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Female Education: A View from Early Islam

ويكره للنساء الحرائر الشباب أن يكون سكناهن في الغرف الشارعات، ويكره لهن تعلم الكتابة، وقراءة الكتب

It is hated for free, young women to live in rooms on the street level, and it is hated for them to learn how to write, or read books.

— Twelver Shi’ite scholar “Sheikh al-Mufid” (d. 413 AH/1022 CE). Ahkam al-Nisaa

Over the past half-century, no force has shaped progress in the Muslim world more than education. Universities have been established, schooling has become normalized, and recognition of the need for a knowledge economy has become a routine fact of life. Today, a girl in the Middle East is largely born into a society that acknowledges not only her ability and potential, but also her right to follow her passion, obtain an education, and even travel to other countries in pursuit of learning. Not only do women constitute the majority of students at most Middle Eastern universities, but in early 2013 it was reported that of the nearly 40,000 students from Saudi Arabia studying at American universities, 60 percent are women — a fact that a few generations ago would have been unfathomable. Simply, female education in the Middle East and Muslim world has become a reality of everyday life, which shows no signs of abating. In the process, it is serving to change societies for the better, forge notions of gender equality, and bring about changes in social relations, human rights, and even government. In short, female education in the Middle East is one of the greatest and clearest testimonies to the power of Western diplomacy, soft engagement, and technical assistance in altering perceptions, catalyzing change, and forging a more peaceful world.

However, this has not always been the case. Throughout much of Islamic history — and in some parts of the Muslim world today — women have faced an uphill battle for educational equality, and were often systematically denied the right to pursue formal education. As the above quote demonstrates — religious and cultural fears related to gender mixing, sexual morality, and public roles for women resulted not only in a limited social role outside the home, but also curbs on private and public learning.

Despite these religious and cultural pressures, however, public education did exist in early Islamic history, and across broad swaths of geography. And there are indications that — despite the odds — at least some women participated in it. The following story from the 10th century, for example, makes this clear:

وحدثني أحمد بن جعفر ، قال : حدثني أحمد بن الفضل الكاتب أن غلاما وجارية كانا في كتاب فهويها الغلام فلم يزل يتلطف بمعلمه حتى صيره قرينا لها ، فلما كان في بعض أيامه عند غفلة من الغلمان وقع في لوح الجارية : ماذا تقولين فيمن شفه أرق من جهد حبك صار حيرانا فلما نظرت إليه الجارية اغرورقت عيناها بالدموع رحمة له ، ووقعت في أسفله : إذا رأينا محبا قد أضر به طول الصبابة أوليناه إحسانا

A young boy, and a girl, were in a school (kuttab) together. The boy fell in love with her, and did not desist in being kind to his teacher (muallim) — until he partnered them together. One day, when the other boys were not paying attention, he came closer to the girl, and wrote on her writing tablet, “What do you think of a person who cannot sleep because of his love for you, and becomes confused?”

The young girl looked at him, her eyes overflowing with tears of mercy towards him, and wrote under it, “When I see a lover who is suffering from longing, I have pity for him.”

— Muhammad ibn Jafar al-Kharaiti (d. 327 AH/938 CE). Itilal al-Qulub (“The Illness of Hearts”)

Female education does have precedence in Islamic history. At the same time, there were also religious and cultural forces that tried to impede it. However, the nature of public schooling in Islamic history — and women’s participation in it — remains both a point of scholarly contention, and under researched. In this post, I will present quotations from Arabic legal and literary works that will shed light on not only the nature of this education, but also female participation in the public space. It will cover:

While it is largely irrelevant today (as female education is a success across much of the Muslim world), without understanding the past, not only do we do a disservice to history, and those who suffered from misogyny and ill-informed worldviews — but we are also unable to appreciate the evolution and successes that have taken place over the last half-century with women’s rights in the Middle East. Sometimes, understanding the attitudes that traditionally led to the curtailment of female education can be just as important as the subject itself. It is my hope that this post accurately conveys all of these dynamics.

Literacy and Writing: The Basis of Islamic Education

According to the Muslim historian Al-Baladhuri (d. 297 AH/892 CE), at the beginning of Islam, only 17 Muslim men knew how to write. However, significantly, five women did as well: Al-Shafaa bint Abdallah; Hafsa, the daughter of Umar, and wife of the Prophet Muhammad; Umm Kulthum bint Uqbah; Aisha bint Saad; and Karima bint al-Miqdad.

Significantly, one of the women on the list is Aisha bint Saad (d. 117 AH/735 CE) — the daughter of Saad ibn Abi Waqqas, one of the foremost of the Prophetic companions (sahaba). Her testimony (while perhaps not historically viable, is still valuable for its perceptions) is significant in highlighting not only the informal nature of schooling at the time, but also the rights afforded by her father:

وحدثني الوليد ، عَنِ الواقدي ، عن فروة ، عن عائشة بنت سَعْد ، أنها قالت : علمني أَبِي الكتاب

Aisha bint Saad said, “My father taught me writing.”

— Ahmad ibn Yahya al-Baladhuri (d. 297 AH/892 CE). Futuh al-Buldan

In a similar vein, another female Muslim — Al-Shafaa bint Abdallah — was known to have learned writing during the pre-Islamic time period (jahaliyya), and according to an authentic (sahih) account found in some of the major Sunni hadith books, was commended by the Prophet Muhammad himself for having taught writing to his wife, Hafsa:

وحدثني بكر بن الهيثم ، قال : حدثنا عبد الرزاق ، عن معمر ، عن الزهري ، عن عبيد الله بن عبد الله بن عقبة ، أن النبي صلى الله عليه وسلم ، قال للشفاء بنت عبد الله العدوية ، من رهط عمر بن الخطاب : ألا تعلمين حفصة رقية النملة كما علمتها الكتابة ، وكانت الشفاء كاتبة في الجاهلية

The Prophet said to Shafaa bint Abdallah al-Adawiyya: “Why do you not teach Hafsa the ruqya for ant bites, as you taught her writing?” And Shafaa knew how to write during the time of jahaliyya.

— Ahmad ibn Yahya al-Baladhuri (d. 297 AH/892 CE). Futuh al-Buldan

Slowly, even during the lifetime of Muhammad, writing became the sole skill of what could be considered “formal” education. It was taught not only to children, but also adults:

حدثنا عبد الله حدثني أبي ثنا على بن عاصم قال قال داود ثنا عكرمة عن بن عباس قال : كان ناس من الأسرى يوم بدر لم يكن لهم فداء فجعل رسول الله صلى الله عليه و سلم فداءهم ان يعلموا أولاد الأنصار الكتابة قال فجاء يوما غلام يبكى إلى أبيه فقال ما شأنك قال ضربني معلمي قال الخبيث يطلب بذحل بدر والله لا تأتيه أبدا

Ibn Abbas reported that the captives on the day of the Battle of Badr could not find money to ransom themselves. So, the Prophet made their ransom that they teach the children of the Ansar how to write.

— Ahmad ibn Hanbal (d. 241 AH/855 CE). Al-Musnad

حدثنا أبو بكر قال حدثنا وكيع وحميد بن عبد الرحمن عن مغيرة بن زياد عن عبادة بن نسي عن الأسود بن ثعلبة عن عبادة بن الصامت قال : علمت ناسا من أهل الصفة الكتابة والقرآن

Ubadah ibn Samit reported, “The people of Ahl al-Suffah were taught writing, and the Koran.”

