Last update: 2021-03-29 11:09:43
After she spent five years studying the Islamic tradition in Syria, sheikha Safia Shahid started teaching and guiding students in their journey towards learning Islam. This experience inspired the foundation of the Women’s Muslim College, an educational centre designed to provide British Muslim Women with an adequate religious training, enabling them to address the challenges they face in Europe.
The Women’s Muslim College is one of the few Islamic educational establishments in the UK devoted to women. How did the idea of establishing this institute come about? When and how was it founded?
I began teaching and guiding aspiring students after studying the Islamic tradition for five years in Syria. The educational achievement of the women I taught was outstanding. They excelled in the learning of the various Islamic disciplines and performed exceptionally in their studies. Recognising the potential of these women, I facilitated teaching opportunities for those qualified. As the number of students and teachers grew, the idea of establishing an educational institute to cater for the vision of reviving female scholarship emerged. It was the logical progression as the work expanded. I founded Women’s Muslim College with the support and guidance of sheikh Muhammad Al-Yaqoubi in 2017.
Education holds a significant position in the Islamic tradition, and its lofty rank is affirmed in the Qur’an, hadith and scholarly literature. The emphasis placed on learning is found in verses of the Qur’an such as: “My Lord! Increase me in knowledge” (Qur. 20:114). Indeed, the first revealed verse of the Qur’an: “Read” (Qur. 96:1), draws attention to its importance. The Qur’an encourages reflection and the use of intellect: “Lo! In the creation of the heavens and the earth and (in) the difference of night and day are tokens (of His Sovereignty) for men of understanding” (Qur. 3:190). The hadith literature further elaborates with narrations such as: “Seeking knowledge is a duty upon every Muslim.” With the strong textual origins of education, it is delightful to cater for the educational and spiritual needs of Muslim women and, more broadly, the community at large; as an Arabic proverb states: “A mother is a school. Empower her, and you empower a great nation.”
The main goal of the College is to produce female scholars grounded in Islam’s intellectual tradition. What programs does the College offer to its students and what subjects do they study?
Islamic Sciences in a Modern Context is the College’s flagship four-year programme, designed to offer a world-class education and produce female scholars grounded in Islam’s intellectual tradition, with the requisite skills and training to guide and lead in modern society. The Diploma in Islamic Sciences is a part-time programme over one academic year, and is designed to give students a grounding in obligatory knowledge for every Muslim. The College also offers a wide range of Certificate courses in various subjects of the Islamic sciences. The programmes and courses are designed to appeal to women of all ages and levels of Islamic education. Subjects include Qur’anic Recitation (tajwīd), Islamic Creed (‘aqīda), Islamic Law (fiqh), Portrait of the Prophet (shamā’il) and Spirituality (tasawwuf).
Qur’anic Recitation (tajwīd) equips students with the skills to recite the Qur’an correctly with the rules of recitation. Spirituality (tasawwuf), considered to be the core of the Islamic religion, introduces students to subjects such as the purification of the heart, virtues of repentance, refinement of the soul and spiritual proximity to God. Islamic Law (fiqh) involves the study of religious duties pertaining to purification, prayer and other subjects in the comprehensive science of Islamic jurisprudence. The course enables the correct practice of religious obligations. Islamic Creed (‘aqīda) is concerned with honing a correct understanding of beliefs core to the Islamic faith. Key points of Islamic belief include the Divine Attributes of God, Prophethood and matters of the unseen, such as the resurrection and the hereafter. Portrait of the Prophet (shamā’il) introduces students to the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) from a unique perspective. Learning about his noble features, character, eating habits, laughter, manner of walking, clothing and other personal aspects, the course presents the intimate minutiae of the Prophet’s life, going beyond merely studying the events in his life. Islamic Sciences in a Modern Context delves deeper and includes subjects such as Qur’anic Exegesis (tafsīr), Prophetic Tradition (Hadīth), Principles of Islamic Law (usūl al-fiqh), Methodology of Hadith (mustalah al-hadīth) and others.
Who are the women who decide to enrol in your college and what job opportunities do they seek after graduation?
