“Tonight I am a Dahlia,
I have invented a dream that seems it could come true
so I work and pray that the fruits of this moon
that has risen across my iris continues to glow a path
that will take me
~ Soukeyna Osei-Bonsu, ‘Dahlia’
The days of Ramadan have left us and the summer solstice approaches. On the longest day of the year should we be fortunate to reach it, I will be brought to reflect on the brevity of life, the futility of worry and consequently what it means to harbour a legacy.
Boundedness is for the human body which originates from three darknesses in the wombs of our mothers (Qur’an 39:6) and will invariably return to be swallowed by the darkness of the earth. The mind and soul however are built for higher pursuits and do not experience the confines of life and death. If we possess as Ghazali said, ‘only what will not be lost in a shipwreck’, then surely as a community the pursuit of knowledge to leave on earth when we are gone should take precedence.
Leaving a legacy (sadaqa jariya) of the mind and soul for the time we spent on this side of living was something fundamentally understood by the Muslimah’s of past civilisations. Being at the vanguard of the arts, humanities, sciences, Islamic thought and scholarship as a Muslim woman was a tradition that was not framed as a threat to a successful marriage and home as it is across the Muslim world today. These were two paths that were not diametrically opposed but rather worked symbiotically to produce Muslim women who cherished knowledge and the dissemination of it just as deeply as they cherished raising a family.
Because today’s field of da’wah is predominantly occupied by men, much of what we hear concerning us revolves around marriage and the raising of a family being a Muslim woman’s highest aspiration. Any ambition outside of this pursuit is relegated to the crusade of the feminist agenda. Marriage is no doubt a sacred institution and act of worship, though as with Allah’s (swt) first injunction to ‘Read’ (Qur’an 96:1), this is not what our lives should begin and end with. To forward humanity and contribute to global knowledge is another noble albeit discouraged act of worship.
Looking back to great women of Islam and the context in which they flourished, this was profoundly understood. An example is Aisha bint Abu Bakr, the dutiful wife to Muhammad (ﷺ), who according to Hafiz ibn Hajar taught scholars, great politicians such as Amr ibn al’As and great jurists and hadith scholars such as Abu Hurayrah and Abdullah ibn Abbas.
Another example is scholar Aisha bint Sa’d Ibn Abi Waqqas who was honoured to have the great Imam Malik as one of her pupils (2). From muhaddithat (hadith scholars) Khadijah bint Ahmad, Lady Rajab and Lady Fatimah bint Ali who all taught the great scholar Imam Jalal ud din Suyyuti (3), to Maryam Andalusi in Spain who established her own educational institute which seekers of knowledge would flock to (4) – the women of the past had the agency to be guiding moons to both male and female believers as well as obedient wives and nurturing mothers.
In this piece, I look specifically to women of the Islamic Golden Age from the 8th to the 14th century – a period of rapid Islamic expansion and enlightenment rooted in a tradition of truth seeking, deep reflection and exploration, which the revelation of the Holy Qur’an set a precedent for.
A prolific mujtahidah from the 9th C, Fatimah bint Yahya would apply ijtihad (legal reasoning to make a decision) to derive Islamic rulings. Being a mujtahidah meant that Fatimah had to have legal knowledge on opposing arguments in fiqh, to give an Islamic ruling. Al Shawkani said about her:
“She was famous for her knowledge. She had debates with her father on several juristic issues. Her father, the imam, confirmed that Fatimah applied ijtihad in deriving rulings. This indicates that she was prominent in the knowledge, for the imam would not say something like that except for one who deserved it.” (5)
Fatimah’s husband Mutahhar ibn Muhammad ibn Sulayman ibn Muhammad would often refer to Fatimah for juristic judgement. If a complicated issue arose that was posited to Mutahhar and his students, they would seek an answer from Fatimah. When a sound answer was given Mutahhar’s students would say, “This is not from you. This is from behind the curtain.” (6)
Fatima al Fihri is remembered for establishing the first university in Fez, Morocco – Al Qarawiyyin university. According to UNESCO, this is the oldest in the world that is still operating.
Born to a wealthy family in Tunisia, Fatima inherited a substantial amount of wealth after the death of her father and husband. Fatima, who had Islamic knowledge instilled in her from a young age, did not remarry but used her wealth to establish a knowledge centre in Morocco to be of service to the ummah. The university taught Islamic theology, law, poetry, philosophy, logic, rhetoric, grammar, geography, science and mathematics without a fee (7). The building of Al-Qarawiyyin university and mosque began in Ramadan 857 AD and continued over two to three years. Fatima Al fihri fasted every day until the building of the mosque and university was complete (8).
