by Professor Khalid Abou El Fadl
WHEN Imam Zuhri, a famous scholar of Sunna (Prophet Muhammad's traditions), 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.
Amra was not an anomaly in Islamic history, for it abounds with famous women narrators of jurisprudence, starting with Aisha, the Prophet's wife. A conservative count would reveal at least 2,500 extraordinary women jurists, narrators of Hadith, and poets throughout history.
That was then, but now we encounter hardly a single Islamic woman jurist. Women are all but absent from Islamic public and intellectual life. There are remarkable women activists in many Mosques and there are a few impressive writers, such as Zaynab al-Ghazali. But these are exceptions. One will rarely find a woman lecturing to a mixed audience about a gender-neutral topic such as "riba" (usury), for example. And while it is common to encounter professional Muslim women in every walk of life, it is very rare to find them on the boards of Islamic centers, or holding leadership positions.
There are several reasons for this alarming phenomenon. A particularly disturbing one is the derogatory attitude that seems to have infected many Muslim men. Very few are willing to be instructed or taught by women. Muslim men, in North America and elsewhere, seem to have developed a woman-phobia that consistently aspires to exclude women from conferences, meetings, gatherings, and even the Mosques.
May God bless Fatimah bint Qais, who tenaciously argued with Hazrat Umar and Hazrat Aisha over a legal point and refused to change her opinion. And there was Umm Yaqab, who on hearing Abdullah ibn Masud explain a legal point, then confidently told him, "I have read the entire Qur'an but have not found your explanation anywhere in it."
The fact is, that Islam neither limits women to the private sphere, nor does it give men supremacy over the public and private life. One notices that the Greek and Roman cultures which preceded Islamic civilization did not produce a single eminent woman philosopher or jurist. Likewise, until the 1700s, Europe failed to produce a single female social, political, or legal jurist. Islam did exactly the opposite in every respect, so much so that Hazart Umar bin al-Khitatab used to entrust Shaffa bint Abdullah as an inspector over the market in Medina. Moreover, Islamic history is replete with examples of female professors who tutored famous male jurists.
Yet the sad legacy of our time is that we have taken women back to the pre-Islamic era by excluding them from public exposure or involvement. A modern scholar, Muhammad al-Ghazali, once described this phenomenon as the "ascendency of Bedouin fiqh (jurisprudence)." What he meant by this term is that in much of contemporary culture ... the world revolves around men and everything is channeled to their service.
The sunna (traditions) of the Prophet reveal that he used to assist his wives in household duties. But most modern scholars have not had the probity to suggest that the practice of men lending a helping hand in the home is to be recommended or even required in certain circumstances. Most men are content to ignore this and selectively emphasize whatever in the sunna serves only their interests. It is well-known that women like Aisha, Umm Salamah, Laila bint Qasim, Asma bint Abu Bakr, Kaula bint Umm Darda, and many others, were trusted with preserving and teaching one-fourth of our religion.
Isn't it time we again trusted women to contribute to our public and intellectual lives? May the Muslim community in North America lead the way in producing the first Muslim woman jurist in more than two centuries. It is certainly long overdue.
Edited slightly from an article first published in the July/Aug 1991 issue of THE MINARET and reprinted in VOICES, vol. 1, no. 2, Dec/Jan 1992, by Professor Khalid Abou El Fadl. He is a law professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, where he specializes in Islamic Law.