Women who enrol at the College include young school leavers, professionals, mothers and wives. They study at either a foundational or advanced scholarship level. Underlying the study of both levels is the aspiration to acquire the requisite knowledge for Islamic faith practice, attain closer proximity to one’s Lord and be better Muslims. The College is proud to facilitate Muslim women to reach their intellectual and spiritual goals. Islamic education is the lifeline of Muslims and a means to spiritually fulfilling lives. As the College recently launched, it is yet to reach the stage of student graduation of its scholarship programme. Nevertheless, the programme prepares for a career in education encompassing teaching and lecturing in diverse and varied contexts.
You attended classes with sheikh Muhammad al-Yaqoubi. Which of his teachings have been the greatest source of inspiration for you as a woman scholar?
All the sheikh’s teachings have been an invaluable source of inspiration for me. His deep wisdom, knowledge and erudition is phenomenal, having studied over five hundred books in the various Islamic sciences under the tutelage of his father. The study of a solid traditional curriculum in a scholarly and spiritual environment is the great legacy that he imparts to his students. Particularly inspirational is his commitment to refuting extremists, which is evident in his renowned book Refuting ISIS and his public engagement in denouncing their acts of terror and barbaric practices. It is wonderful to see a prominent voice offer clarity in times of confusion and guide the masses on the pertinent issues of our times. Furthermore, his teachings on spirituality are profound and have a transformative impact, facilitating a better relationship with one’s Lord and motivating one to higher spiritual levels.
What role has female Islamic scholarship played in Islamic history? Within this tradition, is there a woman scholar who has particularly inspired you?
One of the wonderful features of the Islamic tradition is the inclusivity of the female in education and scholarship. Muslim women gained prominence in Islamic scholarly society. An analysis of Islamic history demonstrates a rich heritage of women who excelled in Islamic disciplines such as Prophetic Tradition (hadīth), Islamic Law (fiqh), Literature (‘adab) and Spirituality (tasawwuf). Luminaries such as Sayyida ‘Ā’isha (RA), Zaynab Bint al-Kamāl, Fātima al-Fihrī and many others have left a tremendous impact on Islamic civilisation. These remarkable women of high intellectual and spiritual calibre serve as great inspiration for both Muslim men and women today.
Sayyida ‘Ā’isha (one of the wives of the Prophet Muhammad) is a particularly inspiring woman scholar. Abū Mūsā al-Ash‘arī (RA), one of the great male companions, said: “No hadith presented us companions of the Prophet (PBUH) with difficulty but that we would ask Sayyida ‘Ā’isha (RA) about it and we found she had knowledge of it.” The most illustrious male companions would consult her and seek her advice. They attested to her brilliance and eloquence. Sayyidunā Mūsā ibn Talha said: “I never saw a person more eloquent than Sayyida ‘Ā’isha” and Imam Zuhrī said: “If the knowledge of Sayyida ‘Ā’isha was compared to the knowledge of all women, the knowledge of Sayyida ‘Ā’isha would be superior!”
She encompassed knowledge of diverse subjects including the Qur’an, law, poetry and medicine. Due to the transmission and dissemination of her vast knowledge, including a great number of Prophetic narrations, Muslim men and women are educationally benefitting fourteen centuries later. Some important events pertaining to the history of Islam were narrated by her alone.
Moreover, Sayyida ‘Ā’isha is admired for her piety and virtuous actions, including fasting and spending on the poor. She was known for her altruism. On receiving a substantial sum of money as a gift, she expended it on the poor, forgetting her own needs. That day she was fasting, and her assistant reminded her that they had nothing to break the fast with.
Why is it so important to revive Islamic female scholarship in Europe?
Key numbers of women, being both European with a Muslim identity, want to take an active role to positively address the challenges facing Muslims living in Europe today. Doing so will lead to cohesive communities with a shared understanding of commonalities as well as a respect for differences.
Islam’s true teachings are based on sacred vows of peace, mercy, moderation and protection of life. Those who fail to subscribe to these basic tenets of the Islamic faith, and instead misinterpret its teachings, propose extremist ideologies for which there is absolutely no basis in any of the teachings of Islam.
