Whenever I ask an acquaintance who the leading Muslims in the 21st Century are, I am responded with names such as Nouman Ali Khan, Hamza Yusuf, Omar Suleiman, Wessam Cherkawi and many other phenomenal individuals. It is sadly uncommon to hear mention of more than one woman. The dominance of Muslim men in the 21st century contradicts the history of Islamic Scholarship. Rulers and leaders in preceding Islamic communities would counsel their female scholars prior to legislation, delegation and advancement.
Fatima al-Samarqandi shows us that strong and visible women are needed in society
Five hundred years after the death of the prophet, one of the greatest Hanafi jurists was born. She was the daughter of the eminent scholar Muhammad ibn Ahmad al-Samarqandi. Born in in 12th Century Samarqand, Fatima al-Samarqandi was taught by her father and was a renowned expert in Calligraphy, Islamic Law, Qur’an, and the Hadith.
Fatima exceeded a great number of contemporary scholars in knowledge. A legal expert in her own right, she was influential in the discourse of the Hanafi fiqh. As a result of her elite stance, she was able to issue fatwas, correct the fatawa of her father and husband, and sign them in her elegant and recognized calligraphy.
Numerous leaders from the Roman Empire and Islamic society sought her hand in marriage, to which her father adamantly refused. When Alaa’ al-Din al-Kasani–a marvelous student of her father—proposed to Fatima, she asked for her dowry to be Alaa’s famous book, Al-Badai al-Sana’i (The Most Marvelous of Beneficial Things), which was a commentary on her father’s book, Tuhfat Al Fuqaha. Her father was impressed by the book, and so al-Kasani married Fatima. Until this day, his book Al-Badai al-Sana’i is highly regarded among the Hanafi scholars.
Her husband empowered Fatima by motivating her
Fatima and al-Kasani became a power couple. They moved to Aleppo and taught in the Umayyad Mosque. Despite his profound knowledge, al-Kasani was aware of Fatima’s greater intellectual bearing, approaching her endless times for her perspective and guidance on specific matters.
A student of al-Kasani reported: “Sometimes the students would ask al-Kasani difficult questions. He would ask permission to leave and go home. When he came back, he would answer our questions in detail. This happened quite often. Finally, we understood that Imam Kasani was going home to ask Fatima about the question and then returning with the answer.”
Fatima al-Samarqandi as the Nur al-Din al Zengi’s personal consultant
During this time, Nur al-Din al-Zengi, the illustrious ruler recognized for his resistance against the Christian Crusaders in the 12th century, was in power of Aleppo. He appointed Fatima and al-Kasani as his personal consultants, counselling Fatima on numerous occasions on state affairs and fiqh. Fatima not only participated in religious jurisprudence, but was instrumental in societal affairs, that were operating under her guidance and admonition.
Nur al-Din encompassed a deep reverence towards Fatima. Ensuing after her father’s death, Fatima wished to move back to her birthplace, Samarqand, but Nur al-Din begged Fatima to stay, so she remained in Aleppo—this proves how important her role was.
She was a real trendsetter and admired woman throughout history
Many scholars identify Fatima as the woman who introduced the tradition of serving scholars iftar and sweets during the holy month of Ramadan. Centuries on, this practice continues to take place in Syria.
In his book, “The Study of Women”, Syrian writer Muhammad Rida Kahala notes that Fatima al-Samarqandi authored various books on fiqh. Women and men from numerous provinces in the Islamic World visited Aleppo just to study and learn under her.
She died in the year 581AH, and her body is buried in Masjid Ibrahim-Khalil, Aleppo. After she passed away, Al-Kasani visited her grave every Friday, until his death in 587AH. Prior to his death he succeeded in his request to be buried beside her grave in Masjid Ibrahim-Khalil.
A society is glorified because of their perseverance, commitment, and application of knowledge. We glorify the architectural greatness of the ancient Egyptians, the medical achievements of the ancient Greeks, the mathematical brilliance of the Indians, the transition of the Renaissance, and the Golden Age of Islam. We unknowingly commend preceding civilizations for their intellectual excellence. Academic achievement, leadership, and reverence of women in society is not unique in the history of Muslim women. It is time we empower ourselves with knowledge, and realize it is the only way of progressing as an Ummah.