– Abu Bakr Ibn Abi Shaybah (d. 235 AH/849 CE). Al-Musannaf

However, writing was not universally sought, and remained a skill largely applicable to the public domain: To draft business contracts, make treaties, safeguard genealogies and religious knowledge, and record inheritances and wills. It was an activity that was intimately associated with public roles. Moreover, not knowing how to write was not equivalent with not knowing how to read. It was reported that Aisha, the wife of the Prophet Muhammad, knew how to read, but not write:

حدثني الوليد ، عَنِ الواقدي ، عَنِ ابن أَبِي سبرة ، عَنِ ابن عون ، عَنِ ابن مياح ، عن عائشة ، أنها كانت تقرأ المصحف ولا تكتب

It is reported that Aisha used to read the Koran, but she did not write.

— Ahmad ibn Yahya al-Baladhuri (d. 297 AH/892 CE). Futuh al-Buldan

In the socio-regional context of the early Muslim community, however — where writing was still not widespread — it would have been largely associated with prominent, public roles. Moreover, learning to write was seemingly the highest level of formal education at the time. Yet, the earliest reports indicate that women were not prohibited from learning it. If contextualized today — we could assume that this would not preclude women from higher education, such as universities. Indeed, even 500 years later, when writing had become prominent throughout the Islamic world, and recording of knowledge and literature in written form was widespread — it was still intimately associated with public roles. As one poet said:

ما للنساء وللكتا … بة والعمالة والخطابة؟

What do women have to do with writing? In it is employment (al-umalah), and public speaking (al-khatabah).

— Raghib al-Isfahani (d. 502 AH/1108 CE). Muhadarat al-Udaba

We can only imagine that this would have been the case, but much more so, during early Islamic history when the Prophet Muhammad and those around him sanctioned women learning how to write.

Slowly, a culture of writing and education began to take hold in the early Islamic community. This would give rise to a new type of formal education: The kuttab.

The Kuttab in Early Islamic Education

From early Islamic literature, a clear picture of education emerges. Much like today, schools existed, and parents paid tuition to teachers for education in subjects necessary for moral and material success: Koranic memorization, reading, writing, grammar, and arithmatic. These elementary forms of education took place in a type of school known as a kuttab (pl. katatib) — related to the words kitaab (book) and kataba (writing). Although the structure of the kuttab differed — in some cases, teachers taught for free as a gesture of good will, and out of respect for the knowledge they imparted — in some of the more formal settings, classes were held every day, except for Fridays. Students were even given vacations. The location of the kuttab varied — it could be in a neighbor’s house, or more formally, in a rented space. Sometimes, parents would even send their children away to learn with a teacher in another city. Sometimes, teachers in the kuttab could be from a non-Muslim religious minority (Jewish, Christian, Zoroastrian, or others), while other times the teacher was a Muslim, teaching to students of mixed backgrounds.

حدثنا أبو بكر قال حدثنا وكيع عن صدقة بن موسى الدمشقي عن الوضين بن عطاء قال : كان بالمدينة ثلاثة معلمين يعلمون الصبيان ، فكان عمر بن الخطاب يرزق كل واحد منهم خمسة عشر كل شهر

Al-Wadayn ibn Ataa (d. 149 AH/766 CE) said: “In Medina there were three teachers who taught the young people. So, Umar ibn al-Khattab gave them each 50 (dirhams or dinars) per month.”

– Abu Bakr Ibn Abi Shaybah (d. 235 AH/849 CE). Al-Musannaf

This report communicates the earliest possibility of a formal educational structure within the Muslim community. Although it was reported by a man who had not lived during the time of Umar ibn al-Khattab, the second Islamic caliph — the perception of the state having a role in funding teachers and education is important. However, largely, what we see is that as Islam spread, education was the domain of private teachers, even if they operated in public.

We also know that the structure of the kuttab differed. In some cases, some Muslim scholars believed teachers should work for free — something untenable if schooling was a full-time activity. However, at roughly the same time, we know that there were teachers who taught full-time, and were paid. Therefore, there seemingly existed different types of schools: Some students went full-time, others went part-time.

Of those who believed that the teacher should not charge money, they held that if he was “gifted” something, then it could be accepted:

وقال الشعبي لا يشترط المعلم إلا أن يعطى شيئا فليقبله . وقال الحكم لم أسمع أحدا كره أجر المعلم . وأعطى الحسن دراهم عشرة

Al-Shabi (d. 100 AH/718 CE) said, “The teacher should not make salary a condition, but if he is given something, he should accept it.” Al-Hakam ibn Utayba (d. 115 AH/733 CE) said, “I have not heard anyone object to the earnings of a teacher.” And, Hassan al-Basri (d. 110 CE/728 AH) gave him 10 dirhams (per month).

— Muhammad ibn Ismail al-Bukhari (d. 256 AH/870 CE). Sahih al-Bukhari

The composition of the kuttab was diverse as well. It is reported that a teacher in Medina — Islam’s second holiest city — was a Zoroastrian:

حدثنا أبو بكر قال حدثنا وكيع قال حدثنا ابن مهدي عن مهدي بن ميمون عن ابن سيرين قال : كان بالمدينة معلم عنده من أبناء أولياء الفخام ، قال : فكانوا يعرفون حقه في النيروز والمهرجان

Ibn Sirin (d. 100 AH/728 CE) reported that in Medina there was a teacher who taught the children of nobility. They recognized his right (to celebrate) the spring festival (Nowruz) and the autumn festival (Mehrejan).

– Abu Bakr Ibn Abi Shaybah (d. 235 AH/849 CE). Al-Musannaf

The issue that arose was as to whether Muslims would be imitating other religions by taking non-Muslim religious holidays off from school, and if parents were obligated to pay the teacher for the day that was taken off. Similar issues and realities were mentioned in later writings about education, making it clear that since early Islamic history, religious diversity has been a central feature of schooling. Other times, the teacher would be a Muslim, but taught to a class composed of not only Muslims, but also Jewish and Christian children:

حدثنا يزيد ، عن حماد بن سلمة ، عن حبيب المعلم ، قال : سألت الحسن ، قلت : أعلم أولاد أهل الذمة القرآن ؟ ، فقال :  نعم ، أو ليس يقرأون التوراة والإنجيل وهما من القرآن ، أو قال : وهما من كتاب الله عز وجل

Hassan al-Basri (d. 110 AH/728 CE) was asked, “Are dhimmi children taught the Koran?” He said, “Yes, do they not recite the Torah and Gospel, and they are part of the Koran?” Or he said, “And they are from the Book of Allah.”

– Al-Qasim ibn Sallam (d. 224 AH/838 CE). Fada’il al-Quran

There are also indications that within the Islamic state, not only could teachers of different faiths teach Muslims — but minority religious communities maintained their own schools, which accepted Muslim children as students. In one educational text (to be discussed more later), reference is made to a “Christian school” (kuttab al-nasara):

وفي المَوّازِيَةِ : وكَرِهَ مالكٌ أن يَطرحَ المسلم ولَدَه في كُتَّابِ النَّصارى، ولسَحنون قال : ولا يَجوز لِلْمُعلم أنْ يُعلَّم أولادَ النَّصارى الكتابةَ ولا القرآن. وقل ابنُ حبيب قِيل لمالكِ : أيُعلَّمُ أبناءَ المُشركين الخطَّ دونَ القرآنِ ؟ فقال : لا، وعظّم فيه الكَراهيَةَ

It is narrated from Malik ibn Anas (d. 179 AH/795 CE) that he hated that a Muslim send his son to a Christian school (kuttab al-nasara). And Ibn Sahnun said: It is not permissible to teach the children of Christians writing, or the Koran. And Ibn Habib said, “I asked Malik, are polytheist children allowed to be taught handwriting, separate from the Koran?” He replied, “No, there is great dislike in that.”

