Role of Women in our Intellectual Heritage
One of the most ‘in vogue’ issues of our time is the growing interest in the role of women in various spheres. After many years of male dominated hierarchies especially in the Muslim world why the sudden interest? Is it because in an earnest attempt for equality, my gender has sacrificed her uniqueness? Or is it because men feel threatened in a way that they never have before? A danger in this exercise exists because ‘famous’ women will always be outnumbered by ‘famous’ men in huge proportions, and far from centering women it ultimately reinforces the centering of men
I was brought up to believe that to contribute to any heritage it needed both men and women – no contribution could be possible without one or the other. The Qur’an and the ahadith both present a belief of men and women as complementary in all functions and thus when given the title ‘The role of woman in our intellectual heritage’ I was bemused to say the least, and so began my search into what is fashionably called ‘women’s studies’ in sociology. I must warn you that I am not an expert nor a religious scholar. I am speaking from my personal convictions as a woman and hence a daughter, a sister, a wife, and a mother.
I would first like to define intellectual heritage. Intellectuals may like to explain it with words such as epistemology, ontology, and teleology. They love their own specialised language which gives them a sense of belonging to a rare community, maybe even a sense of superior insight into the meaning of things. The trouble with this sort of jargon is that it is habit forming and removes intellectual discourse from the public domain, making it remote from the concerns of every day life. I would like to define intellectual heritage without the jargon. To me, heritage is people, people are actualised thoughts and ideas, intellectual heritage is simply those ideas and thoughts put into action or otherwise which have shaped and inspired our communities and continue to do so. As far as Islamic intellectual heritage goes, I believe it is only those actualised thoughts which were done solely for the pleasure of Allah and not those which were discriminatorily left by past generations for us to remember them by. Records of historical figures and events which do not spiritually nurture or inspire thought are just an inventory of data and just that. My life revolves around children and youth and they are my teachers – I asked a cross section of 12 to 20 year olds what heritage meant to them – The majority cam up with architecture, art, and such like. I was disappointed but not surprised. I rephrased the question – what is intellectual heritage? – The answers changed to poetry, writings etc.. After discussion and debate, they came to the conclusion that intellectual heritage was that which caused a revolution in the nafs (souls) of people taking them closer to the revelation – in other words towards perfection. (Using Arabic terminology that which takes the irtiqaai (evolutionary) towards the tanzili (revelationary)).
I would also like to take some time to define ‘a Muslim woman’ for a woman in Islam is something unique, something that has no similarities in any other system. As far as ‘equality’ goes, contrary to popular misconception, Islam has long recognised the equality of men and women as human beings. It is to it’s credit that it does not commit hypocrisy and claim them to be identical.
If we look at any civilisation in the history of humankind, we will not find a woman playing a role in it’s establishment where it can be attributed to her efforts – The Greek – philosophers and others were all men – the Church writers were men and even today women scholarship is limited – the french revolution and the Russians were men – the founding of the US was men – It is only in the establishment of Islam that we find women playing a central role in the actualisation of it’s teachings -
Man and woman represent two forms of divine energy; they are the male and female elements of a single nafs (soul) (“Ya ayyuhan naasut taqu rabbakumullazhiy khalaqakum min nafsiw waahidatiw wa khalaqa minhaa zawjahaa…..” - An- Nisa 4:1) – “O people! have taqwa for your Rabb Who created you from a single nafs and created it’s partner from it…”
Indeed, every aspect of the universe is distinguished by these two dimensions. Men and women are given different tools by Allah to attain a common goal – their physiological, emotional and psychological differences are a result of their divergent spiritual mandates. By nature men are physically stronger; he is more aggressive and outdoor orientated. In dramatic contrast a woman embodies the ideal of inner dignity. Society sometimes mistakes this subtlety as a weakness but in truth it is more formidable than aggressive physical force. True human dignity does not holler, it resonates from within.
The actualisation of the noblest and most intellectual ideas is done by women.
Even Jalaluddin Rumi in his Mathnawi writes:
“In the view of intellect, heaven is the man and earth the woman,
Whatever the one throws down, the other nurtures.”
Women are better at harnessing and nurturing spiritual and emotional energy.
The mandate of a Muslim woman is clearly defined. Her primary role is to build the basis of the structure of a society. By this I mean that it is she who is to provide the invisible foundation of a nucleus from which all human beings build their lives. To appreciate the strength of this foundation, we only need to see a situation in a home where this foundation did not exist. Unfortunately, we do not need to look very far. Each home is a microcosm of the entire universe. The right foundation within a family translates into harmony and stability between families and communities and ultimately nations. Many intellectual and spiritual seeds have been sown in the Muslim world, it is time a Muslim woman came home to her spiritual mandate and nurtured them, actualise them so that they can grow and flourish in future generations.
Being ‘known’ especially for a Muslim woman is to a very great degree a function of participation in public life – political, literary and so on. There have been, and are many women who have ‘succeeded’ in such arenas and there is no reason why women cannot succeed, but in essence every woman who has worked at building a successful foundation for her home is central to the structure of society and has contributed to our intellectual heritage in a way that no ‘famous’ man has.
