Muslim women are increasingly becoming protagonists in Islamic education.

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

Last update: 2022-04-22 10:03:18


Masooda Bano, Female Islamic Education Movements. The Re-democratisation of Islamic Knowledge, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 2017


Contrary to many predictions, Islamic education has seen a revival in many Muslim-majority countries in recent decades. Women have been playing an active part in this process, as Masooda Bano, Associate Professor in the Department of International Development at Oxford University, has, to her merit, highlighted in her latest book. Based on the fieldwork she conducted in Pakistan as of 2006, in northern Nigeria in 2008 and in Syria in 2010, the author investigates educational groups and networks that, over the years, have involved a growing number of Muslim women interested in deepening their knowledge of traditional Islam without losing sight of the issues raised by contemporary reality.


The book’s main argument—as may be inferred from its very title—is that these female platforms that came into being from the 1970s onwards are fostering a democratisation of religious knowledge and therefore participate in the forging of an Islamic identity. Historically, women played a marginal role in the realm of Islamic sciences, although some sources mention the names of female scholars who have contributed to the production and teaching of Islamic knowledge, especially in the field of the hadith. Indeed, it is well known that the Prophet’s wives­—and ‘Ā’isha, in particular—were an important source in the transmission of these traditions. The fortunes of the muhaddithāt have subsequently varied over the centuries: they enjoyed a certain visibility in Egypt and, above all, in Syria but their role began to decline from the fourteenth century onwards. Islam’s more peripheral regions, such as southern Asia and Nigeria, on the other hand, had to wait quite a long time for the birth of a female Islamic tradition and this nevertheless still remains fairly limited when compared to the Arab countries.


In northern Nigeria, the religious education of women takes place primarily in the Islamic schools that came into being during the 1950s. Up until then, traditional Islamic education was provided both in the Tsangaya (primary schools at which children memorized the Qur’an and learned to read and write it in Arabic) and in the ‘Ilmi schools, devised for an adult public that wanted to study the tradition’s texts and those of the Maliki tradition, in particular. The Islamic schools, on the other hand, were born as a hybrid system uniting the study of classical Islam with subjects provided for in modern education, including the social sciences and mathematics. Initially attended only by men, these centres also began to welcome women from the 1970s onwards and several have since been opened for an exclusively female public.


These realities, Bano explains, can be linked to variously inspired movements: some gravitate around the Sufi brotherhoods—the Tijāniyya and Qādiriyya above all— whereas others are linked to the Ahl-i-Sunnah, a reformist movement born in India that has also been spreading in the Kano region for some years now. All of them operate in both city and rural contexts, however, and they accept female students from all social classes. The syllabuses vary according to the participants’ level of grounding and include a beginner’s level that provides for the study of Arabic and the Qur’an. The more advanced levels propose study of the hadīth corpus and usually attract women doctors, officials and engineers enjoying a higher level of education.


Pakistan, too, has seen an increased demand for Islamic education amongst women from the 1970s onwards. Traditionally, Pakistani women do not frequent the mosque and female education was therefore provided exclusively at home up until only a few decades ago. The situation changed with the birth of madrasas solely for women; these nowadays account for approximately 20% of those registered in the country. In the city of Lahore, there are dozens of madrasas for women that are either Deobandi-inspired or linked to the Islamist movement Jamaat-i-Islam or Shi‘ite. Informal networks exist alongside these institutions, the author tells us. Al-Huda is one of these and it mainly targets women who have received a modern education or are building careers. Farhat Hashmi, its founder, received her education from the International Islamic University, Islamabad, and the University of Glasgow.


The research Masooda Bano carried out in Syria (between Damascus and Aleppo) dates back to the summer of 2010. Despite the fact that the situation is radically different now, her work remains interesting in that it offers a cross-section of the female intellectual world before the conflict. In the lively and dynamic context described by the author, Syrian women could—until 2011—access Islamic education by attending directly the mosque, unlike their Nigerian and Pakistani counterparts. Indeed, under the Ministry of Religious Affairs’ supervision, most places of worship offered courses on various themes—e.g. doctrine, the history of Islam, the life of the Prophet and Qur’anic recitation. As in the other countries included in Bano’s study, informal realities had become manifest alongside these formal routes in Syria, too. The Qubaysiyyāt are perhaps the most emblematic example, being an exclusively female movement created by Munīra al-Qubaysī in the utmost secrecy in order to avoid attracting the Ba‘ath party’s attention. Over the years, it has succeeded in drawing hundreds of affluent and well-educated young women into its sphere. Estimates talk of approximately 100,000 followers and testify to a great influencing ability, given that the movement’s leadership would have succeeded in controlling 30–40% of the mosques in Syria.


The three cases analysed highlight the growing involvement of Muslim women in the production, dissemination and reception of Islamic knowledge from the 1970s onwards, as well as a greater media presence of female preachers who now feature in radio and television programmes more frequently than in the past. Female Islamic Education Movements is an agile book that is rich in ideas both for the experts and for laypeople who want to discover more about female Islamic knowledge. And all the more so, given that the academic output on these topics is fairly recent and, all things considered, not that sizeable.


The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Oasis International Foundation


To cite this article

Printed version:
Chiara Pellegrino, “The Movements that are Democratising Knowledge”, Oasis, year XV, n. 30, December 2019, pp. 134-136.

Online version:
Chiara Pellegrino, “The Movements that are Democratising Knowledge”, Oasis [online], published on 30th November 2020, URL: /en/movements-democratising-knowledge