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Review: Asma Sayeed’s “Women and the Transmission of Religious Knowledge in Islam”


 Asma Sayeed Women and the Transmission of Religious Knowledge in Islam, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013. Pp. 220+10, $28.99 (paperback: 9781107529816, $95.00 (hardcover) : 9781107031586. Asma Sayeed opens the nal chapter of her pioneering study, Women and the Transmission of Religious Knowledge in Islam , with the words of Muḥammad bin ʿAlī al-Shawkānī (d. 1834), “it has not been transmitted on the authority of any scholar that he rejected the tradition of a woman on the basis of that it was narrated by a woman.” In many ways, this statement encapsulates a wide range of scholarly and popular misunderstandings that Sayeed wants to ad-dress. Observers of Islam often assume that Islam negates women access to education, and that the Muslim women only moved into educational realms after the introduction of modernist thought in Muslim majority societies dur-ing the nineteenth century. By contrast, traditional Muslims often posit that their religion has always provided access for women’s intellectual engagement. Although not a “traditionalist” in strict sense of the term—rather a modern-ist and a reformist, al-Shawkānī expresses this view as a counter-argument to from within Islam by asserting that Islam has never segregated women on the basis of gender when it comes to the transmission of knowledge. Encounter-ing both these perceptions, Sayeed sets out to examine historical ruptures and continuities in the role of women in the historical tradition of Islamic educa-tion, particularly looking at the transmission of ḥadīth . Asma Sayeed’s study is groundbreaking for a number of di􀁦ferent reasons. First, she is among the rst to critically investigate the role of women in trans-mitting Islamic knowledge in premodern times. In the last a couple of decades, there have been some studies on female piety and asceticism and a handful biographies published that have focused on renowned women from the early phases of Islam. Yet, their intellectual contributions remain untouched. Sayeed takes a remarkable step to 󰁦􀁩ll this gap. Second, a general tendency among schol-ars of Islam is to focus on its early phases or on later political dominions like Seljūq, Ayyūbid or Mamlūk eras without looking much into continuities and ruptures over time. The author transcends such chronological and geographi-cal borders, and employs a longue durée analysis that spans a thousand years. Reading against the grains of available patchy references to female scholars in biographical dictionaries and other sources, she unearths a coherent nar-rative about both renowned to unknown female transmitters of the ḥadīth . Third, the scholarship in the ḥadīth -studies usually tends to analyze either the chains of transmission ( isnād s) or the core contents ( mutūn ) exclusively. Sayeed brings both these areas together with a stimulating qualitat and quantitative combination. Indeed, another intriguing advantage of the book is the way Sayeed methodologically and theoretically links socio-intellectual his-tory, sociology of education, gender studies, and religious studies into a single story that cuts across disciplinary boundaries. Notwithstanding, the strength of this approach is also a weakness, as there are a few intriguing lacunas to which the author could have been conscious. I will elaborate on those by way of respective chapters.In the Introduction, Sayeed informs the reader that her prime concern is to elucidate upon the 󐁦􀁬uctuating fortunes of female religious scholars in Sunni Islam who have been otherwise perceived through one of the two opposing narratives mentioned above. She explains that Talal Asad’s idea of Islamic dis-cursive tradition and Pierre Bourdieu’s idea of social and cultural capitals have underpinned her study. Their conceptions prove to be very helpful for a socio-logical analysis of the educational and intellectual practices of medieval fe-male religious scholars, as well as for historical scrutiny of their contributions to contemporary contexts. Out of four chapters, the 󰁦􀁩rst two focus on women who appear in the six classical collections, four Musnad collections, and two other compilations ( Muwaṭṭaʾ of Mālik bin Anas and Ṣaḥīḥ of Ibn Khuzayma), which all are considered to be the most authoritative compilations of ḥadīth among the Sunnis. The last two chapters go beyond these materials, yet par-tially emphasize how those texts promoted or a􀁦fected female participation