In Pursuit of Female Islamic Scholarship

By Aatifa Shareef

It started in high school. I took the 10-day Classical Arabic grammar intensive taught by Ustadh Nouman Ali Khan. I didn’t know who he was back then – my family was attending the class so I went. Ten days later, as dramatic as it sounds, my life was changed. For the first time, Arabic was something I could learn, and the Qur’an could impact me beyond the beauty of its sound.

He would teach grammar for three hours, and then at the end of the evening, show us why the few simple things we were learning were so amazing, how these grammar superpowers activated in the Qur’an, affecting the meaning in a way that would affect my life

I remember the example very clearly:

وَأَصْبَحَ فُؤَادُ أُمِّ مُوسَىٰ فَارِغًا ۖ إِن كَادَتْ لَتُبْدِي بِهِ لَوْلَا أَن رَّبَطْنَا عَلَىٰ قَلْبِهَا لِتَكُونَ مِنَ الْمُؤْمِنِينَ١٠

He prefaced this example by asking if anyone in the room had studied psychology. With only one hand shooting up, my brother’s, in the primarily Desi/Arab community, he continued by saying that anyone who is interested in the subject should look up the words for heart, soul, mind, body, etc. in the Qur’an as the study of psychology in the Qur’an is mind-blowing. He went on to explain how the ayah uses two different words for the heart based on the changing of its condition.

My mind was already blown. Look to the Qur’an? For psychology? It was the first time it really hit: the Qur’an has something to say about everything, we just have to look. If I truly believe that it is guidance for all mankind, then it does have the solutions to all our problems. It’s our job to understand what it’s saying and apply it to whatever beneficial “secular” interests we have.

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From that point on, I knew I had to study psychology, I knew I had to study the Qur’an, and I knew that I had to work to put these together, be like the Prophet Muhammad ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him), and live the Qur’an. Over time, these things I “knew” developed. Majoring in psychology was not enough. As humans, we’re meant to do more than whatever strikes our fancy; we have to work to benefit ourselves and the people around us. If I want to study psychology, I better use it for that goal and a bachelor’s degree wasn’t enough. In addition, studying the Qur’an requires studying Arabic, and when I had finally made headway in that regard, I realized that it requires studying every other Islamic science as well. I had taken weekend seminars before, but if I were to dedicate my life to this endeavor, I needed to be on more firm ground. Thirdly, putting the two subjects together is not something one can do without any guidance. I needed a mentor who knew where I was coming from, where I wanted to go, and what I needed to do to get there. Finally, outside of my intellectual goals, I realized that to be a truly beneficial human being, I first needed to be comfortable with myself, socially, emotionally, and spiritually, requiring me to be in a good environment around like-minded individuals who shared my passion for educated activism.

But I had no idea where to go.

I could go to any university to continue my education in psychology, but the imbalance between men and women in the field of Islamic sciences is phenomenal. Too many programs only accept men, and when a program does exist for women, it’s over flooded despite its sub-par status. We’re desperate for knowledge so we’ll take whatever we can get, even if there’s a wall between us and the teacher. We’re expected to interact with what we’re learning without interacting with whom we’re learning from. We’re told this is normal; this is the way things should be.

The cycle of ignorance continues as we hide our women and teach our men that women aren’t to be included in their circles of knowledge. Maybe the women educated in that system do have a proper Islamic grounding, but I wouldn’t know because I never see them. So we’re stuck, with generations and generations of girls, our sisters, mothers, wives, daughters, believing that that we’re meant to stay in the dark, that Islam is not for them. If it were, then wouldn’t institutions exist to facilitate our education, our piety, our understanding of the religion, our work for the sake of Allah? Wouldn’t they exist to teach that modesty is more than clothing, dignity is more than silence, and intelligence is more than emotion?

We were back in school from winter break during the year I was studying Arabic at the Bayyinah Dream program. I had just graduated with a bachelor’s degree in psychology the summer before, and I was still trying to figure out how I could go about actualizing the goals I had set for myself. Ustadh Nouman Ali Khan stands at his desk and says, “I have a surprise for you guys, it’s supposed to be a secret though!” And he lays out the information for the first school year of the Qalam Seminary program: one year long, Islamic Studies, small tight-knit class accepting both males and females, practical training focused on benefiting the American Ummah, with direct mentorship from Shaykh Abdul Nasir Jangda.

Like the فؤاد of the mother of Musa 'alayhi'l-salām (peace be upon him), my heart was on fire: I was sitting in the Dream program as my dreams were coming true.

I had the honor of being a part of the Qalam Seminary’s first graduating class. For the first time in my life, I went through a full-time curriculum of Qur’anic sciences, Hadith sciences, fiqh, the principles of each, a study of the life of the Prophet Muhammad ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him), and topics related to being a leader in the Muslim community in America today. My textbooks were the original sources, written in Classical Arabic, but in classic Qalam style, the focus didn’t waver from practical spirituality.

I learned that though I am judged by my role as a woman in relation to people – as a wife, mother, daughter, sister – I am only defined by my role as a slave in relation to Allah. I learned that the only difference between people in the sight of Allah is their level of piety (49:13), that piety lies in the heart (Hadith in Sahih Muslim) and the ones who are the most God-fearing are those who are educated, male and female (35:28).

At the Qalam Seminary, there are almost double the number of women in the class as men. With no barrier between teacher and student, equal opportunity to schedule personal meetings with Shaykh Abdul Nasir Jangda, and a weekly sisters-only question and answer session with Shaykh, the too-well-known model of sisters not having the chance to spend time with scholars dismantles. Shaykh Abdul Nasir is every student’s teacher, trainer, and mentor, fulfilling the three-pronged mission of the Qalam Seminary for males and females equally.

