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The Passing of Shaykha Bahiyyah, the Hidden Pearl of Morocco

Photo Dr Abu Zayd - A copy of a volume of the Qurʾān in Braille, in the Riwāyah of Warsh, handwritten by Shaykha Bahiyya.

Photo Dr Abu Zayd – A copy of a volume of the Qurʾān in Braille, in the Riwāyah of Warsh, handwritten by Shaykha Bahiyyah.

By Shaykh Mohammed Daniel and Shaykh Dr. Abu Zayd [1]

Edited by IlmGate

May 2016 / Sha’bān 1437  [2]

It brings me deep sadness to inform my fellow Muslims of the loss of one of the greatest female scholars in living memory. Shaykha Bahiyya al-Filaliyyah, from Meknes in Morocco, who was born on Monday 12 Rajab 1326 AH and passed away on Monday 16 Sha’bān 1437 AH (August 10th, 1908 to May 23rd, 2016). She was an incredible 111 years old in the lunar calendar.

Shaykha Bahiyyah’s story remains relatively unknown, but what is for sure is that she was truly awe-inspiring. She was a genuine student of knowledge, who gave up everything she could to remain true to her cause. She sacrificed the desire to have a companion in life, the urge to be a mother, and against all odds, obstacles and weaknesses stood firm for decades on the sacred path, even writing her own copy of the Qur’an in Braille so that she could continue reading it after losing her eyesight.

The Story Behind My Discovery of the Hidden Pearl of Morocco

I had travelled to Morocco on numerous occasions to search out and study with the hidden gems of this vast land, sometimes staying for weeks in order to maximize benefit from them. Ever since 2010, I had heard rumours of an elderly Shaykha residing in the scenic city of Meknes, but despite all efforts and many journeys, I was unable to obtain any further information.

During one of my trips to Northwest Morocco to meet the Hadith Master Shaykh Mohammed Bu Khubza, I suggested to my travel companion, the renowned scholar Shaykh al-Sharīf Hasan al-Kettāni, that on the way back we should make a detour and pass by Meknes to ask about the obscure Shaykha. Shaykh al-Sharīf smiled at me as he did every time I asked him for us to pass Meknes, and he said something to the effect of: “Where will we go? Who will we ask? We do not even know her name! It would be impossible to find her!”

I informed the Shaykh that we would be traveling on the sacred path and that Allah would facilitate things for us. I have found that many times during my travels – after putting reliance in Allah – unusual things occur, and have become used to having only the highest expectations of my Guide (Exalted is He).

Shaykh al-Sharīf Hasan continued to smile and looked hesitant. So sitting in a gathering of some upcoming Hadith scholars, I decided to seek their support and check if they were willing to travel with us. They were very enthusiastic to revive the old tradition of Hadith scholars in traveling to seek ilm and very soon Shaykh Hasan found himself agreeing.

It happened to be a public holiday in Morocco so we easily found drivers who were prepared to join us in order to spend time with al-Sharīf Hasan al-Kettāni on this blessed journey. We set out in one van and one car heading for Meknes, with some having doubts about the outcome and others entertaining good hopes.

After 5 hours we had completed the 260 kilometers journey south and entered Meknes. The brothers discussed where we should start as the city is divided into old and new quarters, [hence] finding the Shaykha would be very difficult. My inclination was that she would probably reside in the old city close to the Grand Mosque which was the centre of knowledge up until a few decades past. The brothers agreed and drove to the main square of the old city. When we reached [there], we found it was full of cars due to the public holiday. It took us a few minutes to find parking for both cars, and once we had finished we got out of the cars.

As the brothers discussed our next step, I noticed a young, well-dressed man in his 30s holding a box and walking straight towards us. Wasting no time, I engaged him with the greetings of peace and asked if he knew of an elderly female scholar living in the area. He said he was unaware of any female scholars in Meknes, and that he only knew an elderly, blind and pious lady that he would visit from time to time for supplication and to share gifts with. I sensed she was the same person. I asked Shaykh Hasan to take up the conversation in the local dialect so that no misunderstanding occurred, and by the end of the conversation, Shaykh al-Sharīf Hasan smiled and could not believe what was happening, nor could the man understand how he ended up talking to two of the most renowned and publicly known scholars of Morocco in the street. It turned out that, [as we stopped him], the man was actually going to the house of this pious lady [to] drop off a gift for her. [The distance of her house from the place we met was a good 10-15 minute walk]. The man seemed very surprised that 2 cars full of well-known scholars and students had driven all the way [there] to meet some random, poor, blind, woman that no one even knew of in the city of Meknes, let alone in other cities of Morocco. The young, excited, and somewhat puzzled man asked the group of Moroccans how they learnt of this old pious lady. They pointed at me and said “…this British man came and told us about her, [so] we decided that we would accompany him in finding her.” This only served to confound him [even] more.

