Reflections and Advice From a Female Scholar

In 2011, I graduated as a female scholar (Alimah) alongside my 12 classmates. After completing the six year program at a traditional Dar-ul-Uloom (school for higher Islamic sciences), we returned to our hometowns, each pursuing our own unique path: some of us began to teach in the communities right away, some furthered their academic studies while others got married and started families, etc. 

Similar to other fields of expertise, completing a bachelors or masters degree in a certain field does not necessitate that you will begin working and creating a career in that particular area immediately. For some it might not be ideal to begin working, for others they may end up finding interest in another field entirely. This is the case for many students of knowledge freshly graduating from their alimiyyah program. But there is one thing that makes this field of expertise different: an intrinsic aspect of this knowledge is that it comes with the Prophetic command, “communicate what I say, even if it be one verse.”[1] 

In the earlier days of my alimiyyah studies I recall learning the different categories of ʿilm (knowledge). There is obligatory knowledge (which falls under the individually obligatory, fardh ‘ayn) and communal knowledge (which falls under communally obligatory, fardh kifayah). The first category of knowledge applies to all Muslims and encompasses general knowledge regarding Islamic faith and acts of worship that make up the foundations of living according to the shariʿah (divine revelation). The second category is more specific and is applied as a communal obligation as opposed to an individual. If there is a group of people from the community acquiring this knowledge, then the remainder of the community is absolved from acquiring it. This is the knowledge that Islamic scholars pursue, including subjects such as Islamic law, theology, jurisprudence and other higher Islamic sciences.

After spending a minimum of six years in the presence of esteemed teachers learning the intricacies of the word of Allah ﷻ and His Prophet Muhammad ﷺ, these scholars return to their communities as inheritors of the Prophetic message, with a duty to spread and support the sacred teachings that make up the framework of our religion. 

The result is that there will always be members of the community available to give Islamic guidance, provide proper Islamic resources (not Google), facilitate in matters where Islamic law is required, and educate different parts of the Muslim community in matters of faith and spirituality. This responsibility does not discriminate between male and female scholars, as both are equally important in educating communities. In fact, working together to fulfill the needs of our communities is the framework within which we need to operate. Allah ﷻ says in the Qur’an, 

“Believers, men and women, are each other’s reliable friends. They enjoin right and forbid what is wrong and establish prayer and give zakah and obey Allah and His Messenger. Those—Allah will have mercy upon them. Indeed, Allah is Exalted in Might and Wise.” [Qur’an 9:71]

So while every scholar may not begin working in their field right away, the responsibility that comes with sacred knowledge remains, especially in cases where there is no one present in a given community to educate. 

Upon graduating, the avenues and opportunities the average female scholar chooses from are similar to a male scholar, though the settings can differ. Some will conduct classes at the mosque while others feel more comfortable teaching from home. Lessons vary from youth classes, Quran classes, fiqh programs, Sunday school, after school programs, halaqas etc. 

With these opportunities comes varying levels of exposure as well. I know of female scholars who are not comfortable displaying their faces on flyers, and others who would not feel comfortable addressing both men and women on every Islamic issue. This can arise from a desire to refrain from the pressures that come with being in public eye, or simply with wanting to be in their comfort zone both in setting and areas of expertise. A female scholar who focuses on educating the women in her community on issues regarding the fiqh of menstruation and other female-related issues may not be interested, or see the need for a larger platform or exposure to other audiences. 

The work of such women is concentrated within their own communities and members who attend such sessions are able to contact them and remain aware that they may turn to them for help. So, while this reach may be limited, it is extremely effective for individuals in the area who are easily able to liaise and form relationships with these scholars. 

However, given the constrictions individual circumstances pose for female scholars who find themselves balancing motherhood and family, the following dichotomy arises: there are sisters who are searching for female scholar accessibility locally, yet the scholars who are present are unable to provide the time and energy, while at the same time there are female scholars who are present in a community but do not have the opportunity to serve at their local masjid or Islamic facility. 

