Women and Education in the Historical Muslim World

Ayah Aboelela

“Seeking knowledge is an obligation upon every Muslim”.

This narration from the Prophet ﷺ is one of dozens of hadiths that emphasize the value of education in Islam. It is no wonder, then, that education has always been a central component of every Muslim society in history. Today, our ummah owes much to our foremothers and forefathers who used whatever means they had – social status, wealth, and knowledge – to advance future generations. This manifested as private tutoring, teaching in masjids, or even establishing lavish college complexes.

It is well acknowledged by those familiar with Islamic history that women were far from absent from the fields of education and scholarship. Starting with the companions of the Prophet ﷺ  and continuing with subsequent generations, there are numerous accounts of women who actively participated and contributed to knowledge production in the Muslim world.  These women serve as inspirations for Muslim women today, who carry on the tradition of education for future generations of our ummah.

Tarbiyyah starts at home

One of the central components of Islamic education is tarbiyah, nurturing one’s character so that the fitras flourish upon a love for Islam.[1] Long before a child is old enough to attend formal lessons, their education begins at home, as parents and caretakers encourage them to embody good manners and scholarship. It is easy to see how much of an influence women had in tarbiyah, which was often the starting point for many of Islam’s greatest scholars to acquire the characteristics that were the key to their success. Imam Al-Bukhari is a classic example: raised by a single mother, he went to Makkah for Hajj with her and was encouraged by her to pursue knowledge despite his blindness, which was eventually healed due to her constant dua.[2] Imam Malik also narrates that it was his mother who prepared him to learn from scholars at the masjid, and would advise him to focus on learning their manners before learning their lectures.[3]

Yet even for adults, the private homes of both students and teachers were often used as educational venues. Some historians even argue that in Abbasid Baghdad, intellectual life thrived mostly in the homes of rich patrons who would provide scholars with housing and salaries.[4]  These scholars would pursue their own research while also teaching their patrons’ children, since it was considered a mark of high social status for one’s children to receive high quality education through private tutoring.

Many highly respected scholars taught from their own homes, and children were sent to them for tutoring as well. Carrying the tradition of Aishah bint Abi Bakr (ra), Umm Salamah (ra), and other wives of the Prophet ﷺ who taught from their homes, other women in later centuries did the same, such as  Umm Ahmad Khadijah bint Ahmad ibn Abd al-Daim al-Maqdisi and Zaynab bint Ismail ibn al-Khabbaz in the 13th and 14th centuries respectively.[5]  Umm Al-Darda, a famous scholar who taught at several mosques and even mentored the caliph, was also known for teaching lessons in her home.[6]

The normality, ease, and the high value associated with education at home enabled women to pursue serious study. In his study of medieval Cairo, historian Jonthan Berkey highlights that “most education began with the closest relationship of all, that of kinship.”[7] Shaykh Akram Nadwi also mentions that generally, young girls who would grow to become muhaddithat (scholars of hadith) often started their studies at their own homes, and they were especially at an advantage if they had educated family members who would teach them there.

Mosques as centres of learning

When the Prophet ﷺ established Masjid an-Nabawi as the first madrasa, the first center of learning, in Muslim history, he established the tradition of all future mosques to facilitate learning as well. Mosques, which were already so integral to daily Muslim life, naturally became the primary places where students of all ages and social backgrounds would come to learn, especially if they did not have the aristocratic privilege of learning from a private tutor or the benefit of a scholar as a family member.

In fact, some scholars argue that the first form of systematic elementary education, the kuttab or maktab schools, began in masaajid, and were designed to teach children Qur’an memorisation, as well as the basics of religious sciences, literary science, grammar, and even natural sciences and arithmetic. Once students completed their kuttab studies, usually around adolescence, they would then proceed to higher education or apprenticeships. Some masjids also provided advanced academic specialisation as well, and scholars – each one sitting at their designated pillar – often amassed large crowds of students eager to earn ijazaat from them.

Although several women found it comfortable and advantageous to teach from their homes, this was not the only domain in which they taught. Throughout Muslim history, women played impactful roles in shaping the educational atmosphere of mosques. This is clear in the life  of Umm Al-Darda, a famous scholar among the tabi’een in the seventh century A.D. As a child, Umm Al-Darda would float between both the men’s and the women’s sections of the mosque, learning the Qur’an from the teachers’ circles.[8] As she became older, her attachment to the mosque and learning continued to grow. She went on to become a prominent scholar in hadith and fiqh and lectured in Damascus and Jerusalem to both men and women. In fact, even the Umayyad khalifah Abd Al-Malik ibn Marwan attended her lectures at the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem and accepted personal reprimands from her when she disapproved of his impatient manners with his servants.

