Al-Muḥaddithāt in the Islamic History

Khotwa Center is honored to publish a series of studies about the pioneers among female Muslim scholars during the early Islamic centuries known for its ages of scientific progress and cultural welfare. This study reflects the pivotal role of the Muslim woman in different fields, the scientific and practical, which unfortunately witnessed a decline in the next ages. This series is prepared by Dr. Omaima Abou-Bakr, and at the preface, we added a study entitled: Al-Muḥaddithāt in the Islamic History.

Al-Muḥaddithāt in the Islamic History*

Omaima Abou-Bakr**


Did women work during the early Islamic centuries in the field of religious teaching, following the footsteps of the contemporary scholars and jurists? Did they taught students, males and females, and transmitted to them a beneficial knowledge? Working in the field of religious teaching and reading and explaining relevant reference books was not easy or a matter which is out of question, during these modern ages which were marked by a lot of obstacles in the paths of seeking knowledge and providing qualified teachers. During the ages before the birth of universities as official institutions offering higher education, it was necessary to travel far and wide to obtain knowledge directly from scientific sources. Participating in the public social field faced the same situation as well. In fact, such matters increase the chances of the “visibility” of women in any society and encourage her acceptance and also the acceptance of changes in the concept of roles division among men and women in both private and public fields… This shows the progress of the human thought and his societies which the medieval culture, as a whole, did not witness.

For example, researchers, interested in the topic of women’s education and participation in the public scientific life during the history of the Western Europe during that time, are facing many challenges in obtaining authentic information about the level of literacy or other achievements in the cultural and scientific fields. Yet, they concluded that literacy learning was limited to women of the upper classes and the bourgeoisie, who used to read romantic novels and other contemporary romantic writings, but they were not good at writing, so they used to assign a writer or a private secretary1. According to the writings of some specialists in education such as the Philip de Novare, a famous lawyer who lived in France, researchers deduced that his affirmation that woman learned only yarn and knitting, because literacy learning is dangerous for her and this was for her own interest, reflects the public opinion in Europe during the 13th century. It condemned woman’s edification in general and deprived most of women from receiving higher education and intellectual pedagogy2. There was only one available kind (of education) for Aristocratic women offered by nunneries and houses of leaders and princes. There were also Alphabet learning and religious instructions (CATECHISMS) offered to the poor girls and boys through elementary schools in cities and villages, and vocational education offered to the classes of craftsmen3. However, educational pedagogy offered to woman tended to isolate her from the advanced sciences and limited her only in the field of feminine household chores or learning arts and the etiquettes of “COURTLY LOVE” to win a suitable match.

In the contemporary Islamic societies, there were two factors which led to women’s failure in obtaining equal opportunities in education, especially in official institutions and bodies after the birth of “schools”. First, Arabs elevated woman to a high status and felt pity for her encountering any danger in the path of knowledge seeking; from life harshness and austerity faced by the student during his journey. Second, their great interest in morality made them detest intermingling between men and women, so they desired to limit or forbid it as much as possible4 . This was applied even if it applied in a way violating a basic Islamic right given to women in acquiring knowledge from its institutions and streams or working in the field.

During these severe historical circumstances, the emergence of a group of female scholars in the early Muslim societies, who were qualified specialists to deliver lessons and lectures through the learning circles inside Mosques and houses, is surprising. This article aims to present the field in which female Muslims participated this specific educational activity and observe the nature and characteristics of this educational process within its historical context; to understand its significance from a feminine perspective. I intend to depend, in my comments around the character of the Muḥaddithah (a female Ḥadith scholar), on two texts which are among the most famous dictionaries of both the 14th and 15th centuries: Ad-Durar Al-Kāminah by Ibn Ḥajar al-‘Asqalānī (d. 1448) and Ad-Daw’ aL-Lami’ by Muhammad Shams ad-Dīn as-Sakhāwī (1928- 1497 AD). Both books include brief biographies of the most famous contemporary scholars, country leaders and jurists (Fiqh Scholars).

A Definition of Al-Muḥaddithāt

Muḥaddithah/ Muḥaddith (a Ḥadith scholar, female or male) is a specialist in studying the science of Prophetic Ḥadith including both the Science of Riwayah (study of Ḥadith text or narration) and Dirayah (study of chains and conditions of Ḥadiths or rationality), and the science of Ar-Rijāl (Biographical evaluation), and the narration methods of Ḥadiths, knowledge of the chains of narration and others5. Taḥdeeth refers to teaching Fiqh and the sciences of Ḥadith. It is known that women among female Companions and successors in the early Muslim generation, among which are the mothers of the believers, played a pivotal role in preserving and narrating the prophetic Ḥadiths. In fact, the Islamic references recorded a number of chains of narration (Asāneed) including women such as Aṭ- Ṭabaqat Al-Kubra by Ibn Sa’d through which he mentioned more than 700 women who narrated reports from the Prophet or his Companions, and, then, senior religious leaders and Muslim religious leaders narrated the Ḥadith under their authorities. In addition, Ibn Ḥajar, in his book AlIṣābah fī Tamyīz AṣṢahābah transmitted the biographies of 1543 female narrator of Ḥadith6. We intend to focus on the development of this activity, through the next generations, from the level of preservation and narration to the level of advanced studies of the books of Ḥadiths and its classifications and commentaries. In fact, those women specialized in the field of Ḥadith belonged to the classes of contemporary scholars who were interested in different religious sciences. They also played a historical role, equal to men, in the process of knowledge transmission and documentation through the classes of memorization and teaching provided to the next generations.

