On Female Scholars (But Not Feminism): Reviewing Al-Muhaddithat

I bought this book after reading a review in the New York Times. The review largely described Al-Muhaddithat as a women-focused yet Islamically-indigenous text that could lead to the rediscovery of women’s importance in Islam.  

Cover of Al-Muhaddithat. Image via Interface Publications.

The book is written by Mohammad Akram Nadwi, a Muslim scholar who puts emphasis on what he sees as a women’s role in Islam (what he considers an “appropriate” role) but does not advocate for “Westernized” customs like mixing between sexes. Nadwi, a Sunni scholar and specialist in the science of hadith, is often grouped with scholars like Yusuf Qaradawi and ‘Abdal-Fattah Abu Ghudda. He belongs to a more orthodox realm of Islam that adheres to traditional interpretations of the sacred texts.

This book is somehow a historical text but also a theological statement on his particular views. The book is rich in primarily Sunni historical sources, hadith and sunnah. However, unlike the works of scholars like Fatema Mernissi who use hadith, sunnah and historical critical approaches, especially in her book the Veil and the Male Elite, Nadwi does not necessarily set out to present a critical reading of the position of women in Islamic scholarship. Indeed, he reaches a different conclusion when it comes to analyzing the historical evidence.

The text goes through a number of topics concerning women’s ability (or inability) to perform scholarly roles in Islam, including issues of narration of hadiths, ability or inability to provide testimony, women’s role in Islamic education (studying and teaching), fiqh (jurisprudence), fatwas, etc. It is rich in a variety of hadiths narrated by women or about women, and it sometimes discusses differences of opinions (which for me show how Islam has always been diverse) in regards to women’s issues. Much of the sources used come from texts written and analyzed by male scholars, which, Nadwi explains, is due to the lack of information about women’s work. This, he says has to do with the concept of “hijab,” which has often kept women’s accomplishments in the private domain. To date, he told the New York Times, he has found about 8,000 female scholars, including female hadith narrators (such as the wives of the Prophet, for example) and female teachers of Islamic sciences, dating back to the earliest days of Islam.

Nadwi concludes that women do have important roles in Islamic scholarship and that this should be acknowledged and recognized, but he does not provide any further steps for transformation of the current institutional situation. As Carla Power writes, quoting Nadwi,

“The Muslim women who taught men ‘are part of our history,’ he says. ‘It doesn’t mean you have to follow them. It’s up to people to decide.’”

As a Muslim woman, I felt compelled to acquire the book due to what I consider the need to acknowledge women’s Islamic scholarship (whether progressive, conservative, orthodox, etc.). Yet, I expected a bit more than just historical data, since the reviews talked about empowerment, female visibility and women’s “true” role in Islam.

Some of the reviews (like here and here) consider Nadwi’s book to be empowering for Muslim women as it somehow “proves” that women are not oppressed by Islam but rather by the patriarchal structures built around institutional Islam. Nonetheless, I found myself having trouble reconciling the historical evidence provided in the text with the preface that Nadwi writes to introduce it.

The preface explicitly shows an interesting dichotomy in Nadwi’s work. On the one hand, Nadwi seems to contest what he considers the “Western claim” that Islam oppresses women and excludes them from the public domain. He also implies that the West is the one that oppresses women. On the other, he responds to Muslim feminists (or feminism in general, which he portraits as a homogenous movement) by saying:

“The aim of undoing injustices suffered by women [...] is entangled with the theoretical underpinning of feminist critique, which is not acceptable but which nevertheless invades Muslim minds.” (p. XIV) 

Although he acknowledges that he is “not qualified” to talk about a feminist perspective, he implies that feminism is mainly concerned with the question of “if men can, why can’t women.” He debates this issue, only to conclude that this approach (which for him equates to feminism) does not help women’s position. He further justifies his conclusion by saying that female Muslim scholars were only “believers,” plain and simple, sticking to what God had granted them rather than making explicit claims relating to women’s rights or equality. Nadwi argues that there is no grounds to think that the female scholars featured in his research were by any means feminists. 

The text also continues to emphasize female scholars’ importance as mothers and wives, while highlighting in many instances the issue of veiling and hijab, which Nadwi himself praises for its “benefits” to women.

