History records few scholarly enterprises, at least before modern times, in which women have played an important and active role side by side with men. The science of Hadith forms an outstanding exception in this respect. Islam, as a religion which (unlike Christianity) refused to attribute gender to the Godhead,1 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.2 As a result, the Muslim community was happy to entrust matters of equal worth in God’s sight to both men and women. Only this can explain why, uniquely among the classical Western religions, Islam produced a large number of outstanding female scholars, on whose testimony and sound judgment much of the edifice of Islam depends.
In the Early Days of Islam
Since Islam’s earliest days, women took 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 scholars of Hadith, treated by their brethren with reverence and respect. Entries on very large numbers of them are to be found in the biographical dictionaries.
During the lifetime of the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him), many women were not only the instance for the evolution of many hadiths, but were also their transmitters to their sisters and brothers in faith.3 After the Prophet’s 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 Hafsah, Umm Habibah, Maymunah, Umm Salamah, and `A’ishah, are familiar to every student of Hadith as being among its earliest and most distinguished transmitters.4 In particular, `A’ishah 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
In the period of the Successors, too, women held important positions as scholars of Hadith. Hafsah, the daughter of Ibn Sirin,5 Umm Ad-Darda’ the Younger (d. AH 81/700 CE), and `Amrah bint `Abdur-Rahman, are only a few of the key women scholars of Hadith of this period. Umm Ad-Darda’ was held by Iyas ibn Mu`awiyah, an important scholar of Hadith of the time and a judge of undisputed ability and merit, to be superior to all the other Hadith scholars of the period, including the celebrated masters of Hadith like Al-Hasan Al-Basri and Ibn Sirin.6 `Amrah was considered a great authority on traditions related by `A’ishah. Among her students, Abu Bakr ibn Hazm, the celebrated judge of Madinah, was ordered by the caliph `Umar ibn `Abdul-`Aziz to write down all the traditions known on her authority.7
After them, `Abidah Al-Madaniyyah, `Abdah bint Bishr, Umm `Umar Ath-Thaqafiyyah, Zaynab the granddaughter of `Ali ibn `Abdullah ibn `Abbas, Nafisah bint Al-Hasan ibn Ziyad, Khadijah Umm Muhammad, `Abdah bint `Abdur-Rahman, and many other women excelled in delivering public lectures on Hadith. 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, `Abidah, who started life as a slave owned by Muhammad ibn Yazid, learned a large number of hadiths with the teachers in Madinah. She was given by her master to Habib Dahhun, the great Hadith scholar of Spain, when he visited the holy city Jerusalem on his way to the Hajj. Dahhun was so impressed by her learning that he freed her, married her, and brought her to Andalusia. It is said that she related 10,000 hadiths on the authority of her Madinan teachers.8
Zaynab bint Sulayman (d. AH 142/759 CE), by contrast, was princess by birth. Her father was a cousin of As-Saffah, the founder of the Abbasid dynasty, and had been a governor of Basrah, Oman, and Bahrain during the caliphate of Al-Mansur.9 Zaynab, who received a fine education, acquired a mastery of Hadith, gained a reputation as one of the most distinguished women scholars of Hadith of the time, and counted many important men among her pupils.10
The Compilation of Hadith
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 Hadith from the earliest period received many of them from women teachers: 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 scholars themselves mastered them and delivered lectures to large classes of pupils, to whom they would issue their own ijazah (permission to transmit hadiths or a book of Hadith).
In the fourth century we find Fatimah bint `Abdur-Rahman (d. AH 312/924 CE), known as As-Sufiyyah on account of her great piety; Fatimah, granddaughter of Abu Dawud of Sunan fame; Amat Al-Wahid (d. AH 377/987 CE), the daughter of distinguished jurist Al-Muhamili; Umm Al-Fath Amat As-Salam (d. AH 390/999 CE), the daughter of the judge Abu Bakr Ahmad (d. AH 350/961 CE); Jumu`ah bint Ahmad, and many other women, whose classes were always attended by reverential audiences.11
The Islamic tradition of female Hadith scholarship continued in the fifth and sixth centuries after Hijrah. Fatimah bint Al-Hasan ibn `Ali ibn Ad-Daqqaq Al-Qushayri, was celebrated not only for her piety and her mastery of calligraphy, but also for her knowledge of Hadith and the quality of the isnads (chains of narrators) she knew.12 Even more distinguished was Karimah Al-Marwaziyyah (d. AH 463/1070 CE), who was considered the best authority on the Sahih of Al-Bukhari in her own time. Abu Dharr of Herat, one of the leading scholars of the period, attached such great importance to her authority that he advised his students to study the Sahih under no one else because of the quality of her scholarship. She thus figures as a central point in the transmission of this seminal text of Islam.13 As a matter of fact, writes Goldziher, “her name occurs with extraordinary frequency of the ijazas for narrating the text of this book.”14 Among her students were Al-Khatib Al-Baghdadi15 and Al-Humaydi (AH 428/1036 CE–AH 488/1095 CE).16
Aside from Karimah, a number of other women scholars of Hadith occupy an eminent place in the history of the transmission of the text of the Sahih.17 Among these, one might mention in particular Fatimah bint Muhammad (d. AH 539/1144 CE; Shahdah “the Writer” (d. AH 574/1178 CE), and Sitt Al-Wuzara bint `Umar (d. AH 716/1316 CE).18 Fatimah narrated the book on the authority of the great scholar of Hadith Sa`id Al-`Aiyar; she received from the Hadith specialists the proud title of musnidat Asfahan (the great Hadith authority of Asfahan).
Shahdah was a famous calligrapher and a scholar of great repute; the biographers describe her as “the calligrapher, the great authority on Hadith, and the pride of womanhood.” Her great-grandfather had been a dealer in needles, and thus acquired the sobriquet “Al-Ibri” (needle-seller). But her father, Abu Nasr (d. AH 506/1112 CE) had acquired a passion for Hadith and managed to study it with several masters of the subject.19 In obedience to the Sunnah (the Prophet’s way and teachings), he gave his daughter a sound academic education, ensuring that she studied under many Hadith scholars of accepted reputation.
She married `Ali ibn Muhammad, an important figure with some literary interests, who later became a boon companion of the caliph Al-Muqtadi, and founded a college and a Sufi lodge, which he endowed most generously. His wife, however, was better known: She gained her reputation in the field of Hadith scholarship, and was noted for the quality of her isnads.20 Her lectures on Sahih Al-Bukhari and other Hadith collections were attended by large crowds of students; and on account of her great reputation, some people even falsely claimed to have been her disciples.21
Also known as an authority on Al-Bukhari was Sitt Al-Wuzara, who, besides her acclaimed mastery of Islamic law, was known as the musnidah (the great Hadith authority) of her time, and delivered lectures on the Sahih and other works in Damascus and Egypt.22 Classes on the Sahih were likewise given by Umm Al-Khayr Amatil-Khaliq (AH 811/1408 CE–AH 911/1505 CE), who is regarded as the last great Hadith scholar of the Hijaz.23 Still another authority on Al-Bukhari was `A’ishah bint `Abdul-Hadi.24