in Islamic knowledge networks. The chapters are organized chronologically, following each cluster of change or continuity.Chapter one, “A Tradition Invented,” explores the initial stages of ḥadīth transmission in which the contributions from the female Companions of the Prophet are analyzed. Within them, a major focus is on the wives of the Proph-et, and again on ʿĀʾisha and Umm Salama, two women whose “extensive narra-tion networks composed of kin and non-kin men and women” and who “were regularly consulted on a host of legal and ritual matters” (p. 25). The women who were kin of Muḥammad or who shared with him eventful moments are analyzed. Since there was no urge to codify the words and deeds of the Prophet immediately after his death, the construction of ḥadīth as a eld of knowledge was an eventual process. The purpose of this process was to cater to the needs of the community, which sought solutions for everyday religious and non- religious issues in the absence of the Prophet’s guidance. In this new develop-ment, the people who stood closely to the Prophet and had a good capacity of memory enlightened their audience with Prophetic example. Āʾisha, Umm Salama and many other women who shared public and/or private moments with the Prophet could thus re-present his activities as situations required. This was an ‘invention-moment’ of his tradition, through which such women could (and did) intervene in the socio-religious lives of the community. Al-though many women chose to remain in seclusion, a few women like ʿĀʾisha utilized such techniques as transferring breast-milk to an adult ( riḍaʿ al-kabīr ) as a legitimate way to establish maḥram -relations from outside the family. This in turn “facilitated [ sic ] her function as a transmitter of religious knowledge, and beyond that, to be more engaged in the life of the umma ” (p. 61). On the whole Sayeed contends that the practices of these female companions of the Prophet signify that “literacy or legal acumen” was hardly a prerequisite for transmitting the ḥadīth .In the following two and half centuries, however, the situation changed dras-tically. Once legal investigations intensied in the Islamic world and once the interpretation of ḥadīth was professionalized, there emerged new standards and requirements to transmit tradition. This development incapacitated wom-en from contributing. Chapter two, “the Successors”, addresses this era of de-cline. Through quantitative and source-based analyses, Sayeed maps out quite convincingly how the participation of female scholars decreased generation by generation until they were absent. Three main reasons for this were the pro-fessionalization of the 󰁦􀁩eld with higher standards of quali󰁦􀁩cations, the debate among early jurists regarding the use of ḥadīth as a source of law, and the pro-liferation of journeys ( riḥla s) in search of ḥadīth . Sayeed explains the problem of women’s travel with regard to the ḥadīth – riḥla s in detail as it was the most signicant hindrance. Due to “religious constraints on women travelling alone” and “daily domestic obligations” (p. 103), Muslim women could not undertake the long journeys that many of their contemporary males could and did. If this was indeed a problem, one wonders why women did not participate in regional transmission networks that would not require any journey. For example, why did women in Baṣra, Kūfa, and Damascus not transmit ḥadīth circulated within these cities? Although the other two reasons might help to explan, this question seemingly impedes the potentiality of riḥla as a convincing reason of decline. Yet, the exclusion of women from transmission continued to prevail until all major collections of ḥadīth were codi󰁦􀁩ed by the early tenth century.Thereafter we see a remarkable growth in female transmission of ḥadīth s. Thanks to the new interconnected developments like canonization, wide-spread acceptance of compilations, legitimization of written transmission as an authoritative means of knowledge transfer, increased issuance of ijāza s, and proliferation of ʿulamāʾ kinship networks, “women’s contributions [were] welcomed anew” (p. 114). This progress has been addressed in the third and fourth chapters. Chapter three, “the Classical Revival,” focuses on the initial stage of this transition in the tenth and eleventh centuries. Based on the lives and careers of two prominent women muḥadditha s, Karīma al-Marwaziyya and Fāṭima bint al-Ḥasan bin ʿAlī al-Daqqāq, the author elaborates on how canonization, written transmission and the evolution of ʿulamāʾ “positively