The latest installment of Divine Women on BBC Two opened a small but important window in to an all too neglected chapter in Islamic history
“Forget or ignore them [women] and we impoverish history and ourselves.”
This was one of the concluding remarks that Bettany Hughes gave on her three part BBC documentary, Divine Women. This remark had me somewhere between punching my fist in the air with a feeling of empowerment and weeping for a lost time as the overwhelming realisation that this forgetting and ignoring is exactly what is happening. As a Muslim woman and an academic focusing on the role of Muslim women in history, particularly in education, this remark summed up my own observations and struggle.
Hughes’ documentary has covered the role of women in religion, ranging from goddesses to rulers and priestesses to scholars. The final installment, War of the Words, which aired this week, covered powerful and significant women in the so-called Dark Ages whose influence over religious teachings and law contributed to what Hughes considers a “golden age” for women in religion. From Anglo-Saxon Britain to Qian Ling in China she shows the impact the lives of a handful of women had on religion which carries through to the modern day.
I was particularly anxious and excited for this instalment, not just because I can relate to an examination of female scholars more than of goddesses, but mostly because of the coverage of influential women in Islam. I was admittedly slightly sceptical too. Hughes looked at the role of Khadijah bint Khuwaylid the first wife of the Prophet Muhammad and the first Muslim, and A’isha bint Abu Bakr another wife of the Prophet Muhammad who was also a renowned hadith (teachings of the Prophet Muhammad) transmitter. My scepticism lay in the fact that the story of these women has been thrown about in Muslim and academic circles so often and so variably that I feared what was going to be said. Was she going to take a sensationalist slant? Was it going to show these figures as the only important women in Islam, irrespective of its rich history? Was it going to focus on only one aspect of these women showing them as two-dimensional versions of what they really were?
Hughes did none of these things and in fact presented an impressive, sensitive, dynamic, contextually aware and touching display of the lives of these women, which is exactly what they deserve. Calling on the Muslim public figure Myriam Francois Cerrah (The University of Oxford), and world authorities on the topic Leila Ahmed (Harvard University) and Dr Mohammad Akram Nadwi (Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies) Hughes wove a well-informed cloth of the lives of these women and others at the time. Khadijah was portrayed as a woman of intelligence and respectability. Hughes emphasises, without being hyperbolic, that Khadijah chose to marry the Prophet, that their marriage was a partnership and that the first Muslim was in fact a woman. Her role in the bigger picture of the rise of Islam was one of encouragement and moral and material support.
I was mentally preparing myself for the portrayal of A’isha, knowing that almost invariably the topic of her age would be brought up. Hughes dealt with this with real sensitivity; while acknowledging that a controversy does rage on concerning her marriage to the Prophet, she focused on why A’isha is such an esteemed scholar along with her traits of intelligence, strength and outspokenness. I could almost applaud the way she dealt with this. Not because I want to sweep anything under the carpet, but because there are plenty of other arenas in which to deal with this topic, and to discuss A’isha primarily as “that” wife of the Prophet would strip away her real role as much as a patriarchal reading of Islam would.
Akram Nadwi asserts A’isha’s vital role in the history of Islam as one of the most important hadith scholars, whose contribution constitutes one quarter of Islamic law. It is also asserted that she was not the only female scholar. Akram Nadwi’s fifty three volume work, al-Muhaddithat, is a compilation of biographies of all the female hadith scholars in the history of Islam, consisting of more than 8,500 entries. One of my only criticisms of this documentary is that while it recognised that other women were scholars, perhaps a figure other than one of the Prophet’s wives could have been discussed, such as Amrah bint Abd al-Rahman or Hafsah bint Sirin who contributed to the field of Muslim law and hadith. This would have helped illustrate that it was not just through direct association with Muhammad that a woman was deemed important, but rather through their contribution to Islam.
It would be difficult to discuss the topic of women in Islam without bringing in current debates surrounding it. Bettany, once again, does this tastefully. While she enthuses at the privileged and purposeful role of women that was present in the time of Khadijah and A’isha, she questions why it has changed. Leila Ahmed argues that one of the main reasons for this was that the fast conquests of neighbouring areas that the Muslims performed resulted in the interaction and adoption of the negative attitude towards women that these cultures held. While only brief, this serves to be enlightening to the observer. The argument put forward by Akram Nadwi, that segregation is not a wholly Islamic concept, could also stand further discussion. Understandably, however, the documentary has limited time on each topic and so at the very least it has offered food for thought to the keen viewer.
What I found most remarkable in this instalment was more subtle. It was not just the informed portrayal of these two key figures in Islam that was striking, but how Bettany Hughes juxtaposed these next to other civilisations. It may be easy to think “obviously other things were going on at this time!” But you’d be surprised at how easily this is forgotten. And without placing the rise of Islam amongst the contemporary events of the rest of the world, we are at risk of belittling the roles that these women played. They were not just women in their homes discussing menstruation and how to properly perform ablutions in preparation for prayers. They were women at the heart of a growing religion, a controversial new civilisation at the point of blossoming into a new empire.
Conversely, Bettany notes that these women are hardly heard about outside of Muslim circles and neither is the rich history of Muslim female scholarship. And so I think perhaps, instead of just naming ourselves after them we should nurture future Khadijahs and A’ishas. Perhaps the Muslim community’s own often filtered reading of Islamic history is to blame for this. The legacy of women in Islam, particularly as scholars, is one that doesn’t need to be exaggerated to benefit from. By assessing Islam’s past and wider history truthfully, as Hughes has demonstrated can be done, we can learn from these women, not just what they transmitted in Islamic teachings, but what they were.
Image from: www.zawaj.com/tag/female-muslim-scholars/
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