For this role it is essential that she is educated. For it is, I believe, the one single factor within our control that directly influences who we are as a people. We will only ‘succeed’ if women are educated. By education I do not mean merely learning the skills to make a living, or pursuing a vocation but learning to understand life itself. The ‘why’ of education must precede the ‘how’.. Western institutionalised education increasingly has been put into the service of civilisation building by seeking to advance practical industrial needs. In the early Middle Ages the purpose of education was conceived primarily as advancing spiritual well being. We need to educate in the real sense of the word if our women are to be the hands that rock the cradles that rule the world. To be able to understand it we need to put aside limited human subjectivity and act on the master plan laid out by Allah. Let me clarify that I do not mean that a woman should not pursue a vocation – far from it – and if in your minds you are conjuring up a picture of a docile subsurvient domesticated slave for man then you cannot be further from the truth - Women must be allowed to be themselves.. After many years of gender roles being shaped and distorted by social programming and manipulation particularly by men who have abused their positions of authority , we see today in a backlash effort - women who have become equally aggressive.. Women as Allah ordained and not what society, in particular what men wish them to be! They must not be made to feel inadequate
It is with these definitions that I would like to proceed.
In my quest for role models, I was searching for women who were reformers – those who shaped and inspired their communities without compromising their roles as daughters, sisters, wives, mothers and grandmothers making an impact whose ripples continued to motivate.
My first point of call was the Qur’an. From the examples of women cited therein I would like to introduce Sayyida Hajra in a few verses which I hope will encapsulate her life:
He was a great Prophet, She was a gifted slave
He built The House, She populated it’s surroundings
His footsteps are embodied on a rock, Her footsteps are sa’ee
He saw a dream to sacrifice, Her son made it a reality….
Another example is that of the wife of Firawn. It will suffice to say that Sayyida Aasiya stood up against an establishment which had succeeded in oppressing a whole people. In her case it happened to be her husband, her only aim being ‘.. .Rabbibniy liy indaka baytan fil janna…’ Suratut Tahreem 66:11 – Rabb! Make for me with You an abode in Janna – in other words the pleasure of Allah. Her conviction shook him. He had to resort to silencing the very woman he loved.
The example of Sayyida Maryam demonstrates the disregard for what the world thinks. Her faith in her Creator and the spiritual mandate accorded to her when facing the townspeople as an unmarried mother has no match in the history of mankind. No man in history has lived up to her strength.
All the above succeeded because of their unshakable conviction in their spiritual mandates accorded by Allah.
The lives of Sayyida Khadija, Fatima Zahra and Zaynab encompass all the qualities of the women of the Qur’an. All demonstrated Hajra’s selflessness, Aasiya’s strength in the face of an oppressor and Maryam’s conviction.
As I turned the pages of history, I was amazed to find so many examples of ‘famous’ Muslim women such as the Mongol Khatuns, the Sultanas of Turkey like Shajarat Al-Durr,, The Yemeni queens like Asma and Arwa, the Queens of Maldives and Indonesia and more recently the prime ministers of Bangladesh - Khalida Zia and the current – Hasina Wajed not forgetting of course the first women to lead a government in a Muslim country -the former prime minister of Pakistan – Benazir Bhutto. All these women in the political arena assumed the roles of men and sometimes probably did a better job. There are many women in the fields of science, medicine, aviation, architecture and all other occupations who have made their own unique contributions in their particular fields. We also find ascetics like the illustrious Rabia Adawiyya (Iraq 714 – 801). All these remain illustrious notable historical figures.
I have chosen 3 personalities whom I feel represent the true contributors to our intellectual heritage and serve as contemporary role models for they had an impact on the day to day life of not only those they met but generations after. I believe they lived up to their spiritual mandate. They had the courage to spread ideas where they were needed but not necessarily welcomed – they pushed for reform where it went against entrenched and powerful interests – as I studied their lives I could feel the difficulties they went through for it takes immense courage to go against the ‘bone of the bone’ and the ‘flesh of the flesh’……Their uniquness, I believe was that what they did is within the reach of every woman.
Bintal Huda (1940 – 1980) meaning the daughter who guides was named Amina and was born to Seyyid Haider As-Sadr, a family who for generations have guided Muslims in Iraq. Educated by her brother, she put her literary skills to use from an early age. She started to contribute articles for magazines which drew the attention of the ulema for they seemed to awaken society. She actualised Islamic thought into a simple understandable language. Among the books she wrote are ‘Virtues and Victories’, ‘Empty and Lost’, ‘O! If only I had known and struggled’
Of the latter she said: “The purpose of these short stories is to express the Islamic point of view about various issues of life in the form of mental pictures. I believe that a concept which remains as a theory has not a great deal of effect but when it is put in the form of images and expressed within the framework of events of life, it will have a worthwhile effect…because of this Allah in the Qur’an expresses the values and precepts of Islam through stories of the prophets and the recollection of their peculiarities.”
Her stories tackled wrong in built traditions
About feminine issues, she said: “Why have those who know and abide to religion put chains and limits on women which Allah has not revealed in the Qur’an.”