im-pacted” the intellectual lives of women. If the canon of Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī con-tributed to al-Marwaziyya’s superlative reputation, it was kinship that helped Fāṭima bint al-Ḥasan for she was initiated to the world of ḥadīth -transmission by her father and later by her husband who both were renowned scholars of the time. Fāṭima and her husband would eventually build up “a complex and in󐁦􀁬uential dynasty [of scholars] spanning nearly two centuries” (p. 134).Chapter four, “a Culmination in Traditionalism,” continues this story with a focus on the period between the twelfth and 󰁦􀁩fteenth centuries, which wit-nessed the culmination of the women’s participation. Analyzing the contribu-tions of three “extraordinary muḥadditha s”—Shuhda al-Kātiba, Zaynab bint al-Kamāl and ʿĀʾisha bint Muḥammad bin ʿAbd al-Hādī, the author analyzes how they all represented “the resurgence and culmination of women’s partici-pation” transmitting the ḥadīth (p. 145). An interesting development of this period is the way traditional ʿulamāʾ partook in this drastic change. The re-cent literature in the 󰁦􀁩eld has claimed that the traditionalist Sunnī Islam had restricted the public participation of women, whereas Sayeed turns the table around and convincingly substantiates that “it was precisely this strain of Is-lam that successfully mobilized numerous women in Sunnī circles after the fourth/tenth century and engaged them in public arena of ḥadīth transmission” (p. 191). Upon the rise of the Ottoman Empire, however, legal knowledge was again emphasized and women were once again marginalized. This trend resembled the developments in the second/eighth century which also side-lined female ḥadīth -specialists in favor of law. This sixteenth-century story needs further research, and it would be insightful if we correlate this decline in the central Islamic lands with the contemporaneous rise of ḥadīth -studies in the “peripheries” of South and Southeast Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa.In the fascinating stories of these knowledgeable Muslim women across centuries, one major issue that Sayeed hardly addresses is the economic aspect of gender and identity in social organization. As most of these women were outside the institutional frameworks of madrasa education, they never under-took salaried positions, and they remained unmarried or widowed. Basic ques-tions regarding everyday survival should be a base line of inquiry, and would have been a potentially insightful aspect of their interrelated notions of piety and in󐁦􀁬uence. It also would have provided a way to ground these women to the material reality of their eras. Another important question concerns female absence in legal and theological realms, at least according to the author, dur-ing the classical revival and the culmination in traditionalism. She says that since law and theology “required prolonged and uninterrupted years of study mulāzama ) with one or more shaykh s,” religious restrictions on contacts be-tween unmarried men and women and societal expectation of women to mar-ry and rear children (p. 179) disabled them from undertaking it. But if we con-sider these reasons against Sayeed’s earlier argument about the ways in which family-networks helped women enter the world of ḥadīth transmission, this argument becomes 󐁦􀁬awed. For example, the abovementioned Fāṭima bint al-Ḥasan was introduced to ḥadīth transmission via her father, and was support-ed later by her husband. These men were excellent scholars of Shāʿī Islamic law and the Ashʿarī stream of theology, respectively. If they helped al-Hasan with ḥadīth , why did they not do the same with other religious disciplines? I am sure that the problems like mulāzama would not arise here. This should be read along with the argument of Jonathan Berkey (1992) who has informed us that legal and theological texts were also taught outside the institutional frameworks of the madrasa.Notwithstanding such questions, Sayeed’s study is an outstanding contribu-tion to Islamic studies, middle eastern studies, gender studies, and social and intellectual histories. Although her focus is primarily on ḥadīth she also deals with Islamic education, law, Muslim social and political arenas, and, most im-portantly, the question of gender. Not a single scholar working on any trends of Islam from its inception until the sixteenth century (or even later) can ignore this work. Mahmood Kooria Institute for History, Leiden University, the Netherlands
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