Ḥadith Narration and Education Development

The Islamic education, in its very beginning, was oral and unofficial, depending on the direct relationship between the educator/ teacher and the student. The education process was initiated through learning circles inside Mosques or even in streets and public venues inside central cities; where the listeners gathered around the educator and memorized his lectures to narrate and follow them after that. When a knowledge seeker feels that he has learnt from the Sheikh all of his knowledge, he used to turn to another one for further seeking and so on. The educator only can teach what he directly heard or memorized from a senior educator. Thus, acquiring knowledge through face-to-face sessions became important and gained a high value from Muslim historians when evaluating scholars7. That’s how the idea of education through the Prophetic Ḥadiths narration, transmission and commentary began in the first Hijri century inside Mosques, as we mentioned, till reaching educational scientific circles inside houses starting from the second century and the following one. The nature of this intimate relationship between the teacher and students attending at his house is the most ultimate feature of the early Islamic education, according to many researchers8. Furthermore, the development of learning circles from being at Mosque to be at houses was accompanied by another development which is the beginning of the process of dictation of these sciences and knowledges; recording and transmitting for teaching purposes, and composing commentaries and explanations (on them) and recording these commentaries and collecting them in separate classifications (Muṣannafāt). Despite of the broad scope of subjects and sciences, Ḥadith and its narration has gained “a special care from Muslims… the teacher would not dare narrate, but he dared teach any other subject.”9. Regarding to school system as an official educational institution, its beginning was in the late tenth Georgian century in the city of Neyssabur when the Shiites established facilities for teaching and spreading the Shiite school of thought which they called first “Dar-ul- ‘Ilm” (The House of Knowledge). Then, they were the first to coin the name “Madrasah” (school). For example, the school of Al-Bayhaqiah and Sai’diah, and Abu Said Al-Asṭorlabi and Aby Isḥaq Al-Aṣfarani were established. During the era of the Seljuks, their famous minister Niẓām al-Mulk developed these facilities till he established An-Neẓamiyeh, a famous school in Baghdad (1064 AD), for combating the Shiite school of thought and supporting the Sunnis. Since then, schools across other Muslim countries developed to be a comprehensive official educational institution allocating salaries for teachers and graduating future employees in the field of management and judiciary. In another words, they became public facilities under the supervision of the state; including its curricula and teachers. Similar to the project of Niẓām al-Mulk in Iran and southern Baghdad, there were the project of Atabeg in Mosul and Damascus and also that of Salah ud-Deen in Egypt10.

Although the spread of such schools, mosques and scholars’ houses continued to be the preferred destinations for receiving higher education and advanced sciences. This was because education inside houses was a kind of free education which was not restricted by a certain school of thought or political view and was not subject to the state supervision and control over its curricula. This is because the “student or his guardian was entitled to select the sciences that suits him and the teacher as well…who was known for his knowledge and morality.”11  This means, according to Dr. Zainab Muhammad Fareed, that women’s participation in teaching and their contribution in this challenging field prove their sophistication, self-confidence and high scientific status and qualification12. Leading learning circles was not a piece of cake “due to the huge number of questions raised by the students…If the teacher succeeded in finding  persuasive answers for those raised questions, he could continue in his work in the field of teaching. If he failed, he would return to the position of a student; acquiring more knowledge from sheikhs learning circles.”13 Thus, Muslim Muḥaddithāt were subjected also to those high standards and the accurate selection of this field. Thus, most of those women were raised up in a special scientific environment which was beneficial. For example, if the father, husband, or one of the relatives is a famous scholar or jurist, they have a direct reason to pursue the advanced path of knowledge in the field of higher religious and cultural studies, or through a tutor for small girls. This private homeschooling system graduated an elite group of sophisticated women in the Muslim society. For example, Muḥaddithāt are paragons for the Islamic higher education and its specialization; as Ḥadith was the wider source for legislation concerning the acts of worship and the civil and criminal issues. Accordingly, this means that they were narrators of history, stories, proverbs, moral principles and philosophy and they were well acquainted with the legislation and most religious rulings14.

We see that the activity scope of “Taḥdeeth”, was enlarged to include the teaching of jurisprudential principles and rules deduced from the Ḥadith. More than one researcher, interested in this matter, emphasized that this means that Muslim women served as the vital bond establishing the jurisprudential and scientific legacy15. In addition, we notice that women succeeded in this field and gained a great popularity especially for the shortness of their “Isnād” (chain of narration), which is one of the important elements in the science of Ḥadith. This means that the Muḥaddithah is the only qualified responsible in transmitting and reading (teach) a collection of certain Ḥadiths or parts or books, depending on the method of “direct hearing” from a senior Sheikh/Sheikhah specialized in this collection or concerned book. Through this, the Muḥaddithah, most of the time, won the privilege of having her own “Sheikhdom” under the auspice of sheikhs and scholars from whom she received knowledge and can directly transmit sciences and Ḥadiths on their authority. This means that she was considered as the main reference accepted and approved of absolute and authentic reference books accepted by the scientific circles; this represents for the Muḥaddithah, a document for her achievements and intellectual expertise.

Teaching Approach

There are four educational steps or approaches followed by learning circles. First, the educator, male or female, recites for his/her students, either from the original textbook or from his/her own memory, beside commentaries and explanations of the Muḥaddithah; an approach called “Hearing”. Second, the student recites (for correction) the text to his teacher, either from a textbook or from his memory, in the presence of other students of the same circle, an approach called “Recitation”. Third, the educator may allow the student to record his book or the original textbook. Fourth, the Muḥaddith gives Ijāzah (permission) to the student which is similar to the accredited academic certificate proving that he has successfully completed these subjects or books under his guidance and education. In addition, it acts as a license or a permission to teach these sciences on his authority in order to guarantee authentic and accurate text transmission16.

