A Conversation with Dr. Mohammad Akram Nadwi (Part I)
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Author : Sajida Zubair

Dr. Mohammad Akram Nadwi,
Dean, Cambridge Islamic College & Principal,
Al Salam Institute
Sajida Zubair
Counselor and Life Skills Teacher.

Team Aura was extremely honoured to converse with a very respected and well-known scholar, Dr Mohammad Akram Nadwi. An alumnus of Darul Uloom Nadwatul Ulama, Shaykh Dr Akram is a world-renowned scholar of Indian origin, Dean of Cambridge Islamic College and an honorary visiting fellow at The Markfield Institute of Higher Education. He is the recipient of the Allama Iqbal Prize for Contribution to Islamic Thought and is the Principal of Al-Salam Institute. He has more than 60 books to his credit, in English, Arabic, and Urdu.

Q. Your multi-volume work Al-Muhaddithat has been well-received and it has been the subject of discussion for some time now. What prompted you to take up such a project and did you anticipate finding out so many female narrators and Hadith transmitters initially when you started to write this book?

Ans. It is a great favor from Allah swt that I am speaking today to you, and I am extremely happy that my sisters from India also are interested in this work. I’ve been giving talks on this subject for a long time, nearly 20-years across UK, Turkey, America, Malaysia, but very rarely in India. So, Alhamdullilah, that women are interested.

Around 1994 or ‘95, there were a few articles in the newspapers in the UK. They were quite negative about women and Islam and they put all the blame on Islam for Muslim women’s backwardness and the condition that they live in in most parts of the Muslim world. One thing is very clear for anybody who sees Muslim women – that Muslim society does not respect women. Just now, before coming to this talk, somebody said to me a statement from a very well-known Indian alim – if I mention his name, the whole world will be against me – what he says is, do not let the women to go to any celebration, and if they go, take their jewelry, ornaments and then they will not go. This way of thinking – to seek to oppress people, to force them to do something is equivalent to having no respect for the human mind. Women also have minds. Allah swt commands people; He explains good and bad. Then He says, those who want to follow good, they can follow, those who want to follow evil, they can follow. He gives the same choice to everyone. He respects the human mind: He is our Creator! Now we don’t have respect for anybody? We think the only way is to force women. Some people sent me a video of a dinner party by a prominent maulana of Pakistan, where somebody said, “I have written a poem about women.” The whole poem was an insult to women, and all the ulema were laughing at the women. If this is the condition, surely anybody will be angry. If people laugh at men that way, they will also be angry. So, we don’t recognise that women are human beings. This is not true of Islam, but Muslim society certainly behaves like that.

Anyway, when I read that article, it hurt me, because we do not want Islam to be blamed for anything. Then it came to my mind that I have been studying Hadith for a long time. So, I know that there are many women who are famous for their knowledge. I thought, if I put together their biographies, it will be an answer to these people, but more than that, really, it will be an encouragement for Muslim women to move forward, and then do something. It was also to show to the ulema that this is our past. So that’s why I started this project. It was not sponsored by any university, it was just my own interest. At Oxford, I used to do something else, and I started working a little bit, then more information came, I travelled to Syria, Egypt and other places, and I collected more information from manuscripts. There was so much information; I could not believe it. The volumes kept increasing and growing and numbers were growing. I remember when it reached 5000 women, one of my colleagues, a Christian Orientalist, came to me and said to me that, “Now you’ve collected information about 5000 women, I’m going to give you some writing by one of the famous Orientalists of Oxford.” He got it for me and the Orientalist had written that if Muslims could present names of five learned women in their religion, he would accept that Islam has space for women. By then I had recorded 5000 women. The number kept increasing – it came to nearly 9000, then 10,000. I remember once in Qatar, Shaikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, upon finding out how my work was never-ending, told me to pause and publish it. I only stopped because he asked. Even now after the book is out, I can easily add another 2000 women. I have more information to add about some of the women in my book about whom I only wrote a few lines. Some people asked me why I mentioned some of these women about whom there was such little information. The reason is because I knew sooner or later, the information would come. I said to the people, when Bukhari wrote his book on the biographies of the men, he often mentioned only one or two lines and now we know so much.

