Dr. Ali Muhammad As-Sallabi, in his "Ad-Dawla az Zankiyya," a historical account of the Zangi era wrote about women’s education in the rule of Nur ud-Deen Zangi. Noor ul-Deen ruled in Syria from 541 AH to 569 AH (1146 - 1174 CE). He was a just and righteous leader and was well-loved by those under him. He was succeeded by Salahuddin Ayyubi, who followed in his footsteps.
The following is a translation of the chapter on women's education:
The devotion of Muslim women to Islamic studies reached high levels. Their purpose was to gain knowledge of the correct teachings of the religion and thereby bring them into practice. The subject that received the most regard was the study of hadith, in which many women attained high qualification. They competed with great Hadith scholars and memorizers of hadith therein and became profound examples of trustworthiness and uprightness.
Many biographical accounts allude to the substantial intellectual activities of women in this era. Sources have mentioned names of numerous female Qaris, hadith scholars, fiqh scholars, writers, grammarians, as well as scholars of other fundamental sciences. Many of these women would travel from region to region with their maharim to seek knowledge from great scholars and Muhaddithin and they received ijazas (certificates) from them. A testimony to the undertakings of women in this field is the fact that the biographers of Ibn Asakir (d. 571 AH / 1176) agree that more than eighty of his teachers were women. This demonstrates the large numbers of women who were busy in this field, such that a single scholar from the scholars of that era studied from more than eighty women. This is in addition to the large number of women whose biographies he has included in his book. (Ibn Asakir collected biographical accounts of 196 women scholars in his tareekh).
It becomes apparent from what Ibn Asakir alludes to in his Tarikh al-Kabir that the home was the first school for these women. The women who received much acclaim for their knowledge were the ones who grew up in the houses of scholars and studied from their fathers or other knowledgeable relatives. These women would also benefit from the various classes that would take place in their homes, as they would listen on to what was being discussed. This is what is listed as “Teaching in the homes of the scholars” in historical accounts. Thus, when Ibn Asakir wrote about his wife, Aisha bint Ali (d. 564 AH / 1168), he mentioned that she studied hadith from Fatima bint Ali Al-Asfraini, known as the Young Scholar, who in turn had studied with her father Abul Farj.
Similarly, the doors of the masjid would be open for women who wanted to study. These women would frequent the study circles that took place in the masjid. These study circles had a specific space appropriated for them, a space which was totally separated from that of the men which eliminated the possibility of mingling of the genders.
Women did not just take part in studying, but rather they played a role in spreading and teaching knowledge as well. Although they did not have teaching positions in specialized schools in the manner we see now, they did have other avenues of teaching. Ibn Asakir indicates this as he writes about his wife’s teacher Fatima bint Ali Al-Asfraini that she used to give sermons to women in the masjid.
One of the most notable women in the field of teaching was the alima Fatima al-Faqiha. She taught in Halab and authored many works of fiqh and hadith. Further, Nur-ud Din, the ruler of the era, would consult with her in his affairs and ask her for fatawa in fiqhi issues. He supported her and helped her in her educational pursuits.
An event that transpired between Fatima al-Faqiha and Nur-ud Din highlights the commitment of the Muslim women to the Islamic requirement of hijab and how the female scholars would only communicate with men through a woman assigned to act as a middle-person. The event, as Al-Qurashi writes, is that ‘Ala ad-Deen al-Kasani, the husband of the scholar Fatima al-Faqiha, decided to move from Halab to his own country at the request of his wife. Nur ud Deen summoned Imam Ala ad-Deen and requested him to stay in Halab. Imam Ala ud-Deen explained to him the reason for his move and told him that he could not oppose his wife’s wish, who was also the daughter of his shaikh. Nur ud-Deen then sent a servant to Fatima to speak to her on his behalf. When the servant arrived at her house, she did not allow him to enter. Then she sent someone to her husband (who was with the king at that time) with the message, “With your experience and knowledge of fiqh, don’t you know that it’s not permissible for this servant to see me? What’s the difference between him and other men?” The servant returned and recounted what had taken place to her husband in the presence of the ruler. They then sent a woman to her with the king’s request. Fatima then accepted the request and stayed in Halab until she passed away. Her husband al-Kasani passed away after her in 587 AH / 1191 and was buried next to her in Halab.