Where did the shaykhas go? Afterthoughts on Female Scholarship from the SG Retreat

Posted on June 14, 2011

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I don’t know when I first heard the term “shaykha”. I think my friend was joking with me about how maybe one day I’d become one given the zeal I had as a new Muslim. She and her older brothers had taken to affectionately calling me “shaykha” because of that zeal. We laughed and kidded around about the term, but she informed me that she was serious–I really could be a shaykha if I wanted to. Shaykhas had always existed and weren’t any innovation she was making up–they were key to the history of Islam from the beginning, though we don’t pay much attention to that history these days. That was ten years ago. And those were the days…full of that innocent vigor for the deen that many new Muslims have, until they mature into normalcy and complacency as the years pass by (thus the need to purify one’s heart by seeking knowledge and being in good company–thank you, SeekersGuidance Retreat)!

But I heard that term again four times this year after a resounding deafness of ten years–it must be a sign. Two of the times I heard (read) it were in the memoirs of Muslim women like myself who found themselves in other countries to perfect their ibadah (See G. Willow Wilson’s The Butterfly Mosque and Ethar El-Katatney’s Forty Days and Nights…in Yemen). The other time I saw the term mentioned was in The Royal Islamic Strategic Studies Centre (RISSC)’s 2010 publication of the The World’s 500 Most Influential Muslims. There, I read about a certain Sheikha Munira Qubeysi of Syria who was listed as #24 in the Top 50 of the 5oo Most Influential Muslims of the World. According to the publication, Sheikha Munira is the head of the largest women-only Islamic movement in the world, offering Islamic education exclusively to girls and women focused on learning the Qur’an and hadith collections by heart. The women who are a part of the movement cater exclusively to the needs of Muslim women in their communities, functioning as scholars and teachers in a network of madrassas across the Middle East. And get this, members of the Qubaisiat movement identify themselves by the way they tie their hijabs at the neck and the color jilbab they wear.

But where are the shaykhas here?!?

They are hidden.

Right. under. our. noses.

…in the least expected of places.

The last time I heard the word “shaykha” was last week at the SeekersGuidance Retreat. All the scholars, who included men and women alike, emphasized the need for more female participation in Muslim events such as these…more female scholarship to be exact. I expected that girl power rhetoric from the women, but it was really inspiring to hear it from the men. There were two female scholars assigned to lead some of the adult lectures at the retreat, but one of them could not make it because of the ignorance of the U.S. government. Perhaps bigotry would be a better word to describe it. A lot of Muslim scholars seem to have a hard time getting into the U.S. these days, but whichever spin you put to it, basically it wasn’t meant to be. However, in her place popped up two female scholars straight from the audience, invited by the sole woman on the stage, Ustadha Zaynab Ansari. No one saw it coming. Where are the shaykhas? Again, I tell you: Hidden. Right. Under. Our. Noses.

Ustadhas Zaynab Ansari and Rukayat Yakub at the SG Retreat, photo by Nadiya El-Khatib

To begin with, Ustadha Zaynab Ansari led her sessions as informal discussions with the audience members, opening the floor for our input. This mode of learning reached its peak in the Time Management for Mothers class, where each woman in the audience seemingly had advice to give. For a moment there, I almost felt like a shaykha. Almost. I need more knowledge. I was asking more questions than giving knowledge. My one sole piece of advice was for people to enroll in Ustadha Shireen Ahmed’s Islamic Parenting class at SeekersGuidance. But as the hadith says, the one who points to good…

But I digress. During that same session for mothers, Ustadha Zaynab invited Ustadha Rukayat Modupe Yakub (Shaykh Muhammad Mendes’ wife) to the stage for her expertise. Then at another session, Dr. Mona Hassan, a Professor of Islamic Studies and History at Duke University took the stage with her, straight from the audience. MashAllah. These women were unprepared, but being the learnéd women that they were, they could present on the topics at hand right on the spot in several sessions. Now that’s scholarship.

Thing is, it only got better after that. The men were extolling the virtues of seeking knowledge from women. They reminded us that many of the hadiths of the Prophet were transmitted by the women around the Prophet. Shaykh Yahya Rhodus mentioned that A’isha alone transmitted at least 50% of the ahkam of sharia we have today, and taught men and women alike. Shaykh Yahya also advised that both men and women need to learn the fiqh of menstruation, and he also mentioned a book I have yet to read: Aisha Bewley’s Islam: The Empowering of Women. He then went on to say men need to get over any issue they have of learning from women. We all learn from women–our mothers are women! He also mentioned that there is something special about visiting the graves of the Mothers of the Believers, and we should not skip the female awliya when visiting their cities and the graves of their husbands, brothers, sons, etc. There is a special connection to them because they are our spiritual mothers–and he’s right, I had a much stronger connection at the grave of Sarah (ra) in Al-Khalil/Hebron (Palestine) than I had at the tombs of her son or husband, the Prophets Isaac and Ibrahim (peace be upon them both) located only a few feet away!