— Abu al-Hassan al-Qabisi (d. 403 AH/1012 CE). Al-Risalah al-Mufassalah, p. 122

The above quote communicates the opinions of the Maliki school of Sunni Islamic law. However, it is notable that other early Islamic personalities, such as the previous quotation from Hassan al-Basri, did not object to non-Muslim children learning the Koran in schools (much less how to write in Arabic). As we will come to see, Muslim jurists operated in largely theoretical spaces, and throughout history have been forced to negotiate their ideals, with realities on the ground. Simply, this quote confirms the historical reality of not only Christian schools, but also Muslim children learning in them. If they did not exist — the idea and exhortation for them to be avoided would not contextually make sense. The reality existed — Islamic scholars simply sought to sometimes caution against the reality. And as will be seen with female education, this dichotomy often prevailed as well.

Finally, on the topic of school structure, it is often assumed that schooling took place in houses — but textual evidence of such practice is hard to corroborate. However, there is one narration from a Twelver Shia hadith book which lends support to the notion that private homes also served as schools at some point in early Islamic history:

عن العبد الصالح (ع) قال قلت: إن لنا جارا يكتب وقد سألني أن أسألك عن عمله فقال: مره إذا دفع إليه الغلام أن يقول لاهله إني إنما أعلمه الكتاب والحساب واتجر عليه بتعليم القرآن حتى يطيب له كسبه

Jafar al-Sadiq, the 6th Imam (d. 148 AH/765 CE), was asked, “We have a neighbor who can write, and he asked me to ask you about his work.” He replied, “If a boy is sent to him, then he should teach him writing, and arithmetic, and he should charge for teaching the Koran in order to purify his income.”

– Muhammad ibn al-Hassan al-Tusi (d. 460 AH/1067 CE). Tadhib al-Ahkam

Essentially, the kuttab imparted foundational skills that were necessary for life (and survival) — although, these skills seem to have been separate from job training. Today, it is what we would term “elementary education” — although it clearly had a moral component to it as well, as Koranic memorization was a central feature. Although forms of “higher education” did exist, these were largely relegated to the elite. Simply, while the kuttab imparted rudimentary skills, as an institution it was very much a public form of mass education, with goals very similar to education today.

Soon — from merely three teachers in Medina, the kuttab became ubiquitous across vast geographical areas. Even to the point where, according to the ninth-century literary icon Al-Jahiz — the phrase “stupider than a school teacher” (ahmaqu min muallim kuttab) came into vogue. However, Al-Jahiz goes on to explain himself — and in the process provides a unique portrait of teachers and education at the time:

والمعلِّمون عندي على ضربين: منهم رجال ارتفعوا عن تعليم أولاد العامّة إلى تعليم أولاد الخاصّة، ومنهم رجال ارتفعوا عن تعليم أولاد الخاصّة إلى تعليم أولاد الملوك أنفسِهم المرشحين للخلافة … فإنْ ذهبوا إلى معلِّمي كتاتيب القُرى فإنّ لكلِّ قوم حاشيةً وسَفِلة، فما هم في ذلك إلاّ كغيرهم

In my view, teachers are of two types: Those who have risen above teaching children of the masses, to teach children of the elite. And, those who have risen above teaching the children of the elite, to teach the children of kings, who will succeed them in (ruling) the caliphate…Even if you go to the school teachers in villages — with every people there are the superior, and the inferior — and they (teachers) are no different.

— Al-Jahiz (d. 255 AH/869 CE), Al-Bayan wa al-Tabyin

Females in Public Education

In Kufah, during the ninth century A.D., there is mention of several instances where maidens were seen in school. In the quarter of Banu ‘Abs at Kufah there was an elementary school, maktab, a member of which was a girl. Not only young girls, but apparently young women, attended school also, as is proved by the story of a certain man who made friends with a schoolmaster in Kufah, in order to be able to get a glimpse of his sweetheart who attended that school. Khalil al-Mu’allim taught boys and girls in the same place. It is told that al-Walid ibn Abd al-Malik, an Umayyad Caliph, (715 A.D.) once passed a place where a schoolmaster was instructing boys, and among them was a maid, jariah, learning the Quran.

— Khalil A. Totah, p. 80, The Contribution of the Arabs to Education (1926)

There is no evidence to suggest girls joined the katatib.

— Eeqbal Hassim, p. 68, Elementary Education and Motivation in Islam (2010)

Where does the truth lie between these two statements? Do literary and legal texts from Islamic history tell us that girls participated in public education? Or, do they not? In this section, I will adduce and translate every reference that exists from Islamic historical literature (at least that I have been able to find) which speaks about female education in the public domain — for better or worse. Surely, however, more references exist which I missed, are in books that are either non-Arabic or are unpublished, or have been lost to history.

To start, the accounts of female, public education provided above can be corroborated. However, the author omitted some key context. For instance, it is true that an account exists where the Umayyad caliph Al-Walid ibn Abd al-Malik witnessed a girl learning the Koran in a public school. The problem that exists is — she was derided for doing so.

مر الوليد بن عبد الملك بمعلم صبيان فرأى جارية فقال ويلك ما لهذه الجارية قال اعلمها القرآن قال فليكن الذي يعلمها اصغر منها

Al-Walid ibn Abd al-Malik passed by a teacher of young boys (muallim al-sibyan), and saw a young girl. He said, “What is this young girl doing here?” The teacher said, “I am teaching her the Koran.” Al-Walid replied, “Ensure that the one who teaches her is younger than her.”

— Al-Jahiz (d. 255 AH/869 CE), Al-Bayan wa al-Tabyin

Therefore, while indeed the story in question concedes that a girl was learning in a public space — at the same time, the overwhelming focus was on the potential for gender mixing, and sexual temptation. Although she was learning the Koran, Al-Walid sought to ensure that only a boy younger than her be allowed to teach. Therefore, in this case, education did occur — but the attitudes are still not conducive to female empowerment. As will be seen, this is largely the case with other evidence of female education.

In another case recounted above — a man passed by a girl learning in a public school, and fell in love with her. Though, he was later rebuffed, and died from love.