An interesting thing that caught my attention was the fact that the author warns about “misusing” the book by applying a gender perspective or framework to it. Yet, he seems to conflate the idea of gender analysis with feminist perspectives. These perspectives, he explains, do not have grounds in the sunnah. This was interesting for me because for two reasons. First, since the book focuses on female scholars in Islam, the author’s work is necessarily determined by gender. Similarly, his own purpose to bring out women’s contributions to Islamic scholarship is very much a subject of gender analyses. Then, I found that the rich and excellently documented historical data provided by this book is valuable to perform a number of analyses in different realms including gender, feminism, women studies, and so on (and that’s how I plan to use it).

This text (leaving aside Nadwi’s own agenda) will speak differently to every reader. For some it will be a very complete commentary on Islamic scholarship; for others, it will provide an orthodox perspective on women’s role in Islam.  Nevertheless, despite the optimistic reviews, I find this text useful but not necessarily empowering. Nadwi still has an agenda to contest the “Westernization” of Muslim scholarship and feminist movements that threat to “misuse” Islamic knowledge. While I expected this after the first ten pages, I cannot help but wonder, when will Islamic scholars look at the usefulness of using other approaches, and when will they recognize that feminism (in its many forms) and “Westernized approaches” may enrich Islamic knowledge instead of undermining it?

  • https://twitter.com/#!/deepwatrcreatur Anwer

    It’s great that people are trying to support female Muslim scholarship, and I am reluctant to fault Nadwi for his efforts, even if they are flawed. Still I wish that his text had focused on the historical data, without trying to make a comprehensive response to feminist critiques.

  • Syahidah

    Great article. Love the last line.

    • sumbul akhtar

      Muslims would stop being interested in any book that had ‘westernized approaches’ to anything Islam.
      Nadwi does not need to empower, women are empowered by their Islamic heritage. When that is ignored and neglected , women suffer.

  • http://thefatalfeminist.wordpress.com Nahida

    I read this book and had the exact same response. How can someone write a book about all the female scholars who’ve been erased and forgotten and claim that feminists are wrong to say that biases and privileges came into play during exegesis and whose interpretations we preserve and prefer? Great book nonetheless.

  • https://twitter.com/#!/deepwatrcreatur Anwer

    You note that Nadwi “does not provide any further steps for transformation of the current institutional situation”. I am left wondering if he sees any need for transformation, or if anything might be gained by including more female voices in the scholarly ranks. It is one thing to say that women are allowed to become scholars, and another thing to say that we urgently need to incorporate female perspectives, and people (mostly women) who are keenly aware of the life experiences and concerns of contemporary women. I am left with the impression that Nadwi simply wants to vindicate the Muslim community from feminist critiques, and not to actually help solve problems that women are facing, by increasing the number of female scholars. I hope I’m wrong about him.

  • Nadia

    I have not read the book but if I understand your review correctly, I think it may have been a good thing that Nadwi did not attempt to include an analysis of the history of women’s involvement in Islamic scholarship. When you speak of other scholars who have dealt with this topic, they are often very controversial figures, like Fatima Mernissi, and the average Muslim is too often more aware of the person’s reputation rather than their actual work. Personally, I always think it is better to first document the facts as fully as possible before any analysis is attempted, which is what I think Nadwi has done. Regardless of his intention or agenda, his book may be exactly what is needed to start a non-confrontational feminist discourse in Islamic scholarship.

  • Umm Abdullah

    Could the author define ‘feminist’?

  • http://muslimology.wordpress.com Dawud Israel

    Travesty.

    If the author is a Muslim, they should be GRATEFUL. As a man, I make shukr for this book because it is about hadith. There was a time when people would read these books in order to come closer to God and His Prophet (salallahu alayhi wasalam). They didn’t read these books in order to feel better about their gender. If you read the book to appease yourself, as a critic, then its dangerous. Change your attitude and niyya. Please.

    “Similarly, his own purpose to bring out women’s contributions to Islamic scholarship is very much a subject of gender analyses.”

    No no no. This is the problem of cognitive frames. You come to this book thinking, “Ohh imma analyze the shiz out of this!” and I come to this book thinking, “I want to read about this women, send Fatiha on them and pray for them. They are my teachers. They sacrificed so much for me to hear the words of the Beloved of God. And my Fatiha to this author too. I should memorize the life stories of some of these women.” Come to a book like this like you are meeting a great teacher, not a female colleague in the hallway whose clothing you are checking out and nexting. Because I will remember the names of these women and so will believing Muslims, and honour them, but they will not remember feminist spinsters.

