Fatimah bint Sa’d al Khayr – Forgotten Women Scholars of Hadith

Fatimah’s father, Sa‘d al-Khayr, was himself a scholar. One of his eminent students, al-Samni (author of al-Ansab), describes him as mubaddith, faqih, and righteous. He travelled from his home city of Valencia, at the western end of the Islamic world, all the way to China. The reason for his migration is not given. It is most probable that as Muslim power in Spain waned further, Christian rulers were emboldened to make life for their Muslim subjects increasingly intolerable and for learned, pious Muslims impossible. Al-Sam’ani’ says that Sa‘d al-Khayr faced much hardship, crossed many seas and, through trade, attained considerable wealth. He studied with many teachers in Baghdad, Isfahan, Hamadan and other places. He had several daughters (then, much later, a son) and was most particular about their attending hadith classes, travelling with them extensively and repeatedly to different teachers. He also taught them himself.

Fatimah’s year of birth is given as 525; 522 is more likely. The place is given only as ‘in China’, ie. east of Kashghar. She began very young: a sama‘ records her hearing al-Daraqutni’s K. al-Du‘afa al-matrukin in Dhu l-Qa‘dah 529; a sama‘ at the end of a copy of al-Khatib al-Baghdadi’s al-Jami‘ al-akhlaq al-rawi wa adab al-sami records her hearing it in Rabi‘ al-Awwal and Rabi‘ al-Akhir 529. Al-Mundhiri notes that Sa‘d al-Khayr took her several times to the same teachers to consolidate her knowledge.

In Isfahan she studied with Fatimah al-Jazdaniyyah, main narrator in her time of the compilations of al-Tabarani. Fatimah Sa‘d al-Khayr heard from her all of Mu’jam al-kabir (printed now in 37 volumes) and Mu’jam al-saghir (2. volumes).

In Baghdad, where it appears she was settled for a me, among her principal teachers were Abu l-Qasim Hibatullah ibn Muhammad ibn Husayn, main narrator of Ibn Hanbal’s Musnad, Abu l-Qasim Zahir ibn Tahir al-Shahhami, Aba Ghalib Ahmad ibn al-Hasan ibn al-Banna, and others travelling to the capital. The list of the books she mastered would be long indeed. After marriage, she moved with her husband to Damascus and from there to Cairo. Much of her teaching career was based in those two cities, and many scholars travelled there expressly to study with her.

The study journeys of Fatimah bint Sa’d al-Khayr

Fatimah married Zayn al-Din Abu l-Hasan ‘Ali Ibrahim ibn Naja, one of her father’s students who clearly impressed. He was born in Damascus in 508, and described as pious, noble, high-minded, of praiseworthy character, exceptionally eloquent. He was called al-Wa’iz for his fame as a preacher, and al-Ra’is for the social standing he enjoyed through relations with the Ayyubid court: he served as secretary for Nur al-Din. The historian Abu Shama records that he was held in high esteem by both Salah al-Din al-Ayyubi (famous for recovering Jerusalem) and his successor. Yet, despite the great wealth that had come to him, al-Dhahabi reports that Ibn Naja, died so poor that his friends paid for his shroud. There is no account of how he unburdened himself of so vast a fortune. Perhaps he was very generous in giving it away and successfully concealed the fact. He died in 599, a year before Fatimah.

Al-Dhahabi says: ‘She saw much honour and wealth.’ Yet, neither father, nor husband, nor Fatimah herself appear to have been distracted by that wealth into any indiscipline or indolence. To the end of her life, she remained active in diffusing her vast body of knowledge. Muhammad ibn Isma‘il, later famed as Khatib Marda, carried to his home city her teaching of Musnad Abu Ya’la, Hadith al-Khiragi, Ziyadat Amali Imam Malik, and other works. Isma’il ibn ‘Azzun read with her al-Tabarani’s Mu’jam al-kabir, as did Diya’ al-Din al-Maqdisi, who carried it to Damascus. ‘Abdullah ibn ‘Abd al-Wahid ibn ‘Allaq studied with her Hadith al-Quduri, Fawa’id Abu Nasr, and Juz’ al-Ghitrifi. His home-city was in Egypt. Her knowledge of hadith passed to Tinnis in Egypt through Abu l-Qasim ibn Husayn al-Qurashi al-Tinnisi to Hamadan through the jurist Abu Muhammad Ishaq ibn Muhammad al-Hamadani; through Abu l-Hasan ibn al-Qasim al-Jiti to Jit (near Nablus). It is not practical to try to list here all her students or all the places they came from and returned to with her teaching. The entry for Fatimah bint Sa‘d al-Khayr in the Dictionary that I have compiled of the Muhaddithat rans to 20 pages.

She died in Cairo in the year 600, at the age of 78. She was buried below the mountain called Muqattam.

Source: Mohammad Akram Nadwi, Al-Muhaddithat: The Women Scholars in Islam, pp. 93-96.

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