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Considering Muhammad had several wives who were well-educated and scholarly, how did sects of Islam become so hostile to educating women?

Considering Muhammad had several wives who were well-educated and scholarly, how did sects of Islam become so hostile to educating women?

Question: Upon reading about the wives of Muhammad, I was taken aback by how active and well-educated many of his wives appeared to be. Particularly the scholarly background of Aisha bint Abu Bakr. Given that foundation, how then did certain sects of Islam come to demonize the education of women?

First, I would like to challenge the question’s own wording: no major “sects” actually hold a stance against women’s education.

Rather, individual actors within different sects use generalized rulings and claim the case of women’s education falls under the general umbrella of said ruling. An important first concept to unravel here is the idea of Ejma’a, I.e. Consensus. Most major Islamic sects, including Sunni and Shia, believe that if the majority of reputable scholars agreed on a ruling within a given timeframe then this does imply that it is in fact what Allah wants.

The actual definition of Ejma’a is a lot more strict and lengthy than this of course, and naturally, there can be disagreements about whether a specific matter has reached consensus or not. However, for the interest of brevity, I will not expand on those.

In the Sunni school of thought, a clear promise of “[Allah] protecting the message” in the Quran is the basis for equating Ejma’a with Allah’s will.

The rationale goes that if all reputable scholars were to agree on a wrong interpretation of the Quran then the message certainly will be lost. Given that Allah promised to protect the message, wrong Ejma’a isn’t a possibility.

Other sects have their own interpretation to the source of the validity of Ejma’a, with the most notable being the Shia’s Ma’soomoon.

Essentially, most Islamic sects agree on the legislative power granted by Ejma’a even though some disagreements between sects exist as to why exactly does consensus equate authenticity of claim.

This is why Sunni’s give themselves the title of Ahl AlSunnah wa AlJamma’a, People of the Sunnah and Ejma’a. This title is supposed to hint at the two main sources which can be used to infer Islamic rulings: either a direct ruling on an identical matter discussed in AlSunnah (i.e. the life and teaching of Prophet Mohammed) or by inference.

In inference, a scholar attempts to project a modern issue into a comparable one in AlSunnah, where a direct ruling does not exist. Rulings on camels and carts are sometimes extrapolated to all methods of transportation, for instance. When sufficiently enough reputable scholars agree on the projection, the ruling reaches an Ejma’a status.

As far as my knowledge goes, no direct quote from Sunnah nor an Ejma’a exists to discourage women’s education in any of the major Islamic sects.

In fact, many texts do encourage pursuing knowledge and education regardless of sex. For instance, the Hadith “whoever is pursuing a path of knowledge is pursuing the path to heaven” is generally understood to be unisex.

As you stated, the wives and daughters of the prophet were major scholars; AlBukharri and Muslim had multiple female teachers etc.

In fact, most of the surviving literature on any voices speaking against educating women in the medieval islamic period reached us through texts directly written to refute them. Famously AlJahith dedicated entire sections of AlBayan Wa AlTibyan to mock those views as he did not view them worthy of a proper refutal.

Where then, do some individuals drive the power to make educating women haram? A second concept is needed in here: the Islamic doctrine of giving means the same halal-haram categorization as their end. If a halal act inevitably leads to a haram one, or is made in pursuit of a haram act, then the halal act is ruled as haram.

Once again, most Islamic sects agree on this general rule itself, but scholars even within one sect disagree as to when it is applicable and when is it not. A famous application of this rule all sects agree is a wrong application is forbidding farming grapes in fear that it might enable someone to make wine out of it.

Again, this is an example that is used to teach a wrong application of the rule. The commonly used correct application however is forbidding insulting unislamic idols.

The reasoning here is that inevitably insulting idols of practitioners of other religions leads to hatred, wars, and deaths. This general rule is known as the rule of Sadd Althara’e.

Where some applications of rule of Sadd Althara’e are agreed upon one way or the other, it historically has been the easiest rule to abuse. One can see both the importance of such a rule, but also how easy it is to abuse to fit anyone’s agendas in forbidding an act as long as they can conjure up a hypothetical scenario in which said act inevitably leads to a haram act.

This all goes to show that the restriction of women’s education in question is not tied to a specific sect but rather to individuals choosing to enforce the rule of Sadd Althara’e under their geographical range of influence.

This precisely is why you find two countries of similar Islamic sects having different rules, and why the Taliban can feel justified switching back and forth between allowing and disallowing education for women.

Proponents of prohibition would readily admit that no Islamic text directly forbids education for women, but they will strongly argue the existence of inevitable haram consequences.

Justifications vary way too wildly to count, and the reader is encouraged to play their own mental gymnastics to connect a haram act to education.

According to Dr. Ahmed AlBassam, the history of western colonization or forced influence on the Islamic world cannot be ignored in this regard. While education in general long existed in the region, the modern structure of K12-BS-MS-PhD as well as the structure of each given subject is still viewed as a wildly western import in the region.

The history of colonization leads some to view this import with a lot of skepticism and as another mean of western cultural domination in the region.

This skepticism leads to viewing western education as more of a necessary evil contact with which to be reduced if possible. It is no coincidence, AlBassam says, that countries more hostile toward western powers end up viewing education with a demonic look as opposed to countries with friendlier relations.

The influence of culture-based patriarchal power structures too cannot be ignored, as it determines which subgroup of society get the duty/privilege to perform that “necessary evil” when western-structured education is viewed in that manner.

1. Written by u/omaxx.
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