Even from hundreds of years after Umm Al-Darda’s time, we have records of ijazaat given from women to both their male and female students at masjids and madrasas. One example is the Syrian Shaykhah Umm Al-Khayr Fatimah bint Ibrahim from the fourteenth century A.D., who narrated hadith to several men and women in the Prophet’s Mosque.[9] Another example is Sitt Al-Wuzara, who was a contemporary of Umm Al-Khayr, and taught both men and women at masjids in Damascus and Cairo.[10]

This shows that mosques were commonly places of learning for both basic Islamic principles and higher, more specialised religious sciences, for both men and women.

Awqaf for knowledge

While private tutoring flourished with funding from rich patrons, larger academic institutions like the Ottoman kulliye complexes required funding on a much larger scale. By the twelfth century, there were dozens of higher education institutions all over the Muslim world, such as Al-Azhar University in Cairo, which though originally founded by the Shia Fatimid Dynasty in the 10th century, was then expanded and re-oriented towards Sunni Islam under Salah ad-Din, and is still operational today.[11] Similarly the Nizamiyyah College in Baghdad  was founded in the 12th century by the Seljuk ruler Nizam Al-Mulk, and employed famous teachers like Imam Al-Ghazali.[12]

These colleges, along with several smaller madrasas, were often built and maintained by awqaf (plural of waqf), which were charitable endowments from rich merchants, government officials. Many times, awqaf were founded by women; other times, when the sponsor of a waqf (whether male or female) died, it was common for his or her female descendents to take over supervising the waqf.[13] Therefore, many Muslim women throughout history were oversaw administration processes of the madrasas, both in terms of managing funds and appointing teachers. For example, in the 9th century, Fatimah Al-Fihriyyah used her inheritance from her rich merchant father to found a masjid that also functioned as a madrasa in Fez. Eventually, this grew into what is today known as Qarawiyyin University.

Reading room, constructed in 1940 as part of an expansion of the Qarawiyyin Mosque, which was originally founded by Fatimah al-Fihri more than one thousand years earlier.

Women in royal families were especially known for using their funds, connections, and social status towards charitable causes, like establishing roads, drinking fountains, and masjid complexes. The Mamluk period witnessed several madrasas endowed by wealthy women–often related to Mamluk sultans and soldiers–in both Egypt and Syria.[14] There are several notable examples from Ottoman royal women in particular who established awqaf towards multi-building masjid complexes that included several services beyond just a prayer space and a school. These include Hafsa Sultan (d. 1534), Nurbanu Sultan (d. 1583), Bezmi Alem Valide Sultan (d. 1853),[15] Kösem Sultan (d. 1651), and Turhan Sultan (d. 1683), each of whom endowed at least one masjid complex, some of them with soup kitchens, hospitals, libraries, bathhouses, and fountains, in addition to colleges and schools.[16] While some of these schools taught general Islamic education, others were highly specialised, like Kösem Sultan’s complex which included a school specific to hadith studies.[17] 

Çinili Çocuk Kütüphanesi (library), commissioned as part of a masjid complex by Kösem Sultan in 1640
Courtyard of the Atik Valide Mosque, part of a complex that housed multiple schools and was commissioned by Nurbanu Sultan in 1571

Education as a movement

Throughout Muslim history, there have been several educational movements that revitalised the zeal for learning by promoting literacy, providing more learning opportunities, and restructuring school systems to fit specific community needs. Relatively recent examples include the massive educational reforms in the 20th century; although they could be criticised for emphasising Western educational systems over traditional Islamic ones, they have dramatically increased literacy rates in the Muslim world and opened learning opportunities for women and rural dwellers.

The Prophet ﷺ also oversaw educational reforms during his time. It was under his instruction that prisoners of war were able to ransom themselves by teaching Muslims how to read.[18] He also encouraged his wife Hafsah bint Umar to learn how to read from Al-Shifaa bint Abdullah, a literate woman from Hafsah’s family.[19] No doubt, the numerous hadiths that encourage knowledge-seeking helped form the intellectual atmosphere of Madinah and the Muslim ummah as a whole.

One educational reform movement that left significant impact was led by Nana Asma’u, the daughter of Usman dan Fodio, who was the founder of the West African Sokoto Caliphate in the nineteenth century.[20] The family of Nana Asma’u valued education so highly that they made it an integral goal of the caliphate: children and adults, men and women, city residents and rural village dwellers were not only encouraged to pursue knowledge, but were offered new opportunities for doing so. Nana Asma’u played a very important role in the education movement, especially for women. As a  scholar, poet, and author, she translated several classic Arabic works into her native language to increase its accessibility for her people. She also taught several women and children, and organised travelling parties with educated women to teach the more rural regions of the caliphate.

