Examples of Inspiring Women
by Hana Khan
If you come to Muslim assembly often, you will know that Women in Islam is a topic that is often discussed, but although equality in Islam and the rights of women often come up, we don’t often get examples of real women who exemplify and rose to the rights they were granted.
So, today we will be talking about four influential women from the time of the Prophet* – two very well-known and two less prominent to us today.
The first woman is Khadijah**, the first and most beloved wife of the Prophet*, and the first convert to Islam.
Her father was a wealthy businessman, so she grew up in the lap of luxury, and when he died she took over his business. She was very independent, and very skilled, so under her guidance the business grew and prospered. However, as a respectable, upper-class woman she could not travel with her own goods, so had to send employees in her place. The young Muhammad* was recommended for his integrity and honesty, so she started to employ him to head her caravan convoys. She sent her servant to observe him and report back to her on his behaviour, and received a good description of his friendliness and trustworthiness. She continued to employ him, and soon began to think of marriage. Instead of the traditional order, it was her who sent her friend to negotiate a match. He agreed.
After her marriage she continued to run her business. After they had been married for some time, the Prophet* received his first revelation from the Angel. He himself thought he was hallucinating, but Khadijah** comforted him, saying: ‘Do not worry, for Allah would never humiliate you, for you are good to your relatives, you are true to your word, you help those who are in need, you support the weak, you feed the guest and you answer the call of those who are in distress.’
She defended her faith passionately for the rest of her life and used her wealth to help the Muslims.
Another wife of the Prophet* was Ayesha**. Accounts differ on her exact age, but all agree that she was very young when she got married. This, combined with her amazing memory, allowed her to narrate many hadith (teachings of the Prophet*) which Muslims still follow.
She was very generous, often giving away everything in her house in charity. On one occasion, a beggar came to her house asking for food. The only thing she had in the house was a piece of bread, which she told her maid to give. This was in the days before supermarkets, and her maid reminded her that she was fasting and there was literally nothing else in the house for her to break her fast on later. Ayesha** answered that she should help the hungry woman, and that they would worry about dinner later. By the evening, she had been sent a dish of cooked meat, which she used to illustrate to the maid the teaching that ‘whatever you give in charity you get back increased.’
One other famous story about Ayesha** is the period during which she was slandered by the townspeople. She had been accompanying the Prophet* on an expedition some distance away, and when they stopped to rest she realised that her necklace had fallen off somewhere along the way. She walked far back into the desert to look for it, but by the time she had found it and returned to the camp, the convoy, not noticing her absence, had moved on and accidentally left her behind.
It was the job of a man named Safwan bin Mu’attal to check the camp site for things which had been left behind. He found Ayesha** sleeping on the ground and accompanied her home on his camel. When they caught up with the rest of the convoy, everyone witnessed Ayesha** getting off Safwan’s camel. This led to a lot of gossip among many of the people that Ayesha** was being unfaithful to the Prophet*.
When the gossip reached Ayesha**, she started crying. She cried so much that she eventually fell ill, and the Prophet* came to visit her at her parents’ house. He told her that if she had done something wrong, she should pray to God to forgive her. After some moments of silence, she finally replied that God knew she was innocent, but that if she publicly denied her guilt, no one would believe her. She quoted the words of Prophet Jacob*, saying: “So for me, patience is most fitting. And it is God whose help can be sought against that lie which you describe.”
It was at this moment that the revelation came from God announcing her innocence. The Prophet* recited it immediately, and Ayesha**’s parents told her to rise and thank him. She replied that she was only grateful to God, who had revealed a verse in her honour.
An influential woman who is less well-known was Nusayba bint Ka’ab al-Ansariyya**, who lived in Madinah. Islam first came to Madinah when a Madani visitor to Makkah heard the message and agreed to take it back to his city. He later returned with some of his townspeople, who had heard the message and wanted to make their pledge personally to the Prophet Muhammad* himself. Of these people, two were women, one of whom was Nusayba**.
Other than being the first Madani woman to convert to Islam, Nusayba**’s most notable contribution was during a major battle between the attacking Quraysh who wanted to kill the Muslims, and the Muslims defending their home. Rather than remaining at home, the women of the community were welcome to participate in the battles. While the majority took supporting roles – things like bringing water to the soldiers and helping the injured – some, like Nusayba**, chose to actively participate in the fighting. After the failure of the archers to protect the infantry, she was one of those who protected the Prophet* directly, receiving several wounds in the process and having her heroism praised by the Prophet* himself. She was so important that in a painting depicting the battle she was shown in the middle of the top row.
