Sofia Rehman's 'A Treasury of Aisha': Was Prophet Muhammad's wife Aisha the ultimate social justice warrior?
Aisha bint Abi Bakr, the beloved wife of the Prophet Muhammed (peace be upon him) holds a high status in Sunni Islam; she is known as the 'Mother of the Believers' and one of the primary transmitters of Prophetic sayings, or hadith.
Until quite recently books penned about Aisha have tended to focus on her role as a wife, always in relationship to the Prophet (peace be upon him) and their marriage.
While that provides an important blueprint for Muslims in fostering a loving and compassionate marriage (what better example do we have than the Prophet Muhammed?), what was lacking was a book that looked at Aisha in her entirety – there is so much more to her than the debate over the age she was when she married the Prophet Muhammed.
"Women have been leaders. We've been politically engaged. We've been educators, we've been teachers. We've been upholders of the religion, we've been social justice activists before the term was coined"
She will humbly laugh if you tell her this, but author and independent Islamic scholar, Dr Sofia Rehman, is an expert on Aisha bint Abi Bakr.
She did her PhD on Aisha, focussing on the statements of Aisha as recorded in the work of 14th-century scholar, Imam Al-Zakarshi, and recently, her book A Treasury of Aisha: A Guidance from the Beloved of the Beloved was published by Kube Publishing, making it the first book in the Treasury series about a woman, written by a woman.
If there was someone to write a book about Aisha bint Abi Bakr, there could be no person more qualified than Dr Rehman.
Just before the COVID-19 pandemic broke out, Dr Rehman successfully completed her PhD. She mentioned to her husband how much she loved the Treasury series but noticed there was no book in the series about a female figure in Islam nor a book written by a woman. She expressed her intention to contact the publishers, proposing a book about Aisha bint Abi Bakr.
In a stroke of serendipity, before even reaching out to the publishers, Dr Rehman received an email from them acknowledging her recent PhD and asking if she would be interested in writing a book on Aisha for their series.
“[It was like] a moment when the stars are aligning,” she tells The New Arab. “It was a year of writing. I had most of the material from my PhD but the great thing about this was that it allowed me an opportunity to go beyond the material for my PhD; I went into books of history, various Hadith books, fiqh books (books on Islamic jurisprudence). So, in some ways, even though this is quite a small book it's quite a mighty book, I think because it really does pack a lot of information within a few pages. There is still so much more out there on Aisha to be explored and written about, and to be read.”
A Treasury of Aisha is not a biography; it is a book that looks at the legacy of Aisha in different arenas, from fiqh or Islamic jurisprudence to ‘aqidah or matters of creed, as well as her work in tafsir or the exegesis of the Qur’an and her siyasah or political involvement.
What Dr Rehman presents us with is a holistic picture of Aisha, a woman that was active in society on many fronts, and after the passing of the Prophet Muhammed (peace be upon him), she continued that work for the remainder of her life.
It is evident through her commentary on Qur’anic verses and Prophetic sayings that Aisha has a unique and elevated understanding of the faith. She expanded upon divine texts based on various lived experiences, providing context to divine revelations and Prophetic sayings that made Islam accessible to men and women in early Muslim communities.
“One piece of feedback that I've received frequently from people is that this book has made Aisha a human,” explains Dr Rehman. “It's delivered her to readers in a way that is not two-dimensional. She's multifaceted. You see her as witty. You see her as happy. You see her as angry. You see her in every mode of emotion that we as human beings have, whereas previously for a lot of readers in the feedback I've received is that Aisha is sort of either this unachievable paragon of Muslim piety or a dry, bleak, even petulant young bride.”
“As Muslim women, we're often made to feel that the most valuable roles we have are as wife and mother. Muslim women historically have played every single role. Women have been leaders. We've been politically engaged. We've been educators, we've been teachers. We've been upholders of the religion, we've been social justice activists before the term was coined, we've been multifaceted always, and yet somehow, especially post-colonially, there's this tragic reduction of what it is that Muslim women can be, and we're quite often made to feel like there's no precedent for the roles that we want to play.”