Among the basic legal conditions which determines the authenticity of this Ijāzah is that the giver should have full knowledge and is known as an authenticated specialist. The Ijāzah should be given for reciting a specific book, or several books or all the teacher’s writings and recordings, which should be mentioned in the certificate text. In fact, it was called also “Ijāzah by hearing” which consists of “the listener” (the author of the book himself or a specialist such as a Muḥaddith/ Muḥaddithah working in the field of teaching) and the “reciter” who is the certified student; it is given in the presence of other listeners beside the writer or the dictated17. Statements we find in the biographies of the scholars of Ḥadith, as mentioned which recorded this process, such as ” recited to her by so and so…”, referring to the recitation from memory what he has learned and memorized to be evaluated, or learning these texts under her supervision. It is worth mentioning to say that Ibn Ḥajar, the author of Ad-Durar al-kāminah, received education from 53 Muḥaddithah, while As-Sakhāwī, the author of Ad-Daw’ al-lami’, received scholarly certificates from 68 Muḥaddithah among those whom he mentionned in the biographies.

Accordingly, memory was the milestone of this educational process which firstly depended on the mechanism of hearing, repetition and memorization to store and correctly transmit information. This first phase was necessary and significant. Then, after the development of the curriculum, the difference between Riwayah (narration depending on memory only) and Dirayah (understanding and analyzing Hadith) and regarding it as the base of the rulings and Fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence). According to George al Makdisi, Dirayah is the source of the science of Usul Al-Fiqh (Fundamentals of Islamic Jurisprudence) which was called at its beginning the “science of Dirayah“. This difference appeared especially in the biographies of the Muḥadditheen/ Muḥaddithāt, in which a person is described according to his knowledge of Hadith as only based on  Riwayah or on  Riwayah beside  Dirayah18. On the other hand, Jonathan Berkey, reflecting on the importance of memory as an effective educational tool in the field of the science of Ḥadith, especially for the Muḥaddithāt, assumed that women depended only on this tool in teaching; abandoning other tools or methods applicable in studying Fiqh and Shariah such as Monazarah (engaging in debates) or organizing argumentative discussions to refute views and rulings and settle differences. This hindered the appearance of women’s analytical and intellectual potentials19, as women were not empowered to reach official posts in the official educational foundations such as schools. Thus, he concluded that their participation in teaching through homeschooling or mosqueschooling did not include any intellectual talks or discussions which need mind skills, “Dirayah” and accurate “Riwayah“. We will understand, from examples mentioned herein, that this is a fallacy and the conclusion stating that Muḥaddithāt were not able to manage scientific discussions during “Taḥdeeth” circles (Ḥadith learning circles) is absolutely wrong. Yet, biographies refer to their participation in this field and, probably, in a more impartial and natural atmosphere because it was not affected by any political and sectarian purposes or pressures, which, as we saw, controlled the process of schools establishment and jurists hiring and curricula development. Thus, I want to mention here Sheikha Shuhdah bt. Ahmad b. Al-Faraj, known as Fakhr un-Nisaa’ (The pride of womanhood) (D. 1178 AD), who taught a large group of students inside the mosque of Baghdad. According to Ibn Khallikan, “Shuhdah was among the religious scholars. She had a beautiful handwriting.  She heard the recitation of a huge amount of people (giving them Ijāzah by hearing), as she was known for her high degree of hearing; encouraging the attendance of ordinary people and prominent figures….and she gained a huge fame. 20“. This means that some of the Muḥaddithāt worked inside Mosques and delivered lectures in front of large crowd compared to the houses attendees. It is irrational to reach such level of fame and to be sought-after by “ordinary people and prominent figures” without having an intellectual skill and analytical potentials in this field.

The Character of a qualified Muḥaddithah

According to the available historical sources, the most important way to know this category of Muslim women is through biographical dictionaries and biographies of prominent figures which had practical and technical activities within the legal and intellectual framework of the Muslim society (Al-Ḥadari). A classical biographer aims mainly to provide religious scholars with the necessary information in order to maintain the required uprightness and honesty in transmitting legal and legacy rulings. To achieve this intended goal, the biographers should add some information about the biographee; characteristics and quality of his academic contributions, his/ her journeys for seeking knowledge, and his/her private life and his/her character as well 21. When reading both references: Ad-Durar Al-Kāminah by Ibn Ḥajar al-‘Asqalānī and the twelfth part of Ad-Daw’ Al-Lami’ li Ahl Al-Qarn At-Tāse’ by As-Sakhāwī, recording the biographies of prominent figures, religious scholars, jurists and Ḥadith scholars during the 14th and 15th century, we will focus on the description of Muḥaddithāt and other female religious scholars recorded in the biography. Although it was briefly discussed in Ibn Ḥajar’s, the repetition of some of them helps us in concluding some features relating to the characters, contribution and images of Muḥaddithāt as transmitted and recorded by both historians. For example, As-Sakhāwī, in Ad-Daw’ Al-Lami’, follows a critical approach in character analysis in order to fairly replace them in their suitable position; following the footsteps of Ibn Ḥajar (his teacher). His volume dedicated to women, similar to other volumes dedicated to men, includes a large section recording middle and high social classes in cities such as Cairo, Makkah, and Al-Madinah and from Levant territories to Yemen.”22In general, we will find that most of the mentioned characteristics are among the etiquettes of education profession and concepts about educator’s status and his relationship with his students, as practiced in the Muslim society during this time.