Another equally little-known woman who was prominent at the time was Al-Shifa Bint Abdullah**. She too was an early Muslim, and like Khadija** she was a successful woman even before Islam. Originally called Layla, Al-Shifa** was given the nickname, which means healing, because of her extensive knowledge of medicine. She could also read and write, an impressive feat for anyone during a time when the vast majority of people, including the Prophet* himself, were illiterate, and even more impressive for a woman at a time when baby girls were thought worthless and buried alive.
When she converted to Islam, she demonstrated her skills to the Prophet*, who thought them so worthwhile that he encouraged her not only to practice them but to teach others, spreading medicine and literacy throughout the female community.
Al-Shifa** was so respected and so often consulted for advice that the Caliph Umar** made her his advisor and an administrator of the market place, making her the first Muslim woman to hold a public office.
Like Ayesha**, she dealt with the Prophet* on so many occasions that she was later able to narrate many hadith.
These four women were all influential in their own right. There were many more women, several more prominent ones, such as Fatima**, the Prophet*’s daughter, and Sumaya**, the first martyr of Islam. At a time when the media is portraying Muslims as anti-gender equality, and a people who mistreat and oppress their women, it is important that we know about these women, who were important, well-respected figures. The Prophet* clearly allowed them to take an active role in their community, so there is no reason why Muslim women today should not be allowed to take an active role in theirs.
We will end with a quotation from the Prophet Muhammad*: ‘The best of you are those who are the best to their wives’ [Al-Tirmidhi].
*peace be upon him
**may God be pleased with her/him
Written by Hana Khan in 2015
Useful notes about women in the Quran; never delivered:
If you expected to find a catalogue of downtrodden and subservient women in the Quran, or assumed that scriptures from 1400 years ago would not portray women in a favourable light, as they had not been enlightened by the feminist movement about women’s true abilities, you might be surprised.
Through time, though society has not shown women the dignity and respect that they deserve, the Quran shows us that women have been created with huge ability and potential.
It goes on to illustrate beautiful examples of women who had intelligence, resilience, courage and so often changed the course of human history.
Let’s go back to the beginning, which is always a good place to begin. the first woman to exist was Eve. So frequently misrepresented as the weaker of the couple, who succumbed to temptation first; a temptress and even perhaps an afterthought; as a subordinate creation from Adam’s rib; the Quran tells us a different story. It says:
‘In everything we have created pairs, so that you might bear in mind that God alone is one.’ [51:49]
Here we have an equal couple, two parts of a complementary whole. Not a superior hero with a sidekick. We have no mention of the rib, and certainly not that Eve instigated their fall from grace.
What we have instead is a couple, who together ‘slip’ into making a mistake, who feel ashamed by it and who are forgiven. There is no shaming, no lingering guilt and no blaming of Eve at all. In fact once the couple are granted pardon, they are given the freedom to carve out their lives as the mother and father of humanity in perfect communion.
Later in the Quran we are told the story of the Queen of Sheba, who ruled over the one of the richest kingdoms of the era, in Yemen. Here we have a female leader who is shown to be an excellent example of wise and just rule, in stark contrast to the despotic and tyrannical figures of many male dictators, such as the Pharaoh who opposes Moses*.
When she receives a letter from the Prophet Solomon* asking her to leave their pagan practices and accept God, she immediately calls a council of her advisors. The first sign of a good leader is one who consults others.
She says: ‘O you nobles give me your opinion on the problem with which I am now faced. I would never make a weighty decision unless you are present with me.’ [27:32]
When they rashly have a knee jerk reaction to the threat, by pointing out that they have military strength and suggest military action, she shows greater reasoning than them. And an understanding of history and the repercussions of conflict.
She points out that whenever one country is an aggressor, they end up by damaging the country they invade and subjugating its people.
Instead, she takes a different tactic, preferring peace over war. She comes up with the idea of sending a gift to Solomon*, showing diplomacy and taking the heat out of a tense political situation, as well as giving their side the opportunity to get information about Solomon*’s military strength.
She then visits him, and is struck by his knowledge and the truth of his message, over her nation’s worshipping of the sun. She realizes that the sun which her people worship is nothing but one of God’s creations and eclipsed by His light. So she then guides her people to have true faith.
Whereas woman are sometimes accused that they are emotional creatures unable to reason as effectively as men, the Queen of Sheba shows that women are rational, and it is her analytical reasoning as well as her genuine concern for her countries’ best interests, that make her a great leader. Acting wisely, rather than opting for a destructive display of military might, she steers her country away from war, to the path of true guidance.
We have a Quranic model of a woman in the top political position, showing there is no bar to women reaching the top and being an excellent ruler.
Written by Ayesha Khan