Republished: Women and Islam in the middle ages

Women and Memory Forum, Monday 8 Mar 2021

A review of ‘Women and religious life in the middle ages between Islam and the West’, a noteworthy study by Hoda Al Saada and Omaima Abu Bakr

Muslim women hold the Koran as they perform the night prayer at a mosque during the holy month of Ramadan in Cairo, August 8, 2011 (Photo: Reuters)

In celebration of the many achievements of Egyptian and Arab women over the years, Ahram Online republishes this article as part of a nine-day special series of gratitude and pride for women's achievements — from 8 March, which is International Women’s day, to 16 March, which is Egyptian Women’s Day.

The series aims to refresh the collective memory of our nation of the many, and often forgotten, women who excelled against all odds.

While Egyptian women in the 21st century are still lobbying for basic human rights, these republished stories serve as a reminder to society that Egyptian and Arab women fought for and enjoyed similar rights as men across many decades.

From the first woman doctor in the world, to the first woman to fly in Egypt and the Middle East, these women's stories are interweaved, and all deserve to be shared with a younger generation that needs to learn the truth about the accomplishments of their grandmothers and great grandmothers.


What do we know about women- jurists and muftis in Islam?

Whenever it comes to women and popular belief of Islam, the tone automatically deepens as the horizon dramatically narrows down to endless obligations, and accusations. Beyond the stereo-typing of women and the misconception of Islamic beliefs, comes an enlightening study that puts women and Islam in one proper sentence.

During the holy month of Ramadan, Ahram Online publishes this article on Women’s roles during the Islamic era.

Women and religious life in the middle ages between Islam and the West an informative study that sheds light on women in Islam. It was published in 2010 by the Women and Memory Forum, founded in 1995 by a group of women academics, researchers and activists aiming to highlight and revive the role of Arab women in history as means of empowerment.

First published in 1999, the study is guided by authentic sources in Islamic history, highlighting the role of women in Islamic teachings. The study notes that Muslim women held religious posts such as jurists, jurist scholars, muftis and religious teachers between the seventh and 18th century (first to 12th century hijra).

The study reveals five Islamic sharia posts that women have attained and excelled in beside their male counterparts.  

Among most prominent posts are the Faqihat (female jurists): The title of those who completed their studies and excelled in the sharia teachings. Motafaqehat (female jurist scholars): Those in the process of studying sharia law. Women Muftis (women issuing legal opinions): Religious teachers.

One the one hand, the oldest faqiha, or female jurist, is Zeinab Bint Abi Salma Al-Makhzomia who died in year 73 hijra and was the greatest faqiha of her time.

On the other hand, Omra Bint Abdel Rahman, who died in the year 100 hijra, was a close friend of Aisha, the wife of the Prophet Mohamed, and represents the second generation of women disciples. She was deeply knowledgeable in the Quran, sunna and Islamic fiqh, or jurisprudence, which lead most people of Al-Madina to consult her in religious teachings and doctrine. She was even the source of an Islamic ruling that banned the selling of unripe fruit.

Abdel Rahman also prohibited her nephew from cutting off a thief's hand who stole an iron ring, explaining that such punishment should be implemented for more valuable items, starting with half a dinar. She was well respected, and was referred to as 'the scholar’, as Ibn Saad explained in his book, Al Tabaqat Al Kobra.

As for female jurists of the fifth and sixth century hijra, Fatemah Bint Mohamed Ahmed Al-Samarqandi is one of Aleppo's most famous faqihat. She studied fiqh of the Hanafi sect, and wrote numerous books on the topic. She was acknowledged as one of the great sharia sources in Aleppo. It is worth mentioning that Taj Al-Nisaa Bint Rostom Ibn Abi Ragaa Al-Asbahani Om Ayman, who died in the year 611 hijra, held the high post of Sheikhat Al-Haram in Mecca. She was a very popular Islamic religious teacher.

One of the most popular faqihat in the 10th century hijra is Aisha Al-Baounia. She died in year 922 hijra and was known as a sufi sheikh, a literary scholar of Damascus, scientist, and worker. She studied in Cairo and was granted permission to teach and give official fatwas, or religious opinions.

Iftaa, or the issuing of religious opinions, existed during the life of the Prophet Mohammed, as followers regularly asked his opinion on religious and earthly matters. However, after the prophet’s death, people turned to the disciples, especially Aisha, the wife of the prophet. By the death of this generation of (Men and Women) disciples, Muslims leaned on people of wisdom, piety and great religious knowledge to ask for fatwas. Hence, beginning in the second century hijra, the number of muftis, those issuing fatwas, expanded. However, the position had certain strict qualifications that religious scholars agreed upon.

Women excelled in the realm of iftaa too. To name but a few: Khadiga Bint Haysoun Ibn Said Al-Tanoukhy, who died in the year 270 hijra, was one of the most famous muftis in Morocco. Om Eissa Bint Ibrahim Al-Harbi, who died in the year 338 hijra, and finally Aisha Al-Baaonia, who died in the year 922 hijra, were also renowned.

 Primary sources reveal that Al-Baaonia was granted official permission for iftaa. However, she was the last female mufti in the history of Islam. By the 13th century hijra it had become an official state-run post under the reign of the Ottomans. This closed the door on ijtehad, or interpretation, of religious doctrine to anyone outside the Fatwa Emini, the government institutions handling fatwas.  

*This article was first published on 26 July, 2013.

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