Women in the Sufis reform movements in Africa have played an important role in the spread of educational institutions and the consolidation of male religious authority
Last update: 2022-04-22 10:02:33
The contribution of Muslim female scholars is a neglected aspect of African history. As yet we know little about them, also because research into these figures only began recently and the available sources are scant. Nevertheless, analysis of the eighteenth and nineteenth-century Sufi reform movements shows that women played an important role both in the spread of Islamic educational institutions and consolidation of male religious authority.
One of the first things we realize when looking at the phenomenon of Muslim female scholarship in Africa is that we know very little about it. Three reasons for this fact can be pinned down immediately. The first reason explaining why women are absent from many of the narratives of African Muslim historiography is the dominant interest in powerful iconic male figures of African Muslim history. Second, the perception of the social role of women in Africa in general and Muslim societies in particular led to most academic research ignoring the existence of female Muslim scholars as it challenged popular stereotypes of Muslim women as subordinate to Muslim men.[i] And third, neither academic research nor traditional Muslim scholarship has established a practice of documenting women’s religious activities and achievements on a level with the efforts of their male counterparts. The result is a lack of archival sources documenting female scholars’ activities. It is only recently that their achievements have been put more into focus.[ii]
An Elusive Phenomenon
Even though we know little, we must nevertheless admit that pious and learned women are frequently mentioned in certain kinds of sources. These are mostly biographical notes, and travel reports of (spiritual) study trips written by male scholars. However, in some biographical dictionaries, female scholars are mentioned with an entry of their own.[iii] Still, we soon realize that the information provided about female scholars is often somewhat concise and, further, women do not exist on their own but are always related to men, be it a son, father, brother or husband. Women are principally described as the wives, daughters or mothers of religious scholars or sheikhs before mention is made of their efforts in the field of spirituality or religious knowledge. This substantially distinguishes their entries in biographical dictionaries from their male companions since the family ties of the latter might often not be mentioned at all.[iv]
Consequently, the study of female Muslim scholars asks for thorough reflection on conceptions of gender and social status in Islamicate societies and further emphasizes the necessity to challenge the orientalist paradigm of the existence of any kind of monolithic Islam. The opinions of male Muslim scholars on the participation of women in the realm of Islamic knowledge production, transmission and preservation are manifold. Consequently, the ways in which female Muslim believers engage in the field of Islamic knowledge production and transmission are quite diverse as well. Women can achieve religious authority through spiritual experience in Sufi contexts[v] and through Islamic knowledge[vi] in a scholarly context. Further, women play a significant role within institutions of Muslim authority like mosques[vii] or Sufi centres. While sometimes they hold prominent positions within these institutions based on their achievement of religious authority, more often they remain much more in the background than their male counterparts.[viii] Recent developments have given more visibility to these behind-the-scenes activities, as societies change and religious institutions adapt to new living conditions and social norms.[ix]
Having said that, in general the religious engagement of women remains hidden and it is common for women not to be mentioned in written sources. Nevertheless, we still find traces within certain genres of literature: first and foremost, in hagiographies and travel reports, but also in panegyric poetry praising dead personalities (madīh). Female Muslim scholars or spiritual leaders are frequently mentioned within these sources. In addition to written sources, information about female Muslim scholarship and sainthood can also be provided by buildings such as shrines where saints and pious personalities are commemorated. Such buildings can be found in older cities of Islamicate Africa, some of which remember female saints. This is especially evident in Northern Africa, with the tomb of Lāla Sittī (twelfth century) in Tlemcen (Algeria), but it can also be seen in other older African cities of Muslim civilization such as Harar in Ethiopia.[x]
Another, very rare type of source is texts composed by female scholars, mainly stored in private manuscript collections that can be found throughout Islamicate Africa. Such texts are very difficult to trace, however, as it appears that most of them are neither cited nor edited on a larger scale. Moreover, the authorship of many of these manuscripts is anonymous, that is, the author is not explicitly mentioned in the manuscript. In the end, few of such surviving anonymous texts can be traced back to a specific personality. These texts often remain autographs that might not be copied and therefore are not transferred over generations but disappear with the passing of time. As a result, when listing a female author’s works, the data collected in bio-bibliographical tools often remain incomplete. [xi]
Female Scholars in Mauritania
Since 2012, I have been interested in female scholars in Mauritania. One aspect of my work is the question of the extent to which women scholars participate in the production of local scholarly texts. Altogether, I have been able to identify fifteen female Islamic scholars writing in Mauritania since the eighteenth century. One of these scholars was Fātima Bint Muhammad Mahmūd Ibn ‘Abd al-Fattāh al-Abyayriyya (d. before 1882, known as Tūt Bint al-Tāh). She was obviously an important Islamic scholar in the nineteenth-century Sufi community of sheikh Sīdiyya.[xii] She was not only famous for her beautiful script, but, according to a local publication,[xiii] ultimately authored around sixteen texts. However, only two of these are mentioned in Maurische Literaturgeschichte,[xiv] with two more in the more recent Arabic Literature of Africa V.[xv] I managed to find three additional titles in the form of manuscripts stored in a private collection in Nouakchott. The remaining eight are still lost.
