Current Issues Religious Education & Leadership
Summary of the Issue
Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. 2005. Malaysian Muslim women workers pray during a rally to celebrate Labor Day. Photo Credit: Teh Eng Koon/AP Images.
Since early Islam, women have played an important role in the political, religious, and public sphere. Muslim women have played a prominent role in the preservation and cultivation of Hadith, or sayings of the Prophet. For example, Aisha bint Abu Bakr, the youngest wife of the Prophet, is considered to be one of the most important figures in the transmission and development of Hadith. She was the earliest reporter of the largest number of Hadith and was also regarded as a respected interpreter. In addition, dating back 1,400 years, at least 8,000 women have been recognized as Hadith scholars who have contributed to the development of Islamic thought.1
After the Prophet’s death, many women excelled in delivering public lectures on Hadith and held important positions in partnership with men in cultivation of the prophetic tradition. They were not only teachers of tradition but also studied alongside their male counterparts. The leading Muslim scholar Ibn al-Bukhari shows that numerous women attended an eleven-lecture course, which was delivered before a class consisting of more than 500 male and female students in the Umar Mosque at Damascus in the year 687 Hijri, 1288 CE.2 In China, around the 17th century, schools were built for the use of Muslim women and by the 19th century these schools were transformed into mosques being run by and for Muslim women.3 The practice of nu ahong, or female spiritual leaders, then became widespread in Chinese Muslim communities.4
Despite women’s early contributions to Islamic jurisprudence, Muslim women still face significant challenges to religious education. One fundamental challenge is Muslim women’s access to mosques. No scriptural or prophetic evidence marks the mosque as an area exclusive to one gender. The Prophet himself said: “If any among your women asks permission to go to the mosque, don't stop her from going.” Yet, in many places, such as India and countries in the Gulf, mosques do not have any space for women, and in communities that do have female attendance women are often relegated to spaces with fewer facilities than those of their male counterparts. Mosque leadership for women can also be rare. According to the Muslim Public Affairs Committee, out of an estimated 200 mosques in the United Kingdom, not one was chaired by a woman.5
In recent years there has been a resurgence of women scholars and attempts to reform religious interpretation and the application of Islamic law. Muslim women are demanding their full rights to full participation in the public and religious sphere. Patriarchal customs are being rejected and laws are being revised.
 Carla Power. "A Secret History." The New York Times, February 25, 2007.
 Dr. Muhammad Zubayr Siddiqi: "Women Scholars of Hadith"
 Zehra Rizavi: "Searching for American 'nu ahongs'"
 Anju Azad: "India: A women's mosque in Shillong"
 "UK Muslim Women Want Mosque Foothold"
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Organizations Active on this Issue
Muhammad Z. Siddiqi. Women Scholars of Hadith.
Farah, Alfy.Muslim Women Defies Male Dominance.
Shah Abdul Hanan. The Religious Education to Women in Bangladesh.
Azizah, A. Hibri. S. Alkhateeb. Redefining Muslims’ Women Role in the Next Century
Shah Abdul Hannan. The Religious Education of Muslim Women in Bangladesh
Antepli, Abdullah T. "Duke U.'s Muslim Chaplain Offers Words of Reason,