Islam started in Arabia in the seventh century. Arabia at that time was known to be devoid of any meaningful scientific culture or civilizational achievements. The pre- Islamic Arabs were largely tribal, they adhered to strict sectarianism, were in constant war with each other, and were mostly illiterate. With the advent of Islam, they came into contact with a new system of life completely alien to the common mind. A book that started with the first command to ‘Read!’, repeatedly had verses which pointed out to them the need to ‘think’, ‘reflect’, ‘ponder’, ‘contemplate,’ ‘observe’ and ‘learn’.
In all the Qur’anic verses which emphasize the need to study, investigate, discover and think, neither men nor women have been singled out. This shows that the capability of mastering knowledge is not gender-specific, and the responsibility to explore the nature and ‘exploit’ it for the sake of the common good lie equally on both men and women.
Unfortunately, due to the social role played by women in almost every community throughout history, they have had fewer opportunities to engage in and contribute to scientific knowledge which is considered a male preserve. Some experts on the other hand argue that there have always been female participation in science and human progress, but the methods in which history is documented are flawed and biased, thus making women seemingly ‘invisible’ in various fields of knowledge.
The Islamic civilization is not of much difference. When one talks of it, the names generally quoted are Ibn Haitham, Ibn Sina, Ibn Rushd, al Kindi, Ibn Tufail, Ibn Bajjah, al Farabi, Ibn al-Nafis (and many more). Female names are almost non-existent.
Not many of us know about Şerafeddin Sabuncuoğlu, a Turkish female physician and surgeon of the fifteenth century who wrote the famous manual of surgery Cerrahiyyetu’l- Haniyye, or the great tenth-century mathematicians Amat-Al-Wahid and Sutaita Al-Mahamli from Baghdad, and Lobana of Cordoba. Similarly, we rarely hear of Rufayda bint Sa’ad who pioneered the area of nursing and treatment of the wounded more than 1000 years ago, Al-‘Ijliya who was an astronomer and Zubayda Abu Ja’far who initiated the building of service stations and water wells from Baghdad to Makkah. Fatima al-Fehri established the University of Qarawiyyin in Fes in Morocco in 859 where, in that period, astronomy, languages and sciences were taught. It was also said that through this institution, the Arabic language was introduced to Europe.
As women in general, and Muslim women in particular today are venturing into the job market and education at a faster rate than ever before. It is imperative to rethink their roles and discover the way forward. As the Islamic teachings heavily promote the understanding and discovering of nature to solve human problems and to protect the welfare of all, and Muslim women in the past have been shown to participate actively in various disciplines of knowledge and nation-building, it is the task of Muslim women today to take up this challenge and continue the great legacy. For the guys who believe that a woman’s place is at the home, won’t you be happy if you took your wife to the labor ward just to realize that the Doctor in charge is a lady?