Shaykh ʿUthmaan Dan Fodio’s Views on Educating Women from ‘The African Caliphate’ by Ibrahim Sulaiman

Shaykh ʿUthmaan Dan Fodio’s Views on Women’s Education from ‘The African Caliphate’ by Ibrahim Sulaiman

The Shehu had to reply several times to the objections and legal issues raised by his contemporaries among the ʿulamaa’. The debate moved from the narrow confines of women’s attendance of lectures to the wider issues of their education in general, their involvement in trade and professions and their going out of the house for their needs.

In taking a closer look at the Shehu’s replies and examining his views, we shall use three of his works: Nuur al-Albaab and Tanbiih al-Ikhwaan and Irshaad al-Ikhwaan ilaa Ahkaam Khuruuj an-Niswaan.

In Tanbiih the Shehu defended his allowing women to attend his lectures, saying it was justifiable and, indeed, sanctioned by law:

“I used to teach the men their individual obligations, and the women used to attend, staying behind the ḥijaab, and I used to prevent them from mixing (indiscriminately) with men. I kept on emphasizing in the assemblies my statement that such mixing of male and female is unlawful, so much that it necessarily became a matter of common knowledge. Then later, I assigned a specific day for the men, and a specific day for the women since this is better and safer. It is related in Ṣaḥiiḥ al-Bukhaari… that the women said to the Prophet,, “Men have gained an advantage over us in respect to access to you, therefore fix for us a day.” So he fixed a day for them in which they used to meet him, and he would exhort and instruct them.”

Women’s attendance of open-air lectures, he seemed to say in the Tanbiih, was not his own innovation. Other great scholars, who faced similar circumstances of prevailing ignorance, had either allowed it or expressly recommended it. Among them, he said, were the shaykh, the Imam, the learned Sidi Aḥmad ibn Sulaiman who was ‘a great saint’ and regarded as a Junayd of his generation. And no less an authority than al-Ghazali recommended the same. Even those – like Ibn Arafa – who were of the opinion that women should not go to lectures if it involved mixing with men, were referring to lectures dealing with knowledge that is not obligatory. In any case, by ‘mixing’ they meant actual bodily contact between men and women, and not occasions when they sit separately or when women sit in a separate apartment.

It is obligatory on a woman, he said in Tanbiih and Irshaad, to acquire a full knowledge of her religious obligations such as prayer, fasting, zakaat, ḥajj, as well as the more mundane matters such as trade and transactions. If the husband is not able to supply this knowledge, she is under an Islamic obligation to go out in search of it. “If he refuses her the permission,” the Shehu stated categorically in Irshaad, “she should go out without his permission, and no blame is attached to her nor does she incur any sin thereby.”

The ruler should compel the husband to get his wife educated as he should compel him to give her adequate maintenance; nay, knowledge is superior (to maintenance).”

But in spite of this sound Islamic position, ‘the devils among men’ still believed that women should remain at home in ignorance, knowing very well that ignorance could lead women to hell. In addition, such devilish scholars had remained silent in situations of moral and social decadence in which women freely engaged with men in drumming and dancing, and in which they displayed their beauty on festive days. If a woman could go as far as to ḥajj, why should she not go out to learn about her faith, which indeed, is a greater obligation than ḥajj, the Shehu asked.

The scholars who opposed women’s education, the Shehu postulated in Nuur al-Albaab, were merely hypocrites. They abandoned their wives, daughters and servants to ignorance, while they gave knowledge to other people. “How they could leave their wives, daughters and servants in the darkness of ignorance and error while they teach their students day and night! This is nothing but the pursuit of their selfish ends, because they teach their students only for show and out of pride. This is a great error.” The education of wives, children and dependents, he said, is an obligation while the teaching of students is voluntary. It becomes an obligation only when there is no one else to do it, and even then it is an obligation that is preceded by the obligation to educate one’s family and dependents.

Then the Shehu carried his argument straight to the women themselves. “Oh! Muslim women!” he exclaimed in Nuur al-Albaab:

“Do not listen to those who are themselves misguided and who misguide others, those who seek to deceive you by asking you to obey your husbands without asking you (first) to obey Allah and His Messenger. They say that a woman’s felicity lies in her obedience to her husband. They say so only to fulfill their selfish ends and fulfill their wishes through you. They compel you to do things which neither Allah nor His Messenger has originally imposed on you, like cooking, washing of clothes and similar things, which are among their numerous wishes, while they do not in the least demand of you to perform the real duties imposed on you by Allah and His Messenger. Yea! A woman is obliged by the consensus of the jurists, to heed her husband, in open and in secret, even if he is of very low social status, or even a slave, and she is prohibited by consensus to disobey him outrightly, except if he orders her to do an act which amounts to disobedience of Allah, in which case she must refrain from obeying him, as of necessity, because there should be no obedience to a creature in disobedience to the Creator. In addition, a woman is rewarded twofold for heeding her husband, yet, that is conditional upon her obedience to Allah and His Messenger.”