حَدَّثَنِي مُحَمَّدُ بْنُ خلف بْن المرزبان ، قَالَ : حَدَّثَنَا أَبُو بكر العمري ، قَالَ : حَدَّثَنَا أَبُو صَالِح الأزدي ، قَالَ : حَدَّثَنَا مُحَمَّدُ بْنُ الحسين الكوفي ، قَالَ : حَدَّثَنَا مُحَمَّدُ بْنُ سماعة ، قَالَ : آخر من مات من العشق علي بْن أديم الجعفي ، مر بمكتب فِي بني عبس بالكوفة ، فرأى فِيهِ جارية تسمى منهلة

Another person who died from love is Ali ibn Adeem al-Jufi, he passed by a school (maktab) of Bani Abs in Kufah, and saw in it a young girl…

— Abu al-Farj al-Isfahani (d. 356 AH/967 CE). Kitab al-Aghani

Although this narration does provide an interesting insight — schools could be run and established by tribes — it is still not ideal in proving the widespread existence of female education. Moreover, both of these accounts rely on testimony from other people. Al-Jahiz, for instance, lived long after Al-Walid ibn Abd al-Malik. Similarly, Al-Isfahani above uses a chain of narrators in his story. Although surely these authors would not have included these stories had they not made contextual sense during their lifetimes (meaning, these stories would not have made sense had female education not existed), the fact is that their historical veracity is questionable. Surely, tribal maktabs existed — or else the story would contextually make no sense to a reader of that time period. And, surely, some people felt like chiding young girls who went to schools — as Al-Walid ibn Abd al-Malik is recorded as having done. But, did these events occur? It is doubtful.

However, regardless of the historical authenticity of these accounts — at the least, they provide a glimpse into how education operated at some point in Islamic history. For instance — the account of Umar ibn al-Khattab paying the salaries of teachers is probably not from his lifetime. But, it does show that at some point in early Islamic history, the issue of state subsidies for education arose, and became either so prevalent, or of concern for some people, that they sought to give justification to it through attributing the practice to a prominent early Muslim figure such as Umar ibn al-Khattab. Similarly, we cannot prove that the man in one of the narrations above actually asked the Shia Imam Jafar al-Sadiq about his neighbor who was a teacher. Though, what it does prove is that sometime near when the book in question was compiled — education in private homes was a normal phenomenon. Therefore, although there are sometimes difficulties in proving the historicity of Islamic source material, they nonetheless can yield clues as to the nature of early Islamic societies. Though, in some cases, there are chains of narrators that truly are reliable and can give us a glimpse into very early Islamic history. It is only with these facts that we can properly contextualize reports from Islamic history.

As for the story of “Khalil al-Muallim” — the man who allegedly “taught boys and girls in the same place,” another crucial detail is also missing. While he did teach boys the Koran — the girls he taught were slave girls, whom he instructed in singing, not in education.

كان خليل المعلم يلقب خليلان وكان يؤدب الصبيان ويلقنهم القرآن والخط ويعلم الجواري الغناء في موضع واحد

Khalil al-Muallim taught young boys the Koran, and writing — and he taught slave girls singing — in the same place.

— Abu al-Farj al-Isfahani (d. 356 AH/967 CE). Kitab al-Aghani

This brings up a rather uncomfortable fact — slave girls were often given opportunities for formal education more readily than “free” women. Note that here, there is no mention of equal female education — slave girls specifically are singled out (it is possible to ascertain this because singing was by and large only taught to slave girls). Because, culture and learning — especially singing and poetry — were seen as virtues for slave girls. Moreover, they were skills that — while it is difficult to fathom — increased their “value” in slave markets. Even the word for “young girl” (jariah) is the same word used for “slave girl.” So, while context might be able to tell us otherwise, there is no definitive way to prove that any of these accounts of female education involved “free” women, rather than slaves. Since they were “commodities” that could be bought and sold — the typical Arab penchant for guardianship and jealousy over slave women was significantly lessened, and with that, fears over gender mixing or moral corruption. Slave women, in classical Sunni Islamic jurisprudence, are also given significantly looser requirements in terms of modesty. They did not need to wear veils, and could display their breasts in public. Essentially, because they were viewed as objects — their masters sought to educate them, in order to sell them at higher prices and make a profit. Therefore, female education did exist — but seemingly often not in the way envisioned. This is also why Sheikh al-Mufid — the Twelver Shia scholar quoted at the beginning of this post — specifies that free women should not be allowed to learn to read or write. Clearly, slave women were exempted.

Moving on, of course, the quote above also references the story of the young boy in school (presented in the introduction), who went to great lengths in being kind to his teacher, so he could be “partnered” with the girl he liked:

وحدثني أحمد بن جعفر ، قال : حدثني أحمد بن الفضل الكاتب أن غلاما وجارية كانا في كتاب فهويها الغلام فلم يزل يتلطف بمعلمه حتى صيره قرينا لها ، فلما كان في بعض أيامه عند غفلة من الغلمان وقع في لوح الجارية : ماذا تقولين فيمن شفه أرق من جهد حبك صار حيرانا فلما نظرت إليه الجارية اغرورقت عيناها بالدموع رحمة له ، ووقعت في أسفله : إذا رأينا محبا قد أضر به طول الصبابة أوليناه إحسانا

A young boy, and a girl, were in a school (kuttab) together. The boy fell in love with her, and did not desist in being kind to his teacher (muallim) — until he partnered them together. One day, when the other boys were not paying attention, he came closer to the girl, and wrote on her writing tablet, “What do you think of a person who cannot sleep because of his love for you, and becomes confused?”

The young girl looked at him, her eyes overflowing with tears of mercy towards him, and wrote under it, “When I see a lover who is suffering from longing, I have pity for him.”

— Muhammad ibn Jafar al-Kharaiti (d. 327 AH/938 CE). Itilal al-Qulub

In reality, this is perhaps the strongest account to support the notion that public, equal, mixed-gender education existed in Islamic history. The fact that boys and girls could have been “partnered” together in school is an amazing insight.

Another indication is given by Muhammad ibn Sahnun (d. 240 AH/855 CE) — a Sunni jurist of the Maliki school, and author of the famous work Al-Mudawwana. However, little known is the fact that he also authored one of the earliest texts concerning the fiqh (Islamic law) of education. Entitled Adab al-Muallimeen (“The Conduct of Teachers”), it provides a useful portrait of some dynamics related to education in early Islamic history. It also alludes to the fact that girls were given public education. Though he discourages it:

قال السحنون: وأَكره للمعلَّم أَن يعلَّم الجواري و(لا) يخلطهنَّ مع الْغلمان لأَنَّ ذلك فساد لهم

Al-Sahnun said: It is hated for the teacher to teach young girls, and he should not mix them with the young boys, lest they (the girls) corrupt them.

— Muhammad ibn Sahnun (d. 240 AH/855 CE). Kitab al-Muallimeen, p. 117

If it was “hated” to teach girls — then this alludes to the fact that teaching them was a reality. Jurists employed this language to deride concepts that existed in reality. Note that Ibn Sahnun speaks of the scholarly ideal (that girls not be taught at all) — but then acknowledges the reality of them going to school, by at least cautioning that boys and girls be separated. Had it not existed, there would be no need to scholastically disapprove of it — and this sort of reasoning and paradigm, with divergences between the scholarly ideal and reality, exists with multiple jurisprudential issues in Islamic legal texts.

There is also the story of a slave girl who was allowed to write letters for her master, but was dissuaded from continuing her education:

هذي مقالة شيخ من بني أسد … يهدي السلام إلى العباس في الصحف
تخطها من جواري المصر كاتبة … قد طالما ضربت في اللام والألف
وطالما اختلفت صيفاً وشاتية … إلى معلمها باللوح والكتف
حتى إذا ما استوى الثديان وامتلأت … منها وخيفت على الإسراف والقرف

A letter from an elder of Bani Asad…With a gift of greetings to Al-Abbas

Written by a slave girl from our city…Who was often chastised for her L’s and A’s

And who often went in summer and winter…To her teacher, with writing slate and stylus

Until her breasts rose and became full…And it was feared she might transgress and be accused

— Ibn Abd Rabbih (d. 328 AH/940 CE). Al-Iqd al-Farid

Another interesting reference comes from Al-Jahiz (who was quoted in the previous section), who records a piece of poetry, composed in jest about the character of school teachers. It alludes to the fact that school teachers spent their time in the presence of children, and females. Was female education widespread enough in some areas, that popular stereotypes emerged about male teachers spending excessive time with women? In an Islamic cultural environment, that would be something of note, and this line of poetry — while perhaps a mix of jest and seriousness — might prove the existence of girls in schools. Moreover, it is one of the only accounts to specify “females” (untha) — rather than “young girls.”

