The historical depth in the back ground of Muslim women

Meaning this work is a mere sharing of information that he has come across while conducting research as opposed to an attempt at opening an arena for women in the social world


Muhammad Akram Nadwi is a scholar who is well-versed in the fields of hadith and fiqh. He began working on the biographies of Muslim women who are the narrators and memorizers of hadith a decade ago; he believed that this would be extensive enough to create an entire volume. Up until now he has compiled 8,000 names; their biographies take up 40 volumes. Of course, it was going to be difficult to find a publisher for such a vast project and he has succeeded in only having the preface published in English. "Al-Muhaddithat: The Women Scholars in Islam" (1) is the preface of this grand project.

The sheer number of women in such a work, which does not highlight the women at the forefront of Islamic history, but only those who were important in hadith and fiqh, is an eye-opener. The surprise that many felt after reading the introductory section of the book has been expressed by readers in both the US and Turkey. (2) At the present time Muslim women are caught in a dilemma between modernity and Islam; however within Islam there exists a strong support system that will help them in modern world. This support system not only helps them to make a place for themselves in society, but also forms a basis when faced by secular, feminist and Orientalist accusations of an adverse relationship between Islam and women.

Nadwi, in the introduction of this book, feels the need to express that he is not an expert in the field of studying the work of women (1). Rather, this work is merely an attempt to share the information that he has come across while conducting research, not an attempt to open an arena for women in the social world. Notwithstanding, this work should not be examined in any light but the question of the place of women in Islamic history. Although this work does not set out to answer the accusation that "women do not exist in the history of Islam,"  it provides a sound response. Why are Muslims faced with such accusations and why must they answer such allegations?

Were there women who were important in Islamic history?

The debates surrounding women in Islam and the claim that "there are significant women in Islamic history," or the claim to the contrary all evolved in the era in which the Muslim world suffered losses against the West, and in which Muslims began to question themselves.

The debates surrounding women in Islam and the claim that “there are women in Islamic history,” or an opposing claim all coincided with the eras in which we suffered losses against the West and began questioning ourselves.


What is the Orientalist claim? Scholar Leila Ahmed says that if the views of Orientalists are to be summarized in a single sentence, it would be that Islam, in its essence, is a belief system which is oppressive towards women, with the face veil and segregation of genders being the most apparent indicators of this oppression. She also adds that this is the reason behind the visible backwardness of Muslim societies in general. (4) That is, when look at this matter from an Orientalist perspective, the following picture emerges: Muslim women have not contributed to history in any way, rather merely being sold in slave markets or confined to harems, and have always been projected as inferiors due to their gender.

When examined from the West, the East, or the Islamic world in particular, is perceived as one gigantic harem. Certainly, there are reasons for the development of this perception of Muslim women in the West. Europe, while establishing its own identity, turned the East, and the Muslim world in particular, into the "other". It needed an image of the East upon which negative qualities could be loaded. It did this through creating an image of confined and oppressed woman. As evident in Montesquieu's "Persian Letters," the criticism of injustice in civil society and the government, as well as the accusation of arbitrary government, is generally conducted through the idea of the harem. (5)

The oppressed and subjected Muslim woman" was center to this argument and coincided with Western representation that was part of the establishment of the British and French empires in the 18th and 18th centuries.(6) In short, these images were directly related to the construction of colonies and their legitimatization. This legitimatization did not end in the 19th century. During the 21st century invasions of both Iraq and Afghanistan, the image of the "oppressed, burqa-donning woman," was used to legitimize the military actions.

This prejudiced perception by the Orientalists also affected the self-perception of Muslim women, who were faced with defeat in their countries. This perception became general, despite the fact that it was not based on reality (7) and the history of modernization was overtaken by trying to come up with answers to such Orientalist prejudices. Truth be told, we still have not been able to shed the shackles of having to defend ourselves against such accusations.

