Did Imam Ghazali Discourage Women from Seeking Knowledge?

Answered by Shaykh Abdurragmaan Khan


I recently read that Imam Ghazali, in his Ihya, said women should only learn the necessary religious knowledge and not leave the house to seek more. However, I am aware that women were frequently scholars and teachers in the past.

How can we reconcile Imam al-Ghazali’s understanding of the issue, and was his understanding normative?


Thank you for your question.

Imam Ghazali Stance

I have not found anything in the Ihya to indicate that Imam Ghazali discouraged women from seeking knowledge, despite a thorough search. However, he does discuss the ruling of a woman leaving her husband’s home without his permission. His position does not differ from any of the schools of jurisprudence. He said:

“Seven: That a married man must learn as much of the science of menstruation and its rulings as is necessary to take the compulsory precautions. He must teach his wife the rulings of salah and other aspects of worship, and, as regards menstruation, he must teach her which missed worship she has to make up, and which missed worship she does not have to make up.  Indeed, he is ordered to protect her from the fire by the words of the Most High: “Protect yourselves and your families from a fire” [Quran, 66:6], so it is incumbent upon him to preserve the beliefs of the Ahl al-Sunna for her, and to remove from her heart every innovation if she has listened to it, and to cause her to fear Allah if she has been indulgent in matters of religion, and to teach her those of the rulings that she needs. So if her blood stops flowing before maghrib by the extent of a raka‘a, it is incumbent upon her to make up dhuhr and ‘asr, and if it stops flowing before fajr by the extent of a raka‘a, it is incumbent upon her to make up maghrib and ‘isha, and this is the least of that which women must observe.

So if her husband has undertaken to teach her, it is not for her to leave the house to ask the scholars, and if the man’s knowledge falls short, but he asks on her behalf and informs her of the mufti’s answer, it is not permitted for her to leave the house (without his permission). If that does not occur (her husband does not teach her), it is permitted for her to leave the house to ask. In fact, it is incumbent upon her to do so, and the man disobeys by preventing her. She must learn whatever knowledge is compulsory for her, so it is not for her to leave the house to attend gatherings of dhikr or to learn meritorious knowledge except with his pleasure. When a woman is remiss in a ruling of menstruation and interstitial bleeding (istihada), and the man does not teach her, he is guilty along with her, and he participates with her in the sin.”

Thus Imam Ghazali is not saying that a lady may only leave home to learn necessary religious knowledge. He is saying that she may do so even without the permission of her husband.

The Scholars of Hadramout on Women Seeking Knowledge

The Haba’ib or Ba ‘Alawi sayyids of Hadramout are known for their deep attachment to, and meticulous implementation of, the teachings of Imam Ghazali. One of the greatest luminaries and leaders of the Ba ‘Alawi way is our teacher and shaykh, Habib Umar bin Hafiz. In his work, “Setting out on the path of calling towards Allah”, he confirms that women callers to Allah should increase in knowledge. He says, “It is incumbent upon every woman who is devoted to calling to Allāh to acquire the knowledge which is classified as fard ‘ayn or obligatory knowledge. Thereafter, she may increase her knowledge according to her ease of circumstance.”

Thereafter, Habib Omar lists the desired sciences that a woman should study. He says, “Six areas are of particular importance within the religious sciences: 1. The sciences of the Glorious Quran; 2. the fundamentals of Tafsir; 3. the sciences of the Prophetic tradition; 4. the principles of Hadith;  5. Fiqh or Islamic Jurisprudence; and 6. the principles of Fiqh.”

He advises that women study several books, including the following:

Quranic Exegesis:

  • Al-Sawi’s explanatory notes on the Jalalayn;
  • Imam Baghawi’s tafsir of the Quran.


  • The 40 hadith of Imam Nawawi;
  • Shifa al-Siqam of Habib Muhammad al-Haddar;
  • The abridgment of Imam Nawawi’s, Riyad al-Salihin (either Shaykh Yusuf al-Nabhani’s abridgment or Habib Umar’s or both);
  • Adhkar of Imam Nawawi;
  • Eventually, the six canonical hadith works of the Ahl al-Sunna.

Principles of Hadith:

  • Usul ‘Ilm al-Hadith of Sayyid Muhammad ‘Alawi al-Maliki;
  • Al-Bayquniyya.

Islamic Jurisprudence:

  • The Essentials of Islam;
  • The ship of salvation;
  • Ba Fadl’s Muqaddima;
  • The Ultimate Conspectus;
  • The Reliance of the Traveller.

This is not an exhaustive list of the books that Habib Umar or the scholars who uphold the tradition of Imam Ghazali advise women to study. However, I have shared a decent amount of detail to dispel the notion that the questioner may have echoed in the question above, namely that studying is not desired for women. I have shared this detail to confirm the importance of the acquisition of sacred knowledge for women and to encourage them to adopt the way of our mother, ‘A’isha (Allah be pleased with her), by excelling in their acquisition of this knowledge.

And Allah knows best.
[Shaykh] Abdurragmaan Khan
Checked and Approved by Shaykh Faraz Rabbani

Shaykh Abdurragmaan Khan received ijaza ‘amma from various luminaries, including but not restricted to: Habib ‘Umar ibn Hafiz—a personality who affected him greatly and who has changed his relationship with Allah, Maulana Yusuf Karaan—the former Mufti of Cape Town; Habib ‘Ali al-Mashhur—the current Mufti of Tarim; Habib ‘Umar al-Jaylani—the Shafi‘i Mufti of Makkah; Sayyid Ahmad bin Abi Bakr al-Hibshi; Habib Kadhim as-Saqqaf; Shaykh Mahmud Sa’id Mamduh; Maulana Abdul Hafiz al-Makki; Shaykh Ala ad-Din al-Afghani; Maulana Fazlur Rahman al-Azami and Shaykh Yahya al-Gawthani amongst others.