A well-known hadith (statement attributed to the Prophet Muhammad) states, “The seeking of knowledge is a religious obligation for every Muslim” (talab al-‘ilm farida ‘ala kull muslim). A variant version of this hadith explicitly makes clear that this obligation recognizes no gender difference: “The seeking of knowledge is a duty of every Muslim, male and female.” Like the practice and possession of personal piety (taqwa), possession of knowledge (‘ilm) – religious and otherwise – is highly valorized in the Islamic milieu and has the potential to level gendered differences between men and women. Knowledge and piety combined sometimes conferred great status and religious authority on the individual concerned irrespective of gender and sometimes brought exceptional social and intellectual recognition in its wake. Such was the case for ‘A’isha bint Abi Bakr, beloved wife of the Prophet Muhammad from the seventh century and for Rabi‘a al-‘Adawiyya, the famous female Basran mystic from the eighth century. To this day, the names of these distinguished women are invoked reverentially by many Muslims as paragons of moral excellence and exceptional learning whose lives are deemed to be worthy of emulation by both women and men.
There may, however, be a temptation among modern scholars to dismiss these women as exceptions to the rule, especially since many in the Western academy and beyond it often tend to portray Muslim-majority societies as peculiarly resistant to women's empowerment, particularly through education. And yet, a number of pre-modern sources document the active participation of considerable numbers of women, usually from elite backgrounds, in the production and dissemination of religious knowledge in Islamic societies, which sometimes conferred a measure of religious authority on them. Other sources list the contributions of elite and non-elite women in the more worldly realms of literary composition, which brought them distinction and renown in their own milieu and beyond.
This chapter will be concerned with selectively retrieving details of the lives of a number of such learned and accomplished Muslim women in the pre-modern period (roughly from the seventh century to the sixteenth century) whose religious and intellectual prosopographical works of the period.