Islam, as a religion which (unlike Christianity) refused to attribute gender to the Godhead, and never appointed a male priestly elite to serve as an intermediary between creature and Creator, started life with the assurance that while men and women are equipped by nature for complementary rather than identical roles, no spiritual superiority inheres in the masculine principle. As a result, Islam produced a large number of outstanding female scholars, on whose testimony and sound judgment much of the edifice of Islam depends.
Since Islam's earliest days, women had been taking a prominent part in the preservation and cultivation of hadith, and this function continued down the centuries. At every period in Muslim history, there lived numerous eminent women-traditionists, treated by their brethren with reverence and respect. Biographical notices on very large numbers of them are to be found in the biographical dictionaries.
During the lifetime of the Prophet and after his death, many women Companions, particularly his wives, were looked upon as vital custodians of knowledge, and were approached for instruction by the other Companions, to whom they readily dispensed the rich store which they had gathered in the Prophet's company. The names of Hafsa, Umm Habiba, Maymuna, Umm Salama, and A'isha, are familiar to every student of hadith as being among its earliest and most distinguished transmitters. In particular, A'isha is one of the most important figures in the whole history of hadith literature - not only as one of the earliest reporters of the largest number of hadith, but also as one of their most careful interpreters.
In the period of the Successors, too, women held important positions as traditionists. Umm al-Darda'(d.81/700) was held by Iyas ibn Mu'awiya, an important traditionist of the time and a judge of undisputed ability and merit, to be superior to all the other traditionists of the period, including the celebrated masters of hadith like al-Hasan al-Basri and Ibn Sirin.
'Amra was considered a great authority on traditions related by A'isha. Among her students, Abu Bakr ibn Hazm, the celebrated judge of
These devout women came from the most diverse backgrounds, indicating that neither class nor gender were obstacles to rising through the ranks of Islamic scholarship. For example, Abida, who started life as a slave owned by Muhammad ibn Yazid, learnt a large number of hadith with the teachers in Median. She was given by her master to Habib Dahhun, the great traditionist of
Zaynab bint Sulayman (d. 142/759), by contrast, was a princess by birth. Her father was a cousin of al-Saffah, the founder of the Abbasid dynasty, and had been a governor of
This partnership of women with men in the cultivation of the Prophetic Tradition continued in the period when the great anthologies of hadith were compiled. A survey of the texts reveals that all the important compilers of traditions from the earliest period received many of them from women shuyukh: every major collection gives the names of many women as the immediate authorities of the author. And when these works had been compiled, the women traditionists themselves mastered them, and delivered lectures to large classes of pupils, to whom they would issue their own ijazas.
The last woman traditionist of the first rank who is known to us was
Throughout the history of feminine scholarship in Islam it is clear that the women involved did not confine their study to a personal interest in traditions, or to the private coaching of a few individuals, but took their seats as students as well as teachers in pubic educational institutions, side by side with their brothers in faith. The colophons of many manuscripts show them both as students attending large general classes, and also as teachers, delivering regular courses of lectures.
For instance, the certificate on folios 238-40 of the al-Mashikhat ma al-Tarikh of Ibn al-Bukhari, shows that numerous women attended a regular course of eleven lectures which was delivered before a class consisting of more than five hundred students in the Umar Mosque at
Another certificate, on folio 40 of the same manuscript, shows that many female students, whose names are specified, attended another course of six lectures on the book, which was delivered by Ibn al-Sayrafi to a class of more than two hundred students at
And on folio 250, we discover that a famous woman traditionist, Umm Abd Allah, delivered a course of five lectures on the book to a mixed class of more than fifty students, at
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The above article originally appeared as Chapter 6, pp. 142-153, in Hadith Literature: Its Origin, Development, Special Features & Criticism by Dr. Muhammad Zubayr Siddiqi. A revised edition is now available, rearranged and modified under the title, Hadith Literature: Its Origins, Development & Special Features published by Islamic Texts Society (
Dr. Muhammad Zubayr Siddiqi: Sir Ashutosh Professor of Islamic Culture, Calcutta University, 1961.