(Continuing the section on the treatment of girls…)
“The right of females to seek knowledge is not different from that of males. Prophet Muhammad (P) said, ‘Seeking knowledge is mandatory for every Muslim.’ (al-Bayhaki) Muslim as used here including both males and females [sic].”
Early ’80’s ghost: So, according to Islam—whoops, sorry… this “Islam says” habit sure is hard to break!—the hadiths, girls and women have the same right and duty to seek knowledge as boys and men do. This seems to mean that girls and women are seen as equally intelligent, and are valued for their minds. And, that it’s a religious obligation to educate girls just as it is to educate boys.
Commentator: The author is reproducing a common apologetic/Islamist claim here. This particular hadith has become something of a slogan. But its wording is so general that it can mean a variety of things, depending on who is interpreting it, and when.
With hadith, it is important to consider several things, including how they have been interpreted over time, as well as how they fit into the larger body of hadith. So, even if you read this hadith in light of the other two in the section on girls, you will begin to see some of the problems with understanding it as an unambiguous endorsement of girls’ and womens’ rights to education on par with that offered to males. Is it really likely that anyone who assumes that girls are “intrinsically” less desirable than boys and “naturally” financially burdensome to men will want to invest the same resources in girls’ education? Especially if educational resources are limited (which is the case for almost every society to some extent)? When the assumption is that the most important thing for girls to do is to remain absolutely chaste until (early) marriage, at which point they will not even be able to leave the house without their husbands’ consent?
Super-commentator: It is important here to ask what exactly “seeking knowledge” means—or more accurately, what it has been interpreted to mean, and who gets to decide this.
The knowledge-seeking referred to in this hadith has been interpreted very narrowly by some—as meaning that girls and women, like boys and men, have the obligation to learn the very basics of Islam: to believe in monotheism, prophethood, etc, as well as how to perform salat and fasting, what major and minor sins are, and what their duties are as daughters, wives and mothers. And that’s it. Even learning the rules for paying zakat or how to compute it is deemed unnecessary if they have no wealth. Such basic instruction need not include actually going to school, or even leaving the house, if the girl’s father or other relative is able to teach her, or bring a teacher into the home. It need not include any exposure to differing points of view, to mathematics, to science, to logic or critical thinking, to history or geography, to literature… or even involve learning to write….
Early ’80’s ghost: [interrupting] Oh, come on! No offence, but you are just being so unnecessarily negative, and reproducing all the worst stereotypes of Muslims. There are lots of Muslim women who go to university nowadays. Some of them are in engineering and medicine! And who in their right mind would even debate whether girls should learn to write?!? Maybe an ignorant person, but not a scholar who really knows what Islam is all about, that’s for sure.
Super-commentator: Actually, there is a hadith that states that the Prophet said, “Do not put women in upper rooms, nor teach them to write. Teach them spinning, and Surat al-Nur.” Its authenticity was disputed by medieval scholars, with some (such as al-Dhahabi) saying that it is forged….
Early ’80’s ghost: [interrupting again] Sorry, I can’t read much Arabic yet, so I can’t read the link you provided. But anyway, if it’s forged, then why does it matter? Especially when the Prophet did say that seeking knowledge is an obligation on every Muslim, and no one disputes that?
Super-commentator: …As I was saying, while some scholars said it was weak or even forged, not all agreed. Al-Hakim al-Naisaburi included it in his book of hadiths, the Mustadrak, and said that it is authentic (sahih). So, there wasn’t a consensus about whether or not it was forged, and this question has been debated until today. Although the majority—probably, the vast majority—of scholars today don’t quote it or regard it as a proof of anything, there are still some very conservative authors (mainly from South Asia, in my experience) who write booklets aimed at the average Muslim who quote this hadith and call upon Muslims to limit girls’ access to modern education.
Early ’80’s ghost: But why, if there’s even doubt that it is forged?? Why limit girls’ lives so much on the basis on one very dubious hadith? This doesn’t even make sense. I can’t believe this is happening anywhere in the world.
