Love, Life Stories

I wanted to become a female scholar, but an Imam told me I shouldn’t do it as a married woman

"I'm sure your husband won't be happy with you leaving the home to study."

I didn’t always know what I wanted to do with my life. Starting from a young age, I tried to explore my career options, and trust me – none of them involved seminary.

At age 5, I wanted to be a ballerina veterinarian. (Nice try, mini-me.) At age 16, I thought I’d grow up to be in a rock band (I fully embraced being emo). Now that I’m an adult, I know exactly what I want to do with my life. I decided I wanted to work in spirituality after I found Islam.

I remember the day I told my husband I wanted to go to seminary. He was so supportive of me and to this day, he still encourages me to learn about my faith.  After finishing my associate’s degree in Islamic studies, I decided to go to pursue a nine-month-long Islamic seminary program just a few states away. This would require me to be away from my husband for a long time, but we knew there would be lots of time off when I could come back and spend with him – like the entire month of December.

We knew it would be difficult to be apart for so long, but we didn’t even have children yet. This would be the best time for me to leave and study. If I didn’t do it now, I might never have the chance.

If I didn’t do it now, I might never have the chance.

In the early decades of Islam, there were thousands and thousands of female scholars, all the way back to the wives of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). In recent centuries, there have been less and less, although we’re currently seeing a resurgence in female clergy members.

Historically, it was expected for a person to go overseas to learn about the Islamic sciences for a decade or two, and many people still hold this idea close to their hearts. My husband asked that I stay in the United States for seminary. So I couldn’t go overseas, but that was fine by me! There are plenty of great American institutions.

An Imam I met once had told me that if I wanted to be a student of Islamic knowledge, as a woman, I should have decided this before getting married. He said that now it is a race against time because “soon I will have to have children and stay home with them”.

This Imam went on to say there are no good traditional places here and “everybody” goes to either Al-Azhar or the Islamic University of Madinah. I pointed out that the Islamic University of Madinah doesn’t accept women and (at the time) Egypt just went through a coup – that I agreed with my husband about getting a good education here in the States.

He seemed upset I didn’t take his advice.

When I began to tell friends about my plans, I got some responses I definitely didn’t expect.

“I’m sure your husband won’t be happy with you leaving the home to study.”

I reassured them that he is, really and truly, fine. We spent days and days discussing how and where I should study my faith.

“No, he’s probably just saying that. It’s your duty to stay home. He should never have to be alone after he gets married.”

People were asking how he would live without me – how he could eat, for example. When I would reply that he could feed himself, they looked horrified!

“Feed himself? It is your Islamic duty to feed him at every meal!”

(Not true. I shouldn’t abandon him, but if we agree for him to make dinner, it is not a sin. The Prophet (peace be upon him) would help his wives around the home all the time.)

Others demanded, “Does he know how to wash his own clothes? What if he gets too lonely? How will he live?!”

Why do we act like husbands are giant children we must never leave unattended?

My husband and I are a team where if one of us doesn’t know how to fix something, we find the answer. Nobody goes hungry. Like all married couples, we try to meet each other halfway according to what we need from one another. It’s up to us both to make decent decisions on what we can and can not handle as a couple.

Now I have comfortably settled in at the seminary.

My husband and I  miss each other so much, but so far, we are doing okay by the mercy of Allah (may He be pleased with us). We call each other every day and Skype every weekend. And believe it or not, we’re both totally fine. He’s managing to eat, do his laundry, and take care of himself just fine, and I’m loving my studies.

This probably would not work for every couple; everybody has different values. This is what works for us, and it is not long-term.

Distance makes the heart grow fonder, right?