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Female Islamic Knowledge in Africa: a Forgotten Story

Two women make their way to a mosque in Mauritania [Michał Huniewicz - Flickr].

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

This article was published in Oasis 30. Read the table of contents

Last update: 2021-01-13 10:54:53

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]

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