Which Islam Are the Taliban Serving?

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By Manish Rai     1 April 2023

In December 2022, the Taliban banned women from attending universities under the pretext of Sharia. Since then I thought to dig deep into this to find out the religious credentials of this ban. As I am not a Islamic scholar, to understand sharia take on women’s education. I thought of approaching leading Sunni Islamic studies institutes in the world to get more information on this subject. I first contacted Darul–Uloom–Deoband, located in a small town 100 miles north of Delhi, India. This institute is influential in South Asia and the Taliban follows the Deobandi ideology which originated from this institute. Despite contacting Darul Uloom for months, I received no response. As I was stationed in Cairo, Egypt, I decided to visit Al-Azhar Mosque to inquire about women‘s education and Sharia. Al–Azhar is the foremost institution in the Islamic world for the study of Sunni theology and Sharia. After speaking with the public relations office of the mosque, I was directed to the office of the Grand Imam for further guidance.

At the headquarters of Al–Azhar, which also houses the office of the Grand Imam, I had the opportunity to meet many learned scholars. I was informed that Al–Azhar not only advocates for women‘s education, but also facilitates it. In addition, I was given a copy of the Grand Imam‘s statement in which he condemned the unfortunate decision of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan to ban university education for women in Afghanistan. I had the chance to discuss Sharia and education in depth with the Al–Azhar officials. What I found out was that women‘s education is not only permitted, but actively promoted in Islam, and its importance has been emphasized by Prophet Muhammad on numerous occasions. In Islam, education is a divine command for Muslims, both men and women. The Holy Quran places the highest emphasis on the importance of acquiring knowledge, with more than 800 references to the word ilm (knowledge) and its derivations, urging mankind to think, ponder and reflect.

The obligation for both men and women to study is confirmed by the Hadith and the Sunnah. Early Islamic history demonstrates the importance placed on education, as evidenced by the first school established by the Prophet following the Battle of Badr. During this battle, 70 men from the enemy ranks were captured as prisoners of war, who were literate and could read and write. The Prophet declared that each prisoner would teach ten Medinan children, both girls and boys, to read and write, and their ransom would be paid and they would be set free. According to the Prophet Muhammad, it is the duty of every Muslim to pursue education. There are numerous statements made by the Prophet Muhammad in the Hadiths in this regard, such as in Al–Tirmidhi, 74, where he says “Inquire knowledge and impart it to the people”.

A fundamental principle of Islamic Shariah stipulates that when a directive is revealed, the female gender is included even if the masculine form of the word is used. If this principle is disregarded, then the fundamental pillars of Islam such as prayer, fasting, pilgrimage and alms–due will become inapplicable to women. Therefore, although God Almighty (Allah) and the Holy Prophet typically use the masculine form of sentence to describe most of the commandments, women are still obligated to adhere to and abide by those rules and regulations.

Throughout Muslim history, there have been many notable Muslim women who have excelled in their fields of knowledge, beginning with Aisha bint Abi Bakr, who narrated over 2,000 hadith. The first wife of the Prophet Muhammad, Bibi Khadeeja, who was also the first person to accept Islam, was a successful and highly educated businesswoman. Women scholars have also contributed immensely to Islamic studies. After the death of the Prophet Muhammad in 632 AD, the guidance of his wives, such as Hafsa, Umm Habiba, Maymuna, Umm Salama, and ‘A‘isha, was instrumental in understanding and practicing the life of the Prophet and preserving it in the historical memory of the Islamic community. Authoritative hadith collections, such as Sahih Bukhari, could not have been completed without the efforts and contributions of these women. Mohammed Akram Nadwi, in his work Al–Muhaddithat: The Women Scholars in Islam, identifies over 8,000 women scholars of hadith throughout Islamic history. These women scholars often attained high rank in all spheres of religious knowledge and taught both men and women.

The leaders of the Taliban, who claim to be knowledgeable in Sharia, should realise that preventing women from receiving education is obstructing them from fulfilling the divine obligation commanded by Allah and interfering with their akhirah, or afterlife. Despite the Taliban‘s claims that their policies are guided by Islam, there is nothing Islamic about preventing women from pursuing higher studies; in fact, it could be argued that it is un–Islamic. Therefore, the Taliban should reflect and try to determine which version of Islam they are serving by prohibiting a fellow Muslim from gaining knowledge. The religion propagated by the Prophet Muhammad has always encouraged all of his followers, regardless of gender, to pursue knowledge.