Bintal Huda was a scholar in Islamic theology and began a school for girls in Kadhamayn. When her brother, the illustrious Baqir As-Sadr was arrested in 1979, she organised a protest which probably contributed to his release from jail. However, on April 5, 1980, Baqir As-Sadr and Bintal Huda were arrested and were executed 3 days later.
Nana Asmau (1793 – 1865), was the daughter of Shaykh Shehu Uthman dan Fodio (Fodio meaning ‘Faqih’) who was an outstanding scholar who was exiled in 1804 from Nigeria with his family. He was the founder of the Sokoto Khilafat which has been described not merely as a political act but one that is deep rooted in an intellectual base. The Shehu knew the importance of education especially of women and he made it his No 1 priority - and led by example by personally overseeing the education of his daughters.Nana as she is still affectionately remembered dedicated herself to this purpose beginning by writing poetry eulogising the Prophet (S.A.W.) and teaching the message of the Qur’an. Her poems were memorised by men, women and children in her teaching circles. She saw the brutality of war and she used her literary talent to chronicle the events writing about the need to respond to the call of arms, the need to build up intellectual and spiritual muscle to combat materialism - She devised a system to educate those in the rural areas by bringing a few women from each village into the town, educating them and sending them back to teach the others, This method of women’s education established by Nana continues in present day Nigeria. The pupils taught by Nana were known as ‘Yan–Taru’ meaning associates. The ‘Yan-Taru’ Muslim movement in Nigeria continues in many parts of West Africa . After the death of her father and husband, she retired to her son’s home according to tradition but continued writing and admonishing the men to stay vigilant to ‘’jihad’ and encouraging women to develop themselves intellectually and spiritually. When Nana died, thousands gathered around her humble home. At her death, her brother Isa said: “We the children of Shehu followed her leadership…our dazzling bright lamp has been taken…..One could almost say that she healed hearts…” She is buried near her father and both graves are a popular site for pilgrimage.
Kulsum Gulamhusein Kassim (Mrs Khimji) (1899 – 1976) was born in Kutch, India in 1899 (1319). She was married in Pemba at the age of 14 only to be widowed 7 months later carrying her daughter Zaynab. She opened a madrasa, teaching Qur’an, Salaa, Urdu, Gujarati, Reading and Writing to children. She also opened a night school for ladies of the community teaching them Fiqh, Reading and Writing. On the death of her parents in law she moved to Zanzibar and took up reciting Majalis. She remarried after her daughter was married requesting her mahr to be the payment of her debts and the permission to do ‘tableegh’. She travelled to many parts of Africa reciting majalis. . Ladies used to travel far and wide to listen to her majalis. She created Islamic awareness amongst the ladies of the Community She also composed eulogies about the events of the day of ‘Ashura which in themselves were lessons in Islam. Mrs Khimji did not stop at her own community; she arranged inter-faith conferences and processions in the month of Muharram. Besides all this she was a match maker, a counsellor and also raised two more daughters and the off springs from her husbands first marriage. When confined to bed because of a back injury, she utilised the time to write a book of her majalis. When widowed for a second time she wrote a book on the life of Sayyida Zaynab (A.S.) dedicating it to her husband called ‘Shareekatul Husayn’.
I had an opportunity to talk to those who knew her and were inspired by her. I conducted a mini survey, and asked those whose lives have been touched by her – what difference she had made to their lives – these are the 5 most common answers which were spontaneous –
“She changed the concept about the majalis held in the month of Muharram. She made the mimbar an educational platform”
“She brought religion to life – it wasn’t just do’s and don’t’s”.
“She connected history to the everyday humdrum of life”
“She put the Qur’an and ahadeeth into mental images that we could comprehend.”
I spoke to the children of the women who had attended her talks – some of whom are community leaders and elders today –
the same answers again and again –
“It was she who through their mothers had inspired them to study Islam” “Whenever their mother’s and sister’s came home from her talk, their homes ere vibrant with discussions about what she had said”.
They would repeatedly say: “She inspired their mother to instil in them the love of learning”.
Mrs Khimji died on 18 Ramadhan 1396 (September 1976) and is buried in Dar es Salaam.
As we approach the end of the millennium of the Christian era, we are all aware of the sweeping changes that have taken place in our communities particularly in the last two generations. The very landscape of our communities have been altered. The rebellions and the transitions of the last decades testify to the disillusionment of the ‘new’ value systems adopted from our host countries. There is no doubt that much of what we learn today is spiritually irrelevant. We have been geared for material success, by our schools, our peers, the media.. It is only natural that materialism has become the magnetic north of our moral compass. Even though we have never been so materially prosperous, we feel a deep unease. Where are we heading? The solution to this crisis lies in the hands of women – it requires grass root awakening – We need to undo the distortions that have blurred gender roles. Maybe we should question ourselves – Are we being true to our nature or are we contradicting it just to be successful in the material world? We need to learn to live up to the potential given to us by Allah. After many years of distorted and borrowed concepts, we need to return to higher pure values of Islam – It is time for women to rise to their true distinction, where her subtle power of feminine energy is allowed to nurture society. Let us stop competing and start complementing so we can be true contributors to our intellectual heritage.