Obviously, women scholars’ texts were not given wide circulation; nonetheless, they often contributed to local scholarly debates. Such a case is that of ‘Ā’isha Bint Ahmad Maylūd al-Hājjiyya (d. late nineteenth century) who commented on one of the texts of Hamādan Ibn al-Amīn al-Būhamdī al-Majlisī (1756/7–1848/9) in the discipline of sīra (a biography of the Prophet and his companions). However, women did not only comment local scholars’ texts; they also introduced commentaries into the local scholarly tradition. Most prominently, this is true for Khadīja Bint Muhammad al-Āqil al-Daimāniyya (d. 1835/6) who was one of the scholars who introduced mantiq (logic) into the local curriculum for higher Islamic education. She wrote one of the first commentaries in the Western Sahara on al-Akhdarī’s (d. 1575) al-Sullam al-murauniq fī ‘ilm al-mantiq. Furthermore, she was the teacher of many famous scholars of her time who debated within the discipline of mantiq (logic). One of her students was Mukhtār Ibn Būna, who composed the most outstanding work in that discipline during her time, the Tuhfat al-muhaqqiq fī hall mushkilāt al-mantiq.
Most of the female scholars I have identified as composing texts came from families with outstanding scholarly traditions. It was either their fathers or their brothers who were famous. Most of them actively taught in their family’s Islamic school. There is only one author, Fātima Bint Muhammad Sīd Ahmad al-Habīb about whose life or family members I was not able to collect any information. Possibly, she was a female scholar who did not originate from a scholarly family with a written tradition, but married into one. On the other hand, it is possible that all the other writings of her family are lost. It is common for such information to be missing in the West Saharan manuscript tradition, and, in many cases, it is only through knowledge of the owner of the manuscript collection that more details can be identified. While such findings clearly indicate that some female scholars composed their own texts, we are still very much in the first stages of discovering their contribution to the West Saharan manuscript tradition.
While reflecting on the impact of female scholarship within Islamic intellectual traditions, such examples demonstrate that, with a focus on the written tradition, gaps remain in our knowledge about Islamic scholarship. Texts written by female scholars are neither easy to trace nor can much information be found about them within other written sources. Therefore, we need to integrate the oral sphere into our research agenda as well. The same is argued by Mack and others in their studies on female Muslim scholarship. They conclude that the lack of written documentation hints towards an emphasis on oral tradition as orality and memorization are of an extraordinary importance in the pursuit of Islamic knowledge.[xvi] In this sense, female scholarship more often remains in the oral sphere. Hence, this knowledge might disappear over generations or might only be remembered in a specific locality, rarely being part of a transregional memory. Nevertheless, the fact that female scholars in Mauritania have left several written texts demonstrates that women were an active part of the Islamic intellectual tradition in Africa. Such activities could range from the introduction of innovative knowledge into the local scholarly tradition, like in the case of Khadīja Bint Muhammad al-Āqil al-Daimāniyya with her treatise on logic, to commenting texts of the local scholarship tradition, like in the case of ‘Ā‘isha Bint Ahmad Maylūd al-Hājjiyya’s commentary. Some evidence exists that women even issued legal opinions (fatwas).
Not only in Mauritania but in other African Muslim communities as well, women often played important roles in the field of religious educational institutions, be it as teachers, spiritual guides, or even founders of institutions transmitting Islamic knowledge. Still, due to our scant knowledge at this point in the research, it is difficult to evaluate the impact of female Islamic scholarship. Were these women we know about exceptional or were they part of everyday scholarly life? Was their work influential or did it remain within a limited scope due to their gender roles? Such questions are often left unanswered or debated within a frame of normative assumptions. One could argue that different responses might be given to the question of the influence of female religious scholars on spiritual and intellectual Islamic traditions depending on the specific circumstances of the case under examination.
