Of Love and Knowledge: The Story of Fatimah al-Samarqandi

My dear sisters imagine what if you were receiving proposals from all over the world, but your father denied all except those who were seekers of knowledge? And brothers, what if you were seeking a wife and her dowry, which she asked of you, did not include dollars or cents but rather that you contribute some way to the community? Sisters, imagine what it would be like to be so well known for your knowledge that the leader of the Muslim community asks for you- by name– to sit on his advisory board? Brothers, have you ever asked a shaykh a question and, him not knowing, referred you ask to his daughter? Would you believe that all of this has occurred?

What I am about to share with you is not about just one amazing life, but an amazing perspective on life shared in common by the most righteous of people.

Unfortunately, many of you, including myself, have not experienced events like these themselves.  Most fathers don’t wish for their daughters to marry an Islamic scholar, and many women don’t see any financial security in the field. Many Muslim community leaders also disregard the efforts of the female students of knowledge around them, denying their participation even on advisory boards. And most fathers don’t raise their daughters to become scholars. So what do we stand to learn from someone who experienced the blessed opposite of what we live today?

What we have experienced is nothing new to the Ummah. There is a reason why in history we study certain individuals and NOT all. Many are just all the same while there are others who, while standing out from the crowd, tell us all a whole lot more about who we are and what we are capable of. Such is the case too, when we study the life of blessed scholar and Shaykha Fatimah al-Samarqandi.

Fatimah was born in Samarqand (in present day Uzbekistan) in the 12th century; about 500 years after the Hijri of the Prophet ﷺ. By this time the Ḥanafī School had already become the most prominent in all the land and people traveled from all over the world to study beneath her father; the prominent Shaykh Muhammad ibn Ahmad.  The Ḥanafī school of law had become so wide spread that many opinions began to circulate within it, so it became even more imperative for the student of knowledge to seek the most qualified teacher. Her father had been well known for his righteousness, and his devoting his entire life to seeking and conveying knowledge; not just to his students but his family as well. Under her father’s tutelage Fatimah mastered the entire Ḥanafī Madhhab. That is not just knowing how to perform prayer properly, but also the fiqh of fasting, of alms-giving, of umrah and hajj, of business transactions, inheritance, marriage, of enjoining the good and forbidding the evil, and every other aspect of the Sacred Law (Shari’ah).

She was a righteous woman and had been committed to ‘ilm from an early age.

After mastering the fiqh of Abu Hanifa, her father allowed her to go and study under several other scholars; including those of hadith.

Due to her mastery of the Islamic sciences, her father would sometimes even refer his students to her. She would even be asked by him to include her name and endorsement on a fatwa, which she, due the beauty of her handwriting, would also be asked to pen. This practice of fatwa-writing not only increased her scholarly prestige but also allowed her to understand the various situations of the people who asked, making her more in touch with the surrounding community.

Her reputation spread far and wide and soon suitors from around the Muslim world came to seek her hand in marriage. Many rich and noble men asked for her hand, but her father refused any who were not themselves seekers of knowledge, and he feared for her being taken away from the circle of scholars in Samarqand.

One day a student of her father asked if he might seek Fatimah’s hand in marriage, and so her father said he would ask her. The student, Abu Bakr Al-Kasani, was not a rich or noble man but was a dedicated student of her fathers. Likely impressed with his dedication to knowledge, which may have equalled her own, she said she would marry him but on one condition: that for her dowry he must write an explanation for her father’s book Tuhfatul Fuqahaa. He accepted.

Allah, subhanahu wa taᶜAla, must have been pleased with her dowry for to this day her husband’s commentary of her father’s book has remained one of the first references for the Ḥanafī school of law. By marrying a student of knowledge Fatimah had also guaranteed for herself that she too would remain dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge.

As the newly joined scholarly family came together, they continued to receive requests for fatwas, only now they all three would sign it, “Muhammad, Fatimah, and Abu Bakr.”

