The Hidden History of Women's Participation in the Transmission of Hadith

The Hidden History of Women’s Participation in the Transmission of Hadith

Transmission of Hadith

Often when we think of hadīth transmission, the Ṣaḥābah and their interactions with the Prophet (peace be upon him) spring to mind. Seldom, do we think of Ṣaḥābiyyāt or female scholars and the impact they had on the transmission of Ḥadīth.

The truth is women have played a huge role in the history of Ḥadīth, and without them, many aspects of Prophetic life would not be known today. This includes topics such as purification, rites of prayer, marital relationships, family life and many more.

It goes without saying that women were the primary narrators of the customs related to matters pertaining to women. However, there are many instances where women narrated on general issues. One renowned Ḥadīth is narrated by al-Rubayyi’ bint Mu’awwidh in which she describes the Prophet’s wuḍūʾ. Her knowledge on this was so accurate and detailed that various scholars travelled to great lengths to hear this Ḥadīth from her. Locally, she was known amongst the Ṣaḥābah and Tābi’ūn (successors) for her knowledge on this topic too. ʿAbd Allāh ibn ʿAbbās, a cousin and companion of the Prophet (peace be upon him), and ʿAlī Zayn Al-ʿĀbidīn, the great-grandson of the Prophet (peace be upon him) and a prominent scholar, would refer to Al-Rubayyi’ for knowledge on such matters. Al-Rubayyi’ had also joined the Prophet’s army for several campaigns of jihād. Her role, like other women who joined the army, was to provide support, attend to the wounded and supply the fighters with water. Al-Rubayyi’ was keen to learn from the Prophet (peace be upon him) in whatever way she could. She narrated around twenty-one Ḥadīth, some of which are reported by Bukhari and Muslim while others are detailed in additional authentic compilations of Ḥadīth.

In order to gain such information from the Prophet (peace be upon him), Ṣaḥābiyyāt would attend assemblies led by the Prophet (peace be upon him), in which men were also in attendance, however, they would request separate days exclusive to them when discussing certain issues. They would also visit the wives and daughters of the Prophet (peace be upon him), who needless to say were highly educated on Ḥadīth and the Prophet’s private life. The Ṣaḥābiyyāt did not shy away from asking questions that they may have had, instead, their determination to seek knowledge resulted in information and detail that they would then carry and transmit to others, and in turn, guide the wider community.
Ibn Ḥajar al-ʿAsqalānī states “shyness is a part of the faith, and is lawful when out of respect and reverence for elders and great people, and is praiseworthy. As for the shyness which leads to abandoning a legal issue- that is rebuked and not a lawful shyness; rather it is timidity and lowness.”

The Prophet (peace be upon him) would always encourage women to seek knowledge. In doing so, he would never prohibit women from bringing their children to mosques or gatherings as we experience in some Islamic congregations today. Rather, he would shorten his prayer out of consideration for children and for their mothers’. It is narrated that “the Messenger of Allah (peace be upon him) said:

“I enter upon the prayer meaning to make it longer then I hear the crying of a baby and I lighten the prayer for the [sake of] of the child’s mother yearning [to attend to the baby]”. The Messenger of Allah (peace be upon him) encouraged women to attend public gatherings where Islamic knowledge would be taught, specifying that even when on the menstrual cycle they should not abandon the remembrance of Allah.

It must also be noted that women’s education during pre-Islamic Arabia, particularly literacy skills, was rare. With the advance of Islam, the scope of the female companions’ education and knowledge widened immensely. They began to learn and memorize the Qurʼān, the finest piece of classical Arabic literature, whilst acquiring Ḥadīth from the Prophet (peace be upon him) and studying the religion extensively. Using this knowledge, they then went on to become an example and teach the next generations.

From this, we can see that Islam does not restrict women from acquiring knowledge. The prophet (peace be upon him) said “whosoever follows a path to seek knowledge therein, God will make easy for him a path to paradise”. Therefore, whether male or female, we should strive to learn and disseminate as much knowledge as possible.

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