At the beginning of August, Al Ghaith Wafiyya College – a women-only Islamic seminary in the Indian state of Kerala – conducted a one-of-its-kind convocation ceremony for its female graduates who had successfully completed a five-year course in Islamic studies coupled with a Bachelor′s from a recognised secular university. The unique ceremony was exclusively of women, by women and for women, with each and every task from microphone operation through presenting to the valedictory speech being handled by women.
What was unprecedented and groundbreaking about the graduation ceremony was that as many as 111 female graduates received their ′sanad′ – which formally endorses them as Islamic scholars, connecting them with what is believed to be the unbroken tradition of Islamic scholarship beginning with the Prophet Muhammad and entrusting them with its transmission to the next generation. ′Sanad′ is traditionally conferred on male scholars on their completion of Islamic studies from a recognised seminary, formally authorising them to take up teaching and other scholarly responsibilities as well as to officiate at religious events and offer pastoral services.
By offering ′sanad′ to its female graduates, the seminary, run by the predominantly traditional Sunni Muslims in the state, was sending out a strong message: women are reclaiming their rightful place in the enterprise of Islamic scholarship.
Cross-fertilisation between religious and secular studies
The seminary, the brainchild of Abdul Hakeem Faizy, a visionary scholar and a highly enterprising education activist in the state, has not only made Islamic higher studies accessible to girls but also devised an eclectic blend of traditional Islamic knowledge and modern secular education.
A strong advocate of integrating religious and secular studies, Faizy is the architect of a distinctive curriculum and syllabus, combining traditional and modern Islamic studies and modern education. His concept is currently being implemented in more than 60 seminaries run by the traditional Muslims in the state, under the auspices of the Co-ordination of Islamic Colleges (CIC), a governing body functioning as a university. They include around 15 all-women seminaries, known as ′Wafiyya′ colleges.
The female graduates are known as ′al Wafiyya′ (loosely translated as the committed women), in line with the traditional and still widely prevalent practice in India of naming religious scholars after the seminaries where they studied and obtained their ′sanad′.
Islamic studies and an appreciation of the modern world
The curriculum at all these seminaries accords top priority to marrying a classical Islamic education with a solid grasp of contemporary science. The aim is to produce religious scholars who are not only equipped with an in-depth knowledge in the various disciplines of Islam but also with a sophisticated understanding of the scientific, cultural, political and intellectual currents that shape our modern world.
The female graduates who successfully complete their course are well-versed in all traditional and modern areas of Islamic study such as Koran exegesis, Hadith studies, jurisprudence, comparative studies of religions etc. In addition, the seminary makes it mandatory for each student to complete at least a Bachelor′s degree from a recognised university. This enables them to study and understand religious texts from a broader perspective and achieve a cross-fertilisation of what they study and understand.
The formal convocation ceremony, which was held several years after the first batch of female graduates passed out of the seminary, was an opportunity for the institution to highlight its progressive mission and objectives. These female scholars have already started making their mark in the society in multiple roles. Some of them are working as teachers and lecturers, not only in other seminaries but also in secular schools and colleges. Among the Wafiyyas, there are also writers, orators and active social workers as who conduct workshops and deliver lectures to packed female audiences. Thanks to this latest initiative, a vibrant tradition in Islamic history, one in which women were actively encouraged to pursue religious studies and excel as scholars, is currently being revived.
Reinventing the legacy
Islamic scholarship has never been a bastion of male chauvinism. Ever since the time of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), the proverbial glass ceiling has been stormed from time to time by gifted female scholars who mastered different disciplines of traditional Islamic sciences and played pioneering roles in the transmission and dissemination of prophetic traditions and other sources of knowledge.
In the first century of Islam, the burgeoning academic firmament was illuminated by a galaxy of exceptional woman scholars, comprising the wives and female companions of the Prophet, on whose rigorous work and sound judgement much of the edifice of Islam was built in later centuries. They contributed significantly to the canonisation of the Koran and were the transmitters of prophetic traditions (hadith); they were held in high esteem and were approached for instruction on religious matters even by senior companions.
Crowning this list of female achievers was Aisha, the wife of the Prophet, who, according to most Muslims, was a scholar of exemplary erudition and one of the most respected intellectuals of her time. She was also a well-known authority in medicine, history and rhetoric. Others include Hafsah, Umm Habeebah, Umm Salama etc. who contributed immensely to the proliferation of Hadith literature, by readily dispensing their rich knowledge. Umm Waraqah was appointed by the Prophet as imam over her household. Moreover, it was a woman who corrected the authoritative ruling of Caliph Umar on dowry. The credit of founding what is arguably the world′s first degree-awarding educational institution goes to Fatima al-Fihri, who founded the University of Al Quaraouiyine in Fez, Morocco in 859.
Questioning ossified cultural norms
However, subsequent centuries saw this rich legacy being often masked by patriarchy and bias, with many Muslim women finding barriers to accessing Islamic knowledge. Although most centuries can point to a few notable female Islamic scholars, the number of women active in the enterprise of Islamic scholarship has sunk drastically in more recent times.
Faizy reiterates that the seminaries under the CIC are trying to bridge this gap by helping women to create a world of their own. His vision for the seminary is to help women create an authentic female world. The comprehensive curriculum creates an environment conducive to developing their creative thinking, artistic talent, personality traits, leadership and social skills, physical activities and so on and so forth.
Faizy maintains that there is no better way of empowering Muslim women than to educate them and give them access to all streams of knowledge, including Islamic theology where they proved their mettle in the first centuries of Islam. He blames certain reactionary practices and social customs for using faith as a pretext to block a woman from education, reiterating that it is not religion per se, but certain ossified cultural norms masquerading as religious decrees that prevent women from scaling new heights in areas of their choice.