ومن أمثال العامة : « أحمَقُ من معلَّم كُتَّاب » . وقد ذكرهم صِقلاَبٌ فقال

وكيف يُرجَّى الرأْيُ والعقلُ عند مَنْ        يَرُوح على أنَثى ويغدو على طِفْلِ

It is said about the school teacher (muallim kuttab): “How can understanding and intelligence be found … in one who alternates between females, and children?”

— Al-Jahiz (d. 255 AH/869 CE). Al-Bayan wa al-Tabyin

However, more likely, this is referring to the fact that teachers spent their days in the presence of children — and their nights with women (their wives and families). Therefore, how could someone who seemingly spends no time with grown men possess learning and intelligence? This was alluded to by some Islamic jurists, in questioning whether school teachers possessed the degree of intelligence (aql) needed to testify at trials. This rhetorical jab at teachers seems to have existed in various forms, from early Islamic history.

وسئل رحمه الله تعالى بما لفظه رأيت منقولا عن الخلاصة ما لفظه ولا تقبل شهادة معلم الصبيان فإن عقل ثمانين معلما لا يساوي عقل امرأة واحدة في الأيام مع الصبيان وفي الليالي مع النسوان

Ibn Hajr al-Haythami was asked, “What do you think about what is said…about not accepting the testimony of teachers of young boys (muallim al-sibyaan)…their intelligence is not even equal to a woman. They spend their days with young boys, and their nights with women.”

— Ibn Hajr al-Haythami (d. 909 AH/1503 CE). Al-Fatawa al-Fiqhiyah al-Kubra

To this point, largely the accounts given have been references from literature, and Islamic legal texts. However, other sorts of accounts exist, which could be termed “popular wisdom.” Although obscure, and sometimes demeaning, they do bolster the notion that girls learned in public schools. For instance, Al-Thalabi (d. 427 AH/1036 CE) gives a ficticious account of the reaction of a group of philosophers, when they came into contact with a girl learning in a school:

ونظر بعضهم إلى معلم يعلم جارية الكتابة، فقال: لا تزد الشر شرا

Some of them saw a teacher, teaching a young girl how to write. They said, “Do not increase evil with evil.”

— Abd al-Malik ibn Muhammad al-Thalabi (d. 427 AH/1036 CE). Al-Tamthil wa al-Muhadarah

Clearly, although incredibly misogynistic — such a quote could not be construed unless girls learning in school was an actual reality, at least in some cases. Sadly, while this quotation is unfortunate in its attitudes — an even more misfortunate account exists. This one, in actuality, is a hadith attributed to the Prophet Muhammad. Although it is disturbing, and most likely a forgery — it can still teach us about the role of women in schools.

حدثنا حميد بن علي مولى رسول الله قل : ثنا جعفر بن محمد الهمداني ، ثنا ابن مبارك ، عن حماد بن سلمة ، عن الزبير بن عبد السلام ، عن أيوب بن عبدالله الفهري ، عن عبدالله بن مسعود رضي الله عنه ، قال : قال رسول الله : مر لقمان على جارية في الكتاب ، فقال : لمن يُصقل هذا السيف؟

Abdallah ibn Masud reported that the Messenger of Allah said:

Luqman once passed by a young girl in a school (kuttab). He said, “Who will burnish this sword?”

— Al-Hakim al-Tirmidhi (d. 320 AH/932 CE). Nawadir al-Usul fi Ahadith al-Rasul, p. 806, #1109. 2 vol., Dar al-Kutub al-Masriyya (Maktabah Imam al-Bukhari)

According to the 15th century Sunni, Shafi’i scholar Ibn Hajr al-Haythami — who wrote a fatwa on why women should not be allowed to learn to write — the above narration is intended to mean that Luqman wished to kill the girl who was in school. He saw the girl — and wished to “polish” his sword by “slaughtering” her.

وأخرج الترمذي الحكيم عن ابن مسعود أيضا رضي الله عنه أنه صلى الله عليه وسلم قال : ” مر لقمان على جارية في الكتاب فقال لمن يصقل هذا السيف ” أي حتى يذبح به

It is narrated from Al-Tirmidhi al-Hakim from Ibn Masud that the Prophet said, “Once Luqman passed by a young girl in school. He said, “Who will burnish this sword?” Meaning, that he slaughters with it.

— Ibn Hajr al-Haythami (d. 909 AH/1503 CE). Al-Fatawa al-Hadithiyah

Although disturbing in the utmost degree — and likely a forgery — it does prove that women took part in schools. The character of “Luqman” — a wise man from the Koran, who is sometimes considered a Prophet — was often used as a literary symbol throughout Islamic history, as a foil onto which to project common wisdom, or contemporary situations. He was a figure who the Muslim masses used to create elaborate stories around, in order to supplement the generally austere religious literature and exhortations that existed. There is no doubt that this is similar. Simply, the person who forged this narration took a contemporary situation — girls in schools — along with his displeasure of it within the Islamic cultural milieu, and attributed an imagined solution (or reaction as least) to Luqman. It is far fetched — but it is a logical answer to this disturbing account. Simply, it is unconceivable to imagine such an account existing, had female schooling not existed in the early Islamic centuries, and made some men very angry.

Other times, accounts of “popular wisdom” would be attributed to Umar — the second Islamic caliph — who was perceived to be a stern individual. One such account, intermixed with a contemporary one, informs us of another situation in which a girl learned in a school:

قال عمر رضي الله عنه: جنبوهن الكتابة. وقال دقنس الفيلسوف وقد رأى جارية تتعلم الكتابة: تسقى سهماً سمّاً لترميك به يوماً

Umar said: “Prevent women from writing.” And, a philosopher once saw a young girl learning writing and said, “It is like putting poison in a dart, one day she will shoot it (at you).”

— Raghib al-Isfahani (d. 502 AH/1108 CE). Muhadarat al-Udaba

Strangely, this seems to allude to the fact that women are empowered from being educated, and might “disobey” men.

Finally, in ending, another acknowledgement of the historical reality of public education for girls is a simple statement from the Maliki scholar Abu al-Hassan al-Qabisi (d. 403 AH/1012 CE) — who like his predecessor Ibn Sahnun, wrote a treatise on education, and commented upon the learning environment in the kuttab. His account is also unique for its neutral use of the term “male” and “female” — rather than “young boys” or “young girls.” This most likely indicates that women — free and slave alike — perhaps had equal access to education:

ومن صَلاحهم، ومِن حُسن النَّظرِ لهم، أنْ لاَ يَخلط بين الذُّكران والإناثِ

It would be better for them, and for their own goodness, to not mix males and females.

