When the verses of the Quran were revealed, the Prophet (SAAWS) would first recite them among men and then among women. Islam’s attitude towards the acquisition of education and learning set it apart from those of other cultures ad civilizations. In many cultures, only the priestly class or the literati had the privilege to learn and teach religious knowledge. Similarly, in many cultures women, slaves and people of lowly origin were denied access to education. Islam has an open and refreshingly egalitarian attitude towards learning and education. It flung open the doors of knowledge to men, women, king and slave. The distinguished German orientalist Franz Rosenthal (1914-2003) has rightly remarked that one of the invaluable and lasting gifts that Islam gave to mankind was that it made education equally accessible to all sections of society without any distinction or discrimination.
Islam espoused a remarkable democratisation of education, which was premised on the equality of all human beings regardless of descent, rank, privilege and position. It taught that all humans are innately endowed with the potential to learn skills and manners. A notable achievement of this egalitarian view of education was that a host of men and women from the ranks of slaves as well as those who belonged to the lower rungs of the social and economic strata emerged as torch-bearers of learning and enlightenment. As we shall presently see, the early centuries of the Islamic period witnessed a fairly large number of women who belonged to the underprivileged sections of society as teachers, transmitters of Islamic disciplines, judges, administrators, scribes ad calligraphers.
The Prophet and his Companions adopted two inter-related methods for the preservation and transmission of Islamic learning from generation to generation: memorization and writing. A tabi’i scholar Qatadah bin Dama’ has remarked that Allah has endowed the Muslim community with an extraordinary capability for memorising. This ability is reflected, since the time of the Prophet, in the memorization of the whole text of the Quran at an early age. This is one of the universal features of the Muslim community regardless of the distinctions of space and time and this has continued even to this day. Young Muslim boys and girls, not only in Muslim countries but also in Europe, North and South America, Australia and New Zealand.
In the early centuries of the Islamic era, Muslim men and women paid great attention not only to memorising the text of the Quran but also long passages from Hadith.
Historians and anthropologists have pointed out that what distinguishes civilization or a developed stage of culture from society is the invention of writing. Writing emerged for the first time in Mesopotamia or ancient Iraq (6500-3800 BCE), followed by ancient Egypt (3000-332 BCE), Indus civilization (2500-700 BCE), and ancient China (1700 BCE-1279 CE). Writing had a profound and far-reaching influence on human consciousness, Walter J. Ong has rightly remarked that it led to a remarkable expansion and deepening of man’s consciousness.
In addition to memorisation, the other significant method for the teaching and transmission of Hadith was writing. The Prophet urged his Companions to commit his teachings, messages and orders to writing. Aishah and Hafsah, the Prophet’s wives, knew reading and writing. Abu Hurayrah, who belonged to Yemen, memorised and wrote down a large number of Hadith. The Hadith narrated and transmitted by him have been reckoned to be 5,374. He narrated Hadith from the Prophet as well as from as many as 800 of his Companions and the Followers.
Abu Hurayrah selected about 150 Hadith for his pupil Hammam in Munabbih. The text of this collection, known as Sahifah Hammam ibn Munbbiha, has come down to us and has been edited by Professor Muhammad Hamidullah.
A detailed description of women who contributed to hadith through teaching and narration has been provided in a host of Islamic sources. These include Ibn Sa’ad’s Tabaqat al-Kabir, Ibn Abd al-Barr’s Jami’ Bayan al-Ilm, Ibn Hajar’s Al-Durar al-Kaminah, Ibn al-Athir’s Tarikh al-Kamil, Ibn Khallikan’s Wafayat al-A’yan, Abul Fida Abd al-Hai al-Hanbali’s Shadharat al-Dhahab, Khtib al-Baghdadi’s Kitab al-Kifayah and Tarikh Baghdad, Shams al-Din Muhammad al-Sakhawi’s Al-Dhaw al-Lami’, Abu Abdullah Yaqut bin Abdullah’s Mu’jam al-Udaba, Ahmad al-Mahribi’s Nafh al-Tayyib and Jamal al-Din bin Salim al-Basri’s Kitab al-Imdad. Al-Basri has provided the biographical details of female teachers and narrators of Hadith from the first to the 10th century, including 170 prominent female teachers of the 8th century of Hijrah. Abd al-Aziz bin Umar bin Fahad (d. 871 AH), in his book Mu’jam al-Shuyukh, which was written in 861 AH, has mentioned at lest 130 female scholars from whom he learned Hadith.
Professor Hamidullah has written that one of the copies of Sahifah Hammam Ibn Munabbih mentions a prominent female teacher, Umm al-Fadl Karimah, the daughter of Najm al-Din al-Qushayri al-Zubayri, who used to make needles. A celebrated scholar Abu Ubayd Qasim al-Sallam has mentioned in his book Kitab al-Amwal that he read the book under her tutelage at her home in Baghdad.
Among the Followers (Tabiu’n) the prominent names of women who made a name s teachers and narrators of Hadith include Hafsah Ibn Sirin, Umm al-Darda and Umrah, the daughter of Abd al-Rahman. In the second and third centuries of the Islamic era, the important names of female teachers and narrators of Hadith include Abidah al-Madaniyyah, Abdah, the daughter of Bishr, Umm Umar Thaqafiyyah, Zaynab, Nafisa, the daughter of Hasan bin Ziyad, Khadijah Umm Muhammad, and Abdah, the daughter of Abd al-Rahman.
In the fourth century of the Islamic era, the prominent women among the teachers and narrators of Hadith included Fatimah, the daughter of Abd al-Rahman, Fatimah, the grand-daughter of the celebrated scholar of Hadith Abu Dawud, Amal al-Wahid, who was the daughter of a well-known scholar of Hadith Muhamili, and Umm al-Fath al-Salam, who was the daughter of Qadi Abu Bakr Ahmad.
In the fifth century of the Islamic era, an eminent female teacher and narrator of Hadith was Karimah al-Marzawiyah, who was considered an authority on the Sahih of Imam Bukhari. Those who were authorised by her for narrating the Sahih of Bukhari included Khatib al-Baghdadi and Imam Humaydi (d. 488 AH), who was a well-known scholar of Hadith in Andalusia.
Among the numerous teachers and narrators of the Sahih of Bukhari in the sixth century Hijrah, one comes across the names of Fatimah, the daughter of Muhammad, Shuhdah, the daughter of Ahmad al-Faraj, and Umm al-Khayr Amat al-Khaliq. Fatimah, a prominent teacher and narrator of Hadith, was the daughter of the celebrated Sufi saint Hasan bin Ali Daqqaq and the wife of the well-known Sufi scholar Abul Qasim al-Qushayri.
In the 8th century of the Islamic era, one of the prominent female teachers and narrators of Hadith was Juwayriah, the daughter of Umar. Her discourses on Hadith used to be attended by a large number of students and scholars. Ibn Battuta (d. 779 AH) mentioned that during his stay in Damascus he attended the discourses of many learned women who were known for their expertise in Hadith. Ibn Asakir (d. 571 AH), the celebrated chronicle of the history of Damascus, has mentioned that he learned Hadith from 200 learned scholars and 80 learned women. One of the female teachers and narrators of Hadith that he mentioned was Zaynab, the daughter of Abd al-Rahman.
Jalal al-Din al-Suyuti (d. 911 AH), one of the well-known scholars of Egypt, studied Imam Shafi’i’s Risala under the guidance of Hajar, the daughter of Muhammad.