Knowledge & Wisdom

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Women Education in Islam

Knowledge is one of the important pillars upon which the edifice of Islam is raised. The very fact that the first revelation upon the Holy Prophet (pbuh) contained the commandment about ‘reading’ speaks volumes of the emphasis Islam lays on education. All interpreters of the Holy Qur’an have consensus on this that the first five verses of sura al-Alaq form the beginning of the sending of revelation:

اقْرَأْ بِاسْمِ رَبِّكَ الَّذِي خَلَقَ O خَلَقَ الْإِنسَانَ مِنْ عَلَقٍO اقْرَأْ وَرَبُّكَ الْأَكْرَمُO الَّذِي عَلَّمَ بِالْقَلَمِO عَلَّمَ الْإِنسَانَ مَا لَمْ يَعْلَمْO

“(O Beloved!) Read (commencing) with the Name of Allah, Who has created (everything). He created man from a hanging mass (clinging) like a leech (in the mother’s womb). Read and your Lord is Most Generous, Who taught man (reading and writing) by the pen, Who (besides that) taught man (all that) which he did not know.” (al-‘Alaq, 96: 1-5)

The first commandment contained in these verses related to ‘reading’ as a part of process of acquisition of knowledge. In addition to the description of Allah Almighty being the Creator and Sustainer, there the mention was also made of two branches of knowledge ie sociology and creations. While indicating knowledge of biology and morality in the verse number two and three, it was also explained that Islamic concept of knowledge is very vast and when Islam talks of acquisition of knowledge, it embraces all branches of knowledge, both religious and secular, in its fold, which are productive for the mankind. Traditional religious sciences are not exclusively meant here. Many verses of the Holy Qur’an invite man to ponder and meditate over the creation of universe; heavens and earth. This meditation and reflection led to the laying down of the foundation of modern science. History bears witness to the fact that the modern science upon which humanity takes pride today, was not only founded by the Muslims but they were also the ones who determined its rules and regulations and undertook early discoveries and inventions. (Since this is not the main subject of this article here, therefore, those interested in knowing more about it should consult Shaykh-ul-Islam Dr Muhammad Tahir-ul-Qadri’s two-volume book Muqaddima Sirat-ur-Rasool.)

Following the rise of Islamic civilization for one thousand year, one of the basic reasons underlying the total decline of its civilization is that those basic and clear concepts upon which there was no ambiguity in history were not only obscured but also got polluted. One of these is related to women’s acquisition of knowledge. There is a particular mindset in the contemporary age that opposes women’s learning and education tooth and nail and if it does not oppose it in an outright way, it is in favour of putting such restrictions as make it almost next to impossible for female students to get knowledge.

No disagreement is found on acquisition of knowledge being binding and obligatory. The importance and excellence of knowledge has been highlighted both directly and indirectly at about five hundred places in the Holy Qur’an. Describing the duties of the Prophethood of the Holy Prophet (pbuh), Allah Almighty says:

كَمَا أَرْسَلْنَا فِيكُمْ رَسُولاً مِّنكُمْ يَتْلُو عَلَيْكُمْ آيَاتِنَا وَيُزَكِّيكُمْ وَيُعَلِّمُكُمُ الْكِتَابَ وَالْحِكْمَةَ وَيُعَلِّمُكُم مَّا لَمْ تَكُونُواْ تَعْلَمُونَ O

“Likewise, We have sent to you (Our) Messenger from among yourselves who recites to you Our Revelations and purifies and sanctifies (your hearts and ill-commanding selves) and teaches you the Book and inculcates in you logic and wisdom and enlightens you (on the mysteries of spiritual gnosis and divine truth) which you did not know.” (al-Baqara, 2: 151)

هُوَ الَّذِي بَعَثَ فِي الْأُمِّيِّينَ رَسُولًا مِّنْهُمْ يَتْلُواْ عَلَيْهِمْ آيَاتِهِ وَيُزَكِّيهِمْ وَيُعَلِّمُهُمُ الْكِتَابَ وَالْحِكْمَةَ وَإِن كَانُوا مِن قَبْلُ لَفِي ضَلَالٍ مُّبِينٍ O

“He is the One Who sent a (Glorious) Messenger (pbuh) among the illiterate people from among themselves who recites to them His Revelations and cleanses and purifies them (outwardly and inwardly) and teaches them the Book and Wisdom. Indeed they were in open error before (his most welcome arrival).” (al-Jumu‘a, 62: 2)

The basic principle of Islamic Sharia is that whenever a commandment is revealed, the masculine form of word is used, but female gender is also included in this commandment. If this principle is rejected then basic pillars of Islam such as prayer, fasting, pilgrimage and alms-due will become null and void for women. So this is a proved fact that though God Almighty and the Holy Prophet (pbuh) used the masculine form of sentence to describe most of the commandments, but women are also bound to act and follow those rules and regulations.