— Abu al-Hassan al-Qabisi (d. 403 AH/1012 CE). Al-Risalah al-Mufassalah, p. 131

Simply, the statement alludes that the reality was for girls and boys to learn together (at least in his native city of Kairouan, Tunisia). Despite the solution envisioned (the separation of sexes in schools), the exhortation, context, and advice would be meaningless if such a situation never existed. Moreover, even if Al-Qabisi advocates gender separation here, seemingly he does not oppose female education. In Al-Qabisi’s ideal world, it simply should not be with boys.

Frankly, I wish there were more references than these. But, from the entirety of Islamic literature, these are the references I was able to locate — both through recourse to previous scholarship, and my own effort — that allude to female education in the public domain. As can be seen, it becomes increasingly clear that despite attempts to limit female education in the public domain, it did indeed exist, even if on a limited scale. Female education does have a precedence from diverse time periods, and places in Islamic history. If anything can be drawn from these accounts, it should perhaps be thankfulness that this period of history is over, and female education in the vast majority of the Muslim world has become uncontested.

“Women Should Not Leave Their Rooms, or Learn Writing”

Although it has been documented that Muslim women during the lifetime of the Prophet Muhammad not only knew how to write — but were commended by Muhammad himself for learning it — as Islamic history dragged along, competing accounts came into existence. Over the course of time, some religious authorities claimed that not only should women not be allowed to be educated in the public domain — but even privately. Even private education inside the home — such as learning writing — came to be connected with the notion of sin, and sexual immorality. In this section, excerpts from Islamic scholarly works will be presented which attempted to prohibit women from learning writing. Essentially, from all forms of education.

The basis of this shift is a Prophetic hadith which alleges that Muhammad exhorted men, “Do not let women descend from their rooms, and do not teach them writing.” In actuality — this hadith has been recognized as mawdoo — or, forged — by some scholars. However, there were others who accepted it at face value, and sought to undermine the narrations that allowed women to learn how to write.

Al-Qurtubi, a well-known Maliki scholar from the 13th century — provides one of the most detailed, yet convoluted arguments against women learning how to write — and says:

وروى حماد بن سلمة عن الزبير بن عبد السلام ، عن أيوب بن عبد الله الفهري ، عن عبد الله بن مسعود قال : قال رسول الله – صلى الله عليه وسلم – : لا تسكنوا نساءكم الغرف ، ولا تعلموهن الكتابة

قال علماؤنا : وإنما حذرهم النبي – صلى الله عليه وسلم – ذلك لأن في إسكانهن الغرف تطلعا إلى الرجل ; وليس في ذلك تحصين لهن ولا تستر . وذلك أنهن لا يملكن أنفسهن حتى يشرفن على الرجل ; فتحدث الفتنة والبلاء ; فحذرهم أن يجعلوا لهن غرفا ذريعة إلى الفتنة . وهو كما قال رسول الله – صلى الله عليه وسلم – : ” ليس للنساء خير لهن من ألا يراهن الرجال ، ولا يرين الرجال ” . وذلك أنها خلقت من الرجل ، فنهمتها في الرجل ، والرجل خلقت فيه الشهوة ، وجعلت سكنا له ، فغير مأمون كل واحد منهما في صاحبه . وكذلك تعليم الكتابة ربما كانت سببا للفتنة ، وذلك إذا علمت الكتابة كتبت إلى من تهوى . والكتابة عين من العيون ، بها يبصر الشاهد الغائب ، والخط هو آثار يده . وفي ذلك تعبير عن الضمير بما لا ينطلق به اللسان ، فهو أبلغ من اللسان . فأحب رسوله – صلى الله عليه وسلم – أن ينقطع عنهن أسباب الفتنة ; تحصينا لهن ، وطهارة لقلوبهن

It is narrated from Abdallah ibn Masud that the Prophet said, “Your women should not descend from their rooms, nor should they be taught writing.”

Our scholars say: The Prophet warned against this because in their descending from their rooms, they will look at men, and this action is not (considered) safeguarding oneself, or concealment. And, they will be observed by men. The narration speaks of discord (fitna) and affliction. So, they are cautioned to stay in their rooms on the pretext of fitna. And this is because the Prophet said, “There is no good in women unless they do not see men, and they are not seen by men.” This is because she was created from the man, and the man was created with desire, and she provides him with comfort. So, they find comfort in each other.

And like that, writing can be a cause of fitna, for example, if she learns writing, and then writes (letters) to the one she loves. Writing is like an eye, it is seeing the one who is not present. And writing is from the effect of the hand. It is an expression of conscience; it is what cannot be told by the tongue, but starts with the tongue.

So, the Messenger of Allah sought to cut off all causes of fitna, safeguard women, and purify their hearts.

— Muhammad ibn Ahmad al-Qurtubi (d. 671 AH/1273 CE). Al-Jami al-Ahkam al-Quran (Tafsir al-Qurtubi). For the identical wording see also Al-Hakim al-Tirmidhi (d. 320 AH/932 CE). Nawadir al-Usul fi Ahadith al-Rasul.

Therefore, we see that even private learning has been intimately connected to the prospect of sin. However, even Al-Qurtubi did not go as far as one scholar — an historically influential Twelver Shia scholar, cited at the beginning of this post — who claimed that women should not only not be taught how to write, but also to read!

ويكره للنساء الحرائر الشباب أن يكون سكناهن في الغرف الشارعات، ويكره لهن تعلم الكتابة، وقراءة الكتب

It is hated for free, young women to live in rooms on the street level, and it is hated for them to learn how to write, or read books.

— Twelver Shi’ite scholar “Sheikh al-Mufid” (d. 413 AH/1022 CE). Ahkam al-Nisaa

The account of Muhammad prohibiting women from “leaving their rooms” and “learning how to write” also made it into Twelver Shia works of hadith and law — which informed Al-Mufid, above:

علي بن إبراهيم، عن أبيه، عن النوفلي، عن السكوني، عن أبي عبد الله (عليه السلام) قال: قال رسول الله (صلى الله عليه وآله): لا تنزلوا النساء بالغرف ولا تعلموهن الكتابة وعلموهن المغزل وسورة النور

Jafar al-Sadiq, the sixth Imam, reported that the Messenger of Allah said, “Women should not descend from their rooms, and do not teach them writing. But rather, teach them the spindle, and Surah al-Nur.”

— Muhammad ibn Yaqub al-Kulayni (d. 329 AH/940 CE). Al-Kafi

This advice was taken to heart by another Shia scholar:

ويعلمه الخط والسباحة ، ويؤمر بالصلاة لسبع ويفرق بين الصبيان في المضاجع لعشر ، ويعلم القرآن ، والصبية سورة النور لا سورة يوسف ، ولا الخط ، ولا تنزل الغرف

Boys should learn writing and swimming, they should be commanded to pray when they are seven, and separated (from females) when they are 10. And, teach them the Koran. As for girls, they should be taught Surah al-Nur, and not Surah Yusuf. And not writing. And they should not descend from their rooms.

— Yahya ibn Said al-Hilli (d. 690 AH/1291 CE). Al-Jami lil-Sharai

In their effort to seclude women — some Sunni and Shia scholars (based on a small number of Sunni and Shia hadiths) also prohibited them from learning certain chapters of the Koran. Usually, men were instructed to avoid teaching women Surah Yusuf — because it contained references to the unfaithful wife of “Pharaoh.” And, hence, might give them ideas. Rather, they were told to focus on Surah al-Nur, because it contains the verses related to female modesty, and punishments for adultery. If certain scholars were willing to censure what a Muslim woman could learn from the Koran — in their minds, the direct words of God, the Creator of the Universe Himself — then there were truly no limits to censuring anything else.