Fatimah and her husband remained with her father until he passed away, at which point they then moved to Aleppo, Syria, where they together began to teach at an Umayyad Mosque. Their home was attached to the masjid, where her husband would often be teaching inside. One time while he was giving a lecture she overheard him saying something incorrect, and her voice could be heard from inside their home correcting him. She had a very precise knowledge and understanding of law.

Everyone who saw her would call her a great scholar and those who questioned her knowledge, due to her being a woman, would later be caught dumbfounded when they realized that she was more knowledgeable then they. She became so famous that even the ruler, Nur al-Din Zinki, asked Fatimah to be one of his counsellors so that he can consult her and her husband on a regular basis. This position allowed her to know the problems in the community, as well as the regional and national politics. This only increased her understanding and gave her a larger arena to participate in. And though she was a great scholar, even a mujtahidah, she still remained an excellent wife to her husband.

And herein is an excellent point to be made: though she was dedicated to the community it did not detract from her family life. Some might even say that because she had a good family life she had to time to direct towards helping the community.

While Fatimah served on the advisory board she also had schools built and became known as an excellent hostess, often times inviting scholars to her home for iftar during Ramadan. One time, when she had little to feed them, she even sold one of her bracelets to pay for the meal.

As she got older she desired to return to Samarqand where she hoped she might be buried near her father. Nur al-Din Zinki discouraged her from moving away, hoping not to lose two of his greatest advisors (her and her husband). While speaking with Nur al-Din, her husband sent a messenger to go relay to her the king’s request. She sent the messenger back with a message for her husband.  The message went along these lines: “It seems like amidst all the governors you’ve forgotten the Islamic knowledge you had learned. How can you send a non-mahram man to speak to a woman when you know she’s staying alone in her house?” She told the messenger to inform her husband to come and talk to her himself, as it was most proper; if he has a problem he should come speak to her.

When they did speak Fatimah agreed to stay but died shortly after. After her passing her husband discontinued his teaching and everyday would visit her grave after ᶜasr, crying for hours for his dear Fatimah. Shortly thereafter, all alone, he also died and was buried next to her. Such was the extreme love he had for her…

(Okay…. deep breath. Now read on…)

Reflections:

Some of you may be in total awe of Fatimah and her husband’s life, and still others may be in utter disbelief of it being possible. If you are like me, you would love to have experiences like these: a family member that is a scholar, a father who only looks for students of knowledge for his daughter, a woman who wants to have a book written for her dowry. And for the sisters they may love to have a husband that supports their community involvement and respects their own devotion knowledge.

Though these experiences are rare, they do exist. I already know of several couples whose stories and time together bring such hope to my own heart, and I hope they can inspire others. Truly it matters not how rare something is, but rather how impactful it can be once it occurs.

Some Lessons to Consider:

  • Develop a good relationship with your family.
  • Father’s invest in your daughters.
  • Sometimes women get lost in their vanity and forget what greater roles they can play in the community.
  • Stay humble and modest even when people everywhere are praising you.
  • Act upon the advice of the Prophet ﷺ: chose the spouse with taqwa.
  • Women can be great family members and still benefit their community.
  • Husbands should let their wives contribute to the community.
  • When you see someone very talented, make sure you value them and invest in them because their skill may be an asset to the Ummah.
  • Knowledge raises you above gender; wisdom raises you above the status quo.
  • Listen to the wisdom of your parents.
  • Fathers, invest in your daughters (a point worth repeating).
  • Refer to someone more knowledgeable even if they are younger.

4 thoughts on “Of Love and Knowledge: The Story of Fatimah al-Samarqandi

  1. Zeina

    Dr. Akram Nadwi has been working on a study that profiles Muslim female scholars (thousands) throughout the ages. Emel did an article about it recently and I think there was an interview with Dr. Nadwi in the NYT some time ago. The world is full of paradoxes; on the one hand, women in today’s age seem to be filling our educational institutions (Islamic and otherwise in the West), yet at the same time access to sacred knowledge still remains difficult for many. This obviously probably has to do with the current state of the developing Muslim world in the West… allahu a’lam. I don’t know why, but stories like this seem to always bring mixed feelings of hope and sadness to the heart – yet another paradox.

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