The best way to combat extremism is by spreading correctly interpreted knowledge and producing young female scholars, teachers and muftis. Equipped with knowledge and wisdom, they can prevent the incorrect interpretations that lead to extremism. The sacred knowledge represented in centuries of Islam’s scholarly heritage is at the heart of the College. Women connected with their glorious tradition will make a strong and positive contribution to society as great ambassadors of Islam modelled on the Prophetic character of mercy.
How do you consider modern Islamic feminism and the interpretation of the sacred texts from a gender perspective?
The pre-Islamic era of Arabia was replete with the ill-treatment of women; they suffered great injustices, were treated like material property and deprived of inheritance. Female infanticide was rampant. The Arabs buried their daughters alive because of the embarrassment felt of having female babies. In the midst of this oppression against females, the Prophet Muhammad’s teachings and commands established their rights and completely transformed their status to one of honour and respect in society.
It is important to highlight that in Islam, Muslim women are integral members of the society. The Qur’an says: “Never will I allow to be lost the work of [any] worker among you, whether male or female” (Qur. 3:195). The sacred texts gave women unprecedented rights fourteen hundred years ago; it was revolutionary at the time and Muslim women continue to enjoy these rights today. Hadith narrations that encourage the good treatment of women include: “The best amongst you is the one who is the best towards his wife” and “Paradise lies under the feet of mothers.” It was the privilege of such rights that enabled Fātima al-Fihrī of the ninth century to found one of the world’s leading universities and mosque, al-Qarawiyyīn in Fez, Morocco. She inherited a large sum from her wealthy father and spent it on establishing this marvellous contribution to Islamic civilisation. It is a great example of Muslim women’s participation and agency in society.
The aforementioned verses and narrations present a compelling argument of the positive status of Muslim women. Perspectives of Islamic feminism and gender interpretations that oppose sound interpretations within the Islamic tradition (because of assumed patriarchal oppression) are questionable. For example, the hijab does not imply the inferiority of Muslim women. Rather, people are distinguished before God on their level of piety: “Indeed, the most noble of you in the sight of Allah is the most righteous of you” (Qur. 49:13).
Especially in the West, the situation of Muslim women is usually dealt with through the lens of controversial issues such as the wearing of hijab and gender relations. Muslim women are often portrayed as victims and oppressed. What’s your perspective on these kinds of debates?
The contemporary representation of Islam and Muslims in certain contexts is clearly problematic. Unfortunately, the portrayal of Muslim women as victims and oppressed masks the fact that many Muslim women happily wear the hijab because of religious devotion. I am proud to be one of them and so too are the multitudes of Muslim women I regularly engage with nationwide and internationally. Thus, we do not relate to narratives that assume we are oppressed for wearing a piece of cloth on our heads or for adhering to other religious principles and practices.
The narrative of Islam from the perspective of practitioners of the faith, who base their understanding on sound interpretations within the Islamic tradition, contrasts the common media narratives of ‘oppressed’ Muslim women. It would be helpful to look beyond certain media that is interested in promoting a sensationalist form of Islam. However, increased representation of positive narratives may tackle the dehumanisation of Muslims. Moreover, in a broader sense, it has the potential to dispel misconceptions not only of Muslim women, but of Islam in general.
It is interesting (but not surprising) that the concept of covering the head exists in the other Abrahamic religious traditions, such as in the early Christian tradition, which is probably now most manifest in the example of nuns. I have not seen any traditional pictures of the Virgin Mary except where she wears a scarf on her head. Likewise, the concept exists in the Orthodox Jewish tradition. In a time of decisive rhetoric and “clash of civilisations” narratives, it would be beneficial to focus on the commonalities that exist between us and the desire of both Muslims and non-Muslims communities to live in peaceful co-existence.
To cite this article
Safia Shahid, “The College Where Women Become Better Muslims”, Oasis, year XV, n. 30, December 2019, pp. 45-51.
Safia Shahid, “The College Where Women Become Better Muslims”, Oasis [online], published on 30th November 2020, URL: https://www.oasiscenter.eu/en/college-women-become-better-muslims