But in reality, were there really women who were significant in Islamic history? The way in which the answer to this question is evaluated and explained is a subject of another debate.

in Ottoman society, where modernism is being experienced in all of its dimensions, women and matters of femininity take a central point in discussions. Despite the fact that there may be differences in periodic differences in addressing and refraining addressing matters of colonialism, it is a common experience that women are placed at the center of modernity and discourse surrounding modernity


There is the criticism that ordinary lives are not featured in history books and that history consists merely of grand events and wars; this has led to the emergence of micro-history and oral history, and other new forms of historical recounting. However, an understanding of history through the Ilm ul rijal already existed in the tradition of the history of Islam, the result of the sensitivity shown in hadith narration. This tradition later continued as hadith tabaqat and the tazkira of the sholars in which the names of men and women would be listed side by side.

The claim that "women did in fact exist in Islamic history" has led to the compilation of important women in Islamic history in an exclusive encyclopedia that is dedicated exclusively to Islam; this has been done as a response to Orientalist prejudices and to serve as an example for responding to accusations against Islam.

For example, the book ""Meşahir-ün Nisa" (Famous Women) (9) written by Mehmet Zihni Efendi (1846-1913) (8) is the first encyclopedic biography of its kind written in the Islamic world. Mehmet Zihni Efendi wrote this book in 1878, at the request of the the Ministry of Education; this was a course book for the Dar-ul Muallimat (10). Included in the book were women who were renowned in the Islamic world. It contained over 1,000 names. The Meşahir-ün Nisa 

contained the names of women who had attained fame not just for their praiseworthy attributes, but also ones who were infamous.

An interesting aspect in the composition of the book is the presentation of women who gained fame in connection with important projects in the realm of science and politics in a very natural language. The expressions used by Mehmet Zihni Efendi never implied surprise or amazement when discussing the Muslim female leader Shajara ud Dhur, who ruled during the Ayyubids or the female scholar who taught the famous Islamic thinker, Ibn Arabi.

More than ten female teachers who instructed the famous hadith scholar Suyuti are listed. While narrating this to us, there is no trace of amazement or a patronizing tone; there are no phrases that imply Surprise at the fact that a famous hadith scholar was taught by a woman. Thus, we can conclude that the existence of women in this field was not unusual. Or a female narrative that needs to be highlighted has not yet come into circulation.

This pigeon holing perception of Orientalists also affected the self perception of Muslim women who were faced with defeat


Women who had originally been mentioned in books of tabakat (biographical books) and sefine (encyclopedic books), due to their fame as poets, hadith narrators or Sufi philosophers, were mentioned in this book. This was a new approach, thus forming a response to allegations that Islam oppresses women.

On the other hand, in Ottoman society, where modernism was experienced in it's a number of dimensions, women and matters of femininity took up a central position. Despite the fact that there can be differences in how each era addresses or refrains from addressing matters of colonialism, it is a common experience that women were and are placed at the center of modernity and any discourse surrounding modernity. For this reason, any evaluations of Ottoman society are enlightening in that they indicate the level of education of the women, as well as the level to which the Ottomans were belittled by the West, leading us to an understanding of the overall attitude towards the Islamic world and the attitude within the Islamic world.

Ottoman society, which was challenged by the West, resorted to the idea that "A new type of woman is needed for a new society, and education is necessary for such a new woman." What was emphasized here was a modern education, because the women at that time were already immersed in a common form of education, but this was not conducive to the needs of the era. There was a pre-industrial structure in which women, like the men, could continue their education in a master-apprentice relationship.

Education became one of the pillars of modernity, due to the fact that it had been transmitted from the West. Ottoman intellectuals, arriving at the conclusion that it is not possible to fly with just one wing, placed a great deal of importance on the education of women. It was during this education that problem of showing successful Western women as the only examples to girls, who were learning the languages and manners of the West, was witnessed by the ministry of education.

This was significant in two respects:

I- At a period in which the world was divided into the civilized and the barbaric, or Europe and the "rest", it was desired that the Ottoman State demonstrate how they differed from the tribes in Africa, which were recognized as "barbaric", thus allowing it to take its place alongside so-called civilized nations.

