“We really need more female scholars”
A statement heard time and time again in Muslim communities in the West. Whether it is an organisation searching for a female speaker for an event or a general discussion lamenting the lack of knowledge amongst Muslims, the importance of female scholarship is regularly mentioned as a crucial factor in countering the problems of the Ummah around the world.
Yet, despite being often complained about, the reasons as to the discrepancy between the number of male and female scholars is rarely comprehensively addressed. Some put it simply down to motherhood preventing women from investing themselves in study, others to a supposed lack of Muslim women interested in pursuing the Deen full time. However the multiple reasons behind this phenomenon must be assessed in detail, so that we may arrive at viable solutions and work towards providing islamically-educated female role models for our community.
The path to knowledge
In an age when the reputation of a speaker’s eloquence often precedes their knowledge, its sometimes easy to forget the amount of education and effort that shuyookh have often put into the study of Islam.
But scholars dedicate years of their life to studying the Islamic sciences, often travelling abroad, a commitment usually undertaken during their youth, to various Islamic universities and from there to smaller institutes or specific ulemaa’ to hone their expertise. Nearly all of such institutions and individuals are found in the Muslim world, and moving to such countries often presents numerous challenges to those involved, from living arrangements and adjusting to a new culture, to the intensity of the studies themselves.
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When the life of a scholar is considered from this perspective, it is obvious why there are fewer female scholars. Many Islamic institutions of learning today do not cater to sisters in the same way as brothers, nor is such a linear process of learning flexible enough for many sisters who have families to join.
Of the four main Islamic universities in Saudi Arabia, none are accessible to single, female Muslimahs coming from abroad. The famous Madinah University, where most popular shuyookh will have attended, does not have a sisters section, whilst Dar Al-Hadith does not have an Arabic programme, requiring students to be fluent in Arabic already. Whilst sisters can apply to Umm Al-Qura University, they require a mahram to travel with them and stay for the duration of their studies, a highly impractical condition for the vast majority of women. Similarly, Imam University does not accept female students from abroad, with the majority of women living with their families in Riyadh during their studies.
The oldest institution of learning in the Muslim world, Al-Azhar University in Egypt, also do not have an Arabic programme, making it inaccessible for younger sisters who have not mastered the language. Many universities in Syria, which did used to host women, are no longer an option due to the current conflict. Whilst madrassahs originating from the Asian Subcontinent are found across the Western world, their provisions for women are notably fewer than their institutes for men. The institutions also offer limited options for women wishing to study islamic sciences after having completed secular education or been through the normal schooling system. Learning centres in the Maghreb and countries such as Mauritania continue to thrive, but are often difficult to navigate for women coming alone from the West, particularly those which require Arabic as a prerequisite.
Students at Al-Azhar University, Cairo
Whilst some Islamic universities have started to grow in countries such as Malaysia, as yet they do not offer as highly regarded qualifications than older institutions that benefit from a variety of shuyookh and programmes.
The situation is slowly changing in some countries, but for many who do not have male family members who can accompany them on demand, studying the Deen intensively at a young age at leading Islamic establishments or under certain respected shuyookh, remains a dream. Many resign themselves to wait until they are married to pursue ilm in such a manner, if ever, and instead study to the best of their abilities in their home country, through local institutions or online.
Yet later in life, the linear progression of Islamic education as taught today, poses obstacles to women with multiple responsibilities, again preventing them from joining such full time courses. Whether it is the demands of motherhood, providing for their families or looking after their parents, studying in the intensive manner most institutions require is not practical or desirable.
So when considered holistically, a lack of female scholars in our community should be expected. This is not the fault of Muslim women; if anything it shows how the way in which Islamic institutions approach the Deen is not considerate or conducive to female students of knowledge.
A scholar versus a speaker
Before progressing further, an important distinction must be made, that between a scholar and a speaker.
