Rereading “Status of Woman in Islam” (VIII)

(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?


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  1. #1 by Anonymous// on February 22, 2013 - 8:07 am

    There is also the common saying- occasionally regarded as a hadith- to the effect that teaching women how to read is like giving a snake poison (i.e. making it more dangerous), and ‘Abd al-Rahman b. Nasr al-Shayzari writes in his book on hisba against teaching women how to read- because it ‘makes them worse’. In practice, however, if any women learned how to read it would most likely have been those in scholarly or elite families. I suppose I’m a feminist to that extent, but as for the ontological and social inferiority of women, I believe that’s something established beyond doubt.

    • #2 by xcwn on February 22, 2013 - 4:26 pm

      “…but as for the ontological and social inferiority of women, I believe that’s something established beyond doubt.”

      As Maya Angelou said, “The first time someone shows you who they are, believe them.” That was certainly advice that I could have used back in the ’80’s. Then, I would have realized that those conservative Muslim pamphleteers who either strongly implied or outright stated that women weren’t really as intelligent as men or as deserving of basic rights (such as the right to access public space unmolested) really did believe those things. And also, that as a conservative Muslim, I would spend the rest of my life having to deal with people who thought those things.

      • #3 by Anonymous// on February 22, 2013 - 11:24 pm

        Well, if you find it at all triggering I’d be happy to stop commenting. Just let me know.

  2. #4 by shepardmary57 on February 22, 2013 - 8:25 am

    The danger of re-activating “dead” or inauthentic hadith also extends to female genital mutilation; there are numerous hadith in favor of it. Any progress made by women for equality seems somehow to be responded to by violence, including knowledge, whether it’s by being shot in the head, sexually mutilated, raped or married off at the age of 12. I know that’s extreme, but it is the truth for so many girls and women. Reading this piece also made me recall my ex-husband sending his daughter to college. Her brothers were allowed to study wherever they wished, but she was permitted to attend classes only within a 30 minute bus ride from home. I asked him why she couldn’t have an education on the same level as her brothers, and my ex replied that not only would it be haram for her travel and live on her own without a mahram, but since she would probably marry and stay home anyway, why waste the money?

    • #5 by xcwn on February 22, 2013 - 2:05 pm

      ShepardMary57—Yes, good point about early marriage for girls, as well as FGM. The author of the booklet doesn’t bother to mention either of those. While the revised and updated version does discuss FGM, revealingly enough the author avoids taking a clear stance on it. On one hand, he says that it is cultural rather than something required by Islam, and condemns its more drastic forms as “mutilation.” But he avoids discussing the different legal schools’ views of it, and implies that “sunna” circumcision is permissible. It seems that for him, the main concern is saving the image of Islam.

    • #6 by charmedshiva on February 23, 2013 - 12:07 am

      The problem isn’t that those ahadith are dead and subsequently reactivated, or that they inauthentic. They were never dead nor necessarily inauthentic either. It’s just that the masses sometimes don’t practice or know about them, or ignore them. Scholars are well aware of them and always have been. The fact that it’s hidden and frosted over by the scholars, and subsequently the masses, just goes to show the dire dishonesty of the situation. Those ahadith about female circumcision and child marriage really do exist, and many numbers of scholars, virtually all the classical scholars, interpreted them to be allowed and Islamic… so, that’s the problem to address, not whether we revive old ahadith.

      • #7 by xcwn on February 23, 2013 - 2:23 am

        Charmedshiva—Well, there’s seldom a scholarly consensus on the degree of authenticity of any particular hadith. What ends up mattering as far as people’s lives are concerned is not whether or not a hadith can be demonstrated to be authentic or not, but (1) who argues that it is authentic, and (2) what sort of a following does the scholar making this claim have, and (3) are there tangible social, economic or political reasons for people to be motivated to put it into practice, or not?

        And even if hadiths are “forgotten” to the point that they might as well be dead (for the masses at least), then there is the notion (supported by a hadith, in fact) that whoever revives a sunna will be rewarded by God. So, there is a religious fig-leaf readily available for anyone wanting to revive past misogynist practices for whatever reason.

        Looking back, I can see that we were held hostages to this process because we mystified it. Somehow, for us “reviving the sunna” was a pure religious activity, that didn’t have any political, social or economic motivations on the part of the scholars and community leaders promoting it, whether in the past or in the present. We were really naive.

  3. #8 by nmr on February 22, 2013 - 3:04 pm

    “Bustin’ makes me feel gooood!!” Well done you.

  4. #9 by Asiah Kelley (@asiahkelley) on February 22, 2013 - 6:22 pm

    This blog destroys me. I keep reading it because it’s so true and I find so much commonality with your experience (even having converted some 2 decades after you). But man. And that last paragraph! Those same thoughts haunt me everyday now that I have a daughter. I keep reading because you say you went to Eid prayer, so you’re still believing somewhat…right? It’s like a seriously depressing novel that you stomach till the end hoping…hoping. There’s hope right? One novel I read comes to mind – A Find Balance. A long read that I kept going through deaths and disfigurations and poverty til the end…when there’s only more death and disfiguration and poverty. So I guess I am wanting to skip ahead to the end now. I like your latest post linking to Love Inshallah. I loved the book and I guess I should read their blog because it seems actually, good and true and humane. Why are so many “Muslim” things and “Islam” things not humane? Ugh… Ok. Anyway. Any spoilers at this point would be great. I appreciate your blog and your writing and your wisdom from all your experiences. Take care. -k

    • #10 by xcwn on February 22, 2013 - 10:44 pm

      Asiah—I’m not sure where I’ll end up. And, the issue of Muslim identity (where I live at least) is very complicated. It is about a lot more than what you do or do not believe, or even about how you personally identify. (post coming on…)

      As for my blog being like a never-endingly depressing novel—I suppose it is, from some perspectives, anyway. It all depends on what you are looking for. I remember when I first began to read the blogs of women struggling with polygamy. A lot of the material was sad, but it encouraged me at the same time, just to know that there were other people out there going through that too. Silence can be so very isolating.

      • #11 by Asiah Kelley (@asiahkelley) on February 23, 2013 - 4:34 pm

        Thanks for the response. I really didn’t mean to say your blog was a depressing novel, only I do feel that way reading it. But I didn’t mean to refer to it in a demeaning way.

        But you are so right. I’m glad this blog exists. That someone is talking about it. It’s so needed. It’s reality and I know from your comments and my own self, that for everything you post there are at least 20 others who feel the same.

  5. #12 by shepardmary57 on February 23, 2013 - 8:34 pm

    I love this blog. From reading it, now I know there’s nothing wrong with me. I had nowhere and no one to listen to my doubts and the guilt I had been struggling with. This blog is helping me to find my way to a spiritual life that works for me.

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