The education movement led by Nana Asma’u and her family preserved the traditional Islamic forms of education even through the onslaught of European colonialism. When it seemed like the new European educational methods were failing miserably in the region, it was the traditional education system started by Asma’u that continued to thrive and provide the tools necessary for genuine empowerment. The legacy Nana Asma’u left through this educational reform is still felt more than a century later, as programs inspired by her methods continued to educate Muslim women in Nigeria and cities across the US as recent as the early 2000s.[21]

A legacy continued

Just as our ummah was built by our foremothers and forefathers, we must carry their torch and continue to build the ummah today for the generations to come. Undoubtedly, women’s active participation in Islamic education is not only historic. Anyone who enters the women’s section of Masjid an-Nabawi in Madinah can still see halaqas of women teaching and learning from each other. In Muslim-minority communities in the West, women are frequently involved in organising and teaching Qur’an and Arabic programs, and many Islamic weekend and private schools are also mostly staffed by women teachers. Recently, there has even been an increase in the number of women available to teach Qur’an and give ijazas in multiple qira’at, from the comfort of their own homes via online platforms, continuing the tradition of  private tutoring.

Our history tells us that the presence of women in these fields is not a modern, feminist invention, but rather a continuation of Islam’s rich intellectual tradition.

As an ummah, we should continue to honour our women scholars, ensuring that their work is not overlooked. This should start from the home; it is sadly too often the case that boys will be encouraged to memorise the Qur’an and form relationships with people of knowledge, while their sisters will not be given the same opportunities, either because memorisation and Islamic scholarship is not valued as highly for them, or because there are simply no teachers around who are willing to mentor them. We should collectively place more value in educating girls and women in traditional Isamic sciences, and provide our female scholars with platforms where they are taken seriously for their expertise, whether that pertains to women-related issues or other areas. We should appreciate them as teachers that both women and men can benefit from and appreciate their contributions to wider Muslim society.

Aishah bint Abi Bakr, the Mother of the Believers, is the ultimate role model as a modest, assertive, and competent teacher to both men and women. It is our duty to use whatever resources we as individuals have – knowledge, wealth, or influence – to carry her legacy, built upon the message of the Prophet ﷺ, in educating forthcoming generations. May Allah ﷻ enable us to follow her footsteps and the footsteps of all our Muslim foremothers in creating impactful changes for the future of the ummah.

Ayah Aboelela is a graduate student in World History and Digital Humanities at Northeastern University. She hopes to combine her background in software and love for history and storytelling to make historical stories more accessible to diverse audiences. You can follow her on Instagram @caveofkutub.

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[1] Amjad Hussain, A Social History of Education in the Muslim World. (Ta-Ha Publishers 2011), xvii.

[2] A Short Biography of Imam Bukhari – The Muslim Vibe 

[3] Imam Malik’s Childhood & Education | About Islam

[4] Hugh Kennedy, When Baghdad Ruled the Muslim World: The Rise and Fall of Islam’s Greatest Dynasty. (Da Capo Press 2006), 246.

[5] Mohammad Akram Nadwi, Al-Muhaddithat: The Women Scholars of Islam. (Interface Publications 2013), 177

[6] Ibid, 266.

[7] Jonathan Berkey, The Transmission of Knowledge in Medieval Cairo: A Social History of Islamic Education. (Princeton, N.J., Princeton University Press 1992), 169.

[8] Mohammad Akram Nadwi, 150.

[9] Ibid, 179.

[10] Ibid, 152.

[11] Amjad Hussain, 106.

[12] Ibid, 105.

[13] Jonathan Berkey, 165.

[14] Ibid, 163-164.

[15] Zeynep Şahin-Mencütek, “Philanthropy and Women, Contemporary and Historical.” In The Oxford Encyclopedia of Islam and Women. Oxford Islamic Studies Online,

[16] Leslie P. Peirce, The Imperial Harem: Women and Sovereignty in the Ottoman Empire. (Oxford University Press 1993), 208.

[17] Ibid, 331.

[18] Saifur Rahman Al Mubarakpuri, The Sealed Nectar. (Darussalam Publishers 2014), 145.

[19] Omar Suleiman, “Al-Shifaa bint Abdullah (ra): The Healer and Scholar.” Yaqeen Institute, August 25, 2021. 

[20] Jean Boyd and Beverly Mack, Educating Muslim Women: The West African Legacy of Nana Asma’u. (Kube Publishing 2013), 23.

[21] Ibid, 217.

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