This is the first work of this kind – wait and watch, after me other people will come, and there will be more research about other areas of the Muslim world, other periods, in other languages. I know Persian but I didn’t study any Persian sources, Central Asian sources, Uzbek, or Turkish sources. So there are many more areas. It’s just one man’s work from the languages he knows, and from the sources that were available. In the future it will grow. I am very happy. Let me tell you one thing, the book came out as Muqaddimah, as a short introduction. I was invited to the United States to deliver a lecture and one of the students, who is also an activist, showed me her copy of the book with notes on every page. She said that since the book has come, many women in Sudan, in Middle East, in the US, many of whom who had left Islam came back because they said Islam is truly amazing. So, this research has helped people, and I recently came from umrah, and the women and men, they’re so happy in Saudi Arabia as well. From the depth of my heart I want to help women in general, Muslim women in particular and women in India even more particularly. Because that is where I am from and I see that the conditions of Muslim women in that part of the world are much worse compared to Middle East or other parts.

Q. This indeed is going to be a very huge contribution in encouraging women from our community, Insha Allah, and I congratulate you on this journey of yours in finding out, enlightening the women of our community, in knowing how women contributed in expanding their knowledge as well as spreading it. You have addressed many Hadith transmitters and scholars who were women. For those who haven’t read it, or have not known about the book, or have not read any introduction of it, could you tell us about the women scholar that today’s women could learn from and treat her as an example?

The first thing that I would advise you is that though the book is expensive for India, if you can put it out on social media, collect some money, each one of you should think whether you can find a few people who could sponsor one copy, and make it available in the Indian university and libraries. Some copies have gone to Nadwa, Deoband, Saharanpur, Islah, Falah, Rampur and Madrasah Salafiyyah. The book has been written and now it is the duty of all of us to make it easily available.

What I saw in the lives of these women – their conditions were much worse than ours. People complain in our time about being occupied by family life. But all these women had family lives. Some were poor, some rich, some had children, some had family problems, some were divorced. They didn’t complain, they managed, they made efforts, in the realm of what Islam allowed them, they used it. For example, in my classes, I always insist that whenever I teach, men and women should equally be allowed in my classes, yet sometimes I feel that women are not coming as much as they should. So women have to utilize the space and these women in history did so, whatever space they were given. They were honest and they wanted to learn their religion and learn it purely for Allah. That’s perhaps why there are no recorded Hadith fabricators who are accused of lying. Among male transmitters there are many but none among women.

Women made amazing contributions. One quarter of Islamic teachings of shariah is based on women’s teaching. The remaining three-quarters are shared by men and women both. All the big books of Islam – across madhab, many rulings are derived from the Hadith of women.

And the ulema never thought or argued that “Oh, this Hadith is from a woman, how can we trust it?” No! They accepted it. There are many things based only on women’s Hadith and they are part of our religion. In no religion in the world you will find that women have played such an important role in the formative period of the religion, except Islam. So, I am trying to say that, women actually had roles in every aspect – all the big books, like Sahih Bukhari, Sahih Muslim, Tirmidhi, Nasa’i, Majah and hundreds and hundreds of books, they all have been taught by the women, and not just taught: the women’s chain of narration, that is the highest one, and most accurate one. For example, after the Quran, the most accurate book is Sahih Bukhari. If you want to find out which copy of Sahih Bukhari is the most sound one, you might think that it’s always taught by the men in the best of madrasas, so maybe it would be a man’s. But the most sound copy of Sahih Bukhari in the whole world is a copy of a woman, her name is Karīma bint Ahmad b. Muhammad al-Marwaziyya, died , 464/63\. She was amazing. She never allowed people to study from her, unless they copied from her copy, they compared with her, and then she would allow them, give them ijazah, that they could teach.