A word to masjids: hire resident female scholars with the same zeal you hire male scholars. These are invaluable opportunities for the women in our communities and cannot be substituted by male scholarship: it is not the same thing. The presence of positive female role models dramatically affects the circle of Muslim women who attend locally, as they will be able to work with them more intimately than their male scholars counterparts. There is a level of comfort in asking certain questions and/or gaining the perspective of a woman that cannot be substituted with a male, no matter how knowledgeable or well-spoken he is. Our young ladies need the close mentorship of a female scholar under whose tutelage the bonds of sisterhood can be cultivated, extending to their families and friend.

At every masjid I have worked at or attended, regardless of the program, it is the women who come out in larger numbers time and time again, seeking to learn and benefit. In fact, most masjid-related programming is largely organized by women! We do a massive disservice to the larger percentage of our masjid community by denying our women the opportunity to benefit from resident female scholars.  

I have witnessed firsthand the benefits of having a female scholar to learn from when I first began working with my local masjid about a decade ago. As a freshly graduated scholar, I was definitely nervous about teaching in any capacity due to the fear of teaching something incorrectly or not being an effective instructor. In fact, I almost did not teach that first year due to overwhelming anxiety. It can be intimidating for many fresh graduates – having all of this knowledge did not mean I was naturally equipped with gifted teaching abilities and the skills to organize content and teach on a subject. I commend seminaries and alimiyyah programs like Qalam Seminary that create opportunities for students in their last years of studies to work with local communities or their hometown communities, thereby gaining leadership skills and experience working with different groups of people before they graduate. 

Nevertheless, the only way to get better at something is to keep doing it. One of the first groups of students I taught were teenage girls in Sunday school ranging from ages 14-16. I came ready to teach things on the syllabus like obligatory steps for wudhu, but within the first few weeks I realized how much these girls craved insight and advice on problems they were having at home and at school. Questions on gender relationships, how to respond to parents not allowing them to do certain things, why Allah ﷻ is putting them through hardships and how to still trust Him. That was when I realized that the need for answers in that room outweighed any reservations I had from fear of messing up.

I said Bismillah. I made dua that Allah ﷻ open my heart and tongue to speak truth the way that Musa (AS) did. I kept in mind what my teachers taught me about withholding an answer if I was unsure of it, being able to admit you do not have the answer at that moment is a sign of a true scholar. 

So a quick word of encouragement to my fellow alimiyyah graduates and female scholars who share similar worries: think about how many years you dedicated to learning these sacred sciences. You carry the inheritance that the Prophet ﷺ left on this earth. You have the tools to research fatawa and differentiate between haqq and bātil. You are needed, in whatever capacity you can provide. All of it makes a difference – no teaching is too small when the knowledge you are passing on is so sacred. It will weigh heavy on your scales on the Day of Judgment InshaAllah. Start small if you need to, and always remember the knowledge you acquired came with access to your esteemed teachers and fellow colleagues. Consider yourself a branch of a much larger tree that is representing the network of scholars available for you to reach out to when you need help, advice or or insight. 

Recall your final Hadith classes where you finished Sahih Bukhari and were given your sanad (chain of transmission) connecting your knowledge to your teacher, and them to their teacher, all the way back to the Prophet ﷺ himself. This was your parting gift as you graduated, a final lesson to never forget that as a representative of this sacred knowledge, you can turn to your teachers in times of need just as they turned to their teachers and so on and so forth. We are all working together to spread the truth and we are not meant to be alone in it. Keep that goal in mind, and then teach accordingly. You do not teach assuming you have all the answers, you teach knowing that you have the tools and networking required to research and come to the correct understanding. 

Let us now focus on the recipients of this knowledge: the Muslim community. I have heard the incessant complaint that there is a lack of female scholarship available in our communities. This generalization does not take into consideration the many forms of female scholarship can take, and how greatly it can vary from community to community. It will depend on the scholar’s personal level of commitment and dedication, willingness to levels of exposure, and area of expertise, paired with the opportunities available at the local masjid/Islamic center. The result is that some communities have multiple, heavily involved female scholars leading a variety of programming while others may have one female scholar only teaching after-school Qur’an classes because that is either all she can commit to or because that is all the masjid is looking to hire. 