One of the most fascinating sections of A Treasury on Aisha is that of Aisha’s political involvement. In traditional Islamic education we often learn of Aisha’s role as a religious teacher who both men and women used to learn from, but seldom do we learn about Aisha in terms of the political roles she played.
“Muslim women's leadership is contested, women's right to being in the public space, whether that's politically or otherwise is contested, so I wanted to be able to demonstrate that not only was Aisha in that public space and very much a key figure in shaping that public space, part of which was political engagement,” says Dr Rehman.
“During Abu Bakr and Umar’s reigns, she was very much an advisor to both of them. And then in Uthman’s reign she continued to play that advisory role, but she wasn't listened to in quite the same way. Her home and the home of Um Salama became a hub for people to come and present their grievances. They [Aisha and Um Salama] petitioned him [Uthman] and they warned and advised him. And at the same time, when he was murdered, they stood up for justice for him because, for all that they were correcting him, they were staying within the boundary of the Shariah. When Ali comes into power Aisha is holding him to account to ensure that those who were responsible for the murder of Uthman are brought to justice. And I love this about her, that she was always for the truth.”
"I hope Muslim men will follow in the footsteps of the male Companions of the Prophet who consistently went to Aisha for learning, understanding, and clarification"
What is clear about this book is that it is not one intended to be read only by women. Aisha bint Abi Bakr is often presented as a figure for Muslim women to read about and aspire to, but she is a role model for Muslim men too.
“At the very beginning of my book, I write that I hope Muslim men will follow in the footsteps of the male Companions of the Prophet who consistently went to Aisha for learning, understanding, and clarification. If they heard something they were unsure about, they would go to Aisha first or they would send someone to Aisha to corroborate or correct or clarify a situation or a statement. So why would Muslim men of today not have something to learn from her?”
Dr Sofia Rehman is one in a recent line of female Islamic scholars who not only teach Islamic knowledge but also produce it. Not only does A Treasury of Aisha present Aisha’s statements, but it also includes Dr Rehman’s own commentary on the lessons that can be learned in each scenario.
As ever, Dr Rehman writes in a way that makes religious knowledge accessible to readers. We have had female Islamic teachers for centuries, but it has been a long time since we have had female Islamic scholars producing knowledge (not to be confused with female Islamic writers or thinkers in the 20th century who have written works which simply endorse works by male writers or thinkers.) One question I had for Dr Rehman is whether she worries about male readers recognising the authority of her work.
“I think it's because it’s a novelty. We have suffered for many centuries without Muslim female production of knowledge. I think people conflate teaching with the production of knowledge. They're not the same thing, so somebody can learn whatever subject it is that they learn in Islam and go on to teach that, but to produce knowledge takes a completely different level of engagement with the tradition, it’s using critical tools to analyse the tradition, understanding the context that we're in and going to the tradition with those questions. Seeking answers that are relevant for our contemporary issues. That's a completely different ball game and I don't think that there are even many male scholars either that do that.”
“We really need male allies to stand up and say right now we're going to start learning from Muslim women," Sofia concludes. "We are going to start taking them seriously. I don't think this is a specifically Muslim issue. There's this lack of trusting the authority of women when they speak, even as they speak on things that they have better insight on.”
“With more Muslim women coming forward as writers, as authors, as professionals in various fields we are becoming increasingly visible so I think it's just a case of building critical mass until we become ubiquitously present and it becomes impossible to ignore what we're saying, and it becomes impossible to deny the impact of what we're saying as well or the validity of what we're saying.”
Yousra Samir Imran is a British Egyptian writer and author who is based in Yorkshire. She is the author of Hijab and Red Lipstick, published by Hashtag Press.
Follow her on Twitter: @UNDERYOURABAYA