The first thing we notice in the repeated comments of Ibn Ḥajar and As-Sakhāwī about Muḥaddithāt, who praised their knowledge and way of teaching, is the description stating that so and so was “insightful and rational” or was ” sagacious ” and of “sound mind” and she “professionally taught Fiqh” and so on. Through Ad-Daw’ Al-Lami’, we read about many of them: There are Khadijah bt. Al-Ashraf Sha’ban b. Ḥusayn (d. 1422 AD) who “was rational and pacemaker”23, and Khadijah bt. Al-Wajeeh Abdul-Raḥman b. Abdullah b. Fahd, from Makkah (1385- 1455) who transmitted the Ḥadith to many pious, and she was “of high knowledge, expertise and gentle manners. (p: 28), and also Zainab bt. An-Nour Ali b. Ash-Shehab Ahmad b. Khold (d. 1486 AD) who was “rational, of mastermind, courteous, patient and content” (p: 43). In addition, Zainab, the daughter of a judge called Al-Kamal Aby Al-Faḍl Muḥammad b. Abdel Aziz (1393-1420) who was “a rational leader who recited Quran and used fine narrations and poems in her discussions …….and she managed her mother’s endowments” (p:46). Moreover, Sārah bt. ‘Umar b. Abdul-Aziz b. ‘Ali b. Jamā’h b. Ṣakhr (1308-1451) “narrated many prophetic Hadith, and Imāms (great experts) studied with her and (As-Sakhāwī) studied with her what is beyond description. She was pious… with an insight and politeness… After her death, people of Egypt fell one degree in Hadith narration” (p: 52). Sārah bt. Ash-Sharaf Muḥammad b. ‘Ali b. Yusuf from Damascus (d. 1457) also was “among the female leaders of her time who was known for her rationality, righteousness, genuineness and deep-rootedness” (p:53). Ṣafiyyah bt. Muḥammad b. Ali b. ‘Umar Al-Kaylānī from Makkah (d. 1483) was “an insightful pacemaker who was well known for her wisdom and beauty” (p: 71). ‘Aishah bt. ‘Ali b. Muḥammad b. Ibraheem b. Nasrullah b. Aḥmad, who was Cairene and Ḥanbali (1436- 1359), was a skillful calligrapher and a well-known Muḥaddithah who “Imāms studied with her” and “students narrates many Hadiths on her authority”. She also a philanthropic and righteous woman who had beautiful handwriting and a good level of understanding…she was with good insight and was well acquainted with the Prophetic biography, to the extent that she could remember all the events of expedition depending mainly on Al-Ghīlānīyāt (A Collection of Ḥadith called Al-Fawā’id) and other Prophetic Ḥadiths. She memorized many of the poems…She had an iron memory, as she said that she memorized 5 poetic lines at one time….She also was very intelligent, as she used to thoroughly read books of Fiqh. “She visited Palestine and narrated the Prophetic Ḥadiths there as well, and many prominent figures narrated Ḥadiths on her authority. (p: 78). Both Fatemah bt. Al-Burhān Ibraheem b. ‘Ali b. Aby Al-Barkāt b. Dhaherah from Makkah (1466-1491) and Fatemah bt. Ibraheem b. ‘Umar b. Muḥammad Az-Zare’ (d. 1484) were known for their rationality, righteousness and courteousness (p: 86).

Accordingly, a successful knowledgeable Muḥaddithah was not only known for her good memorization and accurate narration of legacy, but also for her wide knowledge and teaching through her contribution in sciences transmission. We met many Muḥaddithāt who gained the title of “Sheikhah”, and according to Tritton, this title was used to refer only to a Ḥanbali Muḥaddithah or religious scholar24. We also notice that one of them was called “the leader of the ministries” or “the leader of the jurists” or “the leader of the judges” and so on. According to Ad-Durar Al-Kāminah, Fatemah bt. A’iāsh bany Aby Al-Fatḥ Al-Baghdadiyah (d. 1314) who was well acquainted with Fiqh, was praised by Ibn Taymiyyah, as he got amazed by her keenness and intelligence. In fact, Women of Damascus received knowledge from her due to her devotion in admonition and her content. Then, she moved to Cairo and had a great influence and gained a worldwide popularity. She received knowledge from Al-Maqādisah such as sheikh Ibn ‘Umar and others.”25 It seems that many of those women travelled across the Islamic territories due to their scholarly popularity such as Zainab bt. Ahmad b. ‘Umar b. Shukr Al-Maqdisiyah (d. 1322), who narrated the Prophetic Ḥadith in Damascus, Egypt and Jerusalem (p: 118), and the daughter of ‘Umar b. Al-Munajja Ad-Demashqyiah (1226- 1319), the leader of ministers who was summoned to Egypt to narrate the Prophetic Hadith due to her high popularity (p: 129). Um Hāne’, the daughter of the great scholar Noor Ad-Deen Aby Al-Ḥasan Ali b. Abdel Malek, the Egyptian Shafi’ (136-1466) was knowledgeable as mentioned in detail by As-Sakhāwī in Ad-Daw’ Al-Lami’. She was “eloquent, had a beautiful handwriting and a good understanding and knowledge of poetry composition. During her childhood, she memorized Quran and learnt by heart Mukhtaṣar Aby Shuja’ (a summary by Aby Shuja’ in Fiqh), Mulḥat ul- I’rāb (A poetic text in Arabic grammatical analysis) and others. We heard her eloquent and perfect recitation of Surat Aṣ-Ṣaff (The Ranks) from memory (p: 157). Ibn Ḥajar said, in Ad-Durar, about Nuḍār bt. Muḥammad b. Yusuf, the daughter of Sheikh Abū Ḥayyān, (1302- 1329) that “She studied Ḥadith and Naḥw (Arabic Grammar) and composed poetry and was good at I’rāb (Arabic grammatical analysis). Her father used to say: ‘I wish for her brother Ḥayyān to be like her’. She also was an eloquent writer, and she “beautifully preceded many men in worshipping and Fiqh” (p: 395). All these evidences refer to the close connection, in the field of teaching, between the science of Ḥadith and Fiqh or Usul Al-Fiqh.

