Shaykha Fest: Celebrating Female Scholarship in Islam – Part 1

When I first heard about Shaykha Fest, I, a seeker of knowledge, could not wait to sit at the feet of my learned mothers. Featuring Muslim female scholars from Germany, the UK and America, Shaykha Fest was born out of a need to revive female scholarship by setting and giving the stage to contemporary scholars, activists and thinkers, while simultaneously bridging the gap between different schools of thought and sects.

Against all the passive-aggressive drivers from Rhode Island to New Jersey, I sped, with a heart vacillating between fear and hope: the fear of disillusionment from learning female scholarship was indeed dead, and the hope that it is alive and well and simply needs to be rediscovered.

Sitting with over 300 women from Australia to good ‘ole Kentucky who had all answered the call from Al-Rawiya Foundation, we gathered in the conference hall in anticipation as reciter Salam Aref opened the morning session with the heart of the Qur’an: Chapter Ya Sin.

Without skipping a beat, Dr. Heba Musharraf, lecturer at Princeton University and pioneer of a unique comparative and analytical methodology that aims to uncover linguistic and cultural connections between Arabic and other languages, transcended Salam’s recitation by expounding on the exegesis of the same chapter -Yes!

, Performer, writer and director Andrea Assaf followed, breaking the sober, intellectual tone of Dr. Musharraf with a more personal performance. Filling the room with her energy and raw emotion, she recited from “Eleven Reflections on September,” a poetry series on the post-9/11 Arab American experience and War on Terror.

Just as Andrea Assaf transported us to neighboring New York with vibrant prose of smoke, tears, and battleships, Dr. Amira Bennison, a senior lecturer at the University of Cambridge and a celebrated scholar on Moroccan history, discussed how throughout her research, shehas found that historical records generally mention women in the context of four main categories: as wives and mothers, as political players, as educators, and as financial supporters. Enthralled, I listened to the story of Abu Bakr ibn Omar’s wife, Zaynab an-Nafzawiyyah, who is described in history as “intelligent… and beautiful,” and Dr. Bennison’s insight on how being described as “intelligent” before “beautiful” is in itself a great testimony to Zaynab’s character. It’s a fact the female scholars are generally known by whom they taught, yet Dr. Bennison elucidated how some were daughters of male scholars who treasured knowledge and saw the need to pass it on. The inspiring legacy of father-daughter scholarship!

Her discourse closed with the Tunisian sisters Fatima and Mariam al-Fihri, who used their inheritance for architectural patronage and founded the world’s first academic degree-granting university, University of Qarawiyyin, and the Andalusian Mosque in Fes, serving the spiritual and scholarly needs of their community.

Attentively absorbed by the scholarship of these accomplished women but yearning for a break, I was humbled as Al-Rawiya founder and Shaykha Fest’s mastermind, Shaykha Reima Yosif took the mic. Born and raised in the US, Shaykha Reima Yosif in the tradition of scholars who mastered several branches of knowledge, has memorized the entire Qur’an and has authentic certification (ijaza) to teach multiple exegesis, books of ahadith, and two methodologies of recitation of Qur’an.

Shaykha Yosif shared with the audience the dichotomy of outpouring support and judgmental resistance she encountered with the idea of Shaykha Fest. Bringing together female scholars to share their stories and contributions, Shaykha Fest turned into “a crosspollination of modernists, artists, sufis, shi’as, traditionalists…” garnering unprecedented success by collective requests to globalize the event in the near future.

Centered on the theme of arrogance, Shaykha Yosif’s lecture entitled “The Firing Squad” alluded to the evolution of passing judgment based on assumptions, not listening to “certain” people because of their color, race and/or religious affiliation, and the dangers of “I” and its satanic origins. Interlaced with narrations from Prophet Muhammad, Shaykha Yosif defined the disease of arrogance and unraveled its medicine. Arrogance, of heart, of tongue, and of action, must be battled through a special kind of repentance, and through cultivating humbleness by emulating those of meager means.

As in the narration of the ascension and the parallel drawn between a huge bull being unable to re-enter a hole and the uttering of an enormity and being unable to take it back, Shaykha Yosif reminded us that religious adherence should lead to piety, not judgment, and must translate to mercy.

Closing with part of John Donne’s “No man is an island”, Shaykha Yosif raised our spirits to remind us we all count, each and every one of us, which swiftly set the stage for Ustadha’s Humera Khan address.

Trailblazer and founder of An-Nisa Society in Wembley, England, Ustadha Humera Khan is a 20-year activist and educator focused on social services for people of all backgrounds and faiths, and a powerful advocate for social change in Britain.

During her address, Ustadha Khan proposed the Western concept of “I” to be one of personal responsibility instead of selfishness, and its being tightly bound to activism. With decades of experience, Ustadha Khan raised the issue of Muslims’ socio-economic problems, including high incidence of mental health and domestic violence cases, and the lack of infrastructure in our community to address its own needs, as our resources are pulled overseas neglecting the destitute amongst us.

Ustadha Khan called on Muslim women to take responsibility for humanity, reframing the question of injustice in the context of sustainability, and reminding us to have wide shoulders to take the criticism that comes with activism. Yes, women’s work is often marginalized and their contributions ignored, Ustadha Khan suggested, but that should never deter us from our duty towards humanity, and the dynamic collaboration that men and women must enact to meet the needs of the communities they inhabit.

Absorbed and energized, the morning session concluded in time for lunch and prayer, leaving me filled with hope and looking forward to the afternoon.

Hurry to prayer!
Hurry to success!

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