In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

WOMEN AND EDUCATION T HE SEEKING of knowledge is a duty of every Muslim," went a popular hadith of the Prophet. The historian and traditionist alSakhawi , in his compilation of well-known traditions, warned that a number of copyists had added to the end of the hadith the words wamuslima , so as to make the search for knowledge the "duty of every male and female Muslim." Accuracy in the transmission of the Prophet's words of course commanded a premium, and al-Sakhawi felt constrained to warn his readers that the addition was not supported by the best author­ ities. It is nonetheless a matter of historical interest that the scribes who copied the books of traditions added, as a matter of course, two small extra words so as to make women, too, explicitly subject to the command of the Prophet. And in any case, as al-Sakhawi noted, whatever Muham­ mad's actual words, the meaning of the modified hadith was nonetheless "correct."1 Given the extraordinary value that Muslim society placed on knowl­ edge and its acquisition and transmission, it is hardly surprising that women, too, should be encouraged to seek out and treasure religious knowledge. After all, the lure and prestige of learning proved so compel­ ling that it managed to draw into the cultural center a military elite oth­ erwise alienated from many of the forms of Muslim cultural life. And of course most of the Muslim women of Cairo—native speakers of Arabic, born to the Muslim faith—suffered from none of the cultural handicaps that the Mamluks had to overcome. In another sense, however, women, like the Mamluks, formed a group of "outsiders." Even if not always con­ fined strictly to the bounds of the harim, their lives were nonetheless circumscribed by a variety of legal and social restrictions, some of which bore directly on the availability of opportunities for their education. This ambivalence carried over into attitudes regarding the very pro­ priety of educating women. For example, a manual for market inspectors (muhtasibs) dating from the Mamluk period cautioned against teaching women to write, citing a tradition of the Prophet to that effect. According to the manual, a woman might be safely instructed in certain passages of the Quran, in particular Stirat al-Nur, but "it is said that a woman who 1 Shams al-DIn Muhammad al-Sakhawi, al-Maqdsid al-hasana fi baydn kathir min alahadith al-mushtahara 'aid Ί-alsina (Cairo, 1956), 275-77. 162 CHAPTER SIX learns [how to] write is like a snake given poison to drink."2 Such an attitude may have reflected a certain "folk wisdom" among the general urban population, but was by no means universally shared, especially by the ulama. More representative of feeling among the learned elite, per­ haps, was the opinion of a leading ShafTi jurist of the thirteenth century who cited another tradition, this one from the Sahth of al-Bukhari: "How splendid were the women of the ansar," the Medinese "helpers" of the Prophet. "Shame did not prevent them from becoming learned [yatafaqqahna ] in the faith."3 Whatever the theoretical duty of Muslim women to seek knowledge, the practical obstacles facing those living in medieval Cairo were hardly insignificant. Their restricted role in society at large combined with the ambivalence of certain shapers of public opinion to make it difficult, al­ though by no means impossible, for a woman to acquire a significant ed­ ucation in the religious sciences. The fact that many did nonetheless be­ come learned, as we shall see, testifies both to their own perseverance and, once again, to the extraordinary power of attraction that knowledge wielded in this society, the respect accorded those who possessed it, and its capacity to overcome, if not flatten, many of the social and cultural barriers that cut across the medieval Islamic world. The Place of Women in Educational Institutions If the spread of institutions devoted to religious education over the later Middle Ages proved beneficial to the academic world generally, it was not necessarily so with regard to women inclined to intellectual pursuits. Here, as much as anywhere, the ambivalence in Islamic cultural attitudes toward the education of females had practical consequences. The ties be­ tween women and the world of formal academic institutions were com­ plex and uneven. Muslim women could own, inherit, and dispose of property, and so it is only natural that women as well as men gave gen­ erously of their wealth to secure the transmission of...


Additional Information

MARC Record
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.