Maybe if Ustadh Nouman had used an example related to politics or economics or the medical field, my bachelor’s degree would have been very different. But the other things on my to-do list still required Qalam – there is no other place in the world, in my eyes, that provides the holistic education I experienced here in a way that makes me feel respected as a woman.

Now having graduated from a psychology program, an Arabic program, and now a full-time Islamic Studies program, I’m using all that I’ve learned to work as an instructor for Qalam. I teach and mentor the men and women who will insha’Allah be the mentors for others, becoming the solution for problems that have existed for far too long. My classmates have all gone to do the same in their own spheres. Whether it be in their university MSAs, in their workplace, in their families, or in their masajid and community centers, each one of us has used our Seminary experience as a launchpad for further Islamic education and community work.

Imam Ghazali wrote in a letter to his student after graduating:

العلم بلا عمل جنون, و العمل بغير علم لا يكون

“Knowledge without action is insanity, and action without knowledge has no reality.” Those of you who notice problems in our community, be it gender inequality, the lack of good role models, or the dearth of practical Islamic education, know that there are solutions, we just have to be them.

Aaitfah Shareef is an instructor at the Qalam Seminary. She also conducts the Sisters Public Speaking Workshop at Qalam Insitiute. She graduated with a degree in Psychology from Northwestern University.

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11 responses to “In Pursuit of Female Islamic Scholarship”

  1. MashAllah a very inspiring, informative post. JazakAllah khair for sharing your heart and experiences!

  2. Salamatu says:

    Salaamu alaykum I would like to join the Muslims matter

  3. laura says:

    thats really amazing story mashallah!. we just have to wish so strongly and have full conviction that Allah will guide us to the path and will put out there the things for us that we need in order to achieve our dreams. this happens when we are aware that our purpose is wordhipping him and all out attempts in this lofe should be directed to His servitude.

  4. Zainab Khan says:

    We definitely need more stories and life journeys like yours..

  5. Arjmand says:

    Assalamu alaykum,

    Beautiful and a much needed article in this day and age.

    I understand that you found what you sought. However, I don’t know if you mention this, but did you find a way to utilize the Psychology degree that you got from college? I am also in a similar situation, except that its Biology with me. I have no idea what to do with this degree because I want to actually learn Arabic but I have no resources to pursue my wishes. I want to know what can a person who can’t pursue Islamic Studies do with their degree?

    • sis says:

      Assalamualaykum warahmatullahi wa barakatuhu

      Have you considered Islamic online university – tuition free online accredited degrees in Islamic studies, Islamic finance and Islamic psychology open to everyone. I was in the authors position and have decided to do a psych undergrad at this university inshAllah instead of pursuing a psych degree at the ivy league school I was enrolled in previously.

      Also, in a very cool lecture by Norman Ali khan I heard him say that his goal/dream is to take a bunch us educated grads in various subjects and get us working on researching the Qur’an and making documentaries and creating knowledge and solutions to contemporary global problems.

      In my opinion, this would obviously necessitate getting an Islamic education of some sort for the content creators. Even more importantly imho, it would need said grads to acquire the of the kind of critical thinking skills and empowered outlook on life the Qur’an actually teaches. This type of critical thinking and islamically empowered approach can be learnt from the tafseer series he has on bayyinah tv, and Arabic can be acquired from the summer dream program bayyinah runs, or through other online schools like shariahprogram. These are some suggested starting points to put the seriousness in action for type of dues one makes when seeking what you’re asking about.
      I heard in a lecture once about sincerity of intention. So a guy says he wants to build a masjid one day as a life goal. Yet, when the opportunity to donate the $5 in his pocket to someone else’s masjid project comes up (i.e a small step to being sincere to his dream of having masjids example, even tough it not his whole dream)..he doesn’t donate, so his opportunity to take a first step as well as prove his sincerity by action is lost. But if he took the opportunity presented to him by donating what he did have, who knows where the reward for taking that step would have taken him through a series of increasing bigger opportunities.

  6. Zanika says:

    Zazakallahu khairan for sharing your amazing story sister.

  7. Faisal says:

    There is an amazing 6 month programme coming up entitled History of Female Islamic Scholarship in Islam with Dr Mohammad Akram Nadwi (author of al-Muhaddithat – the 57 volume biographical encyclopaedia). The programme is online worldwide including the following sessions:
    Session 1 – Wives and daughters of the Prophet (except Aishah)
    Session 2 – Aishah
    Session 3 – Sahabiyyaat (female companions of the Prophet)
    Session 4 – Tabiyyaat (the following generation)
    Session 5 – Later generations
    Session 6 – Recent generations (last 200 years)

    Here is the link: http://www.cambridgeislamiccollege.org/course/diploma-in-history-of-female-islamic-scholarship/

  8. Bird Busy says:

    Islam is a peaceful way of life; it is for the followers of Islam to decipher the message and bring about peace and harmony with love in the hearts and minds of the believers.

  9. Shirin says:

    As salam alaikum. Alhamdolillah that I came across this article. I am in my first year of Psychology course in university. Initially, I was preparing for medical school but Allah has different plans for me. I became interested in Psy through ustadh Nouman’s lectures and I dreamt that I would study in Bayyinah dream program. Life is turning out great. Allah’s plan is better. After I complete uni I m hoping to join Bayyinah bi-idhnillah ??

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