Of all the women mentioned in the Quran, only Mariam `alayha assalam (peace be upon her) is mentioned by name repeatedly. An entire chapter is named after her. She has been chosen above all other women in the world1 and in Paradise.2 Mariam is honored worldwide for her virtue, for her courage and conviction in the face of great tribulation and is Islam’s ideal of womanhood. It is necessary for both women and men to reflect upon lessons from her life.
In this series, we will look at Mariam’s role in seeking knowledge, her spirituality, her concern and contribution to the da`wah of Islam, her mother and her own motherhood, her character, and finally some general lessons that we take from her story in the Quran. May Allah help our sisters to become like Mariam (as) and help our brothers to encourage the development of sisters who want to be like Mariam.
Honored Student of Knowledge
Mariam was an honored student of knowledge. Allah subhanahu wa ta`ala (exalted is He) says about her, “He made her grow in a good manner and put her under the care of Zakariya. Every time he entered al-Mihrab to visit her…” (3: 37). Al-Qurtubi explains in his tafsir that the word kaffala means more than guardianship. Rather, Zakariya (as) and the scholars of deen would teach her the revelation of Allah (swt) in the masjid when she was young. The scholars would even compete to teach her, as she was a bright student and she was also the first female to be taught in the masjid.
As she grew older, they made a separate room for her described as al-Mihrab. Sheikh Abdel Kareem Zaidan explains that al-Mihrab is a special room or an elevated place. Tafsir al-Qaasimi mentions the opinion that al-Mihrab is the best and most honored place to sit in a gathering, and as such, al-Mihrab is the most honored place in the masjid. Thus, Mariam was an honored student, taught by a prophet and the scholars of deen. There are many opinions describing why, but it suffices for us here to say, the best woman who walked this earth, in her young years, was someone who studied her religion, someone who had a connection with the revelation, and someone who impressed even her teachers.
Many times sisters are discouraged from pursuing studies that would be beneficial for themselves and the Muslim community. They are told that their greatest role in life is their role as wife and mother, so they shouldn’t focus so much on their Islamic education. There is an inherent contradiction in this viewpoint.
While these roles are extremely significant, other opinions provide a more comprehensive approach to the “most important role.” Dr. Jamal Badawi’s “Gender Equity in Islam” discusses the spiritual equality of both women and men, and what is deemed “the best” according to the Quran: “O mankind, indeed We have created you from male and female and made you peoples and tribes that you may know one another. Indeed, the most noble of you in the sight of Allah is the most righteous of you. Indeed, Allah is Knowing and Acquainted.” (Qur’an, 49:13) These verses point to the role that both women and men play as devout servants of Allah. This may take different forms at different stages in life. I tend to lean toward this semantic approach in understanding what is the best role for a Muslim woman because it covers her entire lifespan, and includes women who never were able to get married or have children. It concretely describes her goal as seeking Allah’s pleasure, while her contributions to her family are a means of achieving her goal. Also, scholars who use the former semantic approach of emphasizing a woman’s role as a wife and mother, equally stress the importance of our sisters’ education. Therefore, it puzzles me when the excuse of the woman’s family obligations is used to completely neglect her Islamic education and development.
An Ideal Example of Motherhood
We see in the life of Mariam the pinnacle of motherhood and womanhood. Before she was a mother, she was a student – and an exceptional student at that. Before mothers can give good tarbiya, they have to receive it. And talab al-`ilm (seeking knowledge) is a crucial component of a balanced tarbiya. The community only grows stronger when our sisters are educated. In the words of El Hajj Malik Ash-Shabazz (Malcom X),
“Educate a man and you educate one person; educate a woman and you educate and liberate an entire generation!”
We also notice that the best of men in her time, Zakariya (as) and the religious leadership of the masjid, took time to teach her. May Allah (swt) multiply the reward for the scholars of our time who continue this legacy of teaching sisters. While there are those who refuse to teach women completely, this does not reflect the attitude of Zakariya (as) and the scholarship of his time, nor the sunnah of the Prophet ﷺ.
The Role of a Wife
As wives of Islamic workers and students, women who understand the significance of Islamic knowledge and work are able to make personal sacrifices on its path and also be truly supportive to their husband. They also aid their children in pursuing this path. How many husbands who are students of knowledge or busy in da`wah cannot communicate their struggles or discuss their experiences with their wives because their wives simply do not have the Islamic vocabulary to understand such discussions? Yet, I have seen the amazing example of some brothers who took the time to help get their wives ‘on board’ and make personal sacrifices to help their wives’ Islamic education and development. Such an investment has long-lasting effects in both worlds, and reveals deep sincerity for the cause of Islam. A woman who shares the path of knowledge and service with her husband is able to relate to him and provide support at a different level, because of her deep personal appreciation for such a path…because she shares that path. This does not mean both men and women have to be doing the exact same things at the exact same level, but it means both should at least share the path at whatever capacity they each are able to in accordance with their life circumstances.
We see in the seerah of the Prophet ﷺ, as well as Islamic history, the importance given to the education of our sisters. Just as the Prophet ﷺ set aside a time to teach the women in his community each week, the women of our communities should also be encouraged in learning and given time for education and development. I have unfortunately witnessed wives prohibited from even online Islamic courses, and yet encouraged and allowed to spend hours window-shopping at the mall, by brothers who are themselves busy with Islamic work. What type of wife, mother, and more importantly, slave of Allah, does that produce? When this inherent contradiction is reversed in our communities, I have strong hope we will see great changes in sha’Allah, not only in the women themselves but on a large social scale. As the old saying goes, “the hand that rocks the cradle, is the hand that rules the world.” The generation of the Tabi’een were developed by the mothers who were Sahabiyat. Dr. Mohammad Ammara mentions in his book, At-Tahreer Al-Islami lil Mar’a (The Islamic Liberation of the Woman) that no less than 1000 Sahabiyat were developed, educated and trained in the madrasa of the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ.Subhan Allah, how much he ﷺ cared for our sisters to study and develop! Furthermore, Islamic History shows us that we never saw a rise in our global position as an ummah that did not also reflect a rise in the great women that helped carry the amana (trust) of serving this deen. Today, we live at a time where the generation of the next Islamic awakening and revival is being developed, and our choices and attitudes will have an unmistakable impact on the generation produced.
When our sisters are encouraged and supported in learning the way that Mariam (as) was, at a community level, we will start to see the casual conversations of our women transition from personal hygiene tips, recipes, sales at the mall, back-biting, complaining, and story-telling of one’s family to conversations that reflect a mind and heart that is thoroughly concerned and busy with the priorities of the Muslim community, bettering the conditions of their societies and humanity at large, and other beneficial matters. This doesn’t mean one can’t joke and relax with their sisters. It simply means, beneficial speech would become the rule, not the exception, just as the education and Islamic development of our sisters would become the rule, not the exception. While alhamdulilah (all praise be to Allah), signs of progress in this area have appeared, we still have, as an ummah, much room for improvement. So when we remember the honored place of Mariam (as) in Paradise, and reflect on her example to all women, let us never forget that she started as a student.