As we approached the house, I started observing the landmarks surrounding it so that I would be able to return without the need for a local guide. [As] we walked into the building and up the stairs, [we] were greeted by the old lady’s niece who welcomed us into the house. As we were entering, the old lady walked up to the door of the house and stood to greet and welcome us. After we had all taken our seats, she sat down and asked us about our purpose for visiting. The group mentioned that they had come to visit the female Hadith scholar of Meknes that they had heard about from a British person in the group. She became seemingly embarrassed and out of her humility said, “I am just a student!”

It was clear to me that she was no student. Her Arabic language was impeccable in a country where most university professors and even scholars preferred to speak in French or the local dialect; when they [would try] to speak in classical Arabic it was painstakingly slow and inarticulate.

She welcomed us again, and asked how she could be of service to us. I asked the group for permission to interview her and they made notes as I spoke. Initially, the Shaykha was hesitant to give us much information and I assumed that this was from her desire to remain unknown to the people. But we insisted that the Ummah needed to know about her life as she could be a role model and source of inspiration, especially for female youth who were desperately in need of such.

She began to answer our questions about her journey on the sacred path and the group began to realise just how big this small, frail, and blind woman really was. As she spoke, you could hear sighs of amazement in the room at the struggle and dedication she showed over 70 years of studying. She had memorized the Qur’an and the Muwatta of Imam Malik while still in her teens, and studied many works with the local scholars before traveling and meeting with some of the greatest scholars of the Maghrib, [which included] 5 years of studying in Tunisia with the most erudite scholar of Tafsīr, Shaykh al-‘Allāmah al-Tahir Ibn Āshūr at a time when it was unheard of for Moroccan women to travel abroad for studies.

After taking down many details about her life, I started to verify the details of some scholars, their names and what they taught and whom they studied with. The Shaykha’s memory was astounding. The details [which] she recollected at her age I had never seen any male scholar capable of doing, and perhaps this was due to her complete and utter dedication to the sacred sciences to the extent that she never married in her life. In this way as in many other ways, she was very similar to the Grand Musnida of her times, the female centenarian scholar al-Karīma al-Marwaziyyah (d.463 AH), who resided by the Holy Ka’bah in Makkah & taught Bukhāri and other works for over decades to great scholars such as al-Hāfidh al-Khatīb Abū Bakr al-Baghdādi (d.463 AH), Abū Mansūr b. Ali al-Ijlī (d. 494 AH), Abū Abd Allah al-Tabari (d. 498 AH), Abū al-Qāsim b. Nahās al-Qurtubi (d. 511 AH), Abū al-Qāsim al-Ansāri al-Naysābūri (d. 512 AH), Abū al-Hasan b. Umar al-Farra (d. 519 AH), and Ibn al-Ghazal al-Misri (d. 524 AH).

My meeting with her was covered in the local press and entitled British man who entered Islam presents Moroccans their female jurist long forgotten in Meknes.

It was also covered in other papers and online, and some scholars lamented the fact that this elderly blind Shaykha had been forgotten by the Moroccan people and it took a foreigner to come and remind them. She also had no financial income and no government pension, unlike the well known singers, poets, and actors who were looked after well. This sentiment quickly gathered pace and her story went viral. [Hence] the government started to give her a monthly pension, and a few months later they presented her with a lifetime achievement award for her dedication to the sacred sciences. Of course, it was too embarrassing for the authorities to mention the real story of how they got to know of her, so in their media coverage they did not mention it.

For me, it was enough that this previously hidden gem was unearthed so that she could be taken as a role model for many of my Moroccan brethren and Muslims around the world. I know [that] many students and scholars have visited her since and they too were taken in awe of her, benefitting from her wisdom and knowledge in the past few years.

Shaykha Bahiyyah’s Dedication to the Sacred Sciences

In my last trip to Morocco, I was invited to the Moroccan capital [of] Rabat by the State Qur’an Channel. The subject of the interview was Shaykha Bahiyyah and her dedication to the sacred sciences for a program to be aired in Ramadan 1437.

Shaykha was a true champion and flag-bearer for female rights, as shown and recognized by Moroccan media. Unlike the sisters who try to please by removing their hijāb or mingling with men, she was staunch in her adherence to the life of the Beloved ﷺ. In fact, I remember when we were reading the 4th Hadith from Imam Malik’s Muwatta:

Ā’isha رضي الله عنها said:

“The Messenger of Allah ﷺ used to pray Fajr and the believing women would attend with him, wrapped in their veils, then they would return to their homes without anyone recognizing them because of the darkness.”

[Shaykha] said, “Look at the haya (bashfulness) of the believing women. Now, most have lost such and can stand with and even chat [with] strange men.”

Shaykha has [now passed on], but has left behind a great legacy. As for our lives, they too are melting away – minute after minute and day after day – and it is up to us to decide how they melt and what legacy we have.

Biography of Shaykha Bahiyyah bint Hāshim [3]

Born 1326/1908 in the city of Meknās in Morocco, Shaykha Bahiyyah bint Hāshim al-Quṭbiyyah al-Filāliyyah was one of the rare scholarly giants who still remained from the previous generation who was a great inspiration for men and women alike.

