Women’s Role in Islam of the Past


A speech delivered by DR. MUHAMMAD AKRAM NADWI in Mumbai sometime during August-September 2017 period.


In our times, not only in India, but in fact over the world, women are generally forbidden or at least discouraged from attending prayers in the mosques. Historically, during and after the Prophet, for centuries they had been attending prayers in mosques, observing I`takaf, attending lectures, and, in fact, delivering lectures. In Syria, Iraq, Egypt, and other parts of the Islamic world, where men studied and lectured, women also studied and lectured.

Three mosques are the holiest in Islam: Makkan, Madinan and Al-Aqsa. Women delivered lectures in all three of them. The audience used to be composed both of men as well as women, although men were in dominant numbers. Of the men in the audience, there could be scholars, Hadith specialists, jurists and legal experts. Many women have delivered lectures within the Hateem of the Masjid al Haram in Makkah.

In the grand mosque of Madinah also, many Hadith-lectures were delivered before women audiences. Among the lecturers there was once a lady called Fatimah al-Batatihiyyah (d. 711 AH) whose sessions were attended by such scholars as Dhahabi, Subki, and others. She delivered her talks from near the grave of the Prophet, sitting at the head-side. When tired, she would recline by the wall of the grave. She wrote and distributed the certificates of attendance to every of the attendee with her own hand. Similarly, Umm Darda’ delivered lectures in Masjid al-Aqsa, a practice that lasted for centuries. The number of participants ran into hundreds and above.

The practice was the same in several mosques of the Muslim world. In the Jami` Umayyah of Damascus, a lady called `Ai’sha bint ibn `Abdul Hadi (d. 814 AH) conducted classes, and in fact, was paid for it by the government of the time. She delivered lessons in Hadith to prominent Hadith-experts of the time: Hafiz ibn Nasiruddin and Hafiz ibn Hajr `Asqalani. Indeed, Hafz ibn Hajr studied 70 small and big Hadith books under `A’isha.

Through centuries, starting with women-Companions of the Prophet, down through their followers, in every age, women have taught Hadith from memory. There are many reports that have only women narrators in the chain. Whether it is Hanafi, Maliki, Shafe`ee school, how many issues are not there that can boast of narration by women alone. Imam Abu `Abdullah Hakim Nisapuri stated that one-fourth of Islamic jurisdiction materials depends on narrations by women. There is no other religion on this planet in which women have played such foundational role.

An important point that needs to be disseminated is that there have been many Hadith forgers and fabricators. They have been identified and names preserved. But there is not a single Hadith forger among them. Whenever they have entered the field, it was in the love of knowledge and love of Islam.

Fatimah bint al Munajja al-Tannukiyyah (d. 714 AH), taught Bukhari and other books in the Dimashq Mosques and Madrasas. Later, she left for Egypt on the request of its political and civil leaders to deliver Hadith lectures in the neighborhoods of princesses, governors, mosques and madrasas. In fact she died while she was teaching Bukhari. She was then 89 years old. And the copy of Bukhari that she would use while delivering lessons, has been preserved in a Turkish library to this day.

Women’s affection for Bukhari is of such order that the most trustworthy of its manuscript in preservation is that of a woman. It is called the Uniniyyah manuscript. It was printed by the order of Sultan Abdul Hameed II which was printed in Cairo and hence is known as the Sultaniyyah manuscript. It originally belonged to Karimah Marwaziyyah (d. 464). She had taught Abu Bakr Khateeb al-Baghdadi, Hafiz Sam`aani and others. This manuscript is now commonly available, as edited by Zuhayr Nasir.


Similarly, women’s chain of Bukhari is considered the highest in its value. The number of narrators in the chains of Bukhari, as taught in religious schools such as Deoband, Nadwah and others, is twenty or above; while the number is fourteen in my personal copy through `A’isha Maqdasiyyah’ version. Imam Bukhari died in 256 AH, thus between me of 1438 AH and Imam Bukhari there are mere fourteen generations, meaning that there are fourteen narrators during a period of nearly 1200 years.

Right from the start the Hadith and Law specialists have narrated ahadith through women narrators. Imam Bukhari’s master, Muslim b. Ibrahim Faraahidi, narrated some 70 ahadith through women narrators of Basrah. Hafiz Sam`aani mentions some 68 women specialists of Hadith. Ibn `Asakir wrote biographies of 80 women narrators in his “Mu`jam al-Shuyukh.” He himself narrated through several of them in his literary works. Similarly among the teachers of Imam Mizzi, Ibn Taymiyyah, Barzaali, Dhahabi, `Iraqi, Ibn Hajr, Sakhaawi, Suyuti, women occur quite commonly. Ibn Najjar, who has added notes to the Tarikh of Khateeb al-Bagdadi, has narrated through 400 men and 400 women.

There are several Hadith collections that have survived because of women. For example, Tabarani’s Mu`jam al-Kabir which is in 25 volumes has survived through the narration of Fatimah al-Jawzadaniyyah (d. 524 AH).

In Law too women have occupied high positions. Imam Abu Haneefah and Imam Malik have accepted the rulings of women while dealing with several legal issues.

After the women-Companions, there were many who were prominent in the legal field such as: `Amr bint `Abdul Rahman, Hafsa bint Seereen, Mu`azah al-`Adawiyyah, Umm al-Darda’, Fatimah bint al-Munzir b. Zubayr and others. One of the important Law works of the Hanafi Law is Tuhfatu al-Fuqaha‘ by `Alaauddin Samarqandi. His daughter Naheekah was an expert in it, in fact, she knew it by heart. One of the students of Samarqandi is `Allamah Kaasani. When Kaasani had done his course under the tutelage of Samarqandi, he sought his daughter Fatima’s hand in marriage. The mentor told Kaasani that his daughter was an expert in Law, ‘whereas you are yet to reach a high enough position.’ Then he suggested to his student that he should write a commentary on his book (Tuhfatu al-Fuqaha‘); if he liked it he would give his daughter to him in marriage. Kaasani produced a commentary called ‘Badaa`e al-Sanaa`e’ which received his approval and the marriage followed.

At a later time, the Governor of Halab asked Kaasani to teach in the college he had set up. Kaasani moved to Halab. His students like Ibn al-`Adeem and others have noted, “During Kaasani’s classes, if we disputed over some point, and if he was not able to answer to our satisfaction, he would say, ‘Wait for me I’ll be back in a while.’ When he returned, he would have the answer.” Later, we discovered that Kaasani used to consult his wife Fatimah to give them the answer.

Kasani’s “Badaa`e al-Sanaa`e” is of such caliber that according to Mawlana Rasheed Ahmad Gangohi, it is one of the finest books on the Hanafi system of Law.

For further information about Dr. Akram Nadwi and his work, please visit: http://www.cambridgeislamiccollege.org/about/college-dean/

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