In the early period of Islamic history, Muslim women enjoyed the freedom of movement and participated in many spheres of social life. They cooperated with men both in military and civil life. The freedom enabled women to develop their latent faculties. The social institutions and environment enabled them to make full use of their potential. That is why women excelled in the field of literature, public speaking administration, music, theology (Kalam), jurisprudence (Fiqh), Hadith Studies (I’lmul Hadith), mysticism (Tasawwuf), poetry war fare etc. As the early Muslim society gave women their fundamental rights to education and self development, many women could leave their marks.
Of the hundreds of such illustrious women, some of them are mentioned here for example, Aisha (RZ), the wife of Prophet Muhammad ﷺ, was a lady of profound erudition.
Many Sahaba (companions of the Prophet) and Tabeeyeen (direct followers of the Sahaba) used to come to her for learning Islamic law, theology and Hadith. Zainab (RZ), the daughter of Hazrat Ali (K), was a great Islamic scholar of theology. Fatima Binte Abbas and Sikha Sayeeda, the two Islamic scholars, used to come to the mosque regularly to deliver lectures on Islamic theology. History records the names of many female warriors who fought against the enemies in the battle fields. Even Hazrat Aisha (RZ) took active part in many battles. Umme Atyqah was a brave lady who accompanied the Prophet ﷺ in seven battles. Wairyh (RZ), the sister of Muawia, led a contingent of women in the battle of Yarmuk. Muslim women also left their mark in the field of spirituality. Some prominent Sufi saints also emerged among women in the early period of Islam.
Muslim women, contributed to the legacy of Islam as scholars, jurists, rulers, benefactresses, warriors, businesswomen, and legal experts.
The contribution of women in the preservation of ahadith has been great indeed. A survey of the texts reveal that most of the important compilers of ahadith from the earliest period received many of them from women teachers, as the immediate authorities.
Ibn Hajar studied under 53 women; As-Sakhawi had ijazas from 68 women and As-Suyuti studied under 33 women, a quarter of their shuyukh.
However, this practice is now history. Nowadays, we hardly ever come across female Islamic jurists. Women are not visible all but absent in Islamic, public and intellectual life. If we scan the records of the centuries of Islamic history, we find a host of women active in all areas of life, only to see them marginalized dramatically later. So, what happened? How and why have things changed in the last 300 years to the extent that it is unusual to find women involved in Islamic studies this shows that unlike in the past, very few Muslim men even consider being taught by Muslim woman scholar.
Cultures that arose since that time have been characterized by customs and localized learning more than genuine Islamic values.
The lives of the earliest Muslim women represent exemplary models, transcending time and physical boundaries; therefore, these models can serve as powerful, culturally authentic means in advancing the human rights agenda towards increased female empowerment in the political, social and economic spheres in Muslim communities. The contributions of these women to the Muslim community are undeniable. To some, they even appear almost mythical and are mistakenly subscribing to the erroneous notion that contemporary Muslim women cannot attain such stature. However, these women are representative of many others who lived, fought, learned, worked and led during Islam’s foundational period and beyond. Their male companions, the caliphs who assumed Muslim rule following the demise of Prophet Muhammad, treated them with respect, admiration and appreciation, as equals. Society needs to actively guard the progress the female society has made; otherwise, they shall lose their identity.