She memorized Qurʾān at the age of 14 at the hands of al-Qāḍī Muḥammad b. Aḥmad al-Ismāʿīlī al-ʿAlawī and studied the various Islamic sciences with the renowned scholars of her region. She made Ḥajj at age 18 where she studied with scholars of the Ḥijāz. In 1374/1955 she traveled to Tunisia where she studied for 5 years at the renowned Zaytūnah University, being the only woman there at the time. There she was the student of the great scholar of the 20th century Shaykh al-Islām al-Ṭāhir ibn ʿĀshūr (d. 1393/1973) and received Ijāzah from him. After graduating with distinction, she was requested to stay there but she chose to return to her own country.

She was devoted to the study of the Islāmic sciences her entire life and gathered an extensive list of teachers and disciplines that she delved into. She studied tafsīr and portions of Ṣaḥīḥ Bukhārī with al-Ḥājj Muḥammad al-Sūsī, completed Ṣaḥīḥ Bukhārī with al-Ḥājj b. ʿĪsā al-Khalṭī, studied Ṣaḥīḥ Muslim and uṣūl al-fiqh with Shaykh al-Zarīhanī, the text of Ajrūmiyyah in grammar with Aḥmad b. Ṣiddīq al-Meknāsī, the Alfiyyah of Ibn Mālik and Risīlah Ibn Abi Zayd with Mawlāy al-Ṭayyib al-Ḥarīf, the fiqh text of Ibn ʿĀshir with Mawlāy ʿAbdullah Jamʿān, fiqh from Mukhtasar Khalīl with Muḥammad al-ʿArāyishī, the Qurʾānic readings and the Muwaṭṭaʾ with Mawlāy al-Sharīf b. ʿAlī al-ʿĀlawī, the sciences of ḥadīth with al-Sayyid ʿAbd al-Hādī al-Mannūnī, tafsīr with al-Mukhtār al-Sintīsī, various sciences with ʿAbd al-Ḥafīẓ al-Fāsī al-Fihrī. Perhaps her two greatest teachers included al-Ṭāhir ibn ʿĀshūr and ʿAllāmah Muḥammad Taqī al-Dīn al-Hilālī (d. 1407/1987) with whom she studied Tawḥīd and other topics. In Tunisia, she studied balāgha and tafsīr with al-Ṭāhir ibn ʿĀshūr as well as his son, the sciences of ḥadīth with Ibn Khawjah, history with Muḥammad al-ʿAzīz and other topics with Muḥammad al-Khiḍr Ḥusayn.

What is more amazing is that Shaykhah Bahiyyah was blind but that did not define her nor deter her from her pursuits. In fact, she showed us a copy of a volume of the Qurʾān in Braille in the Riwāyah of Warsh which she had written with her own hand!

She had memorized the Qurʾān, Ṣaḥīḥ Bukhārī and the Muwaṭṭaʾ among other works.

Shaykhah Bahiyyah lived a life of relative poverty, apart from fame, and was relatively unknown until she was discovered in recent years by the great scholars Shaykh Ḥasan ʿAlī al-Kattānī and Shaykh Muḥammad Daniel Muhājir. Since that time, many traveled to benefit from her and marveled at her amazing memory despite being 108 years old.

Among her distinctions was that she fasted and prayed regularly in the Great Masjid of Meknās. In fact, it was known that anyone who wanted to meet her would go to the masjid to find her. She would fast on Mondays and Thursdays and always made dhikr. In her last days, she became ill and could no longer go to the masjid, but her home remained open to all students. In fact, in my experience every time I reached out to her, she was always willing to meet and listen to ḥadīth at a moment’s notice. Being blind, she would grant students Ijāzah with the stamping of her fingerprint rather than signing her name.

In her company, the only thing that came from her lips was the remembrance of Allah, prayers on the Prophet, supplications for the students, and words of advice from the Qurʾān and Sunnah. In our sittings, the most recent of which was a few days ago, I witnessed her correcting the names of narrators and the words of ḥadīth of the Muwaṭṭaʾ from her memory while we read from the books.

She died May 23, 2016 at the age of 108 (111 by the Islamic calendar), may Allah have mercy on her soul and elevate her ranks.

 

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Footnotes:

[1] This article is a combination of two separate pieces: The Passing of Shaikha Bahiyya al-Filaliyyah: The Hidden Pearl of Morocco by Shaykh Mohammed Daniel, and Shaykha Bahiyyah Quṭbiyyah of Meknas: A Sign of Allah in Our Times by Shaykh Dr. Abu Zayd.    

[2] The first 3 sections of this article were penned by Shaykh Mohammed Daniel.

[3] This final portion of the Shaykha’s biography was written by Shaykh Dr. Abu Zayd.

 

Courtesy of Cordoba Academy and Student of Islam

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