There are other women, such as Umm al-Khayr Fatimah bint Ibrahim (d. 711). She is also a teacher of Sahih Bukhari. I found her biography and that of two or three other women. She came from Syria and she had the highest isnaad of Sahih Bukhari, and many learned people learned from her. She came from Hajj and she came to Madinah. She taught Hadith in the mosque of the Prophet (SAW) in Madinah. The scholar Ibn Rushayd says: “She came in the Syrian caravan as a visitor and pilgrim. I met her in the mosque of the Prophet (SAW), and many Hadith were read to her while she was leaning on the side of the wall of the grave of the Prophet (SAW), at the head…She wrote ijazah with her own hand for me and for others.” If a Muslim society did not have respect for women, how would they allow a woman to sit next to the grave of the Prophet (SAW), in front of his head, in the graveyard, and lean on the grave? They respected her and got ijazah from her. There are few women like that, in the Hateem (Hijr Ismail), and how three women were teaching in the Hateem. I say – if you are noble, you should respect women. Because you need to thank them for what they have done for our religion. Many books of the Hadith are only available to us now because of these women learning and teaching them. Women kept many of these books alive. Tabarani’s Al Mu’jam al-Kabir, was narrated by Fatima Al-Juzdaniyah (d. 524), who was his student. Her student who came from Spain, in turn revived Hadith science in Egypt. Another famous scholar is Fatima al-Samarqandi, she also knew her father’s (Muhammad ibn Ahmad al-Samarqandi) Tuhfat al Fuquha by heart. He had a student, Al-Kasani, who studied with him and then asked his teacher for his daughter’s hand. Al-Samarqandi denied, because he knew that his daughter was more knowledgeable than his student. It was only when Al-Kasani wrote a commentary upon his teacher’s book – Bada’i’ al-Sana’i’ fi Tartib al-Shara’i upon being challenged, that he was allowed to marry Fatima Al-Samarqandi. Think really – the best book in the Hanafi madhab is written only to marry a woman.

Q. I think Al-Muhaddithat is going to be a very revolutionary book in the history of Islam in the future. The role of women in the public sphere today is heavily contested, even curtailed in certain places, sometimes due to over emphasis on culture rather than the deen. To take up a minor example, even when women scholars are called to address programs they are often restricted to topics that are seen as ‘women’s issues’, like hijab, family life, and not others that they are equally capable of addressing. How different is this from the time the Prophet (SAW) and immediately after that?

When you study about the Prophet (SAW), he never actually distinguished between men and women in the fields of learning, teaching or fighting. He did not make jihad obligatory for women, but if they want to, they will get rewarded for that; similar is jumuah prayer, where attending the prayer in the mosque was not obligatory on the women, but if they attend the prayer they will get the reward. He said “Don’t stop them from coming to the mosque.” You can see there are women doing jihad, fighting with swords, and the Prophet himself encourages them. In the Battle of Yarmouk, there were 35 women fighting. Tell me really – if women fight men in the battlefield, will the people of the battlefield respect them because they’re women, if they’re the enemy? No! They will get hurt like everybody else. If Muslim women were allowed to fight in the battlefield against the enemy, which public space is not good for the women? Look at Aisha RA, she led an army, gave speeches, and then she continued teaching. Look at tawaaf – if you have done hajj and umrah, especially on the last day of the last tawaaf, men and women are so crowded and mixing and pushing each other. Have you seen any mixing more than that? If in this religion, tawaaf is allowed, then tell me what is not allowed?

I think people are mostly citing culture. The same people who say these things, they will meet a woman minister and sit next to her; if a woman is a counsellor, they will take her advice; if she is a judge, they come to her; if she is a lawyer, they go to her. Muslim men meet women all the time, but when it comes to their own women, they make restrictions. This is not from the Quranic principles or from principles of fairness. In the Quran you find active women in society, whether it was Musa AS’ sister, or the sisters he met watering their camels in Madyan, or Maryam AS who gave birth to Isa AS and brought her child in public. They identify her by face, they know her and they ask her what happened to her. If all women covered their face, how would this recognition be possible?

The thing is – women should move forward, study, learn. Indians talk a lot about women’s empowerment and I want to say that the real empowerment is knowledge, teaching people, educating them. I tell women – you continue teaching and men will come to you, seek your knowledge, there is no need to fight or get into arguments. I sometimes feel that women are doing more service to their religion because they are not cheating or deceiving and are more sincere. They don’t aspire to positions of power. One of my students in Bombay, she teaches tafseer but some ulema tell her that women are not allowed to teach men. I told her – don’t say anything, keep working. If women did not teach Hadith, then where would we be? How did we all learn? Many of our teachers are not relatives, not mahram. All pious people in history have been learning in this way. Don’t argue, keep working hard, the truth will spread, In Sha Allah. Many people who criticised me and accused me for allowing women in my classes now themselves teach women.

1 Comment

  1. Humera

    It’s really so amazing to know womens contributions in such vast area of life….. beautiful and encouraging conversation…


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