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 travelled seekers is a remarkable Muslim woman named Fatimah. Fatimah bint Sa’d al Khayr was born 522AH/1130CE 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 who traveled widely, eventually settled in China where Fatimah, among several other daughters, was born, in the eastern edge of the country.
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.
Her foremost teacher was her own father, from whom she directly transmitted hadith. Imam al-Dhahabi describes him as a trustworthy narrator of hadith. 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 in 541AH 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. 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 settled for some time in Baghdad in the prime of her young adulthood at age 25 where she also learned from Abul Qasim Hibatullah b. Muhammad b. Husayn, the main narrator of Imam Ahmad’s Musnad. Her other teachers included Hibatullah b. al-Tabr, Abu Ghalib Ahmad b. al-Hasan b. al-Banna, al-Qadi Abu Bakr, Yayha b. Hubaysh al-Fariqi, Yahya b. al-Banna and Qasim Zahir b. Tahir, with whom she studied the Musnad of Abu Ya’la al-Mawsili.
She eventually married one of her father’s most distinguished students, Zayn al-Din Abul Hasan Ali Ibrahim b. Naja [d. 599AH], who later served as secretary for the famous Ayyubid ruler Nur al-Din al-Zengi. Her husband was held in great esteem by both Salah al-Din and his successor. She resided in her husband’s hometown of Damascus and then moved to Cairo, where she continued her teaching. 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. Ibn Hajar notes that her student, Muhammad b. Ismail (Khatib Marda) was responsible for spreading her transmission of the hadith work Musnad Abu Ya’li [d.307/918], which records about 7,500 hadith narrations. Most significantly, Muhammad transmitted her teaching of the seminal Hanbali fiqh work, Mukhtasar al-Khiraqi, one of the first texts in the Hanbali fiqh school, containing about 2,300 legal rulings. This is one of the most widely studied works within this school, inspiring close to 300 commentaries, and Fatimah spent quite some time teaching this particular work.
Fatimah’s other students included Ismail b. ‘Azzun, Diya al-Din al-Maqdisi, Abdullah b. Abdul Wahid b. Allaq, Abul Qasim b. Husayn al-Qurashi of Tunisia, Abu Muhammad Ishaq b. Muhammad al-Hamadani, Abul Hasan b. al-Qasim of Nablus, and others. Though Fatimah enjoyed much wealth and social status in her life, she remained undistracted, continuing to teach and transmitting till the very end of her life. She died on the 8th of Rabi al-Awwal in 600AH at the age of 78 and was buried in Cairo, resting below Mount Muqattam, on the outskirts of the city she had once so brightly illuminated with her knowledge.
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 Salah al-Din al-Ayyubi (reigned 569-589AH) and the famous Battle of Hittin (583AH/1187CE), which liberated Jerusalem from the Crusaders. 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.