The achievements and impact of inspirational Muslim women span across thousands of years, within and outside our Muslim communities. In the realm of academics, in particular, this article looks at how excellent women scholars, of religious and worldly knowledge, changed society and sowed the seeds of an incredible legacy carried by our young Muslim women today.
Throughout history, Muslim women have always made their mark. From the blessed women praised in the Holy Qur’an to the bravery and learnedness of the female companions of the Prophet Muhammad (SAW), from the bright scholars and inventors of the Islamic Golden Age to the fierce young women today looking to create change in their local communities, great women in Islam come from a diversity of roles, backgrounds and experiences.
Within the fields of science, mathematics and literature, in particular, many history books overlook the valuable contributions made by great Muslim women scholars, a number of whom have provided inventions and teachings which have revolutionised society and still continue to be used to this day. In honour of these oft unacknowledged great female scholars of Islamic History, this article highlights ten of them and their achievements, and how their legacy has helped pave the way for great Muslim women scholars of the modern age.
1. Fatima Al-Fihri
Fatima Al-Fihri transformed the world of education by building the world’s first university. With her inherited fortune, she built the Mosque and the University of al-Qarawiyyin for the benefit of her local community, so that they could pursue higher education while practising Islam. 1000 years later, Al-Qarawiyyin still stands world’s oldest operating university, continuing its legacy as one of the leading spiritual and educational centres of the historic Muslim world.
2. Al-Ijliya Al-Astrulabi
Al-Ijliya Al-Astrulabi laid the foundation for the regular use of astrolabes, an ancient device used to measure time and the position of the sun and stars, from the 10th century and onwards for astronomical research and calculation. Today, the legacy and brilliance of Al-Ijliya lives on through the main-belt asteroid 7060 Al-Ijliyye, discovered in 1990, and in the titular character of the 2015 award-winning book Binti, whom she inspired.
3. Sutayta al-Mahamali
Sutayta al-Mahamali was a celebrated scholar within her home city of Baghdad and was most regularly consulted for matters concerning inheritance. With her great command and knowledge of multiple fields of study, she was praised by three great 10th Century scholars for her abilities and intellect, a full two hundred years before Europe would produce and acknowledge similarly educated women of the same calibre.
4. Zaynab bint Al-Kamal
Zaynab bint Al-Kamal was a teacher in al-Salihiyya, a suburb of Damascus well known for its focus on religious study. Having received her first three ijazah when she was only a year old, she had many students, many of whom would travel great distances to take from her knowledge, and was known for her great manners and patience when teaching. In addition to being an excellent teacher, she, having been indoctrinated into the muhaddithat life from a young age, also transmitted an impressive number and importance of hadith collections throughout her lifetime, earning her the title, musnidat al-Sham.
5. Al-Shifa bint Abdullah
Al-Shifa bint Abdullah was one of the first people in Mecca who could read and write. With her knowledge, she taught calligraphy to many people within the city, including her relative Hafsa bint Umar, who would later become a notable female scholar in her own right. Al-Shifa was also well-versed in economics, as both Prophet Muhammad (SAW) and Umar (RA) would consult with her regarding the best business practices within the marketplace.
6. Zaynab Al-Shahda
Zaynab Al-Shahda was a renowned calligrapher of the Abbasid Empire, famous for her work in hadith and Islamic law and her command of literature and science. In fact, she was so good at her areas of expertise that many people made an effort to study and receive ijazah from her!
7. Lubna of Cordoba
Lubna of Cordoba was a self-made woman from the 10th Century, who, despite being born a Spanish slave girl, defied the odds by rising to prestige in the Andalusian royal court, serving as the personal palace secretary for Sultan Abd al-Rahman III and his son Al-Hakam II. In addition to being a royal advisor, Lubna was also a poet, library master and mathematician, as well as one of the first female solo travellers, travelling across the Middle East chasing books to add to the royal library.
8. Rufaida Al-Aslamia
Rufaida Al-Aslamia was one of the first Medinan Muslims, the world’s first nurse and the first female surgeon in Islam. Kind, empathetic and an expert in her field, Rufaida trained other women, including Muhammad’s (SAW) wives Khadijah (RA) and Aisha (RA), how to work in the area of health care. Rufaida was also a social worker, and helped children in need and took care of orphans, those who were handicapped and the poor.
9. Amra bint Abdul-Rahman
Amra bint Abdul-Rahman was a brilliant scholar with the best knowledge of the hadith passed down to her from A’isha (RA). During her time under the tutelage of A’isha (RA), Arma acted as her secretary and was responsible for all correspondence. Amra was likewise considered an authoritative and reliable voice of hadith during her time and was often relied upon by Islamic scholars for her depth of knowledge as a jurist and scholar.
10. A’isha bint Abu Bakr
A’isha bint Abu Bakr, the youngest wife of the Prophet (SAW), was Islam’s greatest female scholar. During her lifetime, she contributed to the spread of Prophet Muhammad’s (SAW) message through her narration of 2210 hadiths and continued to serve the Muslim community for 44 years after his death. In addition to her dedication to Islam, A’isha was skilled in various other fields, including poetry and medicine, and was highly praised by early luminaries such as al-Zuhri and her student Urwa ibn al-Zubayr.
Across all fields of studies, from social studies to the sciences, from the birth of Islam to the inspirations emerging from our younger generations today, strong, determined Muslim women have made a lasting mark on our communities. As we embrace more new generations of inspiring young women in the years to come, we see the legacy of the Muslim women scholars carried on and brighter than ever.