How does a woman fulfill her relationship with Allah Most High, and at the same time, also serve the community?
There are many extremes in this. For example, some people believe that women should not be educated at all; that they should be kept completely ignorant so that they don’t know anything beyond the basics of their faith. This is completely rejected by our deen. Mawlana Ashraf Ali Thanawi, for example, compiled the famous work Bahishti Zewar and aimed it particularly toward women. The comprehensiveness of the book suggests it is a work that ought to live on the bookshelf of every home and used as a guidance for every aspect of a woman’s (and indeed her family’s) life. Indeed, such is the usefulness of the book that it is not uncommon to find muftis using Bahishti Zewar as a reference point nowadays.
There is the other extreme, too. There are women who discover some Islamic knowledge by way of their own research and suddenly, they believe they are qualified to derive and deliver Islamic rulings. Seeking knowledge is commendable in its own right, as is the desire to follow Islamic rulings. At the same time, one must realise that there is an established and functional system that exists for Muslims to acquire knowledge and rulings. It is when individuals fail to appreciate and engage with this conventional, mainstream system that rogue, isolated and wayward ideas and theories are formulated.
There was a case a few years back where a woman gave the adhan for Friday prayer and another woman led a congregation of men and women. Needless to say, both actions are contrary to the Shar’ia. Of course, in both of these examples the women felt they were doing the right thing. Some would argue these women were bringing Islam into the twenty-first century by introducing gender equality to the mosque. What the women failed to realize is that Islam welcomes individuals looking to revive the faith, but does not require individuals to innovate new practices. After all, Islam has its own code of equality which was established over a thousand years ago independent of any western ideas. Why would Islam suddenly need to be introduced to a modern-day conception of equality?
Here, I would like to mention narrations that show the role of women in education and transmission of knowledge from one generation to another. Undoubtedly, mothers are the first source of information for their children. A look into Islamic history throws up many examples of great scholarly figures like ibn Hajar al-Asqalani, Imam Bukhari and Muslim, and we find that they were brought up in the laps of their mothers. Who knew that young Abu ‘Abdillah Muhammad ibn Isma‘il of Bukhara, later known as Imam Bukhari, would shape the understanding of many Muslim scholars and laymen that came after him? There can be no doubt that the mothers of these monumental scholars made a significant contribution to their success. The famous idiom “Behind every great man is a great woman” could not be more relevant than in the life of Imam Shafi’i, who was brought up by his mother alone, who was a widow. Clearly, many women get closer to Allah Most High than men do because of their devotion and sacrifice for Islam. This is something that our Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) did not overlook; our Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) would frequently consult with his wives.
Umm Salama (may Allah be pleased with her), the Wife of the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) The first example is a very famous incident about Umm Salama (may Allah be pleased with her) during the Treaty of Hudaybiya. The Companions travelled from Madina to Makka with the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) to perform the umra but were prevented from doing so by the non-Muslim Makkans. The stand-off was overcome when an agreement—the Treaty of Hudaibiya—was signed, permitting the Muslims to perform umra the following year. Because the Muslims had come with a desire to perform umra this year, they were very disappointed and disheartened. The Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) asked them to shave their heads and sacrifice their accompanying animals, so they could come out of the state of ihram (pilgrim sanctity). However, due to their disappointment, they appeared reluctant to do so. So, the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) went inside his tent with concern and told Umm Salama, his wife, about what was going on. She told him (Allah bless him and give him peace) to go and sacrifice his animal and shave his own head in front of everyone. The Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) came out from his tent and did exactly what Umm Salama (may Allah be pleased with her) suggested. The advice of Umm Salama (may Allah be pleased with her) proved sound, as the Companions immediately tried to emulate the Prophet’s actions and thus carried out his command.
The Daughter of Abu Bakr, Asma’ (may Allah be pleased with them) Asma’ bint Abi Bakr was a great Companion from the time she was young. She was the older sister of ‘A’isha and the daughter of Abu Bakr (may Allah be pleased with them all). When the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) and Abu Bakr (may Allah be pleased with him) were migrating to Madinah, Abu Bakr (may Allah be pleased with him) took all of his wealth with him. He did not leave much behind for his family. In his home, there were a few family members; his two daughters, his blind father and perhaps one or two other people. Abu Bakr’s father kept complaining and asking about what Abu Bakr had left behind for them. So Asma’ (may Allah be pleased with her) got some pebbles and covered them up with a cloth and then took her grandfather’s hand, letting him feel the pebbles from over the cloth. Thinking they were coins, the grandfather said that Abu Bakr has left a lot for them. From this we can see how Asma’ (may Allah be pleased with her) used her wit to deal with the situation.
The Daughter-In-Law of Umar bin Khattab (may Allah be pleased with him) When ‘Umar ibn al-Khattab (may Allah be pleased with him) was the caliph, he was patrolling the streets at night. He decided to take a break and was resting in front of a house. From inside the house he heard a mother and a daughter talking. The mother instructed the daughter to add water to the milk they had so that they would have more to sell. The daughter reminded her that the caliph had outlawed this practice. Though the mother retorted that the caliph wasn’t around to witness this rather dubious practice, the daughter asserted that Allah Most High was the Ever Present, the Ever Watchful and refused to do it. Like any father, ‘Umar (may Allah be pleased with him) wanted pious spouses for his children. The following day, he ascertained that one of his sons, ‘Asim, was looking to get married. ‘Umar (may Allah be pleased with him) proposed a marriage between ‘Asim and the girl and they got married. ‘Asim and his wife had a daughter who was known as Umm ‘Asim, who later on married ‘Abd al-‘Aziz ibn Marwan, the brother of ‘Abd al-Malik ibn Marwan (one of the powerful caliphs of the Umayyad dynasty). This daughter gave birth to the great caliph ‘Umar ibn ‘Abd al-‘Aziz. ‘Umar ibn ‘Abd al-‘Aziz was the one who, in a period of two and a half years, sorted out the situation of the Muslim ummah for a while and dealt with all the injustices that had taken place. So it can be seen how piety, especially in women, filters down to others because they have such a great influence and impact on their children and grandchildren. Owing to the amount of time a mother and child spend together, a more direct and intimate relationship is established. It could be said that the mother’s characteristics are passed down to her child and therefore there is great responsibility on a mother to be an excellent role model.
The Daughter of Imam Malik
It is said that when Imam Malik, a great Imam of fiqh and hadith, was teaching, there would be pin drop silence despite the very large class size. The respect he had for the prophetic hadiths would also be seen in the people who listened to him; people would sit in awe whilst studying hadith with the Imam. The Imam would listen to his students and whenever a student would make a mistake, there would be a knock on the door near to where Imam Malik would sit to alert them to the mistake. The knock was from his daughter who had memorized her father’s entire hadith collection, the Muwatta’. Sometimes a young man would pass by the gathering and Imam Malik would remark that Allah Most High grants knowledge and tawfiq only to those He wishes. The boy, who was his son, was not interested in studying and when he would pass by, Imam Malik would make this comment. His daughter, on the other hand, was memorizing and learning from a young age. Imam Malik never prohibited her from engaging in the class. After all, she was observing the etiquette of hijab. There has been no prohibition for women studying the religion as long as the rules and regulations of hijab are observed.