That being said, I think the more pertinent question we should be asking is: how can women connect with a female scholar to fulfill their spiritual and Islamic needs? My answer is to begin your search locally. Being able to sit with a scholar in-person is invaluable to the dynamics of your relationship with them. You will benefit from being in their company while they get to know you better and have a thorough understanding of what you are struggling and need help with. You will have time to reach out regularly as you progress in your path to bettering yourself in your faith. The scholar will be able to advise you with deeper insight as she will know your history better, just as a physician will diagnose each patient differently, based on their history. This is why the Prophet ﷺ would sometimes answer the same question differently, depending on who was asking, because he knew each of his companions well enough to know their personal situations, struggles and spiritual level. This can make all the difference in the delicate, intricate matters of our relationship with Allah ﷻ and His Deen. 

 To start, begin attending local events or programs where female scholars will be present. Take time to get to know them, and if they are someone you can cultivate a bond with and would like to seek advice from, then do so and hold onto it. In the case that you are not finding the right connections locally, but you attend a lecture elsewhere and are able to keep in touch with a female scholar who inspires you, and they are willing to cultivate a connection, then hold onto it. If you cannot find somebody but you know friends who can connect you with a female scholar suitable for you, then pursue that. Scholarship is a vast network. Personally, I am in multiple WhatsApp groups with hundreds of female scholars from around the world. If someone asks me if I know any available scholars living in Queens, NY, I may say yes and pass along the information or if I do not know, then I will reach out to my scholar network and find someone. 

I must emphasize once again that the scholar should be someone you can bond well with and is able to help you with what you need. Seek out scholars based on their knowledge and expertise, not their platform. I say this because unfortunately many times we equate a popular, high profile presence with level of expertise when this is not always the case. There are many motivational speakers on large platforms, but not all of them are qualified scholars. When we judge a scholar based on their platform we are adding to the problem of decreasing the value of local, low profile scholarship and deeming them underqualified by default. 

What about the many high-profile speakers who are qualified scholars? Listen to their lectures, benefit from their words, and follow them by all means. But you will run into the same issue of accessibility when you need to ask a question and they are unreachable. Or they answer your question but the answer is generic due to your lack of personal connection with them. So again, start by seeking locally

Remember that first group of Sunday school girls I was anxious to teach over a decade ago? I am still in touch with most of them. They still reach out whenever they have questions or concerns because they know that Google is not the answer. They have given my number to many of their friends and families over the years to help with any spiritual or fiqh issues — and from there the circle grows. I know my limits as far as how much time I can dedicate to the community, with homeschooling my children and personal writing projects taking up most of my time — so the most helpful thing I can do as a scholar these days is be available via phone or text message to answer any questions. I teach monthly classes for Muslim women, and have written a book that teaches Qur’anic fluency. In the past, with less personal obligations, serving the community looked different: I was able to teach different classes five times a week in person, but had no time for questions via phone calls and text in my free time. 

And this is the story of most scholars, we are all trying to provide what we can given our circumstances. Undoubtedly, there remain challenges that are yet to be overcome, but I promise that we are here, and we exist in multitudes. 

Works Cited:

[1] Sahih al-Bukhari 3461

Photo by Hasan Almasi on Unsplash

About the Author: Sarah Ahmed is an educator and author of Reading Quran, A Step-by-Step Guide to Qur’anic Fluency. She is an Islamic scholar, writer and home educator. She graduated with an alimiyyah degree in 2011 from Dar ul-Uloom al Madania in New York. She has served as an Islamic Studies instructor and Qur’an teacher for the past decade. She is passionate about working with youth, focusing on empowering young Muslim women with knowledge on their deen and spirituality. She currently resides in Dallas, Texas with her husband and three children and is working on other beneficial Islamic works.

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