All this being said, what happened to the example of the women from early Islam who learned writing, such as Al-Shafaa bint Abdallah, who taught the Prophet Muhammad’s wife herself how to write? Scholars, and later narrations, sought to contextualize and limit the true impact of her account.

وسئل رحمه الله تعالى : ما حكم تعليم النساء الكتابة ففي وسيط الواحدي أول سورة النور ما يدل على عدم الاستجباب هل هو صحيح أو ضعيف ؟  فأجاب بقوله : هو صحيح ، فقد روى الحاكم وصححه عن البيهقي عن عائشة رضي الله عنها أن النبي صلى الله عليه وسلم قال : ” لا تنزلوهن في الغرف ولا تعلموهن الكتابة ” يعني النساء ” وعلموهن الغزل وسورة النور ” أي لما فيها من الأحكام الكثيرة المتعلقة بهن المؤدي حفظها وعلمها إلى غاية حفظهن عن كل فتنة وريبة كما هو ظاهر لمن تدبرها

واعلم أن النهي عن تعليم النساء للكتابة لا ينافي طلب تعليمهن القرآن والعلوم والآداب ؛ لأن في هذه مصالح عامة من غير خشية مفاسدة تتولد عليها بخلاف الكتابة فإنه وإن كان فيعا مصالح إلا أن فيها خشية مفسدة ودرء المفاسد مقدم على جلب المصالح

فإن قلت : أخرج أبو داود عن الشفاء بنت عبد الله قالت : دخل عَلَيَّ النبي صلى الله عليه وسلم وأنا عند حفصة فقال لي : ” علميها رقية النملة كما علمتيها الكتابة ” وهذا يدل على تعليم النساء الكتابة .
قلت : ليس فيه دلالة على طلب تعليمهن الكتابة ، وإنما فيه دليل على جواز تعليمهن الكتابة ونحن نقول به وإنما غاية الأمر فيه أن النهي عنه تنزيها لما تقرر من المفاسد المترتبة عليه ، والله سبحانه أعلم

It was asked to Ibn Hajr al-Haythami: What is the ruling for teaching women writing, and Surah al-Nur, and what has been narrated that it is not recommended. Is it authentic, or not?

He replied: It is authentic, Al-Hakim narrated, and in an authentic form from Al-Bayhaqi, from Aisha who said, “The Prophet said, ‘Women should not descend from their rooms, and they should not be taught writing, and teach them the spindle, and Surah al-Nur.'”

Because of the great number of provisions in them which lead them to safeguarding themselves from all discord (fitna) and uncertainty…

It should be known that prohibiting women from writing does not prevent them from learning the Koran, knowledge, or proper etiquette. Because, this a general right that has no fear of sin associated with it, unlike writing. The fear of sin and repelling it takes precedence over all other interests.

He was then asked, “Abu Dawud narrated from Al-Shafaa bint Abdallah that she entered upon the Prophet with Hafsa, and he said, ‘Why do you not teach her the ruqya for ant bites, as you taught her writing?’ Is this not proof that women should be taught writing?”

Ibn Hajr al-Haythami replied, “This is not proof that women should seek out how to write, it is only proof that they are permitted to learn it. But we say that this is a severe matter, and severely disliked for the sinful consequences that can arise from it.”

— Ibn Hajr al-Haythami (d. 909 AH/1503 CE). Al-Fatawa al-Hadithiyah

In addition to the flaccid response by Ibn Hajr, other accounts came into existence which tried to contextualize the type of writing that Al-Shafaa taught to the Prophet Muhammad’s wife Hafsa. Rather than teaching writing in general, it was claimed that she was only instructed in teaching it for the sake of making a ruqya — a type of “charm” that existed in early Islam, which was thought to cure disease or ward off evil, and upon which was written verses of the Koran or supplications. Presumably, as a quaint sort of cottage industry, the task of making the ruqya traditionally fell to women — who, hence would have had to learn how to write. Though, in this limited situation, writing would take on a very private role in the home — not on a public level — which, it seems, some men were much more comfortable with, and therefore sought to modify the original account of Al-Shafaa and her teaching of writing.

حدثنا بالحديث على وجهه أبو عمرو محمد بن جعفر بن محمد بن مطر الزاهد ، إملاء سنة سبع وثلاثين وثلاث مائة ، حدثنا محمود بن محمد الواسطي ، ثنا إبراهيم بن عبد الله أبو إسحاق الهروي ، حدثني عثمان بن عمر بن عثمان بن سليمان بن أبي حثمة القرشي العدوي ، حدثني أبي ، عن جدي عثمان بن سليمان ، عن أبيه ، عن أمه الشفاء بنت عبد الله ، أنها كانت ترقي برقى في الجاهلية ، وأنها لما هاجرت إلى النبي صلى الله عليه وآله وسلم قدمت عليه ، فقالت : يا رسول الله ! إني كنت أرقي برقى في الجاهلية ، وقد رأيت أن أعرضها عليك ، فقال : ” اعرضيها ” ، فعرضتها عليه ، وكانت منها رقية النملة ، فقال : ” ارقي بها ، وعلميها حفصة : بسم الله صلوب حين يعود من أفواهها ، ولا تضر أحدا ، اللهم اكشف البأس رب الناس . قال : ترقي بها على عود كرم سبع مرات ، وتضعه مكانا نظيفا ، ثم تدلكه على حجر ، وتطليه على النورة

Al-Shafaa bint Abdallah used to make ruqya during the pre-Islamic times (jahaliyya). When she made hijra to the Prophet, she came to him and said, “O Messenger of Allah, I used to make ruqya during jahaliyya, and wanted to show them to you.” He said, “Show them.” So, she showed him, and it was a ruqya for ant bites. He said, “Use this supplication for it, and teach Hafsa…”

— Al-Hakim al-Nishaburi (d. 403 AH/1012 CE). Al-Mustadrak ala al-Sahihayn

Notice that this contradicts the earliest accounts, where the Prophet commends Al-Shafaa on teaching Hafsa writing, and then instructs her to continue her teaching by imparting how to make the ruqya. According to the earliest sources, Hafsa did not originally learn writing by learning how to make the ruqya — rather she was instructed to learn ruqya making after Al-Shafaa had successfully taught her writing, and she was seen as a competent teacher. Indeed, the earliest versions of the Al-Shafaa story mention her coming to the Prophet after she had already taught Hafsa writing:

أخبرنا عبد الرزاق ، عن معمر ، عن الزهري ، قال : بلغني أن النبي صلى الله عليه وسلم قال لامرأة : ” ألا تعلمين هذه رقية النملة – يريد حفصة زوجته – ، كما علمتها الكتابة

Ibn Shihab al-Zuhri (d. 124 AH/741 CE) said, “It has reached me from the Prophet that he said to a woman, ‘Why do you not teach this ruqya for ant bites — for his wife, Hafsa — as you taught her writing?'”

– Abd al-Razzaq al-Sanani (d. 211 AH/826 CE). Al-Musannaf

Similar wording — “taught her writing” (علمتها الكتابة) being in the past tense — is also found in the Musannaf of Ibn Abi Shaybah (235 AH), the Musnad of Ahmad ibn Hanbal (241 AH), and the Sunan of Abu Dawud (275 AH). According to most hadith authorities, it has an authentic (sahih) chain of narrators (isnad).