In conclusion, Muḥaddithāt did not assist students in text memorization only, but they also taught them how to comprehensively understand religious sciences and thoroughly study their principles. These are basic conditions in the process of teaching and learning mentioned by Burhan Ad-Deen Az-Zarnojī, who lived during the late 12th Georgian century and the beginning of the 13th Georgian century and left his masterpiece Ta’līm al-Muta’allim-Ṭarīq at-Ta’-allum (Instruction of the Student: The Method of Learning) (1203 AD). It is a famous document and one of the most important writings transmitted to us in this field. It sets the principles of education and teaching in the Islamic culture and the etiquettes of the cultural and scholarly pedagogy as applied by Muslim society at that time. Through this writing, we can also know the image of the ideal teacher (male or female), according to their views, and his status and the nature of the relationship between him and his students. Therefore, we can deduce details about the character of those Muḥaddithāt who had high popularity and who attracted many knowledge seekers. Az- Zarnojī affirms that it is a must and a necessity for the knowledge seeker to be careful in choosing his teacher by being sure that he/she is “the most knowledgeable, religious and eloquent”26. This means that all these characters are fulfilled by the Muḥaddithāt who were chosen by students and Imāms“. In fact, “the most knowledgeable” here refers to the one who has a general comprehensive and deep understanding of significant issues in particular. (p: 13). Whereas “the eloquent” refers to the one with a most refine speech in explanation and commentary, while “the religious” is the most pious. This reflects the importance of the good morals of a teacher. For example, this shows As-Sakhāwī’s interest in attributing to Muḥaddithāt, through his biographies, the qualities of piety, virtue, benevolence, righteousness and faith. For example, he said: “She was a philanthropic and a pious that devoted her life for worshipping, fasting, performing Ṭawaf and ‘Umrah.” (p: 40) or “She was a religious generous leader and a philanthropic and whose supplication is fulfilled” (p: 11), “She was a philanthropic, chaste and she helped the poor and widows…” (p: 28), or “She was an author who recited Quran and studied reference books and devoted her life to worshipping and philanthropic acts…” (p: 39). In addition, Khadijah bt. ‘Ali b. ‘Umar b. Aby Al-Ḥasan Al-Anṣarī (1386- 1468) transmitted her knowledge to many pious and sheikhs”. During her childhood, she studied some Quran and other sciences and learnt calligraphy. She also used to read and preview the text (performing Muṭāla’ah) and was good at distinguishing between different calligraphies (she was an expert in distinguishing between different types of calligraphy) …and she” reached a high level in goodness, religion and performing prayers and night prayer as well” (p: 29). There are also many other examples. Thus, the attributes of righteousness and morals are basic elements which encouraged students to trust their educators.

Az- Zarnojī’s distinguished between values of memorization and understanding refering to the expected goals from knowledge and its role in upbringing and understanding and not only memorization.

Memorizing two words is better than just listening to two sets of books, and understanding two words is better than just memorizing two sets of books“(p: 39).

We notice from the previous examples an affirmation stating that intellect, management and understanding are the characteristics of successful Muḥaddithāt. They also are connected, according to the biographies of As-Sakhāwī and Ibn Ḥajar, to the high popularity and fame and the way of building a scholarly popularity for a certain Muḥaddithah especially if she “distinguished herself” by certain books, parts or narrations; by being the only available authentic source of these books or sciences exactly as she received from her senior sheikhs. For example, ‘Aishah bt. Muḥammad b. Abdul Hady b. Qudamah b. Meqdam (1323 – 1413) from Damascus exceeded her sheikhs in the level of hearing and Ijāzah in all horizons. She also reported many narrations and transmitted her knowledge to Imāms especially the travelers…She was the principal teacher of Saḥiḥ Al-Bukhari (Al-Bukhari‘s collection of Ḥadith) (As-Sakhāwī, p: 81). In addition, Hajar bt. Muḥammad b. Ibraheem b. ‘Ali b. Aby Aṭ-Ṭa’ah, had the highest Isnād among the Egyptians. She also earned money from teaching (p: 131). Therefore, Muḥaddithāt established independent and distinguished popularity in Isnād, transmission and education. This was to the extent that someone like Alef, the daughter of the judge ‘Alam Ad-Deen Ṣaleh b. ‘Umar Al-Balqeni, organized different scientific meetings inside her house; “She assigned reciters of Ḥadith and Tafsir (Quranic Exegesis) inside her house, and among the attendees are Ibrahim Al-Ḥamwi,  Al-Fakhr Ademi.., Al-Belbesi, Ibn Khalil Al-Ḥusaini and others…” (p: 8).”She also established and managed a school where she assigned full-time reciters. She also supported the poor and widows”, till she was distinguished among her relatives and colleagues.

