Women are accountable just as men are, and they are obliged to seek the knowledge that they need in order to fulfil their duties in matters of worship such as purification, prayer, fasting, Zakaah if they have wealth, Hajj if they are able to do it, and other matters which they need to know and of which they cannot afford to be ignorant.
Seeking knowledge is a duty upon every Muslim, male or female. The amount of knowledge which each individual must learn varies according to each individual’s Shar’i obligations.
Ibn Al-Jawzi (rahimahullaah) said:
”A woman is an accountable individual just as a man is. She is obliged to seek knowledge of her duties so that she may perform them properly.”
Conditions of a women going out to seek knowledge
It is permissible for a woman to go out to seek what she needs of Islamic knowledge, so long as she meets the following conditions:
(i) That she has a specific and individual need for that Knowledge.
For example, if she cannot perform her Islamic duties properly because she is unaware of the rulings concerning them.’ Aishah (ra) said; 'Faatimah bint Hubaysh came to the Prophet (saw) and said: “O Messenger of Allaah, I am a woman who suffers from non-menstrual bleeding (Istihaadah) and I never become pure. Should I stop praying?” He said:
“No, rather that is blood from a vein and it is not menstruation. When the usual time of your period comes, stop praying, and when that time is over, then wash the blood from yourself and pray.”
With regard to a woman going out to seek knowledge for which she does not have a specific and individual need, such as seeking general Islamic knowledge – including study of Hadeeth sciences, deeper knowledge of Aqeedah, Tafseer and Arabic language – this is not obligatory for them, and the ruling on that depends upon a weighing up of the pros and cons. If it serves a greater interest and there is no fear of Fitnah in their going out, then it is permissible for them to do so. But if it will lead to problems, such as if their going out is a cause of Fitnah, or if a woman’s husband has not given her permission to go out then it is obligatory for them to stay at home, because Allaah says:
‘And stay in your homes.” (Qur’aan 33:33)
And the Prophet (saws) said:
“Do not prevent your womenfolk from going to the mosque, although their houses are better for them.” (Saheeh Hadith)
‘Abdullaah ibn Mas’ood said:
“The woman is ‘Awrah, and if she goes out of her house the Shaytaan gets his hopes up (that he will be able to tempt her and tempt others through her), then she says, ‘Nobody saw me but he liked me.’ The closest that a woman can be to Allaah is in the innermost part of her house.”
(ii) That there be no one among her Mahrams who can sufficiently answer her questions about things that she does not know.
Such as her brother, husband or father.
Ibn Al-Jawzi said:
"If she has a father, brother, husband or other Mahram who can teach her about her obligatory duties and how to perform them, that should be sufficient for her."
(iii) That there should be no fear of Fitnah if she goes out i.e Fitnah (temptation) to herself or to others.
(iv) That she should be careful in looking for someone from whom she can learn or whom she can ask.
First of all she should look for knowledgeable women; if she cannot find anyone then she may ask knowledgeable elderly men, and she should give precedence to older men over younger men.
Ibn Al-Jawzi said:
"If she can find a woman who knows that, she should learn from her; if not, she may learn from shaykhs and elderly men without being alone with them, and stay only as long as she needs to. If a question about her religion occurs to her, she should ask it and not be shy, for Allaah is not too shy to tell the truth.
(v) She should observe proper Islamic Hijab when going out.
She should not go out wearing adornments, wearing perfume or scented with incense.
Similarly she should not speak in a coquettish or flirtatious manner when speaking to a Shaykh or the one whom she is asking a question. She should restrict it to questions and answers and not get involved in a lengthy discussion. When she gets the answer that she wanted, she should go back home and pray for forgiveness for a sin that she may have committed unwillingly.
We have quoted the evidence for that in full in our book "Al-Adaab Al-Shar'iyyah Fi Talab Al-‘Ilm Lil-Nisa’" (Islamic Etiquette of Seeking Knowledge for Women) and there is no need to repeat it here. This is simply a reminder.
The religious knowledge that women need
Individual obligations (Furoodh ‘Ayn)
With regard to what women need to know of religious knowledge, as stated above it is everything that she needs to know in her situation.
That includes matters of purification that are obligatory for her, such as doing Ghusl following menstruation and janaabah (impurity following sexual activity); Wudhoo’ and Tayammum, and what invalidates them; and other matters of which she cannot afford to remain ignorant.
She also needs to know about prayer, how to pray, the times of prayer, the regular Sunnah prayers, rulings concerning prayer when travelling and not travelling, and so on.
And she needs to know the rulings on fasting; obligatory and Sunnah fasts; when not to fast; how to make up missed fasts; how to expiate for a broken fast; and other related rulings.
Similarly she needs to know about Zakaah if she has wealth; she needs to know the conditions of giving Zakaah; how to pay it; the kinds of wealth on which Zakaah is due; and to whom Zakaah is to be given.
And she needs to know about Hajj if she is able to do it.
She needs to know her duties towards her husband; the rights that he has over her; the obligation of obeying him; the fact that she cannot disobey him unless he tells her to do something sinful; the fact that she should not leave his house without his permission; and that she should not fast when he is present without his permission.
Similarly she should also learn the duties that she has towards her children, such as a sound upbringing and education.
Communal obligations (Furoodh Kifaayah)
With regard to communal obligations (Furoodh Kifaayah), such as learning various aspects of Fiqh that she does not need to know, or studying matters of ‘Aqeedah in depth, or studying Usool Al-fiqh, Tafseer, Hadeeth and the rulings on narrators, and other branches of Islamic knowledge that she does not need in her situation, it is not obligatory for her to learn them, but if she does so she will be rewarded for that, subject to the condition that this does not lead to her neglecting one of her duties, such as not taking care of her husband or going out without his permission, or that her going out to seek this knowledge does not lead to Fitnah or some evil that will outweigh the good she is seeking.
A large number of Muslim scholars were women, such as the Mother of the Believers’ Aishah bint Al-Siddeeq (RA) and all of the wives of the Prophet (SAW) and ‘Amrah bint’ Abd Al-Rahmaan who narrated Hadeeth from’ Aishah.
Another example is Mu’aadhah Al-‘Adawiyyah (may Allaah have mercy on her) - read about her here.
Female scholars of later generations
Among later generations, there was Faatimah Al-Jawzdaaniyyah, who had the best knowledge of Isnaads and the best memory of any scholar of her era.
And there was ‘Ajeebah Al-Baaqdariyyah, who was the only one in the world in her time to narrate certain reports. This is something that many male scholars of Hadeeth did not achieve. (See the biographies of both women in Siyar A’laam Al-Nubala’, 19/104 and 23/232.)