If you’re a woman and you want to pursue a degree in Islamic studies, DO IT.

There is an urgent need for women scholars and it’s very serious. Something that many Muslim women are struggling with is finding themselves, their status and their worth in the deen of Islam.

The amount of times I was close to leaving Islam because of the ignorance of a few speakers when lecturing about women! This struggle exists because unfortunately there are traditions among some Islamic thinkers that have distorted Islamic teachings pertaining to women… and has been further affected by cultural thought, for example, the literalist and cultural traditions that don’t look at women’s issues holistically.

According to both traditions, the Quran views men as superior over women, that it is haram for a woman to work, women must stay confined in their homes at all times and that wife-beating can even be permissible. These are the products of looking at Islamic texts literally and devoiding it from its historical and cultural context that they were revealed in. From my opinion, this is actually dangerous, as it is said the Qur’an :

“And they (women) have rights (over their husbands as regards living expenses) similar (to those of their husbands) over them (as regards obedience and respect) to what is reasonable, but men have a degree over them. And Allaah is All-Mighty, All-Wise”Surah Al-Baqarah :228

Men’s superiority over women

From a literal point of view, you could understand this verse to mean that men are superior over women and that this belief is legitimate within Islam. But when you look at the Arabic, the context and the tafseer (explanation) you will find it implies something totally different.

The commentators of the Quran in the earlier Islamic period such as Ibn Hajar and Ibn Katheer never understood this to mean absolute superiority over women. Rather the correct meaning implied is that men have a degree of RESPONSIBILITY over the women. That they “are the protectors and maintainers of women”.

Other verses of the Quran have been interpreted literally to justify other archaic practices towards women (i.e. wife beating, women’s confinement within the home) when it is IN FACT contradictory to the Sunnah (Prophetic tradition):

1. The prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) never laid a finger on his wives except with gentleness, and he advised his companions to do likewise. In one hadith he expressed his extreme repulsion from this behavior and said:

“How does anyone of you beat his wife as he beats the stallion camel and then embrace (sleep with) her?” Al-Bukhari, English Translation, vol. 8, Hadith 68, pp. 42-43

2. He never forbade Khadija raḍyAllāhu 'anha (may Allāh be pleased with her) from continuing with her business dealings. A woman even came to him for advice on trade:

A companion named Qaila said to the Prophet: “I am a woman who buys and sells things (in other words, a trader).” Then she asked him several questions about buying and selling.  Ibn Sa’d, Tabaqat, Vol. 8, p.228 [Afzal: p. 69]

Referring to a second woman:

It is reported about Shifa’ Bint Abdullah: “Umar often entrusted her with market responsibilities (ie. as a market inspector)” Al–Isti’ab fi Asma’ al-Ashab by Jalal U. Ansar Umri. [Afzal: p.86]

Referring to a third woman: Ibn Abd al-Barr, Al–Isti’ab fi Asma’ al-Ashab: writes about Samra Bint Nuhaik,

“She commanded good and forbade evil while going around in the markets. She had a whip in her hand with which she punished those who committed any evil or vice (Munkar).” [Afzal: p.77]

3. Also he was the one who supported Aisha raḍyAllāhu 'anha (may Allāh be pleased with her) through her struggle to becoming a teacher, a scholar and a political activist who was very much engaged with her society. Many of us overlook the fact that she was even a narrator of hadith.

So we can now see how some literalist and cultural traditions can produce conclusions that are INCOMPATIBLE with Islam.

The woman’s role

On top of that, this tradition has resulted in limiting the role of women to merely a wife and a mother, nothing more. Although these are VERY important roles (emphasis on very), it’s not right to limit a woman’s purpose in Islam to just those, and not encourage her to exercise her talents and intellect within the limits of what is halal.

The mothers of the believers were not just mothers and wives as they had a very active role in society, but they did so in a way that wouldn’t interfere with their roles as mothers and wives.

It’s all about balance and moderation. It was the combination of the efforts of both Muslim men and women that allowed their Islamic communities to flourish in Arabia, Persia and North Africa.

In the 9th century Fatima Al-Fihri opened up the University of Qarawiyyin in Morocco and was also the founder of the world’s first academic degree-granting institution of higher education.

Women’s participation is needed

Furthermore I know of Islamic Societies in universities that would not have survived if it wasn’t for their women’s participation. And this could not have been achieved if these women were confined to their home. If we women were to do so, then who would be doing dawah to other women and younger Muslim girls? If men were to do it, that would fall under free-mixing. It is a fact that Muslim girls are lacking of good adult influence. And sadly not all Muslim girls can look to their families for that. One Muslim woman who won’t be named even complained that girls are not practicing Islam because they feel it’s not applicable to them. So please, don’t claim that the literalist and cultural view of women in Islam is the correct approach.

