Early morning, the time of the Fajr prayer, is one of my favorite times of day. This has been the case no matter where I’ve lived- in windy Wisconsin winters with snow tinted pink with the sun’s first rays, or in the foothills of the Rockies, where the mountains clasped hands with a sky alive with color. Some of my favorite mornings, though, were in the small villages in Yemen that we called home for several years. Not only were these villages beautiful, but in my time in them I studied under women who are still mentors to me, examples of living Islaam fully and letting it permeate every portion of my life.
When we first came to Yemen, I took classes at a language institute in Old Sana’a. My teachers were very good at teaching Arabic, but they were not particularly spiritual. Most of the women who work in such jobs in Yemen are looking for worldly gain and are not as concerned with religious matters. I took religious classes at a local Salafi masjid, including Qur’aan and two major books on Islamic beliefs. I was still feeling my way around the Arabic language, though, so I still felt very much the outsider and was afraid to participate in the classes fully.
The first village we moved to was Ma’bar, where Sheikh Muhammad al-Imaam , may Allaah preserve him, has a center of knowledge. This was a pivotal experience for me, as it cemented my steps upon the path to religious knowledge. The Sheikh himself is incredibly knowledgeable, and shares his knowledge freely through lectures, classes, books, and tapes. Here is a recording of his Qur’anic recitation, which I find incredibly beautiful and touching, mash’Allaah. He is a great defender and educator of women, may Allaah reward him, making clear not only their responsibilities, but also stressing their rights under Islamic law. But as much as the Sheikh influenced me, his wife, Umm ‘Abdur Rahman, influenced me even more.
At the time I was studying there, Umm ‘Abdur Rahman had several children, and had just given birth to another baby. She was full of energy, and taught three classes at the women’s school herself. From the first day, she expected me to have memorized and called upon me to recite the hadeeth. She made a special effort to meet me, and at that meeting she made me feel welcome. This meant a lot to me, as I was the first American to study there and I felt very much a stranger. When her new book came out, she gave out copies at the school and made sure that I got one. I still treasure that book, and have had cause to refer to it on many occasions. I was only able to study with her for less than a year, but she still influences me and has a place in my heart, may Allaah preserve her. Her balance of teaching, studying, and caring for her family is an example to all women who are trying to learn and live Islaam.
Damaaj was the second village we lived in. We were able to stay there for three years, alhamdulillah, and in the course of my studies I met several women who affected me deeply in so many ways. Umm ‘Abdullah, the daughter of one of the greatest scholars of our time, Sheikh Muqbil Ibn Haadi al-Waadi’ee, may Allaah have mercy upon him, taught a weekly class. Like Umm ‘Abdur Rahman, she had several children at the time and was working on her own projects, performing the balancing act with grace and success. Her weekly classes were always full, and her quiet strength and firm knowledge made a deep impression upon me.
I had other teachers as well, many of whom taught me lessons about life as well as Islaam. However, the one who influenced me the most was Umm Salama, who had been one of the wives of Sheikh Muqbil. Like Umm ‘Abdullah, she was the same age as me. When I first started studying under her, she had no children, though she had one baby while I was there. She taught a class five days a week, and I made it a point from the first day to sit in the first row, close to her right hand. Alhamdulillah, I learned more in her class about Islaam and what it means to be a Muslim woman than I would ever have thought possible. I studied outside of class, memorizing the hadeeths and answering questions concerning their meanings. After every class, sisters would stop Umm Salama as she left the masjid, and she always had time for a quiet word with each one. In the afternoons she would work in the women’s library, and I would bring my books as well and sit quietly behind a pillar and study. Again, I not only learned about Islaam, I learned about life.
Mornings like this, when I sit with my books open in front of me, studying by myself, I think of these and other women who have had, and still have, so much influence in my life. When I feel overwhelmed by all of my obligations I remember how each of them managed to keep the balance, and I ask Allaah to give me the wisdom and the strength to do the same.