As a generational challenge of education emerges, the Prophetic example of supporting leadership development of women as well as men in Muslim communities will be crucial
By Alaa’ Alsamarrai and Usman Ali
Our journey begins in seventh-century Damascus, where one young woman spent her days sitting with leading male fellow scholars and intellectuals in the mosque. She wrote, “I’ve tried to worship God in every way, but I’ve never found a better one than sitting around and debating other scholars”. Umm al-Darda was a prominent jurist in the Islamic tradition, whose impact lasts until today. She taught the hadith, the traditions of Prophet Muhammad*, as well as jurisprudence to men and women, to jurists, Imams and scholars of hadith. Her students included Abdul Malik bin Marwan who ruled an empire spanning from Spain to India.
This is a striking example, but by no means an isolated one. Notions of Muslim women and religious scholarship or leadership, let alone cross-gender engagement, rarely feature in Muslim discourse today. Yet in Islamic scripture and history the unique leadership potential of women is enshrined. The old Arabic proverb, “a woman is like an institution – prepare her well, and you prepare a nation”, is lost in the milieu of cultural evolutions within Muslim societies. Today, the leadership potential of Muslim women in the UK faces a renewed threat given the growing marketisation of education.
Last week the NUS with FOSIS held the first ever student leadership programme for Muslim women. Over the last decade we have worked at the grassroots and felt it was time for the challenges of leadership facing young Muslim women to be properly explored.
Our event was pertinent. Some say the role of women in Islam is misunderstood – we believe the role of humankind itself in Islam is often misunderstood. In our experience of British Muslim communities many mosques do not accommodate women. Educational classes and institutes are dominated by men, while women only hold leadership roles in representative bodies and mosques in exceptional cases (15% according to the Charity Commission). Though the situation fares better at the youth level, we have witnessed men walking out of speeches delivered by women and only a small but growing number of student Islamic Societies have females occupying positions beyond “secretarial” and “sisters’ rep” roles.
This contrasts with the example of Umm al-Darda and the faith tradition that nurtured people like her. Dr Mohammed Akram Nadwi, of the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies, is clear in reminding of the purpose of humankind, for God knows no gender, clarifying cultural taboos and reaffirming the teachings of the Qur’an and the Prophet Muhammad. Powerful principles are at play – God created us as human first and foremost, not defined by gender, but for the purpose of worshipping Him, created from one being. Commandments to seek education, to strive for excellence, and to serve our society know no gender.
To consult scripture is one thing, to realise its implementation another. For all the naysayers of female leadership, no example is more striking than that of Khadija, the first wife of the Prophet. A successful businesswoman, she discerned Muhammad’s qualities and hired him to work for her. When the Prophet received his first revelation he returned home in shock – not to his uncle who raised him or Abu Bakr his closest companion – but to his confidante, close friend and advisor, Khadija, to whom his first words were “cover me, cover me”. In his vulnerability Khadija took leadership, gave him hope and reassured him, “you are good to your relatives, you are true to your word, you help those in need, you support the weak, you feed the guest and you answer the call of those who are distressed”.
Leadership extends beyond positional authority; true leadership is an ethos characterised by responsibility and courage, vision and excellence, intelligence and wisdom, respect and humility, integrity and servitude. Islamic tradition is replete with women of such qualities that have been forgotten today.
Dr Nadwi began researching the role of female scholarship in Islamic history, expecting to find 80 female scholars. He discovered 8,000. We now know women like Fatima bint Ibrahim bin Jowhar, who not only sought to teach at the Prophet’s Mosque but taught Imam Bukhari (the greatest compiler of hadith). There was Amrah bint Abdulrahman, a hadith specialist and jurist, of whom the leader Umar bin Abdulaziz said “if you want to learn hadith go to Amrah”. Even the Judge of Madinah would overrule decisions upon her conviction. The story of Al-Shifa bint Abdullah is also relevant, who was not only a teacher in Prophetic times, but appointed as the public administrator in charge of the market in Madinah during the time of the Caliph Umar. Her scholarship and intelligence gave her leadership over the leading economic centre (akin to the London Stock Exchange). These women were not suppressed nor disrespected; they were human beings with an equal role in progressing the societies of their time. Their examples only scratch the surface.
What created such people? Often we look back with our rose-tinted glasses at the Islamic ‘Golden Age’ and make the mistake of lamenting its decline rather than studying the causes of its rise. If we examined the roots of the Prophetic society, we would find a highly egalitarian society which prioritised its spiritual relationship with God; one in which previously disadvantaged members of society, such as women, were esteemed as educators, and encouraged to strive for excellence in every field, often becoming leaders.
It is no coincidence that the heyday of many great women leaders past – scholars, jurists, teachers, poets, writers – coincided with the burgeoning success of Islamic contribution to civilisation. Only when every member of a society is enabled to have access to knowledge can society flourish and succeed. Only when a society enables each one of its members, male and female, young and old, rich and poor, to reach their full potential can those individuals become transformative and valuable leaders for their society. Especially at the student level, Muslim student societies are questionably reflecting this enabling role.
So what went wrong? Dr Umar Farouk Abdullah notes how the power structures of Muslim-majority societies developed by adopting gender cultural traits from Persian and Roman societies. Other scholars express how a literalist approach of Islamic scripture presents verses devoid of a context of their manner of application by the Prophet. Tragically, in recent centuries, Muslim women are ‘demobilised’: discouraged and diverted from their previous roles as educational, legal, political and social leaders, and instead reduced and confined to limited religious obligations or “women’s only sessions on women’s only issues”. Cultural concerns about female education are real, as are ideologically imported influences on female civic participation. These barriers have not only resulted in a loss for women, who are under-represented in society and often excluded from places of worship, but a loss for our society at large.
The threat facing Muslim women in Britain today runs deeper than the cultural baggage. This government’s own view admitted that Muslim communities will be the social group most affected by the near tripling in university fees, and we predict that the rise in tuition fees will hit Muslim women the hardest.
We have met young women from schools and colleges who have lost hope of studying at university, the shockwaves of which will be colossal. At this critical juncture it is high time that the Prophetic way is re-learnt. Muslim men must foster an environment in which leadership is not prevented but supported; Muslim women must not shy away but realise their true role in society.
We forget that twelve centuries ago none other than a Muslim woman established the world’s first higher education institute. Al-Qarawiyin in Morocco was established in 859 by a young princess named Fatima al-Fihri. Her university was at the forefront of religion, politics, astronomy, theology, law, arithmetic, and medicine. Even numerals arrived at Western civilisation through her work.
Such contribution was possible not because women were alienated or their leadership denied, but because they were co-contributors to society. Open to all and free without tuition fees (with residential units and even food included) for those who passed the admission test, al-Fihri’s vision is ever relevant today. In this testing time, we are reminded that “God does not change the condition of a people unless they change what is in themselves”. A successful future for Muslim communities relies upon a true understanding of humankind, and radical efforts must now be invested into reigniting the potential of women.
*Muslims repeat “peace be upon him” at the mention of Prophet Muhammad’s name and “may God be pleased with them” at the mention of the Prophet’s wives and companions.
Alaa’ Alsamarrai is the FOSIS Vice-President Student Affairs.
Usman Ali is the NUS Vice-President Higher Education.
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