However, we can see that the phenomenon of female Muslim scholars cannot be reduced to certain societies or to specific historical times or intellectual traditions. Female Muslim scholars are to be found throughout Muslim communities in Africa, in diverse historical periods, and in different intellectual traditions. From the beginning of Islam on the continent, scattered pieces of information can be found on cases of pious women. Their activities range from teaching and copying manuscripts, to writing and even in some rare cases issuing legal opinions (fatwas). The variety of engagement in the scholarly tradition is broad and could mostly be carried out only after advanced training. This is true for spiritual guidance, the copying of religious texts and the teaching of various disciplines of Islamic intellectual traditions, sometimes to women only, but often to men and women alike.
Most of the information is documented among the Sufi reform movements of the eighteenth and nineteenth century. Even in sources of early African Islamicate history, female Muslim scholarship cannot be distinguished from the historiography of Sufism and the saints. One reason for this might be the fact that Sufism played a pivotal role in the spread of Islamic education. On the other hand, since female scholars were not leaving a significant and visible contribution in the written corpus of Islamic doctrine, most of the information we have concerns pious women and their contribution to society by founding important institutions, or performing charity, healing or teaching.
The Maghrebi Matrix and Sufi Movements
The earliest famous woman remembered on the continent for her teaching might be Sayyida Nafīsa Bint al-Hasan (762-824), probably a great granddaughter of ‘Alī Ibn Abī Tālib (d. 661). She came from Mecca and in her mid-forties settled in Fustāt (the settlement built near the site of the future Cairo in order to govern Northern Egypt at the time of the Early Islamic Empire). She is still venerated in Egypt today and known for her piety, for more than a hundred miracles and it is even said that her house was an important meeting place for well-known Islamic scholars of her time. Following the popular tradition, she taught several famous scholars in the field of hadith, for example, the founder of the shafi‘i and hanbali madhhab (legal school of thought).[xvii] Another learned and pious woman from the ninth century is Fātima al-Fihrisiyya (d. 890), an Arab lady from Tunis whose family settled in Fes, Morocco, in the early ninth century. When her father passed away, he left a heritage that she invested in founding the Qarawiyyīn in 859, the oldest madrasa (institution of higher Islamic education) still to be operating today, hosting Morocco’s oldest library with numerous valuable and rare manuscripts.
Our information about female contributions to Islamic scholarship in the Maghreb between the tenth and fifteenth century is quite rich thanks to Nelly Amri’s studies, beginning in the 1990s, on the Hafisid conception of sainthood.[xviii] During the Maghrebi Hafisid period, sainthood did not remain a male domain but was accessible to both genders. This was true both for the spiritual state and authoritative guidance, as women saints could achieve the highest spiritual state (al-qutbiyya) and the highest position of spiritual guidance and representation (al-khilāfa).[xix] Such attributes (qutbat al-aqtāb; khalīfat Allāh) are found in one of the very rare hagiographies dedicated to a female saint in Tunis: ‘Ā’isha al-Mannūbiyya (d. 1267).[xx] However, authority among learned women in that era was not limited to spirituality and sainthood; female scholars are remembered in some sources in jurisprudence and preaching too. This is true for example for the Moroccan female scholars ‘Azīza al-Saksāwiyya (late fourteenth century) who issued legal opinions that were respected among those who requested them,[xxi] Sārā Bint Ahmad Ibn ‘Uthmān al-Halabatiyya (twelfth century) who taught jurisprudence (fiqh) and the prophetic tradition (hadith) to male and female students in Fes, and Khadīja Bint al-Hawwāt (fifteenth century), from Chefchaouen (Morocco), who was known to have been an excellent preacher.[xxii] This phenomenon was not limited to the Maghreb. In Mamluk Egypt, women scholars were prominent as well, especially in the field of the prophetic tradition (hadith).[xxiii]
The Maghreb’s Islamic intellectual tradition later intensively influenced the birth of a Saharan and West African Islamic intellectual tradition. Both intellectual traditions share an Andalusian heritage, including the Maliki (school of jurisprudence), ash‘ari (school of theology) and Sufi literature corpus. Nana Asma’u (1793-1865), the daughter of the founder of the Sokoto caliphate (in nineteenth-century northern Nigeria) is one of the most famous historical figures among the female Muslim scholars in Africa. A series of publications by Murray Last, Beverly Mack and Jean Boyd that deal with her life, educational activities and written works have made her an iconic figure in the historiography on female Muslim scholarship in Africa.[xxiv] Her life reflects the role of learned women in the Muslim scholarly world of late eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Africa. As a member of the religious and political ruling family of the Sokoto caliphate, with her activities she contributed to the consolidation of the religious and political authority of her male family members. With her aptitude for Islamic knowledge, she served as a scribe and educator. As the founder of the yan taru movement, she trained women to train other women and established an educational network that spread the social norms and values on which the Sokoto caliphate was built. The creation of the Sokoto caliphate went hand in hand with the successful establishment of a Sufi reform movement in the region, in this case the Qādiriyya, which had been established in the Saharan and Sahelian region in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth century, but experienced a popular revival at the turn of the nineteenth century.
