In March 2013, MIIM Designs Studio attended a conference on “Reconstituting Female Authority: Women’s Participation in and the Transmission and Production of Islamic Knowledge”, hosted by the University of California, Santa Barbara. Particularly noteworthy was the discussion on reclaiming history. In her plenary speech, Dr. Asma Sayeed (University of California, Los Angeles, Near Eastern Languages and Cultures) examined women’s religious education, particularly their training in and transmission of ḥadīth (traditions of the Prophet Muhammad) from early Islam to the Ottoman period. Sayeed explained that while a number of women were trained in ‘ilm al-ḥadīth (the science of ḥadīth) and were prolific teachers and transmitters to both women and men, few were present in the fields of the Qur’ānic sciences, Islamic law and theology, perhaps because of the need for prolonged, uninterrupted study, which was not conducive to women given the gender interaction norms of this period as well as women’s domestic obligations. Still, women were preservers of the Prophet’s legacy and active members of the class of ‘ulama (scholars), a position still debated today.
Amira Abou-Taleb (American University of Cairo) continued the conversation, in her talk problematizing the subjectivity of history, or more specifically, of historiography. Abou-Taleb closely examined the portrayal of women in volume 8 of Ibn Sa‘d’s Kitāb al-Ṭabaqāt al-Kubra, which until today is the oldest surviving biographical dictionary of the early Muslim community, thus serving as an authority on the lives of early Muslims and as a model for contemporary Muslims. Abou-Taleb questioned the validity of the text, citing the 200-year gap between its authorship and the period it narrates, as well as the influence of the socio-political context in which it was authored. Abou-Taleb elucidated that the work was written during the ‘Abbāsid period, which “witnessed the production of the Sunni intellectual narratives of ḥadīth collections [and the] schools of jurisprudence.” This was thus a period in which jurists and scholars were working to establish a moral code, and the portrayal of early Muslims was essential to its development. Consequently, Abou-Taleb argues that gender representation in al-Ṭabaqāt al-Kubra is influenced by the (patriarchal) culture and social norms of ‘Abbāsid society rather than on history itself, as can be witnessed by comparing the portrayal of early women in al-Ṭabaqāt al-Kubra to biographical works by other authors.
Both Sayeed and Abou-Taleb call us to reclaim history in the pursuit of women’s intellectual authority and participation in the transmission and production of Islamic knowledge.