Additionally there is a double standard: why is it that when a white revert female is on the forefront of dawah, we praise her, but when a Muslim woman who comes from our Middle Eastern, Asian and Somali backgrounds, we discourage her?

When women are not given their rightful place in Islam, it is half of the Ummah who are being deprived. Like a plane with only one wing, it will fly forward a little bit, but eventually it will return in a circle and land back at square one. This is how I view a society that doesn’t do justice to the other sex. I can think of communities who largely take on the literal and cultural tradition and they aren’t progressing anywhere.

The real practice of Islamic studies requires intense intellectual effort and excellence; memorization, language ability, historical knowledge and understanding, sociology, law, philosophy etc. Scholars are trained to disassociate themselves from their whims and cultural assumptions so they can understand Islam the way it would be understood rather than through the lens of their whims and cultural traditions. Now you can see why scholars are known as the inheritors of knowledge. So to look at the Islamic teaching in a literalist and cultural perspective severely undermines that. But people do it anyway, because it’s easy and doesn’t require as much intellectual effort – as stated by Tariq Ramadan in his book ‘Radical Reform’.

It’s not feminism

Lastly, we are in a crisis; when there are shariah councils in the UK who are turning Muslim women away who are suffering from domestic abuse, it’s no small matter. Islamic law says that a woman who is being abused by her husband has the right to dissolve her marriage and even choose to bring forth consequences. So where is this knowledge today?

Us Muslim women, really, we share the blame for not taking the initiative to study women’s rights, femininity, and what it means to be a woman in the light of Islam. So yes, we need more female scholars side by side with our male scholars. In the early centuries of Islam there were no less than 8000 Muslim women scholars. Such vast numbers truly testify to the huge role that women have played in the preservation and development of Islamic learning since the time of Prophet Muhammad ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him).

So please, any one of you women who want to pursue Islamic studies. Do it. May Allah make it easy for you.

This is not ‘Islamic feminism’, this is simply just Islam.

“Whoever is met by death while he is seeking knowledge to revive Islam, then between him and the Prophets will be only one degree in Paradise.” Muhammed ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) Sunnan Al-Darimi



The Author

Farah El-jarad is a psychology student at University West of England. A Student activist. A realist when it comes to the present, but an optimist when visualizing the future. Immensely passionate about making a change in society. A philosophy she lives by: “Instead of cursing the darkness, why not fix the light.”

10 Responses

  1. Lamya Bint-al Islam July 19, 2013 / 11:22 am

    Assalamu alaikum, what do u think about women pursuing higher degrees in non-islamic education in non-muslim countries? I did masters in economics and dreamt of pursuing phd in a western country but i wasnt conscious of Islam or parda back then, now Alhamdulillah that I am conscious I am in a dilemma. most have told me that its a wordly gain & would take away time from Islamic studies. also that, for a muslim women there is lot of fitnah in a non-muslim country.

  2. furhat iqbal July 19, 2013 / 12:12 pm

    Asalaam Ullaikum. Where can muslim women obtain qualifications in islamic studies in the UK, near Leicester?

  3. Nadia July 19, 2013 / 11:26 pm

    Assalam alaykum. Thank you for writing this piece, it blew my mind to learn more about the extent of female scholarship. You have definitely made me think about pursuing studies in Islam, could you advise what exactly and where in the UK this learning takes place?

    • wellwisher August 22, 2013 / 7:44 pm

      Salaam sisters
      Maybe you could try the Alima course which is in Oldham
      And go on their website http://www.zawiyah.org
      The speciality their is that not only do they help you gain knowledge in Islam but,
      They also help you to become a better person! By focusing on your (character)
      And teach how to implement the Sunnah of our beloved prophet Muhammad S.A.W in our daily lives.

  4. Farah El-jarad July 20, 2013 / 1:58 am

    Salaam alaikum Lamya, Jazakallah khair for your question! May Allah reward you for your assertiveness to seek knowledge ?

    Firstly I wanted to point out that Islamic scholars all agree that pursuing a degree in the so called ‘secular’ studies and sciences is encouraged. Scholars have even given fatawa to attend such institutions. Allah’s command for us to ‘seek knowledge’ isn’t restricted to only Islamic studies. Many times in the Quran it encourages us to go out there and study Allah’s creation and the world around us, and to use out intellect (at least 16 times). There is a NEED for Muslims to pursue in such studies because how else can we uphold our Muslim society? In fact, Tareq Ramadan in his book ‘Radical Reform’ highlights the importance of collaboration between of Islamic scholars and those Muslims who have expertise in non-Islamic/secular sciences. So that a method of implementing the ‘secular’ sciences can be done so in accordance with the Quran & sunnah. Being noted by historians that the Khilafah was the epitome of advancement and modernity, this was achieved by the seeking of knowledge in ALL fields by both men and women.

