By Shaykh Mohammad Akram Nadwi, Oxford
Even though, for most people, the single most important and useful thing they do in the world is to raise a family — to look after and love their children and prepare them for their journey in life – in the modern world, family life is considered a bit of a nuisance, a distraction from the more exciting business of having a career, wealth, celebrity and status in the world. This is especially hard on women, whose role as mothers and wives is downgraded, and indeed the economy has been so arranged that, in many cases, mothers and wives also have to be breadwinners, alongside husbands and fathers. One of the negative consequences of this arrangement, and of the culture that goes with it, is that marriage itself is not a settled state, with some acceptable degree of mutual dependency within the family, but an unsettled, competitive state. This affects (and hurts) women much more than it does men, though both are damaged by it. For women, if marriage is not a settled condition, the need to be marriageable is always pressing and so they are made to be permanently anxious about how attractive they are to the opposite sex. Of course this applies to men too, but it is dramatically worse for women.
Given the dominant culture and the economy that requires it, there is no solution to this problem. However, there is a consolation for Muslims, men and women, which perhaps non-Muslims do not have. That consolation is the duty to be of service to the religion – looking after a husband and children is not the one and only thing required of Muslim women. On the contrary, the most important thing, just as for Muslim men, is how they relate to their Creator and how they fulfil their religious duties. Whether they are married and have families, or are not married and do not have families, the primary role of both men and women is as believers. It is a great disappointment, indeed it is a great injustice, that some of the ulema have pronounced with great confidence and without any substantial authority that the role of women is confined to the home. That it is, somehow, wrong for Muslim women to have interests in the welfare of their fellow Muslims outside their home. In this talk today I will in-sha’a Allah present examples of women, who were deeply devout and conscientious Muslims, resolutely committed to the manners and boundaries of hijab, who served the umma in the role of Islamic scholars. They earned the highest respect from their students and peers among both men and women for their learning and their piety. Then, having earned that respect, they also enjoyed the public authority that comes with such respect.