Carla Power writes: When I told a Muslim friend of mine that I was to be studying the Koran with a sheikh [Sheikh Mohammad Akram Nadwi], she had one request. “Ask him,”she said, “why Muslim men treat women so badly.”
When I did, he said it was because men weren’t reading the Koran properly.
All too often, people read the Koran selectively, the Sheikh explained, taking phrases out of context.
“People just use it for whatever point they want to make,” he shrugged. “They come to it with their own ideas and look for verses that confirm what they want to hear.”
In 1998, I went to Afghanistan to report on life for women under the Taliban. During their five-year reign in Kabul, the Taliban’s major policy initiative was to ban anything that they deemed to be un-Islamic, including kites, nail polish, and the public display of women’s faces.
The most devastating of the Taliban edicts, however, was the ban on women’s education.
At one point during my trip I asked the father of a ten-year-old girl whether she ever went out. His answer: “For what?”
In the years that the Taliban were busy keeping women at home and uneducated, Akram was uncovering a radically different version of Islamic tradition. Its luminaries included women like Ummal-Darda, a seventh-century jurist and scholar who taught jurisprudence in the mosques of Damascus and Jerusalem.
Her students were men, women, and even the caliph. Another woman in Akram’s research discoveries: the fourteenth- century Syrian scholar Fatimah al- Bataihiyyah, who taught both men and women in the Prophet’s mosque in Medina, drawing students from as far away as Fez.
It had begun by accident, he explained. Reading classical texts on hadith (the words and deeds of the Prophet Muhammad), he kept running across women’s names as authorities. He decided to do a biographical dictionary—a well-established genre in Muslim scholarly culture—that included all the women experts of hadith.
“A short book, then?” I teased.
“That’s what I thought, too,” said Akram. “I was expecting to find maybe twenty or thirty women. I was planning to publish a pamphlet. But it seems there are more.”
“Really?” I said. “Well, like how many more?”
Akram’s work, al-Muhaddithat: The Women Scholars in Islam, stands as a riposte to the notion, peddled from Kabul to Mecca, that Islamic knowledge is men’s work and always has been. “I do not know of another religious tradition in which women were so central, so present, so active in its formative history,” Akram wrote. [Continue reading…]