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

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:)~

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

  1. assalamu `alaykum wa rahmatullah
    Of course traditional Sunni Islamic educational outlets have shaykhas. For me, it just goes without saying. Link up with Sh Faraz Rabbani, and keeping linking out from there. Mashallah,. mashallah, mashallah.

    • Wa alaikum as-salaam wa rahmatullahi wa barakatuh Sister! Jazaki Allahu khair for your comment–actually, the story I told in the beginning (about my friend and myself) was told from a Shiite perspective. So it goes to say, shaykhas are inherent in Islam no matter which establishment one is a part of–subhanAllah! But many do not know that (whether Muslim or non-Muslim)…

  2. Really nice article mashAllah. I think this is something people really need to know about. I remember one speaker answered the question of “where are the female scholars” by saying that the role of women is to support the men who go out to become scholars and spread knowledge, but did not mention the history of female scholarship in Islam. While its true that its important for women to support their husbands and sons (and also vice versa), Its also important for women to learn about the religion and have their say in understanding the text.

    So yea, it made me happy to read this. JazakAllah! =]

    • Jazak Allahu khair–alhamdulillah that this article was of benefit. As true as it is that there’s a great woman behind every great man, those men wouldn’t be so great if the women in their lives weren’t educated! It is so important for the women to educate themselves in the deen as they will be the mothers and source of guidance for the next generations! BarakAllahu fik for sharing your excellent points and recognizing the importance of female scholarship!

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  4. Lovely post, thank you. I’m quite happy to have stumbled upon your blog today.

    The need for women’s scholarship is great and there are definitely some amazing gems and holders of this sacred knowledge in our midst that we should recognize and benefit from. I also see hopeful signs from amongst the younger generation of female scholars, combining between orthodoxy and the realities of modern life.

    • Jazaki Allahu khair Sister Ify–and I’m quite happy that you stumbled upon The Sandal today, too–and commented! It is important for scholars to address the realities of modern life and for the younger generation of women to step into scholarly roles–great points! BarakAllahu fiki!

  5. Pingback: Where did the shaykhas go? Afterthoughts on Female Scholarship from the SG Retreat (via THE SANDAL) | Paper Jihad

  6. Salaam alaykum,

    Jazak Allah khair for sharing this knowledge and this important discussion. It was inspiring, especially to me as a convert!

    My husband is a grad of ISA and we may be relocating to NoVa so that our son can attend ISA. Do you know if Ustadha Eiman Sidky is still located in that area? I would love to get in touch with her.

    • Wa alaikum as-salaam Sister K,

      Jazaki Allahu khair for commenting! My husband is actually a former student of ISA as well–please let me know if you do relocate to NoVa; it’d be great to cross paths one day inshAllah. As for Ustadha Eiman Sidky, she retired from ISA years ago, but she is a teacher at Rahma Foundation and Meadows of Mustafa (you can listen in on her classes online). But there are other female scholars in our area inshAllah to learn from…hidden.right.under.our.noses. ;P

    • If you want your kids to get a sound Islamic education, do not send them to ISA. I attended for 9 years and found the love of Islam and the Beloved Prophet (pbuh) AFTER I left.

      • Jazaki Allahu khair anonymous sister for commenting…I, personally, wasn’t talking about sending my kids to ISA for an education (I’d much more prefer to teach them myself and that’s what I plan on doing inshAllah), but what a blessing the children of ISA must have had when a shaykha, Ustadha Eiman Sidky was their teacher! I was more so kicking myself for not realizing the gem that was nearby that I never knew about…People need role models of Islam and the Beloved Prophet (saws) around them in every place and every state.🙂 Can you imagine how much more beautiful the world would be if your cashier at the supermarket was filled with the light of Allah and rasulAllah (saws)? How much more pleasant our experiences would be!

  7. I am totally feeling every single word of this article, masha’Allah. Hit the nail on the head. I too have had recent unveilings and realized all these amazing outlets online for sisters to get serious in studying their deen, no matter where they are, from the comfort of there own home.

    I’d like to share one more gem I just found! The Cordoba Academy. They seem to be a fairly new online institute TOTALLY dedicated to reviving tradition of Ijazas and Isnad. They have many hadith classes (and will expand to teach fiqh and other things too, insha’Allah), they are all live, and they really want people to listen and read the texts “at the feet of the scholars”, while using techonology to transmit the knowledge! Please help spread the word!