But one of the most fascinating highlights of the SeekersGuidance Retreat was the time that sisters got to spend one-on-one (or actually, five-on-one) with shaykhs.  You know the story–with high profile shaykhs, a possé of brothers will form around a shaykh so much that a woman is too shy to hang around to ask her questions. So a mealtime was dedicated for sisters to eat lunch with the various shaykhs at their reserved tables and ask them any questions. It was a sister who suggested the idea and I’m forever indebted to her for that–and the pen she gave me when both of my pens died. I had so many questions that I had to write them down, but alhamdulillah, I got my answers and felt that I had each shaykh’s undivided attention at the time of questioning. But I’d like to share the convo I had with Shaykh Muhammad Mendes during that mealtime. We had just finished reading Imam Ahmadu Bamba’s poem on the recitation of the Qur’an, and it sounded good and well, but the excerpt we read did not address my concerns over the complexities of keeping connected to Allah while a woman is on her menses. Shaykh Muhammad Mendes advised that the period is not the time for a vacation from Allah–one can and should still honor the times of prayer, making dhikr and fikr instead. Women should pick up the scholarly books, make dhikr, and make du’a. Better yet, you could still have the benefit of reading Qur’an via technology or through a book which has less Qur’an in it than commentary or translation. During Ramadan or when one would normally fast and can’t because of menses, eat less and feed a poor person instead. And then for my most eager question: <<How do we find the shaykhas?!>> Shaykh Muhammad said sometimes one must talk to the men to find the women who are teachers or go to the women’s halaqas to find the learned among women in your area because the shaykhas don’t really put themselves out there.

I spent that day chasing the male scholars, because I knew I wouldn’t really have another opportunity to (though I had my husband Hassan flag down Shaykh Yahya Rhodus the very next day at Buck Bald Summit for twelve questions on Shafi’i fiqh in relation to perfecting prayer). But I spent the remaining days with some one-on-one time with Ustadha Zaynab Ansari, whose youngest child actually shares the same birthday as my Noora (down to the hour, only 12 hours apart), mashAllah. I asked her where the shaykhas are, and where women in positions like ourselves (English-speaking married mothers with lots of ambition) can go to learn comfortably without neglecting our families. These were her answers in case you, yourself, were also wondering how to find the hidden shaykhas in the U.S. and abroad, and inshAllah become one yourself:

There are several online schools that are excellent options…

  • SunniPath/Qibla, which has an accredited 2-year program leading to an AA (Associate’s Degree)
  • SeekersGuidance, the dually-online and ground, Toronto-based Islamic school that offers classes and spectacular free online webinars on great topics…not to mention lectures, seminars, intensives, and retreats across North America and beyond…(need I say more?)–this is the baby of Shaykh Faraz Rabbani and Ustadha Shireen Ahmed, a dynamic duo, mashAllah.
  • The Rahma Foundation, a California-based women-centered hifz program, growing out of the Sisters Deen Intensives of Zaytuna and including some online classes
  • Meadows of Al-Mustafa, a completely free online sacred learning program for women only (with some of the same teachers from The Rahma Foundation!)

And several ground schools for when the kiddies grow up or a babysitter is in tow…

Now I must kick myself. I was already a part of Meadows of Al-Mustafa, and one of the teachers there, Ustadha Eiman Sidky, who has studied under the Haba’ib of Tarim, taught right in my backyard at the Islamic Saudi Academy in Alexandria, Virginia for twenty years. And um, my in-laws have either studied, taught, and/or worked there for the past twenty years AT LEAST!!! Subhanallah! I must have bumped into her at some point during the past years…and never even knew it.

So you see, there have always been shaykhas in Islam. There have always been scholarly women in the forefront. We just don’t notice them enough or give them their due. We have become blind to what is already apparent.

But now a veil has been lifted from my sight. And I’m going to allow myself to once again imagine walking the streets of Jordan with  a symbolic scarf tied around my neck denoting my status as a part of the sisterhood of the traveling hafizas.  And if I let myself travel further back in my mind, I’m in the women-only masjids of China among the Hui people, who have the earliest history of female imams since 1820. And right after that, I find myself in the company of Shaykha Nana Asma’u bint Shehu Usman dan Fodiyo, who has sent her poems to accompany me along with her cadre of female teachers–young, unmarried, and older sisters–who have sacrificed their free time to teach those of us isolated in our homes being shaykhas to our children.

So where did the shaykhas go? Apparently, Nowhere. They are right under our noses hidden in plain sight working for the ummah at large. Most of them are too modest to call themselves shaykhas and instead prefer the term teacher, sister, mother, wife, friend.

~A very special thank-you to all the women I learned from at the SeekersGuidance Retreat…and especially to Ustadha Zaynab, Ustadha Rukayat, and Ustadha Mona, who allowed themselves to be put in the spotlight for the benefit of the ummah. May Allah preserve you and keep you on your path, whether you choose to remain hidden or not:)~