she’s a woman, she [Khawlah] puts on a veil. For the Arabs, the veil was not distinctively for women; therefore, she veiled her face so that no one knows who she is. And so they don’t know she’s a woman. And the veiling [niqab] of women– the exclusion of women from society — that’s really not part of the prophetic society nor is that part of the Umayyad society. It’s a custom that develops in the ‘Abbasid period and is taken primarily from the Persians and also from the Greeks because the Greeks did that, too. So Khawlah puts on the niqab not so that you’d know she’s a woman and you don’t look at her face. I don’t know if her face was beautiful or frightening. I don’t know but Khawlah then, fights just like her brother.” (Umar Faruq Abd-Allah (March 22, 2017). Prominent Women In Islam And The Nusantara (Video). Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=syQQFqQzJzg)

[6] Mahmood Ahmad Ghadanfar (n.d.). Commanders of the Muslims Army: Among the Companions of the Prophet (Jamila Muhammad Qawi, trans.). Riyadh, Saudi Arabia: Darussalam. pp. 323-325; Though we do not generally endorse the Saudi-run publications of Darussalam, the reference is made as it narrates the story well.

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