By Dr. Mohammad Akram Nadwi
The Companions of the Messenger of God, salla l-lahu `alayhi wa-sallam, hold, for Muslims, a status and authority over all subsequent generations of Muslims. This applies to the women Companions as it does to the men. The reason for it is the strength of their faith and the depth of their knowledge and understanding of how to preserve the teachings of the religion by embodying them in their practice. Without doubt this high quality of their Islam derives from the fact that they witnessed the prophethood and revelation at first hand: they were able to put questions to the Prophet directly, and to hear his reflections and deliberations, and they had the high honour of putting his judgements into practice. Also, they took part, the women no less than the men, in the events that constitute the formative history of the period of revelation, and they had direct experience of how the Prophet managed those events. Their questions and concerns, and their participation in events, are mentioned and commented upon in the Qur’an itself, as well as in the hadith and sira literature. The women took part in the Hijra, were present at the crisis of Hudaybiya, and in the conquest of Makkah. When they were not present on the field of battle, they were enduring its effects in the loss of brothers, fathers, sons. They had concerns as mothers, as foster-mothers, as wives, as orphans, as divorcees and widows, as slaves or as slave-owners, as payers or recipients of sadaqah and zakah, all of which they were able to bring before the Prophet for guidance. Because of their concerns, the Qur’an began to make explicit reference to women, alongside men, as agents of the different human virtues that are pleasing to God. And the Book makes it abundantly clear that God hears the voices of women as clearly as He hears the voices of men; their petitions and complaints reach Him, and He responds. God is witness of all the intentions and actions of His creatures, male or female, His judgement is perfect and His recompense exact and swift.
In sum, the men and women Companions were equal in suffering the persecutions and privations – the separation from family and home, from comfort and wealth – that the men suffered, and all their concerns were equal in the perspective of the Qur’an. The women, no less than the men, were first hand witnesses also of the successes of Islam and all the processes entailed in understanding and establishing Islam as a way of life in the public and private domains of human effort. They understood the need for patience and flexibility with individual failures to live up to the demands of the faith, while preserving total commitment to it. They were able to be patient because they had themselves passed through the transition from unbelief to belief, then from a theoretical to a practical understanding of how to be Muslim, from a posture or gesture representing an ideal to a lived, sustained personal and collective history. The demands on men and women in respect of iman and din were indeed the same, and the recompense for meeting those demands was the same, even though, necessarily, their spheres of action were different. Men and women were both obliged to ponder and preserve the Qur’an and to convey their knowledge to others through preaching and practice. For this reason, in the Companions’ generation, scholarly authority was not overwhelmingly concentrated in men. Rather, the knowledge and judgement of all the knowledgeable Companions was treasured, irrespective of whether they were men or women. We have extensive records in the hadith that the women Companions were consulted and deferred to by men. This means that, in the period in which the precedents have (or are supposed to have) the highest religious authority for all Muslims thereafter, a public presence and public voice for women was, in the assemblies of Muslims, something expected and normal. Accordingly, it is correct to say that the right of women to carry responsibility for the ummah, and their right to express that responsibility in the form of religious authority in the ways permitted and envisaged by God’s Messenger, is something that belongs to the best, original Islam – the Islam of the Companions of God’s Messenger.