It would not be an exaggeration to say that the confusion between these two is rampant in the Ummah today. A fascination with powerful speakers has led the ‘ilm industry’ in the West to be dominated by powerful orators, many of whom whilst religiously educated, do not hold high scholarly qualifications, preferring the title of “ustadh” or “imam”. Muslim communities in the West will likely not know the majority of the high-ranking ulemaa’ of the past century, many of whom speak and write only in Arabic.
Consequently, we must recognise that when people complain of a lack of female scholars, they are mostly complaining of a lack of popular female speakers.
For it would be grossly disingenuous to suggest that despite differences in attaining ilm, that there were no qualified Muslim women in the West. In fact, the opposite is true; in the vast majority of Muslim communities, you are bound to find sisters who have studied the Deen involved in delivering classes to other women, running madrassahs for children and teaching the Quran. In many areas, it is the sisters who are at the forefront of the community, outnumbering their brothers in being active for the sake of Islam.
However, these women may not all be as keen as their male counterparts to address both men and women on every Islamic issue. Some may prefer to stick to only certain topics and settings that they are familiar with, either as part of their hayaa, or in an attempt to stick to their expertise. With the added online exposure expected of speakers today, many do not wish to put themselves in public and deal with all the associated issues that it brings.
Whilst there is nothing wrong with sisters who choose to make such a decision, this does explain the perceived dearth of female scholars – public speakers may be absent, but knowledge is not.
So far, we have dealt with two issues that lead people to perceive fewer female scholars: the issue of fewer sisters receiving the same Islamic training as brothers, and qualified sisters remaining less outspoken than their male counterparts.
However, there are several Muslim women who having studied the Deen to an acceptable level, are keen to do what they can to use their knowledge for the community. Yet they encounter another obstacle – a lack of organisations willing to give them a platform.
As previously mentioned, today’s industry of seeking knowledge favours only the famous, and relies on big names to bring in the crowds. In the age of social media, an active online presence also goes hand in hand with fame, where many speakers feature everything from their personal reflections to family photos.
For sisters who do not have such a reputation and do not maintain the same online presence, featuring them as female Muslim speakers is seen as a risk. Without a high profile personality or social media platform to refer to, event organisers fear that public interest will be low, with money wasted on a venue and other expenses.
And thus a vicious circle develops, where sisters are not contacted to speak, thus lessening their expertise in the area, thereby making them seem not qualified when the next opportunity comes along, and so once again to not receive a platform.
Breaking the norm
So is this it? Are sisters destined to never learn Islam to the level of their male counterparts and speak on an equal platform?
As for learning Islam, sisters themselves have taken advantage of the opportunities they have, to study the Deen at their own pace within a setting that is convenient for them. In the absence of a holistic reform of our institutions (which should be on the cards also), such is the solution for now.
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However, in terms of vocal female speakers, our community must realise it has a part to play. If we genuinely recognise the importance of having educated female role models in the Ummah, we must do our best to provide platforms and encouragement to capable sisters amongst us.
We must seek out educated Muslim women not as the token addition to an event, but out of respect for their knowledge and a desire to see them benefit others; in short, the same way in which we would treat male shuyookh.
This is an chance for popular Muslim organisations, television shows, podcasts and websites to take note of the vast experience of women in the community and seek it out. Where sisters are less forthcoming, be it out of shyness or a lack of experience, they need to be supported and given the opportunities they otherwise may not find. Those with a large platform already should take it upon themselves to feature and ‘launch’ qualified Muslim women, and help them share their expertise with a wider audience.
As Allah (swt) says in Surah Tawba verse 71:
“The believing men and believing women are allies of one another. They enjoin what is right and forbid what is wrong and establish prayer and give zakah and obey Allah and His Messenger. Allah will have mercy upon them. Indeed, Allah is Exalted in Might and Wise.” (9:71)
There are many problems in our community that require long-term, complex solutions, but promoting educated Muslim women is not one.