II- The Ottoman State wanted to modernize, while remaining true to itself. In order to remain true to itself, the role played by the female ancestors and their presence had to be understood.

It was this concern that lead the first female author in the Ottoman and Islamic world, Fatma Aliye (1862-1936) (11), to start writing under the titles of nisvan, namdaran-i zenan. While Aliye defended the rights of women, she urged that a relationship of imitating the others should not be employed in the relationship with European women. In her article entitled "Bablulardan İbret Alalım" (Taking a lesson from the Bablus), Aliye points out exemplary women in the Islamic world and compares them to the "blue stockings". "See, we should not take lessons from examples of this kind, or try to be like them." "Yes! We should not become their followers. We should use as our example the meşahir and namdaran-i zenana, who emerged from Islam." (12).

At this time, we see that efforts are made towards finding women who are from the Islamic world. At the same time, there are efforts towards bringing women who have been educated in modern times to the fore as examples for modern women. The book entitled, "Bir Muharrire-i Osmaniyenin Neşeti (13)" (The Emergence of an Ottoman author), written by Ahmet Mithat Efendi, is a trailblazer in this field. It is innovative in terms of its form and content.

During the same years, Zaynab Fawaz published a book concerned with biographies of leading women; in this Fatma Aliye is mentioned. (14) Despite the fact that she features European and Christian woman as well, Zaynab defines her work as a continuation of books concerned with tabakat and translations. Although she is supported by adopting such a place, the role of her book - the title of which can loosely be translated as "Eminent Pearls from the Generations of Isolated Women", which features 453 women's names - whether this it can be seen to be a continuation of the classical tradition is debatable. Despite the fact that the Tabakat of Ibn Sa'd (15) contains a section on women, biographical works that predate the 19th century do not contain information that allows us to determine gender. Women are placed in categories such as their search for science narration, those in the general public and financial actors.

This work of Nadwi’s has really paved the way for Muslim women to find their predecessors and this without constricting the issue into the subject of “the history of women.”


However, starting from the second half of the 19th century, there was a sudden increase in the number of books and magazines concerned with women as individuals, as well as an increase in the number of biographies about women. (16). Matters such as the historical presence of women, the legitimacy of the changes that they underwent in their social lives and what an "ideal woman" was were all expressed through the lives of these "famous women."

What can we learn from history about Muslim women in the 21st Century?

Over a century ago, Mehmet Zihni Efendi and Fatma Aliye dealt with the question of the existence of women in Islamic history. Can we say that this situation has changed today? When examining Nadwi's Muhaddithat, one can see that the grounds for such an accusation still exist, and an answer is still needed. What has changed is that the confidence in Nadwi's presentation of the book and his refusal to be drawn into the discourse.  The emphasis in the introduction, that is, this is a work pertaining to hadiths as opposed to a work about women, is indicative of this effort.

So what does Nadwi discuss?

Firstly, he notes that legitimacy in hadith narration has not over time become connected to gender. That is, the science of hadith has not become defined as an area in which men dominate, so that the existence of women in this realm shall become an issue.  

Nadwi also explains how this predicament occurred after the first century (A.H.) with examples. The female Companions, who narrated the greatest number of hadith, scholars who taught and gave hadith ijaza to both men and  women students, women who gave lessons to their husbands, female scholars who committed to memory the Qutub us Sitta and Muwatta and taught these works in masjids like the Damascus Amawiyyun Mosque... The book unveils these facts, not in an attempt to rush to the defense of women, but as actual historic facts. It evaluates through various means the hadith narration and style of hadith narration - meaning according the state of the emphasis on methodology -- as well as taking into account the style of the era, the geographical location, and the problems of hifz (memory) and kitabet (penmanship). This preface only provides a limited numbers of biographies from the 40-volume work, which has yet to be published.

