Women In Islamic Society: Participation In The Pursuit Of Knowledge
There are many Hadiths that show that the wives of the Prophet (peace be upon him) and his lady companions eagerly sought knowledge, showing the same determination Muslim men showed. These Hadiths span the entire period from the very early days of the Islamic message up to the end of the Prophet’s blessed life.
Muslim women continued to pursue knowledge afterward until their position in society started to decline due to different factors. We will quote here several of these Hadiths and comment on one or two of them in order to give a full picture. The first Hadith is a long one, reported by lady Ayesha, explaining the Prophet’s reaction when he received his first revelation, meeting the angel Gabriel for the first time, and the reassurance he needed. The report is very long, but we will quote only the part showing how Lady Khadeejah, the Prophet’s first wife, sought to provide him with such reassurance:
“Then Khadeejah took him to Waraqah ibn Nawfal, her paternal cousin who was a Christian convert and a scholar with good knowledge of Arabic, Hebrew, and the Bible. He had lost his eyesight, as he had grown very old. Khadeejah said to Waraqah: ‘Cousin, would you like to hear what your nephew has to say?’ (Waraqah was not, in fact, the Prophet’s uncle. Khadeejah’s reference to Muhammad as his nephew was in accordance with the standards of politeness prevailing in Arabia at the time.) Waraqah said: ‘Well, nephew, what have you seen?’ The Prophet related to him what he saw. When he had finished, Waraqah said: ‘It is the same revelation as was sent down to Moses. I wish I was a young man so that I might be alive when your people turn you away from this city.’ The Prophet exclaimed: ‘Would they turn me away?” Waraqah answered: ‘Yes! No man has ever preached a message like yours and was not met with enmity. If I live till that day, I will certainly give you all my support.'” (Related by Al-Bukhari and Muslim.)
Ibn Jurayj was one of the early scholars of Hadith, belonging to the second generation after that of the Prophet’s companions. He reports a Hadith he learned from Ata’ on the authority of Jabir ibn Abdullah, a companion of the Prophet. As reported by Ibn Jurayj, the Hadith includes clarifications he sought from Ata’ and the latter’s answers. The Hadith mentions that on one Eid occasion when the Prophet finished his sermon, he realized that women might have not heard his speech after the prayer. “… Therefore, the Prophet went to the women present and spoke to them, reminding them of their Islamic duties, as he leaned on Bilal’s arm. Bilal held up his robe so that women could put in it whatever they wanted to give as sadaqah or charity. I said to Ata’: ‘Was this Zakah Al-Fitr?’ He said: ‘No. It was just a charity they might wish to donate to on that occasion. Women gave away their special rings.’ I said: ‘Do you think that it is a duty of the ruler to thus remind women?’ He said: ‘It is certainly a duty required of Muslim rulers. Why are they not doing it nowadays?'” (Related by Al-Bukhari and Muslim.)
Ibn Hajar, a scholar who wrote the best-known commentary on Al-Bukhari’s anthology of authentic Hadiths, refers to the fact that Al-Bukhari enters this Hadith under the heading, “A ruler’s admonition of women on Eid day.” He adds: “Thus Al-Bukhari is drawing attention to the fact that what has been mentioned about providing one’s family with education is not limited to the home and family. It is indeed recommended for the ruler or whoever deputizes for him to do so…” Iyadh (an early scholar) claims that the Prophet’s admonition of women was during his speech, and that it was in the early days of Islam, and that it was a privilege given to the Prophet only. However, Al-Nawawi (a famous scholar of Hadith and fiqh) refutes Iyadh’s claims, citing this report which clearly states “when he finished, the Prophet went to the women…” He further adds that special privileges cannot be claimed merely on the basis of probability. There must be a clear indication that something is specially granted to the Prophet and to no one else.
As for Iyadh’s claim that this was in the early days of Islam, we say that Ibn Abbas was present on this particular occasion. Ibn Abbas only emigrated to Madinah after Makkah had fallen to Islam in the eighth year of the Prophet’s arrival there, i.e. two years before he passed away. Thus, it cannot be in the early days. It was toward the end of Islamic revelations.
Another example of women seeking to learn the rulings of Islam on whatever question may pertain to their situations is provided by Zaynab, Abdullah ibn Masoud’s wife. He was poor while she was rich. She supported her husband as well as some orphans who were related to her. “I said to Abdullah: ‘Ask the Prophet if my support of you and the orphans I am bringing up pays off my zakah duty.’ He said to me: ‘You ask God’s messenger.’ I went to the Prophet and found at his door a woman from the Ansar coming to ask the same question. Bilal passed by us, and we requested him to ask the Prophet on our behalf if my zakah is deemed to be paid by my support of my husband and orphans. We also said to him not to mention us by name. Bilal went in and asked the Prophet our question. The Prophet asked him: ‘Who are they?’ He said: ‘Zaynab.’ The Prophet asked: ‘Which Zaynab?’ He said: ‘Abdullah’s wife.’ He said: ‘Yes, it is enough. She earns double reward: one for being kind to relatives and one for paying her zakah.'” (Related by Al-Bukhari and Muslim.)
Needless to say, it was through such questions about actual life situations that we have learned much of what Islam requires, approves, or prohibits. When people went to the Prophet with their questions, he provided them with guidance that applies to all those who are in similar circumstances. Women went to the Prophet with all sorts of questions, even those that are most private. Ayesha reports: “Fatimah bint Abi Hubaysh came to the Prophet and said: ‘Messenger of God! I bleed continuously and my discharge does not cease. Should I stop praying?’ The Prophet said: ‘No. This bleeding is due to a particular vein; it is not menses. When your period starts, stop praying until it is over. When it is over, take a bath and pray. Then you need to have a fresh ablution for every prayer.'” (Related by Al-Bukhari and Muslim.)