Moreover, some women became known as scientific or cultural sources by their composition of books or poems and correspondences. Among them are ‘Aishah, the Cairene Ḥanbali scholar, mentioned before for whom the sheikh Az-Zaini Riḍwan complied a book including her topics. As- Sakhāwī himself also compiled a “lexicon in one volume” of the Cairene Maryam bt. Aḥmad b. Shams ud- Deen (1319- 1402) (p: 124). Then, Ibn Ḥajar said about Nuḍār bt. Sheikh Aby Ḥayyān, mentioned before, that she is an expert in adith and Naḥw, as “she complied for herself a juz’ (part of the coran) and composed poems”. On the other hand, Ḥabibat-ulllah bt. Aṣ-Ṣafi Abdul-Raḥman b. Abdullah (1414- 1489) was followed by many among which are her relatives and others…”(p: 19). This means that she represented a special educational approach. Unfortunately, these written legacies, mentioned in the biographies of some Muḥaddithāt, were not transmitted to us and we still, as far as I know, have no idea about them or even their titles. It is also worth noting to say that many of the Muḥaddithāt were excellent calligraphers of beautiful handwriting, such as Khadijah bt. Aby Al-Ḥasan Al-Anṣarī, previously mentioned, about whom As-Sakhāwī said that she was an expert in distinguishing between different types of calligraphs” (p: 29). In addition, some of them had a contact with contemporary male scholars of Ḥadith and other scholars through correspondences; sharing poems, narrations, information, views and asking and answering questions regarding religious and earthly issues. As-Sakhāwī talked about one of the Muḥaddithāt with whom he had a direct contact, that she constantly sent him correspondences (p: 13) while another one used to send him letters asking him for advice and supplication (p: 33).

Furthermore, the Cairene Fatimah, the daughter of the judge Kamal Ad-Deen Maḥmoud, (Born 1451), was a distinguished Muḥaddithah and an expert. She had a unique fellowship with As-Sakhāwī. They sent exchanged many letters. She sent long poems asking As-Sakhāwī about issues in the rulings and adith and received his response. She also used to send him her views and comments on some certain events. In her biography, As-Sakhāwī dedicated to her about six pages in his book (107-112) through which he added many poetic lines from her personal letters addressing him (however, he sometimes preferred to mention the first two lines only of some of her poems which we know nothing about its source). As-Sakhāwī also praised her excellence in poetry composition and her intelligence and charisma which distinguished her …” She sent him a condolence letter on the death of his two brothers including a poem of 31 lines, with 2 lines praising the profession of Taḥdeeth and the special status of the Muḥaddith:

علوم حديث في الوجود بحكمة

نعم هي أهل للجناب الذي له

فروى حديثًا صادقًا عن نبوة

ومن خصه الله العظيم بفضله

English Explanation

Indeed, she deserves such prominent position, as sciences of Ḥadith are found for a reason. And whomsoever Allah Almighty has chosen for His special gift, He will narrate a true Prophetic Ḥadith.

It is obvious that she had a strong character and self-confidence. One day, she sent a letter to As-Sakhāwī stating her opinion about the rumors she heard about her or him:

لو خاض بعض الكلاب فيه

ما ضر بحر الفرات يومًا

English Explanation

The Euphrates was never affected by some dogs passing by.

In addition, after the death of her daughter, As-Sakhāwī sent her an elegy entitled: “Irtiaḥ Al-Akbād” (The Relief of Hearts). She responded with another poem commenting his letter and expressing her gratitude towards his words. However, she had a different opinion about the issue of grief over misfortunes, and the ability of human nature to endure inflictions, and of the concept of patience. She also asked him about his opinion on some poetic lines written by another poet talking about forbearance against adversity. As-Sakhāwī, then, sent to her his explanation and commentary and his personal evaluation and critical analysis of this poem from a religious perspective depending on the legacy of Ḥadith especially when analyzing the text she sent. After that, Fatimah sent him another poem of 19 lines asking him about his verdict in an issue concerning ‘Umrah (visiting mecca and medina out of the time of pilgrimage), among which are:

ومن حوى في فيه در نظيم

أسألك يا شيخ شيوخ النهى

أمل صارت به في حميم

فيمن أتاها عائق عاقها عن

مقام زمزم والحطيم

قيامها إذ ذاك یاسیدي بين

فيها كل أمر حكيم

في ليلة أخبرنا أنها يفرق

هل يساوي مقعدًا مستقیم

وهل لها أجر الذي قامها

English Explanation

I would like to ask you, O rational sheikh who utters words like pearls, about (the woman) who could not reach her desirable goal (because of her menstruation period). Shall she pray, O sheikh there, between Zamzam and Al-Ḥaṭeem, in a night when every precise matter is made distinct (Laylat ul-Qadr), as revealed. Would she then, receive a reward equal to the one who prayed?

In addition, she praised him saying that he “had a good memory in transmitting old Hadiths” and he only narrated “the sound not the weak”. In another words, we deduce from her words a great respect attributed to the one who specialized in the sciences of Ḥadith, in particular, and the great responsibility people think he should carry. As-Sakhāwī sent her a detailed verdict supported by texts of Ḥadiths. She also used to compose poetic riddles to send them to As-Sakhāwī or other sheikhs to find a solution. For example, Ash-Shehab Aḥmad b. Ṣaḥṣāḥ Al-Fayomny Al-Khānky used to send her the solutions of those riddles in verse also. As-Sakhāwī mentioned that she “exchanged” opinions with Ash-Shehab Al-Ḥarfoush Al-Hānky and Ali b. Nāser and others. We will explain the meaning and significance of “Mutaraḥah” later.

