GENDER inequality is a common accusation made against Islam and a disparity in educational opportunities between men and women in many Muslim countries is often cited as a primary example of this. Education is seen as one of the pivotal factors in determining the economic, social and political advancement of a society and if, those making up over 50 percent of that society are denied such a basic fundamental right then needless to say human rights activists will seek to find reasons for this disparity. Religion, particularly Islam, is cited as a major stumbling block for women’s advancement. Studies have shown that in many parts of Africa and South East Asia, women’s acquisition of knowledge is fervently opposed; regulated to secondary importance as compared to men or encumbered with so many restrictions as to make it almost impossible for female students to acquire a decent standard of education.
This is a sad reflection upon Muslims and the societies that we have built since knowledge is one of the important pillars upon which the edifice of Islam has been raised. The very fact that the first revelation upon the Holy Prophet (blessings and peace be upon him) contained the commandment to “read” speaks volumes of the emphasis Islam lays on education. Within Islam, there is no disagreement found on acquisition of knowledge being binding and obligatory. The importance and excellence of knowledge are highlighted directly and indirectly in over 500 places in the Holy Qur’an. Indeed, one of the essential responsibilities of prophethood was the dissemination of knowledge and wisdom to all.
Allah Almighty says: “Likewise, We have sent you (Our) Messenger (blessings and peace be upon him) from amongst yourselves who recites to you Our Revelations and purifies and sanctifies (your hearts and ill-commanding selves) and teaches you the Book and inculcates in you logic and wisdom and enlightens you (on the mysteries of spiritual gnosis and divine truth) which you did not know.” [al-Baqara vs 151]
He also says: “He is the One Who sent a (Glorious) Messenger (blessings and peace be upon him) amongst the illiterate people from amongst themselves who recites to them His Revelations and cleanses and purifies them (outwardly and inwardly) and teaches them the Book and wisdom. Indeed, they were in open error before (his most welcome arrival).” [al-Jumua vs 2]
A basic principle of Islamic Shariah states that when a commandment is revealed, even if the masculine form of a word is used, the female gender is also included in this commandment. If this principle is rejected then the basic pillars of Islam such as prayer, fasting and pilgrimage will become null and void for women. So, though God Almighty and the Holy Prophet (blessings and peace be upon him) use the masculine form of sentence to describe most of the commandments, women are also bound to act and follow those rules and regulations.
The study of these verses clearly shows that the prophetic responsibilities of Prophet Muhammad (blessings and peace be upon him) through his prophethood included recital of the verses, purgation of the self, education of the Book and wisdom and communication of knowledge. If the doors of acquiring knowledge are closed for women or unjustified restrictions are imposed upon this acquisition, which religion will they act upon? How can they come to know the nature of the verses that have been revealed to them? How will they attain the wisdom and hikma that Allah Almighty wished them to know through the Holy Prophet (blessings and peace be upon him)? How are they to teach the fundamentals of the faith to their children if they have no knowledge of them themselves?
The Holy Prophet (blessings and peace be upon him) said: “Acquisition of knowledge is binding on all Muslims (both men and women without any discrimination). (Narrated by Ibn Maja)
It is apparent from the Holy Qur’an and hadith that the acquisition of knowledge is obligatory for women in the same way as in the case of men. The study of the life of the Holy Prophet (blessings and peace be upon him) also shows that he himself made special arrangements for the education and training of women.
Abu Sa‘id al-Khudri reports that some women said to the Holy Prophet (blessings and peace be upon him): “Men have gone ahead of us (in terms of acquisition of knowledge). Therefore, appoint a special day for our benefit as well.” The Holy Prophet (blessings and peace be upon him) fixed one day for them. He (blessings and peace be upon him) would meet them on that day, advise them and educate them about commandments of Allah Almighty. [Narrated by al-Bukhari in al-Sahih]
‘A’isha al-Siddiqa, mother of the faithful, was a hadith narrator, scholar, intellectual and jurist of great standing. She is believed to have reported 2,210 traditions. Abu Hurayra, ‘Abd Allah b. ‘Amr and Anas b. Malik (may Allah be well pleased with them) were the only ones from amongst male hadith narrators who had narrated more traditions than she did. This illustrates that women could not only teach women but also men after fulfilling certain preconditions.
It is important to note here that the concept of knowledge in Islam covers a broad spectrum of subjects.
The first commandment relates to “reading” as a part of a process of acquisition of knowledge. In addition to the description of Allah being the Creator and Sustainer, two branches of knowledge are mentioned, embryology and sociology. While indicating knowledge of biology and morality in these verses, the Qur’an explains the Islamic concept of knowledge as being very vast. Acquisition of knowledge embraces within in its fold, all of its branches, both religious and secular, which are productive for mankind. It is important to note that this is not restricted to the purview of the traditional religious sciences. Instead, many verses of the Holy Qur’an invite man to ponder and meditate over the creation of the universe. Thus it would be wrong to allow women to just partake in learning of the religious sciences and prohibit them from gaining a wider scope in their learning.
Indeed, those who quote the verses of the Holy Qur’an regarding the veil as an argument against women leaving the home in pursuit of knowledge are also severely misguided. If attending a school or college in the pursuit of knowledge constitutes breaking the laws of purdah then anytime a women steps out of her home would entail the same breakage of laws. This would, of course, create a ludicrous situation where a woman could never leave her home for any reason. If one looks at the verses regarding the veil, Allah states:
“And direct the believing women that they (too) must keep their eyes lowered and guard their chastity, and must not show off their adornments and beautification except that (part of it) which becomes visible itself.” [al-Nur vs 31]
“O Prophet! Say to your wives, your daughters and the women of believers that, (whilst going out,) they should draw their veils as coverings over them. It is more likely that this way they may be recognised (as pious, free women), and may not be hurt (considered by mistake as roving slave girls). And Allah is Most Forgiving, Ever-Merciful.” [12 al-Ahzab vs 59]
Neither of these verses prohibits a woman leaving her house. In fact, they merely stipulate that when she leaves the house she should observe the veil whilst outside. Indeed, these commandments are themselves a great justification for women stepping out of their homes and becoming active members within society. Moreover if the act of a woman stepping out of her home was prohibited, why did the revered wives of the Holy Prophet (blessings and peace be upon him) participate in battles? If we study the following traditions, we come to know the range of functions women performed during the period of prophethood.
The history of Islam is replete with the mention of women who obtained distinguished positions in the fields of hadith sciences, the science of interpretation, jurisprudence, medical science, poetry and calligraphy. [Shaykh-ul-Islam Dr Muhammad Tahir-ul-Qadri, Women Rights in Islam]
It is thus imperative, if a nation wishes to be successful and move towards a sustainable reality, the women of that society must be given every opportunity to attain knowledge and education which is not only their due but a right that has been ordained to them by Almighty Allah.