    There shouldn’t be a rupture between ‘Islamic studies and secular studies because they’re interrelated and we inevitably will be in need of both in our lives. Pursuing in secular studies (even though secular) can even be used as a means to get closer to Allah depending on your intentions. For example; Economics; How could the Khulafah al Rashideen (The Rightly guided Caliphs) have been able to establish a prosperous Khilafah if they didn’t have companions with the expertise in economics? With your expertise in economics you could possibly be part of project to establish an Islamic banking system interest free. That’s just one example, the possibilities you could do within the Islamic framework are endless sister.

    My sister, whether you pursue a career in economics as a worldly gain or not, that is something that is determined by your intentions. This issue isn’t so black and white. A mistake made among many Muslims is this separatist mindset; that the dunya is completely haram and we should retreat from it and engage ourselves in meditating dhikr, salah, and rituals 24/7. And that we shouldn’t engage with anything in the dunya because it will take us away from Allah. This behaviour actually stems from Catholicism from the Monks and hermits whom would retreat in their monasteries thinking that it’s the best way to stay close to Allah. Wrongly thinking that depriving yourself physically of the dunya is favoured by Allah. The correct idea is to be in a state of dhikr whilst engaging in our responsibilities that we have in the dunya, to ensure that we abide closely to the Quran and sunnah.

    Sadly, this notion is mistaken to be ‘trust in Allah’ (Tawakkul). The principle of Tawakkul is that literally ‘work our best, and Allah will do the rest’. Put in your effort and then Allah will dispose of your affairs:

    “Say: Allah is sufficient for us! Most Excellent is He in whom we trust as Disposer of our Affairs!” [S?rah ?l `Imr?n: 173]

    “Allah is sufficient as Disposer of Affairs.” [S?rah al-Nis?’: 81]

    “He is the Disposer of All Affairs” [S?rah al-An`?m: 102]

    “As to what we say, Allah is the Disposer of Affairs.” [S?rah al-Qasas: 28]

    This is further supported by the hadith of a bedouin and his camel:

    One day the Messenger of Allah (saws) noticed a ‘bedouin’ (desert Arab) leaving his camel without tying it and he asked the ‘bedouin': “Why don’t you tie down your camel?” The ‘bedouin’ answered, “I put my trust in Allah.” The Prophet (saws) then said, “Tie your camel first, then put your trust in Allah”
    Related by At-Tirmidhi.

    Secondly:
    Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) said: “If they would only put their trust in Allah as they should, He would provide for them like he provides for the birds who fly out in the morning hungry and return fully satiated.” [Sunan al-Tirmidh? (2344) andSunan Ibn M?jah (4164)]

    Meaning that you go out there, put all your efforts, and Allah will meet you with results. Personally I feel there is a complex among Muslims who preach against the pursuit of aspirations. I feel this stems from fear of the big wide world. Fear from stepping out of comfort zones and ending up disappointed. But that’s just my opinion.

    As for the workplace being a fitnah for women, it’s the same with Muslim men. Does that mean we have to both retreat to our homes out of the fear of our weaknesses instead of building our strengths to overcome such weaknesses? Of course not, this notion isn’t coherent with the Sunnah of the Prophet and his wives (PBUH). The word ‘fitnah’ has really been thrown around shallowly & mindlessly in reference to things within the dunya. Men and women together in the workplace form a part of the fabric of society. Khadija (RA) was an affluent tradeswoman whose trade extended from Makkah all the way to Syria. She continued with her career even though she was in the midst of ‘Jaahil’ Pagan Arabia. If you look in the article it mentions a woman who was entrusted with market responsibilities. Believe it that women had an active role in society back then and the Prophet (PBUH) didn’t hold them back.

    Allahu Alam (God knows best) at the end of the day.

    I hope this answered your question sister. Jazakallah khair

  5. Shamila July 21, 2013 / 8:00 am

    Alhamdulillah! Well written article. At the moment I’m pursuing a Degree in Islamic studies via Islamic Online University. When Allah has granted us opportunity through online education, there is no excuse for any sisters to say, “I did not have an opportunity to study”. The link for Islamic Online University-http://bais.islamiconlineuniversity.com/apply.php

  6. Asha Akhtar August 2, 2013 / 12:23 am

    Alhamdulillah an amazing reply :’) im alsooo aosychology student and am embarking on my own blog by muslim sisters to muslim sjsters suffering! IA to find out mire ablut my work plzz do add me on facebook
    http://www.facebook.com/asha.akhtar1

  7. Sara February 12, 2014 / 8:24 pm

    Masha’Allah very inspiring and insightful article..we need more minds like you in the society. May Allah have mercy on you.

  8. Mrs.Shakila Bhojani April 8, 2015 / 4:16 am

    Assalaam wa alaikum

    Respected Sirs/ Sisters/ brothers/Madam

    I am educated and was a career women till I got married. Now I decided to become islamic teacher. Is there any short term course which will enable me to complete my islamic studies in English.

    Do please let me know

    Khuda Hafiz

    Shakila bhojani

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