    “While I expected this after the first ten pages, I cannot help but wonder, when will Islamic scholars look at the usefulness of using other approaches, and when will they recognize that feminism (in its many forms) and “Westernized approaches” may enrich Islamic knowledge instead of undermining it?”

    No, it won’t enrich it. I guarantee you that. It has no roots in the sacred and simply because of that loses all right to be part of Islamic tradition. It is a xenotransplant. If you think it needs enriching I guarantee you do not know Islamic knowledge. The only thing that will is a better understanding of true Islamic tradition. That will ‘empower’ Muslim women.

    Most Muslims don’t know the names of great females scholars, granted, but they don’t know the name of Muslim male scholars either. Most of the greats have been forgotten. And being further engrossed in this feminist angst will not help either.

    I’m reading this article and thinking, this was probably meant to pander to some Patheos agenda of problematizing women in Islam. Here you have one of the few orthodox scholars willing to write about this publish a book on it…and the response? Nuh uh, not good enough. For crying out loud, have a little adab!

    Why not talk about what other books like this could be written? What’s the next step?

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/mmw/ Krista

      @Dawud Israel: We’ve been critical of the position of women in Muslim communities since MMW started – it’s hardly a new thing since the switch to Patheos.

  • http://blog.muslimawalkingaround.com/ Eren Cervantes

    Thank you of for your comments. I agree with all of you that this is a step further in recognizing women’s contributions to Islamic scholarship, no discussion about this. Akram Nadwi took the challenge to pursue a historical research about female scholars, who are rarely recognized nowadays. However, as I said before, this book will speak differently to each one of you. It is rich in historical data, it is incredible in terms of hadith and sunnah, but for me, this needs to go a step further to become “empowering” as other reviews said. When I discuss the works of Fatima Mernissi, it is not because she is controversial. Instead, it is because her book the Veil and the Male Elite is also very rich in historical data as well as in hadith. Yes, Mernissi has her own agenda too, but I think the comparison shows that history and narrations of hadith speak differently to different scholars with different agendas.
    About feminism, it has many definitions in many different contexts. The author of this book discusses feminism, gender approaches and women studies (and others) as if there were the same. This is a mistake, his work is very much a piece of gender analysis but it is not feminist. It can be used as a matter of women studies in Islam, but this does not make it feminist. Nadwi Akram also wants to contest what he calls “feminism” the idea that “if men can do something women can too.” This is not necessarily feminism. For many, feminism advocates for women’s rights, gender equality, against the oppression and exclusion of women. That being said, feminism is not monolithic.
    Now, about the issue of not accepting Western and Feminist approaches because they have no grounds in sunnah, that is a personal view. We are not going to get into the whole question of what is sunnah and what is not. However, Islam is not monolithic either and many Western people and feminists are Muslim (unless, of course, someone believes that feminists cannot be Muslims). There is many approaches out there that aim to enrich Islam, not undermine it. The same way that we respect the validity of conservative and orthodox approaches (and for some reason we consider them “more” Islamic) I think we need to recognize that not everything coming from Westerners or Feminists is bad.

  • http://muslimology.wordpress.com Dawud Israel

    Boy, I sounded harsher than I intended.

    My point is simply you are focusing so much on gender/empowerment, that you neglect the fact they are muhaddiths. Reading this review, you might as well be writing about Muslim women who were wealthy or painters or great at sewing or supermodels for all I know. Might as well, since you make all women equal which isn’t empowering. A female muhaddith has a certain rank greater than normal women and men and even greater than male muhaditheen.

  • Eren Arruna Cervantes

    I understand your point; however, the book is not about the status of female scholars, I would actually be hesitant to say that the author would go into saying that scholars have a “better” rank. The point is what the book has been shown to be (in some reviews it has been shown to be the most empowering book for women) and the issues that I found with that. Yes, the focus is on gender because the book is pretty much a matter of gender analysis in Islamic scholarship. In here we are not trying to argue what the rank of these female scholars is. That’s neither the topic of the book, nor of this review.

  • S.

    “FEMINIST SPINSTERS”?!?!?!?!?!!?


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