Al-Ijliya Al-Astrulabi, also known as Mariam, was a 10th-century astronomer and maker of astrolabes in Aleppo, in what is now northern Syria. An astrolabe is used to determine positionality in latitude or tell the local time as well as measure celestial events. Al-Ijliya Al-Astrulabi was inspired by her father who was an apprentice astrolabe maker and as Al-Ijliya Al-Astrulabi’s prolificity grew she was employed in the court of Sayf Al Dawla – Emir of Aleppo (9). With the help of the astrolabes designed by Al-Ijliya Al-Astrulabi, the position of sun, moon, stars and planets were able to be determined which meant that the Qibla, prayer times and the days of Ramadan and Eid would be known.
Sutayta al-Mahmali was a polymath who specialised in mathematics. She lived in Baghdad and was taught by her father, judge Abu Abdallah al-Hussein. The fields she excelled in include Arabic literature, hadith, jurisprudence, hisab (arithmetics) and fara’idh (successoral calculations). She is remembered for her contributions to the algebraic inheritance formula which informed what the heirs of an estate would receive.
Lubna of Cordoba was a mathematician from Andalus also renowned for her all encompassing intellect and poetry. She was born into slavery and raised in the palace of Cordoba’s caliph. Starting as a copyist, Lubna ascended in her career to become the palace secretary for the Caliph and the manager of the library of Madinat-ul-Zahra. She was also one of the first female travellers, travelling solo to the middle east for her work and visiting Cairo, Damascus and Baghdad.
She was a polymath who mastered Latin, Greek and Hebrew, and was also involved in teaching children. She set up a school in the library for street children and trained the children of the royal household in chess.
Zaynab Al Shahada was a famous 12th century calligrapher and the appointed calligrapher of Musa Palace, who was prominent in the study of Islamic law and hadith. Not much is known about Zaynab but we know that many would flock to her to receive an Islamic licence from her (ijazah) to teach. Because of her intellect she was appointed teacher to the Abbasid Caliph – Yaqut. Zaynab was known to use her free time to study the Islamic sciences and literature.
Princess Gevher Nesibe Sultan was the 13th century princess of the Sultanate of Rum. She was the daughter of Kilij Arslan II and sister of Kaykhusraw I. Upon her deathbed, she is known for having established a hospital in her memory where she desired that the sick be treated with no charge. Princess Gevher’s brother carried out her last request, beginning the building of the hospital in 1204 and opening the hospital in 1206. The hospital also had an adjoining madrassah devoted to medical research and studies. Princess Gevher Nesibe Sultan also built a mosque in Kayseri, Turkey.
These are just some of the women of the Islamic Golden Age who were illuminated by knowledge and contributed to humanity, disseminating light beneath each footprint everywhere they travelled. These were women who were emissaries of Allah and the women we should aspire to emulate. Let us learn from the powerful legacy of these women and invent a dream for our futures in Jannah inshaaAllah. Let us leave a legacy that will outlast the boundedness of our human bodies.
(1)Woman of Shariah, Abdur Rahman I. Doi, page 141
(2) Woman of Shariah, Abdur Rahman I. Doi, page 142
(3) Leading Ladies who made a difference in the lives of others, Muhammad Ishaque Multani pages 110-111
(4) Leading Ladies who made a difference in the lives of others, Muhammad Ishaque Multani, page 141
(5) Al Muhadiththat: The Woman Scholars of Islam page 144
(6) Al Muhadiththat: The Woman Scholars of Islam page 144
(7) ”Fatima al-Fihri”, Teach Mindset
(8) Gray, Shaykha Tamara, “Fatima al-Fihri- 15 Centuries of Female Scholarship.”, Seekers Guidance
(9) Necat Tasci, Ufak, “Mariam al Astrulabi: A Muslim woman behind the 10th-century astrolabes.”, TRT World
Soukeyna Osei-Bonsu is a student, SOAS graduate, writer and author of a debut poetry collection published with Lote Tree Press. She is involved in black activism and also runs an online magazine exploring adventure, culture and spirituality (www.mzab.co.uk). Soukeyna has also recently founded a women’s dawah initiative Farasha (www.far-asha.co.uk) to help Muslim women transform and reform themselves as well as to assist women who may be disillusioned with Islam/ the Muslim community for differening reasons. You can follow Soukeyna’s writing on Instagram @soukeynaoseibonsu and Farasha on @farasha_co_uk