The map that is on the cover of the book leaves us wondering about the remainder of the work. Yes, many women may have memorized Bukhari, maybe even in the city of Damascus alone there were 35 women who committed Bukhari to their memory. However, the map shows the educational journey taken by Fatima bint Sa'ad ul Khair, who lived in the 13th century, from Valencia, Spain to China, completed with a number of major stops (such as Cairo, Damascus, Baghdad, Esfahan, Rey, Nishapur, Tus, Bukhara, Samarkand and Kasghar); this is truly amazing to modern readers. At that time, particularly if one considers the conditions of travel, it is difficult to believe that a woman would "Seek knowledge, even if in China."

    This incredulity and the ensuing comfort and trust we feel with the documentation of this journey all have to do with the questionings we are experiencing that arrive from living in a modern age. I see no harm in repeating this. Our special efforts to find our predecessors in history begin with the prejudice that "There are no women in the history of Islam." Even if this was how the search began, we do need to be acquainted with the women in Islamic history; a person can only create a footprint from a life story. Foot prints are important because they are lead the way for others. The ways in which our predecessors lead their lives can only be understood by studying their lives. For this reason, we need to become familiar with the women of history without being confined to the "history of women."

This work of Nadwi's has truly paved the way for Muslim women to find their predecessors, without constricting the issue to the subject of "the history of women."


[1] Mohammad Akram Nadwi, Al-Muhaddithat: The Women Scholars of Islam. Oxford&London: Interface Publications, 2007.

2 "Kadın Alim Çokmuş?!" (There were many female scholars?!), Radikal,Feb. 27, 2007 ; Carla Power, "A Secret History", New York Times, February 25, 2007.

3 Nadwi, op.cit., p. xı.

4 Leila Ahmed, Women and Gender in Islam. Michigan: Yale University Press, 1992, p. 152.

5 Mohja Kahf, Western Representation of Muslim Women: From Termagant to Odalisque. Austin: University of Texas Press, pp. 125-133.

6 Ahmed, a.g.e., s. 150.

7 According to Şerif Mardin, "Our own perception of ourselves, based on their perception of us," has become a determinant in our modernity from the Tanzimat era until now. Şerif Mardin "Yeni Osmanlı Düşüncesi", Modern Türkiye'de Siyasi Düşünce ("New Ottoman Thought," (Politicial thought in modern Turkey)V I, 5 th ed., İstanbul: İletişim Publications, 2003, p. 44

8 Mehmed Zihni Efendi is a late Ottoman scholar and an expert in the fields of Arabic and religious sciences.

9 Mehmed Zihni Efendi, Meşahir'ün-Nisa, 1877-1878. Transliteration: Istanbul, Şamil Publication House, 1982.

10 Schools for girls that were geared towards granting women degrees in education in primary and middle schools; these opened in 1870.

11 Fatma Aliye was the daughter of the statesman Cevdet Paşa. She was educated by tutors in Arabic, Persian, French, religious studies, history and philosophy. Her novels, entitled Muhadarat and Nisvan-ı Islam, in which she explains her relationship with Western women, were translated into Arabic, English and French in 1892 and 1893 respectively.

12 Fatma Aliye Hanım, "Bablulardan İbret Alalım", Hanımlara Mahsus Gazete, (Issue: 2, 1895, p. 3.

13 Ahmet Mithat, Fatma Aliye Hanım yahut Bir Muharrire-i Osmaniye'nin Neşeti. (Fatma Aliye Hanım or The Emergence of an Ottoman author) İstanbul: Kırkambar Press, 1311/1894.

14 Zainab Fawwâz al-‘Amilî, al-Durr'al Manthûr fi Tabakât Rabbat al-khudûr. Kahire/Bulak: al-Matbaa al-kubrâ al-amiriyye, 1312/1894. (Scattered Pearls on the Generations of the Mistresses of Seclusion).

15 See: Muhammed ibn Sa'd, al-Tabaqat al-kubra li-İbn Sa'd. Beyrut: Dar Sâdir wa Dar Bayrut, 1958.

16 Marilyn Booth, explains the status of womens' biographies in modern discourse through the example of Egypt. May Her Likes Be Multiplied: Biography and Gender Politics in Egypt. Berkeley&LA&London: University of California Press, 2001.



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