By Sumara Khan
Fatimah: A Widely Traveled Seeker of Knowledge
The pursuit of knowledge and wisdom into the far reaches of the world is one of the jewels of Islamic civilization, and one of the most widely traveled seekers is a remarkable Muslim woman named Fatimah. Fatimah bint Sa’d al Khayr was born in 1130 CE in the province of Kashgar in China to a family from Valencia, the third largest city in Spain. Her family was forced to relocate owing to the changing circumstances facing the Muslims in Islamic Spain. Her father, Sa’d al-Khayr [d. 541AH], a prosperous merchant and a scholar of hadith (sayings and teachings of Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him) who traveled widely, eventually settled in China where Fatimah, among several other daughters, was born, in the eastern edge of the country. [Read more: From Mulberry to Silk, the Journey of Islam in China]
Sa’d was very keen on the education of his daughters, and took them with him in his travels far and wide for knowledge and trade. As a result, Fatimah had the fortune to study in some of the most famous cities across the Muslim world, including Baghdad, Isfahan, and Hamadan, under some of the great scholars of her time. As early as age seven, she is described as attending circles of hadith.
Fatimah’s father was her first teacher
Her foremost teacher was her own father, from whom she directly transmitted hadith. Imam al-Dhahabi describes him as a trustworthy narrator of the Prophet’s sayings and teachings. Other fellow students of her father included the likes of Ibn ‘Asakir, Ibn al-Sam’ani and Ibn al-Jawzi. Thus Fatimah inherited this lifestyle of scholarship and devotion to hadith from her father, who died when she was only 19 years of age.
While in Isfahan, Fatimah had the rare opportunity to study with the sought-after Fatimah al-Juzdaniyah, the primary narrator of the massive 37-volume hadith collections of al-Tabarani, the hadith scholar. Fatimah al-Juzdaniyah was the longest-living student of the last student who narrated from al-Tabarani himself, characterizing her scholarship as possessing one of the highest chains (with the shortest links) to the Prophet in her lifetime, all of which Fatimah bint Sa’d al Khayr inherited and began transmitting in her lifetime.
Fatimah lived during Islam’s Golden Age
Fatimah settled for some time in Baghdad in the prime of her young adulthood at age 25 where she also learned from the main narrator of Imam Ahmad’s collection of hadith. She eventually married one of her father’s most distinguished students, Zayn al-Din Abul Hasan Ali Ibrahim b. Naja, who later served as secretary for the famous Ayyubid ruler Nur al-Din al-Zengi. Her husband was held in great esteem by both Salahuddin and his successor. She resided in her husband’s hometown of Damascus and then moved to Cairo, where she continued her teaching.
Fatimah bint Sa’d lived during the latter period of the golden age of Islamic scholarship, just prior to the devastating events of the Mongol invasion that was to occur just three years after her death. She lived to see the 20-year rule of the celebrated ruler Salahuddin Ayyubi and the famous Battle of Hittin (1187CE), which liberated Jerusalem from the Crusaders. [Click here to read more about Salahuddin Ayyubi, also known as Saladin.]
Hers was a time of relative stability in the heartland of the Muslim world, which she and her contemporaries took advantage of fully, traveling widely in the pursuit of hadith and Islamic knowledge, from the far western edges of the Muslim world to places as far east as China. These extensive travels and experience of varied circumstances and societies greatly enhanced the scholarship of these great individuals, whose legacies are still enjoyed today.
It is reported that many a seeker of knowledge traveled to these lands for the highly valued purpose of studying with her. Fatimah dedicated her life to disseminating knowledge, and her teachings were carried far and wide by her students after her death. Though Fatimah enjoyed much wealth and social status in her life, she remained undistracted, continuing to teach and transmit hadith till the very end of her life. She died at the age of 78 and was buried in Cairo.
Adapted from an article published in Message Magazine.