The study of these verses clearly shows that the prophetic responsibilities of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) as his Prophethood included recital of the verses, purgation of self, education of the Book and wisdom and communication of knowledge. Four duties out of five directly talk of knowledge whereas the fifth one, and second in the sequence ie purgation of self, refers to a particular kind of knowledge, which is technically defined as mysticism or sufism. Now if the doors of acquiring knowledge are shut on women or unjustified restrictions are imposed upon their acquisition of knowledge, which religion will they act upon or what kind of contact will they have with the Prophet’s religion because the religion the Holy Prophet (pbuh) brought with him is characterized by knowledge in its entirety.

A number of Prophetic traditions also talk directly about knowledge being obligatory and binding in character. The Holy Prophet (pbuh) said: “Acquisition of knowledge is biding on all Muslims (both men and women without any discrimination)”. (Sunan Ibn Maja)

The Holy Prophet (pbuh) also said at another place: “Acquire knowledge even if you may have to go to China for it. Verily acquisition of knowledge is binding on every Muslim”. (Ibn ‘Abd al-Barr)

The Holy Prophet (pbuh) said at another place: “Allah Almighty makes the path to paradise easier for him who walks on it for getting knowledge.” (Sahih Muslim)

Therefore when it becomes clear now that the Holy Qur’an has made acquisition of knowledge obligatory for women in the same way as in case of men, the study of the life of the Holy Prophet (pbuh) also shows that he himself made special arrangements for the education and training of women.

Abu Sa‘id Khudri reports that women said to the Holy Prophet (pbuh): ‘men have gone ahead of us (in terms of acquisition of knowledge). Therefore, appoint a special day for our benefit as well.’ The Holy Prophet (pbuh) fixed one day for them. He (pbuh) would meet them on that day, advise them and educate them about commandments of Allah Almighty. (Sahih Bukhari)

Sayyida ‘A’isha Siddiqa, mother of the faithful, was a hadith-narrator, scholar, intellectual and jurist of great standing. She is believed to have reported 2,210 traditions. Abu Hurayra, ‘Abdullah ibn ‘Amr and Anas ibn Malik were the only ones from amongst male hadith narrators who had narrated more traditions than she did. This shows that women could not only teach women but also men after fulfilling certain preconditions.

‘A’isha bint Talha reports: I stayed with Sayyida ‘A’isha. People from every city would come to me including the old ones (who would put forward questions) because they knew that I am her servant. And the students who were young would treat me like their sister and would present gifts (to Sayyida ‘A’isha through me). Many would also write me letters (so that I could reply them back after soliciting answers from Sayyida ‘A’isha. I would submit: O aunt! Mr. so and so has written a letter and there is his present as well. Sayyida ‘A’isha would say in reply to this: O daughter! Answer his query and give him present in exchange as well. If you have nothing to give, let me know, I will give. So she would return (the present in exchange and I would send it back along with the letter).” (Bukhari, al-Adab al-Mufrad)

Another misunderstanding is found that the girls’ and women’s getting of education from men is forbidden. It is better if there is arrangement of female teacher teaching the female students but in case of any problem or non-availability of female teachers, the act of men teaching female students under condition of veil is not forbidden by the Islamic law or Sharia. Since the Holy Prophet (pbuh) himself made arrangements for education and training of women, therefore, a mention of one day having been specified for women in the Prophet’s Mosque is found. (Sahih Bukhari)

Invoking the commandments of veil, certain people justify their opposition to the female education. Their contention is that since there are men around when women step out of home for education, therefore, it is impossible to observe veil. First of all, this excuse is ridiculous to say the least. If girls or women cannot go out of home for the purpose of education, it is not rightful for them to do the same for any other chore or purpose. In the eyes of such people, the act of women leaving their homes is strictly prohibited. It is another matter that there is no commandment either in Islamic law or history which favours and authenticates this approach. The verse dealing with veil is an authentication of the fact itself that the command of Islamic veil is applicable when one steps out of home. This does not apply in case women stay at their homes. Let us study the relevant verse of veil:

وَقُل لِّلْمُؤْمِنَاتِ يَغْضُضْنَ مِنْ أَبْصَارِهِنَّ وَيَحْفَظْنَ فُرُوجَهُنَّ وَلَا يُبْدِينَ زِينَتَهُنَّ إِلَّا مَا ظَهَرَ مِنْهَا

“And direct the believing women that they (too) must keep their eyes lowered and guard their chastity, and must not show off their adornments and beautification except that (part of it) which becomes visible itself.” (an-Nur, 24: 31)

This verse prohibits the demonstration of beauty. The second thing being said here is that they should cover themselves when they step out of home so that the believing women may be distinguishable from women of other disposition. Addressing the women of the Prophet’s family by way of general education, Allah Almighty said at another place:

يَا أَيُّهَا النَّبِيُّ قُل لِّأَزْوَاجِكَ وَبَنَاتِكَ وَنِسَاءِ الْمُؤْمِنِينَ يُدْنِينَ عَلَيْهِنَّ مِن جَلَابِيبِهِنَّ ذَلِكَ أَدْنَى أَن يُعْرَفْنَ فَلَا يُؤْذَيْنَ وَكَانَ اللَّهُ غَفُورًا َّحِيمًا O

“O Prophet! Say to your wives, your daughters and the women of believers that (while going out) they should draw their veils as coverings over them. It is more likely that this way they may be recognized (as pious, free women) and may not be hurt (considered by mistake as roving slave girls). And Allah is Most Forgiving, Ever-Merciful.” (al-Ahzab, 33: 59)

Therefore the commandments concerning veil are themselves great justification for women stepping out of their homes. Secondly if the women’s act of stepping out of homes was prohibited, why did the revered wives of the Holy Prophet (pbuh) participate in the battles? Study the following traditions and you would come to know the range of functions women performed during the period of Prophethood.

Anas ibn Malik said: when people got separated from the Holy Prophet (pbuh), I saw ‘A’yesha bint Abi Bakr and Umm Sulaim were completely covered in attire. They would bring water-bags upon their back, offer it to the thirsty Muslims and then return. They would bring water-bags again and made the thirsty Muslims drink it.

(Sahih Bukhari)

Umm ‘Atiya says: I participated in seven battles with the Holy Prophet (pbuh). I would pursue the Ghazis in their tracks, cook food for them and do dressing for the injured and make arrangements for treatment of the diseased. (Sahih Muslim)

This practice continued in the period of the rightly-guided Caliphs after the period of Prophethood. For example women used to be part of parliament (majlis shura) during the period of ‘Umar Farooq. (Musannaf ‘Abd ar-Razzaq) During the rule of ‘Uthman, women were designated as ambassadors to other countries. (Tarikh Tabari)

In the similar manner, the history of Islam is replete with the mention of such women who got distinguished positions in such fields as hadith sciences, the science of interpretation, jurisprudence, medical science, poetry and calligraphy. (Shaykh-ul-Islam Dr Muhammad Tahir-ul-Qadri, Women Rights in Islam)

Therefore, the rationale of putting restrictions on women’s stepping out of their homes is not Islamic in its nature. It could well be a local custom but has nothing to do with Islam.

Let us look at this objection from another angle. Suppose if society is such as makes the fulfillment of conditions of veiling difficult and Islamic veiling is not possible, then a comparative study of two commandments will be undertaken. The commandment concerning veil has come at two places in the Holy Qur’an and the commandment about acquisition of knowledge has come at five hundred places in the Holy Book.

God forbid if conditions are such that women are to make a choice between complete Islamic veiling and acquisition of knowledge, definitely, the choice would pertain to such option about which there are more commandments than others.

Therefore banning the women education under the guise of veil is against Islam and the teachings of the Holy Qur’an and Sunna do not allow it at all. Islam did not differentiate between men and women with regard to obligatory aspect of knowledge. At the end, I want to draw the attention of the scholars and intellectuals to an important problem that acquisition of knowledge is an obligation as established by the Holy Qur’an and the Sunna. All schools of thought also agree to the fact that an outright rejection of an obligation is infidelity. Therefore if anyone considers the women education as prohibited irrespective of whatever justification he may present, he is committing an outright rejection of an obligation. Such type of baseless religious edits, which end up disfiguring the real face of Islam, putting up concocted picture and causing the ridicule of Islamic teachings, should be discouraged. All religious scholars should get their heads together and formulate joint course of action so that such elements, who are bent on defaming Islam for their vested interests, could be reined in.