Furthermore, among the important attributes of the Muḥaddithah, according to Ibn Ḥajar and As-Sakhāwī, are her strong character, charisma, greatness and solemnness as noticed from the repeated references that so and so was a “leader”, “manager ” , “pacemaker”, and “honored” …etc. There are a lot of women who had these specific attributes, so there is no room here to mention them all. Yet, we intend to know the significance of these traits referring to good management of the learning circle or meeting, consciousness and the feelings of respect and glorification from students. In this regard, George Makdisi stated that the concept of “scholarship” refers to the achievement of the scholar, male or female, in distinguishing himself/herself in a special field and reaching the post of scholarship. This usually could be achieved if the arena has no other competitor, or if the Muḥaddith/ Muḥaddithah defeats other scholars in a debate27. On the other hand, Az-Zarnojī affirms also that these standard traits are necessary to glorify people of knowledge:

“Knowledge seeker should receive science and wisdom with glorification and holiness even if he listened to the same issue or the same word thousand times”. (p:  25)

 Furthermore, to respect the educator:

“Student should not walk in front of him, sit in his place, talk without his permission, chat without his permission and raise questions in case of boredom. He should also respect time and avoid knocking the door but wait till he comes out”(p: 22).

Muḥaddithāt normally gained such level of respect and honour and were treated in the same way.

“Knowledge seeker should not sit near the teacher in time of memorization with no need, but he should leave a space of bow length between him and the teacher showing glorification.” (p: 26).

In fact, this spatial distance was for both male and female scholars. For example, the Muḥaddithah Nashwan, the daughter of Al-Gamal Abdullah b. Al ‘Alaa, (D. 1475) reached, in Cairo, a prominent position and ” gained the respect of other leaders due to her religion, management, rationality, unbeatable persistence, generosity and other good manners…For instance, Al-Ezz Al-Kenany, the Hanbali’s Judge, did not stand for any woman entering his house except her. In addition, her students praised her affection and patience towards them.” (As-Sakhāwī, p: 130).

Because features of “companionship”, in the biographies of Muḥaddithāt, were not the backbone of a close student-teacher pedagogical relationship, Jonathan Berkey believed that this proves the different nature of the educational process for women, which could be a reason of her deficiency28. Although the Islamic moral and social system does not allow such lasting “companionship” between women and men, it did not, at the same time, hinder them from sharing their knowledge and did not cause a lack in feminine “scholarship”. Thus, the expected teacher-student “strong relationship”, according to Berkey, represents a dilemma in the educational field because of the unbalance caused by woman, in the intellectual field, when preceding men. Yet, the teacher-student relationship lasts at house and Mosques circles. Through their biographies, Ibn Ḥajar and As-Sakhāwī felt no shame in referring to the “scholarship” of a Muḥaddithah and receiving knowledge from her. In fact, Berkey did not mention that, in some cases, there was a “companionship”, while As-Sakhāwī mentioned several times that he “accompanied” so and so during her pilgrimage or ‘Umrah or during her stay at a Ribāṭ or zāwiyah (special residences and learning venues) in Makkah.

According to Ibn Ḥajar and As-Sakhāwī, the traits of “Charisma” and “good management” are connected to Rubaṭ management (special residences for widows, orphans or Sufis) and allocating a specific amount from their own money for mosques, schools and zawaiyah construction…etc. The cases are numerous, I only refer to some examples ‘Aishah, the daughter of Ali b. Abdullah Ar-Rifa’y (As-Sakhāwī, p: 77), who established a Ribāṭ down Makkah, which was named after her, and dedicated a house for endowment with a view on the Mosque. At the same time, she held weekly circles of Tasbeeḥ (saying Subḥan Allah; glorifying Him) and recitation of Awrad (designed portions). In addition, there were also Shirin, Um An-Naser Faraj b. Barqouq (p: 70) who renewed a Ribāṭ called Al-Khowzi in Makkah and restored the building, and Fatimah b. Al- Mal Yusuf b. Sunqur (p: 113) who helped the widows and others by allocating a Zāwiyah for them as residences and she gained the title of Shiekhah and became famous of this title. There was Fa’edah, who also “gained the title of Shiekhah because of her management of Ribāṭ Adh-Dhahiryiah down Makkah” (p: 114), beside many others who participated in the arena of social services.

A qualified Muḥaddithah should, during her lessons, stay calm and patient with the students till they memorize, understand and fully comprehend what she transmitted to them, as this process needs repetition in explanation and hearing and a wise deal with (students’) mistakes. Thus, some qualified Muḥaddithāt gained, in this field, an expertise and fame. For example, one who was praised by her students for her affection and patience towards them. (As-Sakhāwī, p: 130). There was other one praised for her “wisdom, politeness, and showed affection towards her students and patience during hearing” (p: 25). We also read about many others who were “the most sought-after” by many students due to their great popularity. According to Ibn Ḥajar, Zainab bt. Ahmad b. Abdul Raḥeem Al-Maqdesyiah (1248- 1339) is the eminent Muḥaddithah who was distinguished by her Ijāzahs…She also narrated a lot of Prophetic Hadiths and was the most sought-after by many students…she was known for her politeness and persistence, to the extent that one day she allowed students to recite most of the daytime… she was content, chaste and of a good manner… She never got married…and with her death, people fell one degree in Ḥadith” (p: 177).