Super-commentator: Because that’s the way traditional hadith discourses work. First of all, it isn’t uncommon for hadith scholars to have different views on how authentic (or inauthentic) a particular hadith is. (This is one reason for differences of opinion in fiqh.) Even if, say, two scholars agree on what degree of authenticity a particular hadith has, they won’t necessarily agree on its interpretation—whether it has a specific or a general application, for instance, or whether or not it can function as a legal proof.
And when it comes to weak or even forged hadith, it’s like recycling: nothing is ever really thrown away. Even a hadith like this, about which there is so much doubt, was still quoted as an admonition to believers. So, it would still be fairly well known. The doubt would still be fostered in the minds of many that perhaps too much education for females is not a good thing, that it will probably lead to immodest behavior or people gossiping about them, so better they stay home and recite Surat al-Nur instead.
Early ’80’s ghost: But… are you really suggesting that this one hadith would have such power, to convince people that girls should not be sent to school??
Super-commentator: No, not at all. Hadiths are read, heard and interpreted within historical, social, political and economic contexts. If to begin with, the social and economic conditions do not promote female education, then it is far more likely that this hadith will be quoted and regarded by some as a directive that should be taken seriously. But if girls’ education brings some sort of tangible benefit to the family and community, then it will not be, typically. At best, it will pop up occasionally in public discourse, and scholars will wave it away as best they can… but these things are like the undead. They never are quite laid to rest.
Here is an interesting scholar’s response that illustrates this whole “undead” phenomenon. A questioner asks about this hadith. The scholar has to admit that there has been ongoing debate about it, but quotes a well-known hadith about a female Companion teaching a wife of the Prophet to write, which is quoted by al-Hakim and others. He manages to leave the impression that al-Hakim was apparently fine with women learning to write, because he doesn’t mention the fact that al-Hakim’s Mustadrak contains the hadith warning against the teaching of writing to women AND that in his view it is sahih.
Perhaps in this scholar’s view, this subterfuge is a good thing, because it avoids giving ammunition to the opponents of education for girls. Which is a noble intention, no doubt. And it also avoids giving ammunition to those Muslims who raise doubts about hadiths in general. All in all, this is an answer tailored to the average Muslim who hasn’t read much in the way of classical sources. But it has an inbuilt vulnerability—all anyone has to do in order to seriously weaken the argument is to point out that this hadith is in the Mustadrak. And so the debate goes on and on, in every generation of scholars… for ever. There can be no closure.
Early ’80’s ghost: Wow, this is really disturbing… you mean, I am going to spend the rest of my life not knowing when an awful hadith like this is going to crop up, and be quoted and seriously discussed as though anyone in their right mind would question whether or not girls should be taught to write… and all I’ll be able to do is to object that some scholars have said that it isn’t authentic? And then listen politely while somebody else says that according to some other scholars it’s reliable?
2000’s ghost: Well, that will depend on what circles you move in, what sorts of conservative Muslim communities you have dealings with, and what you read.
What you are far more likely to encounter is attitudes among conservative Muslims that are rather ambivalent about girls’ education—on one hand, they will not tire of quoting the hadith that seeking knowledge is an obligation on every Muslim. But when it comes to the details—ensuring that the girls at the local Islamic school have a phys ed program that is as good as the one that the boys have, for instance—then suddenly, the hadith about seeking knowledge somehow doesn’t pertain to that issue. You will also find that while boys are encouraged to consider studying Islam abroad so that they can return to the community and play leadership roles, obstacles are put in girls’ way to doing the same thing. And, that the sort of religious education given to girls in particular tends to focus on passivity and obedience rather than questioning.
The question you might like to ask yourself is whether you are really prepared to spend the rest of your life having your ontological and legal and social status—and that of your daughters—treated as a subject for legitimately pious and never-quite-concluded wranglings by men? With the only defence being your ability to quote the words of (usually male) scholars, because your own conscience or intellect or even common sense are treated as irrelevant to such debates?