A Woman’s Place Within Religion, Society and Culture

July 14, 2014

Shaykh: A male religious figure in Islam, usually someone who is well learned in traditional knowledge.

The term ‘Shaykha’ is probably not one known to many, it means a ‘female shaykh’, i.e. a women who has pursued and acquired sacred knowledge. Islam is often blamed for oppressing women, many point to “wife beating”, veiled women, and the lack of female leadership. Though the idea that Islam promotes wife beating is laughable when looking towards the example of Prophet Muhammad, peace upon him, who was the last prophet of Islam and the idea that the veil itself is oppressive is no more of an empty statement then believing wearing a bikini is freedom but the lack of female scholarship… there may be a case to be made. The usual response is to simply say; “Islam has many female scholars” but if any ask their names it would become a stuttering affair. For anyone well versed in history it may become a bit easier, but what of the modern day religious scholars, is there a woman among them?

Though Islamic scholars in the west are incomparable to Christian religious figures in their cultural importance there are a few who stand out in the crowd. Imam Zaid Shakir and Shaykh Hamza Yusuf are two figures that not only hold importance to Muslim Americans but also to their non- Muslim counterparts. Both Imam Zaid and Shaykh Hamza have studied long year’s overseas pursuing Islamic knowledge. Recently they both, along with Hatim Bazian created Zaytuna College, a school dedicated to religious studies as well as liberal arts. Both men and women attend the college, studying sacred and secular knowledge, side by side. Will this be the impetus needed to produce female scholarship?

Though it is a nice thought that men and woman pursuing Islamic knowledge side by side will lead to those same women pursuing Islamic scholarship in the future, it is unclear that the beginning will be as even handed at the end. When I spoke to my sister, a graduate of Zaytuna, a while back she said to me “they want us to wait to get married, and focus on our studies”. Waiting for four years is palpable but serious Islamic studies takes more then a fears years especially when being coupled with liberal arts. Serious Islamic scholarship is far more of a feat, whether it’s 3 or 5 or 10 years of religious study many in pursuit of scholarship may purposefully delay having a family or have a family with the understanding that it will be a struggle. A struggle for whom? And in what way? Al Ghazali and Ibn Arabi are two scholars who come to mind, both left their wives for an extended period of time –years, in the pursuit of sacred knowledge. There is a story of another scholar who left his wife for so long that upon returning she could no longer recognize him. Where are the stories of the women who left their families for years in pursuit of sacred knowledge? Non- existent. And this is not true merely of Islam, any religious tradition would be hard-pressed to find a woman who pursued sacred knowledge for years and upon returning found her loving husband and children waiting for her.

What we do find, sparsely, is a story of a woman like Rabia Al Adawi (a great scholar of Islamic spirituality) who was offered marriage by Hasan Al Basri, one of the greatest Islamic scholars in the tradition, and declined. And yet most women want to be married, the possibility of having both seems implausible. Is this imbalance just a part of the course? Women stay home overseeing household affairs while men pursue sacred knowledge or women forgo family for sacred knowledge? The nice answer would be that woman in the modern day can have it all, but this saying has revealed its pitfalls even in mainstream culture. The issue relates to the bigger unresolved issue of a “woman’s place”. It was once said, in American society, that a women’s place is in the home, then feminist came along and told women ‘No’ women belong in the public space. But since then women have struggled with having it all. Women have been longing to keep their feminine qualities while taking on traditionally male roles, and struggling. Some point to the answer of universal daycare with out dealing with the quintessential issue that women may actually want to be care giver of their children and the real struggle is wanting to and feeling forced to take on traditional male role and feeling like it’s simply all too much.


  • Zaakir Abdus-Salaam

    Great piece Nuriddeen, I can’t wait to read the rest of the series. From a spiritual perspective, the Shayka’s of the world are all around us. Like their male counterparts, their knowledge is available just like the river for the seekers to drink from. They serve Allah, so Allah will make their presence known to the people who are suppose to benefit from them. Fame or notoriety is in the hands of Allah. He conceals who He wants to conceal and reveal who He wants to reveal. In many cases, it is better for the servants of Allah not to be known to the common people. The most famous Shayks are often the most abused Shaykh’s.

    In regards to marriage, I don’t know of any evidence that suggest that pursuing knowledge, religious or otherwise is in conflict with marriage. I say that of course, fully understanding the traditional roles of men and women within marriage, but traditions are only limitations to our success when we make it so. If it is the desire of a woman to pursue knowledge, and pursue marriage, Allah will make it easy for her. If she decides to not get married and dedicate all of herself to the pursuit of knowledge, that is fine too. Allah has given us a flexible way to live our lives. We should embrace this, and not lock ourselves up. Allah is BIG, and so are the possibilities of our success in this world and the next.

    • Noor

      I think you right. My little time studying Islamic law has showed me how wide spread Islam really is. There are fewer things that are must be done one way, many acts of worship have a wide range of of variation -though it is not endless, there is a limit. Yet often we limit our selves far more then Allah has and claim that “Islam” is to blame when really we have locked ourselves in chains because of our own lack of knowledge. I thank God for Islam in all its true variations.

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