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Dr Zeenat Shaukat Ali

“It is the religious duty of every man and woman to seek knowledge”    (Hadith of Prophet Muhammad)

WHEN Imam Zuhri, a famous scholar of Sunnah , indicated to Qasim ibn Muhammd (a scholar of the Qur'an), a desire to seek knowledge, Qasim advised him to join the assembly of a well-known woman jurist of the day, Amara bin Al-Rahman. Imam Zuhri attended her assembly and later described her as "a boundless ocean of knowledge." In fact, Amra instructed a number of famed scholars, such as Abu Bakr Muhammad ibn Hazama, and Yahya ibn Said. 1

It is the endeavor of this paper to demonstrate that in the field of education, as in other constructive endeavors, Islam neither confined nor restricted its space to a particular gender. Nor did it sanction its monopolization or marginalization by any section of society. On the contrary it gave rise to a liberal policy animating all classes to an aspiration for learning. Therefore in early Islam women were educationalists, keen students of the arts and sciences, ran their own Institutions and were contributors in several fields of activity as their male counterparts.

Contrary to popular misconceptions, the Quran ushered in an age heralding a quest for knowledge by providing a fresh impulse to awakening energies in the pursuit of intellectual growth. This was not confined to any one gender. The earlier Arab sense of pride and dignity of the Aiyyam i Jahiliyah resting on the patriarchal insistence on might of the sword was soon replaced by the power of the pen.

In one corner of the Prophet’s mosque was a raised courtyard called Suffah (platform) where both men and women who desired to acquire knowledge, gathered after general lectures were over. Even during the present times mosques house primary schools (maktabs), an important institution of religious education throughout the Islamic countries. Special quarters were attached to the mosques and shrines for the residence of teachers, students and travelers. This provision continues even to this day in Syria, Iran, Afghanistan and several other Muslim countries.

The Contribution of Muslim Women:


It is interesting to learn that female education formed a component of the Prophet’s household. His wives, daughter and extended family were key figures in early Islamic history. Harzat Khadija was the first to learn of the revelation and believe in it and supported the Prophet throughout his life; Hazrat Ayesha besides being politically active, transmitted two thousand religious traditions and tutored many scholars; Umm Salamah advised the Prophet during the Huddaibiyyah crisis; Hazrat Hafsa held with her the complete compilation of the Quran long before its publication; Hazrat Fatima played an active role on discussions relating to succession; Hazrat Asma, daughter of Abku Bakr was known as “zun nataquain” (one with two belts, as she used one to tie a bag carrying food and documents for the Prophet during his migration.

Therefore we find that early Islamic history is filled with women who undertook various forms of political-social-economic-educational activism. The first martyr in Islam was a women, Sumaya Zawgat Yasir. Sumaya was tortured and killed in the early period of Islam because of her belief in Prophet Muhammad and the message he brought.

The most recent study of Muslim female academicians, by Ruth Roded, charts an extraordinary dilemma for the researcher: “If US and European historians feel a need to reconstruct women’s history because women are invisible in the traditional sources, Islamic scholars are faced with a plethora of source material that has only begun to be studied……..In reading the biographies of thousands of Muslim scholars, one is amazed at the evidence that contradicts the views of Muslim women as marginal, secluded or restricted”. Serotypes come under almost intolerable strains when Roded documents the fact that the proportion of female lecturers in many classical Islamic colleges was higher than in modern Western university. 31

Key findings suggest that Muslim women across all regions have made rapid progress in recent decades in a number of statistically measurable aspects of life, notably education and health.  In these areas, Muslim nations have significantly reduced both gender gaps and the formerly wide differences in average attainment between Muslim and non-Muslim societies.  In education, for example, a generation ago women in Middle East and North Africa, MENA, had among the lowest levels of education in the world.  MENA females now have achieved parity with males at some levels of schooling.

Viewed in terms of large-scale statistical indicators, Muslim women are becoming ever more like other women.  This fact undercuts the assumption that “Islam” would inhibit Muslim women’s participation in such worldwide trends.  On average, broad social and economic forces for change override other factors.

However educational opportunities and literacy rates in general are improving. Current statistics underscore the significant improvement and remarkable expansion of educational opportunities at all levels for Arab women in the last two decades. A new born girl in the Arab world today has a much better chance than her mother to attend school and finish college. Arab governments are committed and determined to augment educational opportunities and make them accessible to all eligible women. It is firmly believed that without emancipating women from the bondage of illiteracy no real political, social or economic development can take place. Several studies in the Arab world show that education of women is the most powerful weapon for improving their status as well as the most potent weapon of social change, and will touch each aspect of their life from family to economics. For example, it was discovered that women’s education is the best weapon the population explosion.


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