    • BarakAllahu fiki Umm Zain–your comment just melted my heart, jazaki Allahu khair! Thank you for sharing your gem as well–I’ll have to check it out! It’s so beautiful to learn about all the blessed opportunities that are developing in the ummah. And it’s so inspiring and empowering to be a part of these organizations as they grow! InshAllah one day we’ll be telling our grandchildren (inshAllah) about all this one day and how revolutionary the brothers and sisters of today really are!

  8. Jazak Allahu khayra for this, I found it very interesting. I think there are so many women in our communities who are very learned and well-read, oftentimes even more so than the men who become very well known, but they are hidden and one must seek them out to really benefit. Insha Allah, their anonymity will be a means of great reward for them, and the lack of fame will be a means of avoiding hardships. May Allah reward all of our shuykukh abundantly.

    P.S. I second the recommendation for Cordoba Academy (www.cordobaacademy.com)… I am a student and love the classes there and I don’t think there are many comparable classes online (all live, covering complete texts with ijazah). There is a free class coming up on the Thulathiyyat of Imam al-Darimi, see the details at this post on their new forum: http://cordobaacademy.lefora.com/2011/06/07/thulathiyaat-of-imam-al-darimi-ra/

    • Amin to your dua’s mujahid7ia! Thank you for the recommendation on Cordoba Academy–I will definitely have to check it out. And you’re right–there is a blessing in being hidden. I know there are a lot of men who sometimes feel that the women have better access to scholars actually because we benefit from the company of both men and women shuyukh, but not so the men…they often times don’t get the benefit of hearing (let alone seeing) the women shuyukh! Great points–jazakum Allahu khair for commenting!

  9. Pingback: Where did the shaykhas go? Afterthoughts on Female Scholarship from the SG Retreat (via THE SANDAL) « saveinnocence

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  11. Chukran, Sisters. This essay is incandescent, and our sisters’ responsive reflections and resources in comments continue to illuminate. There are many words for light-giving, but the experience of “aha” and instant understanding; while feeling the joy of Allah’s pleasure, tops them all

  12. There is also http://www.rabata.org – classes with Anse Tamara Gray. IN addition, there are classes for women on http://www.meadowsofalmustafa.com with great Shaykhas such as the Sister of Sayyidi Habib Ali al Jifri; there are great articles and teachings on the site http://www.peacespective.org by a Shaykha as well. Finally, there is the Shaykha Fest (google it) featuring Shaykha Reima Yosif; there is also the Rahmah Foundation offering courses for women and Nur Sacred Sciences run by a female scholar. What is missing is the solidarity of women to support these efforts and be proud of them; and also men’s open support. For some reason men are not interested in promoting women scholars and unless they do, or their students do, the women scholars (as you have mentioned) will not push themselves to the forefront. So until we recognize them, they will remain present but unknown, hidden under our noses as you say. Thank you for this great article, one of the only on the whole net about this matter.

    • BarakAllahu fiki for your comment Student of Knowledge! Great reflections–great information for inquiring minds! I am familiar with Rabata, Meadows of Al Mustafa, The Rahmah Foundation and Shaykha Fest…but haven’t heard of Peacepective or Nur Sacred Sciences. I will check them out, and perhaps by the time I do, inshAllah there will be more support for the shaykhas out there quietly molding the world into something beautiful!

    • assalam alaykum
      this article also goes with yours. It’s about us having respect for the great women of faith all around us and not dismissing them because they don’t have beards or wear turbans. It’s got to start with undoing some of the starstruck culture that values certain appearances and therefore will not find enough to admire in a simple woman who may be a giant of faith and knowledge, but does not have that outward aura. http://zaranargis.wordpress.com/2013/06/02/the-beauty-of-etiquette/

      • howcome we chase male scholars and want their companionship so badly? i think that we have to also reflect on that…we need to seek the sohbeh of great women, in person. Just because they don’t have hordes running after them does not mean they are not worthy of pursuit. We often get influenced by what the crowd is doing. back in the day, at the start of their work, even the men who now have crowds around them were solitary figures. It’s up to us to create the same vibe of respect and seeking out gems from women.

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