It should also be noted that it is the same book — Al-Mustadrak ala al-Sahihayn, by Al-Hakim al-Nishaburi — which contains one of the versions of the hadith about prohibiting women from writing. Comparatively, it is one of the latest hadith books to be compiled (along with Sunan al-Bayhaqi, as well, which fits a similar mold), and objectively speaking, is filled with narrations that are not only implausible, but can be objectively seen to “correct” upon, offer more detail, or modify previously established narrations, often for ideological ends — similarly to what happened with this narration.

Lastly, these same themes of morality and corruption were used by Al-Qabisi, the Maliki scholar who advised that “males and females not mix” in schools, to limit women from learning writing:

وأما تعليم الأنثى القرآن والعلم فهو حسن ومن مصالحها. فأما أن تعلم الترسل والشعر وما أشبهه، فهو مخوف عليها. وإنما تعلم ما يرجى لها صلاحه، ويؤمن عليها من فتنته. وسلامتها من تعلم الخط أنجى لها. ولما أذن النبي صلى الله عليه وسلم للنساء في شهود العيد أمرهن أن يخرجن العواتق ذوات الخدور أو العواتق وذوات الخدور، وأمر الحائض أن تعتزل مصلى الناس، وقال: يشهدن الخير ودعوة المسلمين. فعلى هذا يقتبل في تعليمهن الخير الذي يؤمن عليهن فيه، وما خيف عليهن منه، فصرفه عنهن أفضل لهن، وأوجب على متولي أمرهن

As for teaching females the Koran and knowledge, it is good and for their benefit. But as for being taught letter writing, or poetry, and what is similar to it, then that is feared for her. She should be taught that which brings her benefit, and safeguards her from temptation. It would be safer for her to be spared learning to write. When the Prophet permitted women to attend the Eid festivals, he commanded them to bring out adolescent girls and those who normally are secluded behind a curtain. At the same time he commanded menstruating women to avoid the place where people pray. He said, “Let women be present where there is blessing and at the prayers of Muslims.” On this basis it is acceptable to teach her good things that are safe; as for things from which harm to them can be feared, keeping such things away from them is preferable, and this is the duty of her guardian.

— Abu al-Hassan al-Qabisi (d. 403 AH/1012 CE). Al-Risalah al-Mufassalah, p. 95

Thankfully — as al-Qabisi’s earlier quote demonstrates, which alludes to mixed male-female public learning being a reality — scholars often operated in theoretical realms. They were forced to negotiate their ideals with reality. Simply because a Muslim scholar advocated a course of action does not mean that it actually happened in reality. And, there are numerous examples to prove this being the case.

In ending, there is perhaps no story better in illustrating this point than that of Aisha al-Qurtubiyya. A contemporary of Al-Qabisi, above, and from Andalus (modern Spain) — not only did she learn how to write — but she mastered the art of calligraphy, and even authored handwritten copies of the Koran. Simply, reality did not always accord with the scholarly ideal — legalisms, and the will of a small group of men, were unable to prevail over the lived reality of normal people. And to this day, it is overcoming this limiting, little, and legalistic force that has the greatest potential to drive prosperity and progress in the Muslim world.

عائشة بنت أحمد بن محمد بن قادم: قرطبية ذكرها ابن حيان وقال: لم يكن في جزائر الأندلس في زمانها من يعدلها فهماً وعلماً، وأدباً، وشعراً، وفصاحة، وعفة وجزالة وحصافة. وكانت تمدح ملوك زمانها وتخاطبهم فيما يعرض لها من حاجتها، فتبلغ ببيانها حيث لا يبلغه كثير من أدباء وقتها، ولا ترد شفاعتها. وكانت حسنة الخط تكتب المصاحف والدفاتر وتجمع الكتب، وتعنى بالعلم، ولها خزانة علم كبيرة حسنة، ولها غنى وثروة تعينها على المرؤة. وماتت عذراء لم تنكح قط

Ibn Hayyan (d. 469 AH/1075 CE) reported about Aisha bint Ahmad al-Qurtubiyya (in his book Al-Muqtabis):

“There was no one in her time, in the Andalusian peninsula, with her understanding, knowledge, etiquette, poetry, eloquence, abundance, and prudence…She petitioned the ruler of the time for her needs, and her testimony was given consideration, when that of many learned men was not. She mastered (the art of) handwriting, and wrote copies of the Koran (masahif), and books. She collected books, and was concerned with knowledge (i.e. science), and (served as) a great depository of it. She had richness and wealth from (her qualities) of magnanimity. She died a virgin, having never married (in the year 400 AH).”

— Ibn Bashkuwal (d. 578 AH/1183 CE). Kitab al-Sila


In the end, it can be seen that there are many challenges when looking at the topic of female education through the perspective of Islamic history and scholarship, and the cultural attitudes that accompanied them. However, there is also plenty of room to see the limited reach of such exhortations. Although it is mainly through written materials that we can know about Islamic history — at the same time, it is a severely limited medium. The fullness of past societies cannot be contained in writing — especially those that span such diverse geographies. There is no doubt that throughout Islamic history, there have been brave people — fathers, brothers, mothers, and teachers — who have sought to educate women, in the face of the forces that limited them. Written materials about an ancient society can never communicate their full diversity or nuance, and we get a sense of this in the material about female education in Islam. And, as can be gleaned, if anything can be taken from this accounting — it should be the utter contrasts between the status of women today and their prospects for educational attainment, and those of the past. The future for women in the Middle East and Muslim world is very bright — and this is serving to change these societies and their futures for the better. This is the real miracle, and what should really be pondered.

Further Reading

Al-Jamali, Muhammad Fadil. “Islamic Education.” Found in: Bouhdiba, Abdelwahab. The Different Aspects of Islamic Culture: The Individual and Society in Islam. Vol. 2. Unesco, 1998.

Cook, Bradley J, and Fathi H. Malkawi. Classical Foundations of Islamic Educational Thought: A Compendium of Parallel English-Arabic Texts. Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University Press, 2010.

Note: The above volume contains English translations of two foundational educational texts in Islamic history, Kitab al-Muallimeen by Muhammad ibn Sahnun (d. 240 AH/855 CE) and a partial translation of Al-Risalah al-Mufassalah by Abu al-Hassan al-Qabisi (d. 403 AH/1012 CE).

Dodge, Bayard. Muslim Education in Medieval Times. Middle East Institute, 1962.

Hassim, Eeqbal. Elementary Education and Motivation in Islam: Perspectives of Medieval Muslim Scholars, 750-1400 CE. Cambria Press, 2010.

Ibrashi, Muḥammad A., and Shawki Sukkari. Education in Islam. Cairo: Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs, 1967.

Qadi, Wadad. Islam and Education: Myths and Truths. Ed. Victor Billeh. University of Chicago Press, 2007.

Shalabi, Ahmad. History of Muslim Education. Dar al-Kashshaf, 1954.

Tibawi, Abdul Latif. Islamic Education: Its Traditions and Modernization into the Arab National Systems. London: Luzac, 1972.

Totah, Khalil A. The Contribution of the Arabs to Education. Vol. 231. Gorgias Press, LLC., 2002.

Tritton, Arthur Stanley. Materials on Muslim Education in the Middle Ages. Luzac, 1957.

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