He lamented in Irshaad the failure of women to demand their rights to education in the same way that they would demand their right to maintenance and other basic needs. Women, like men, have been created for the sole purpose of serving Allah, which is not properly attainable without true education. The right to education, he seemed to be saying, has absolute preference over other rights. ‘Had the woman demanded her right from her husband in the affairs of her religion and taken her case to the ruler, and demanded that either he educates her in the affairs of her religion or extends his permission to her to go out to learn, it would have been obligatory (by law) on the ruler to compel the husband to do so as he would compel him to give his wife her worldly rights, since religious rights are superior and preferred.’

The Shehu’s uncompromising stand on women’s education, as opposed to the stand of some of his contemporaries whom he criticized in Irshaad for their lack of foresight (baṣiirah), stemmed from his role as a mujaddid. The Shehu’s moral and social transformation of society relied heavily on education. To neglect the education of women would have defeated the cause in two ways. Women formed not only an integral part of society, but also constituted its larger, more basic and more solid part. As the custodians of the home, which is the foundation of society, they are the most important factors in the stabilization of society. Secondly, women’s role in bringing up children imbued with the spirit and orientation of the emerging order, which would need at least one generation to take root, could not be over-emphasized.

The youth are the pillar of any process of Islamic revival, in so far as it is their energy and zeal that give it the requisite strength and vitality to challenge the prevailing order to the end. And the youth are principally formed by women.

We may also view the Shehu’s insistence on women’s education from another angle: as a restatement of the principle that education in Islam is not only a right, but also a duty. Every human being has been commanded by Allah to get education. Knowledge is the key to the understanding of Allah and the forging of the proper relationship with Him. It is the key to the understanding of Islam in its true perspective and in the understanding of the nature of life, of human relations and of existence as a whole. It is the key to the development of an individual as a complete personality. In this regard, there is no difference between man and woman. If a woman’s spiritual and moral development is in danger of being frustrated by her husband’s unjustifiable demands – which obviously stem from selfishness and high-handedness – Islam requires that she assert her rights and take whatever steps she deems necessary to safeguard her moral and spiritual well-being. If that puts her marriage at risk, so be it. For her success in the hereafter, which is greater and more enduring than the material things she could ever get from the world, should at all times be her priority.

There is yet another way of looking at this matter. The Shehu was aware that the cause he was advocating could well lead to future hardships for both men and women. Indeed, the hardships could lead to exile and loss of life for those who accepted his leadership. Yet, it was a cause that rested squarely on conviction, since nobody is deemed to have suffered or died in the cause of Allah who has no absolute faith in Allah and in the hereafter. It is only fair then that all those who would have to suffer in the cause of Allah should first be inculcated with the right faith and convictions and with the proper Islamic attitudes in order to enable them to have full benefit of their sufferings and hardships. This was perhaps one reason why the Shehu was absolutely insistent in his demand that both men and women should be properly educated about their beliefs and obligations.

He posed a question in Irshaad which runs thus: according to the law, women have to go out in search of knowledge which husbands cannot provide, should the scholar who cannot secure separate seating arrangements go into public to teach Islam, knowing very well that those women are bound to attend his lectures?; or should he do so, if he is well aware of the possibility of objectionable things being perpetrated as a result of women’s attendance? The Shehu answered in the affirmative, because those issues do not constitute a valid excuse to leave people in ignorance:

“Nay, he should go out, but he should prevent intermixing of the men and women, if such happens in his presence, and he should put men on one side and women on another side, and he should let them all know that inter-mixing of men and women is prohibited according to consensus… Indeed, the majority of the people are ignorant of the law, and if he goes out in order to change what he can of the social evils, his witnessing of other evils which he cannot change would not harm him.”

The logic seems to be that if people are not made conscious of the social evils which they are required to abandon, by not being given the opportunity to commit some of them in the presence of the teacher, how can they ever learn to abandon them? They need education precisely, because they do not know that such things are evil, or if they know, they lack the necessary moral and social consciousness to appreciate the magnitude of the danger such evils pose to the fabric of society.

Though education was the main theme of Shehu’s writings on women, he dealt with other matters too in his prolonged debate. For instance, should women engage in trade and the like? Ideally, he said, a woman’s needs should be provided for either by her husband or by other relations, so there would be no need to go out to the markets or sit in shops or similar places, but if there was no one to undertake ‘buying and selling’ on her behalf, she would be permitted by law to undertake it herself, but ‘she should do so without ornamentation (that is, she should observe moral and social restraint when she deals with men), for that is better for her in the eyes of her Lord and is more rewarding.’