Women played an important role not only in this popular Sufi reform movement, but in others too. The Tijāniyya, which was founded at the end of the eighteenth century, for example, incorporated a significant number of learned women. Some of them achieved authority through their spiritual guidance and others through their teaching of textual knowledge. Cases of such women holding authority in the Tijāniyya are documented in nineteenth- and twentieth-century Mauritania,[xxv] as well as in twentieth-century Kano in northern Nigeria,[xxvi] or mid twentieth- and twenty-first-century Senegal.[xxvii] Other cases from early twentieth-century Senegal are known as well, for example in the context of the Murīdiyya and the Laayeen (or Layènne in French).[xxviii] However, female Sufi authorities became known to broader publics outside West Africa. In Northern Africa, for example, we find Zaynab in colonial Algeria;[xxix] and in East Africa a recent publication on Sittī ‘Alawiyya in colonial Eritrea sheds light on female scholarship in the region.[xxx]
All these women were members of influential scholarly families (either by marriage or birth), engaging in the project of spreading Sufi Islam and its devotional practices. They show that popular piety movements demanded the active participation of women, thus creating spaces for female authority. These women did not set out to counter male religious authority by spreading Sufi practices, but contributed to popular Sufi movements that were largely represented by male authorities and demanded an increase in piety and devotional practice in accordance with the scriptural teachings of Islam. These movements often contributed to the Arabization of African Muslim scholarship by founding numerous educational institutions that offered Islamic education and Arabic teaching to a broader public. One of the aims was to counter the increasing colonial influence on education that was starting to spread throughout the African continent, first through the invitation of European teachers to modernize reform plans (for example, in Egypt during the times of Muhammad ‘Alī), or through proselytizing European organizations founding Christian missionary schools. These first encounters in the educational sector were later followed by colonial schools for training the administrative staff needed to govern the colonies. This introduction of “Christian” education and values provoked “intellectual responses” among both traditionally trained Muslim scholars and the newly trained,[xxxi] who often emphasized the greater integration of women in Islamic education to uphold Muslim values and worldviews in Muslim communities.
Not Just a Gender Issue
New forms of Islamic education have evolved since the introduction of modern mass education, producing learned women who engage in teaching, preaching and sometimes writing. These more modern trends have been left out of this article, as this phenomenon demands more detailed reflection on the intersections of modern policies, the development of state institutions and the long-term impact of colonialism in transforming values and societies on a global level. The focus of this article was the oft-neglected historical dimension of female Muslim scholarship. This historical blindness has led to the celebration of the “new” freedoms achieved by Muslim women through modernity, which might, instead, not be so new after all. In general, we must admit that colonialism introduced its own ways of excluding women from education in what might be a different manner from the pre-colonial Muslim ways. On the other hand, it would be unrealistic to think that pre-colonial Muslim communities in general did not exclude women from accessing Islamic knowledge and authority.
In addition to reflection on gender, the question of excluding or including women in the world of Islamic scholarship needs to consider social status as a marker as well. As the examples of female Islamic scholars writing in Mauritania have demonstrated, these women were members of scholarly families. When we take a closer look at questions of religious authority within Sufi circles in Mauritania, we can see that even though the position of sheikh within a Sufi community often lay in the hands of a man, wives played an important role behind their husband’s position. A man in scholarly circles with ambitions to gain a position of leadership could definitely achieve this more easily with a learned woman by his side. She could assist him by copying texts, teaching students and guiding the women of the community.[xxxii]
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To cite this article
Britta Frede, “Female Islamic Knowledge in Africa: a Forgotten Story”, Oasis, year XV, n. 30, December 2019, pp. 25-36.
Britta Frede, “Female Islamic Knowledge in Africa: a Forgotten Story”, Oasis [online], published on 30th November 2020, URL: /en/female-islamic-knowledge-in-africa