Women Scholars of Hadith

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

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