Finally, we will talk about Muṭaraah (exchanging questions and verse lines), Muẓakarah (a kind of studying: to engage in a discussion) and Munaẓarah (debate). They are popular practices in the scientific field mentioned by Az-Zarnojī in his book as basic elements for the knowledge seeker during the lesson. First, Muṭaraah means that the students exchange dilemmas and questions in a form of a dialogue by raising and answering questions. Second, Muẓakarah is a discussion and refutation depending on arguments supported by scientific evidences and proofs to support or refute a specific explanation. Third, Munaẓarah also is a form of an argument or discussion between two parties to evaluate different opinions and support one of them. In Ta’līm al-Muta’allim, Az-Zarnojī said: “Munaẓarah and Muẓakarah is a kind of consultation which helps in deducing the dependable. This can be achieved through reflection and patience during research and also by being impartial and not through loud voice and anger. If one of the parties intends to defeat the opponent, it is impermissible. It is only permissible if he only intends to support the truth” (p: 37). In addition, he praised the approach of Muṭaraah saying: “ Muṭaraah for one- hour is better than a month of repetition” (p: 38). As previously mentioned, Zainab, the daughter of Al-Kamal Aby Al-Faḍl, used narrations and poems in her discussions…. The Cairene Fatimah bt. Kamal Ad-Deen Maḥmoud also “exchanged” opinions and engaged in a discussion with sheikhs.

Thus, the scholarly activity of Muḥaddithāt was characterized by all the educational features and methods applicable at that time, whether through official educational institutes or private circles at homes or Mosques. It is true that women did not reach educational or judicial posts inside the “school” for example, and we attribute that, as we have seen, to the factors of the political and sectarian powers prevailing and controlling various social aspects. Yet, it does not mean that we could not regard the private education which Muslim women practiced more freely inside the house as another style other than official education; a style with its special value, significance and atmosphere. What is important is to explore this neglected history and also record the history of judges and jurists of “schools” to enrich our knowledge and highlight this topic.

Translated by: Rehab Jamal Bakri***


*  This research is published (in Arabic) in:

مجلة هاجر ع. 5، 6. (1998).

** A professor in the Department of English Language and Literature at Cairo University and a co-founder in the Women and Memory Forum (WMF)

1 Eileen Power, Medieval Women (Cambridge University Press, 1975), p. 85 – 87.

2 Philippe Verdier in Rosemarie Morewedge, ed., The Role of Women in the Middle Ages (Albany: State University Press, 1975), p. 133.

See also:

Rowena Archer in P. J. P. Goldberg, ed., Women is a Worthy: Women in English Society, 1200 – 1500 (United Kingdom: Alan Sutton, 1992), pp. 151 – 52.

3  Power p. 82.

4 أحمد شلبي، تاريخ التربية الإسلامية، بيروت: دار الكشاف، 1954، ص 321.

5 القلقشندي، صبح الأعشى، جـ 5 ص 464، مأخوذ عن عبدالغني عبد العاطي، التعليم في مصر زمن الأيوبيين والمماليك (القاهرة: دار المعارف، 1984) ص 320

6 زينب محمد فريد، تعليم المرأة العربية في التراث والمجتمعات المعاصرة (القاهرة، ۱۹۸۰) ص ۹.

7 A. S. Tritton, Materials on Muslim Education in the Middle Ages (London: Luzac, 1957), p. 31.

8  Bayard Doged. Muslim Education in Medieval Times (Washington: The Middle East Institute, 1962), p. 10.

9 أحمد شلبي، ص 247.

10 عبد العاطي، ص ۳۰۰.

See also:

سعاد ماهر، مساجد مصر وأولياؤها الصالحون، (القاهرة: المجلس الأعلى للشئون الإسلامية، ۱۹۷۱)

It includes a comprehensive survey of different Islamic buildings in Egypt, starting from Mosques, tombs, zāwaiyah and khanqahs to schools and educational facilities.

11 عبد العاطي، ص ۲۰۷.

12 زينب محمد فريد، ص ۱۱.

13 أحمد شلبي، ص 245.

14 زينب فرید، ص 14

15 Jonathan P. Berkey, “Women and Islamic Education in the Mamluk Period, in “Women in Middle Eastern History “, ed., Nikki Keddie (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1991), p. 151

16  see Trition p. 4-44, for these educational documents.

17 George Makdisi, The Rise of Colleges: Institutions of Learning in Islam and the West (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1981), p. 141.

18  Makdisi, p. 144.

19  Berkey, p. 145.

20 ابن خلکان، وفیات الأعيان، جـ 5، ص 56،

Mentioned in:

 زينب محمد فريد، تعليم المرأة العربية، ص۱۰.

21  Huda Lutfi, “Al-Sakhawi’s Kitab Al- Nisa as a Source for the Social and Economic History of Muslim Women During the 15th century A.D.; “The Muslim World “, LXXI, No. 2 (1981), p. 106.

The article of Dr. Huda Lutfi showing an insightful description and presentation on Mu’jam As-Sakhāwī (Dictionary of As-Sakhāwī) discussed here. (Translated into Arabic by Dr. Sumayah Ramadan)

22 Huda Lutfi, p. 108

23 الجزء ۱۲ من الضوء اللامع لأهل القرن التاسع، (القاهرة: مكتبة القدسي، 1934)، ص ۲۷

  1. 24. Tritton, p.42.

25 الجزء 3 من الدرر الكامنة في أعيان المائة الثامنة، (بیروت: دار الجيل، ۱۹۷۷)، ص ۱۷.

26 برهان الدين الزرنوجي، تعليم المُتعلِّم، طريق التَعلُّم، تحقيق عبد اللطيف محمد العبد (القاهرة: دار النهضة العربية، ۱۹۷۷)، ص۱۷.

27 Makdisi, p. 131.

28 Berkey, p. 153.

*** Egyptian Researcher and Translator.

عن رحاب جمال بكري

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لن يتم نشر عنوان بريدك الإلكتروني. الحقول الإلزامية مشار إليها بـ *

هذا الموقع يستخدم Akismet للحدّ من التعليقات المزعجة والغير مرغوبة. تعرّف على كيفية معالجة بيانات تعليقك.