We can look at this rule from two angles. First, women, like men, are entitled to a decent and dignified life, free from the humiliation of begging and dependence. Indeed, a woman is in greater need of economic protection since economic insecurity could lead her to the kind of life which undermines not only her own integrity but the very foundations of society. If such a possibility exists, then it becomes obligatory on her to seek the economic means she needs to preserve her integrity. Indeed, the insistence of Islam that women should have knowledge of some trade is meant to prepare them against such an eventuality.

Secondly, the Prophet stated that Allah permits women to go out for their needs. What constitutes these needs are not, however, specified, so it is left to those who represent the conscience of society to determine them, from time to time, as occasion demands, but of course, some needs, such as education, health and honorable livelihood, are basic and cannot be nullified by anyone.

Another important matter addressed by the Shehu was that of women going out in general. In fact, the Shehu stated in his introduction in Irshaad that he wrote the book in order to bring the two extreme groups – those who say that women are free to go out at all times like men, and those who say they should not go out at all – to the correct and middle course, and acquaint them with the rules formulated by upright scholars. This middle course, he said, implies that it is lawful for women to go out for their needs when it is legally necessary. At times this necessity will be of a worldly nature such as seeking a livelihood; and at other times the necessity will be of a religious nature such as going out in search of knowledge of their fundamental duties.

There are a host of issues dealt with in the Irshaad, such as women going out to attend the daily prayers, the Friday prayer and for ḥajj, funerals, visits and so on; and to each of these the Shehu gave a qualified approval in line with his balanced view. We would like to concentrate on his debate about women’s attendance at the mosque for daily prayers, for it demonstrates the way he handled the conflicting opinions of Muslim jurists.

Al-Ghazali says in al-Iḥyaa’: ‘It is necessary to prevent women from attending the mosques for the prayer if it is feared that men would be tempted by them. In fact ʿAishah, may Allah be pleased with her, did prevent them, and it was said to her that (her husband) the Messenger of Allah had not prevented them from attending the congregation. She said, ‘Had the Messenger of Allah known what the women would do after him he would have prevented them’.”

Some (jurists) conclude from this statement, as al-Qastalaani has said in al-Irshaad, that women should be prevented outrightly, but (others) have replied that ʿAishah, may Allah be pleased with her, was not in fact explicitly categorical on their being prevented, even if her statement indicates her preference for prevention. (It is argued) also that Allah knows absolutely well what women would do, yet He did not send any revelation to His Prophet to prevent them (from going to the mosque). If their behavior necessitated their being prevented from the mosques, it would also have necessitated their being prevented from going to other places, such as the markets as well. In addition, the offending behavior is found among some of them only, not in all of them. If prevention is necessary it should be confined to those who perpetrate offensive actions. Nonetheless, a woman’s prayer at home carries greater merit than her prayer in the mosque.

The Shehu scarcely came to a conclusion. he left his readers to make up their own minds. We should however remember his opinion that whenever jurists have made divergent rulings on an issue, then a person is free to take which ever of the rulings is agreeable to him, since religion should be easy.

We may at this stage consider some of the issues raised in this debate on women. The question of education raised by the Shehu relates mainly to women who did not receive education in their childhood. It is they who are asked to demand their rights, to education and to gain it by all possible means. The debate is applicable to young girls, for in a proper Islamic order, their education, like that of boys, is absolutely obligatory. Indeed, it is unthinkable that a Muslim society should allow a girl to grow to maturity without having been educated. Universal education for girls, as well as for boys, is the clear rule of Islam, and should be known to those with even the most elementary acquaintance with Islam.

The qualified permission for a woman to go out is based on three considerations. In the first place, she is basically responsible for the home and the upbringing of children. Whatever else she does outside is subordinate to this fundamental role. Indeed, she herself derives greater happiness and fulfillment from a stable and successful home than from anything else. Therefore, anything that might distract her from giving her full attention to the family is discouraged, except where it becomes absolutely necessary. In the second place, her own safety has been considered by Islam, since Islam regards the physical, moral and psychological security of women as the responsibility of society as a whole, of which her husband and her immediate relations take a significant share. In the third place, the qualified permission is made with due considerations to public morality. Since women evoke strong emotions in men, the interaction between the two must always be regulated. For example, the intimacy that exists between a husband and a wife necessitates a considerable display of social, moral and emotional restraint when they deal with other people. If they did not show restraint, discord and malice would result in society; and to the extent that man is almost always the aggressor, the woman carries a responsibility to minimize the possibility of that aggression. Yet, the same public morality which necessitates greater restraint from a woman may also require her to go out to assist in society. Who is better than a woman in teaching another woman, or in treating her ailment, or in solving her emotional and psychological problems?

Book Review of  ‘The African Caliphate


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