A Queen. A powerful business woman. A scholar.
These titles aren’t what you would expect to hear when you hear the phrase “Muslim woman”. However, the Islamic faith is rife with examples of women who defied the conventions of their time, and were praised for it. In fact, the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) told us about 4 women in history who had perfected their faith, and were guaranteed Paradise, and among them were:
- a single mother
- a woman who defied her husband
- a businesswoman
- a daughter who was forced to grow up too soon
If you’re a Muslim, you’ve probably heard names like Mariam, Asiyah, Khadijah, Fatima, Aishah, Bilqist. But sometimes we get wrapped up in the history of these great figures and forget to see the very human side of these great women.
Girls today need strong role models. Ones that teach them that, no matter what situation you are in, you can make a difference without having to degrade yourself or trounce around naked. Role models that teach them that their value isn’t based on their sex appeal, but their inherent self-worth and passion.
The Quran and the Seerah (biography of Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him) feature stories of many women who defied the conventions of their time. These women were so unique among all the women of their time that their legacies have been preserved in history.
Mary (Arabic, Mariam) is one of the 4 women that Prophet Muhammad said had perfected her faith and was guaranteed a place in Paradise. The important thing to note is that Mary is not revered simply because she was the mother of Jesus, peace be upon him, who became one of the greatest prophets to walk the earth. Mary is revered because she is amazing in and of herself. Her story is so significant that an entire surah of the Qur’an was named after her, and in Surah Mary, her early life is detailed up to the miraculous birth of her son, Jesus. Mary was known for her piety, and was chosen to be a living miracle: a virgin mother. She left her people when she was pregnant, and gave birth on her own in the middle of a desert. Walked back home where she was met with scorn and accusations. Mary was known for being a devout worshipper of God, and so her people found it strange that she would appear with a child. As soon as accusations started flying her way, she pointed at her newborn son and he responded, clearing her name. Not much is known about Mary’s life as she raised Jesus. What is known, however, is that her devotion to God and endurance through persecution remains a pinnacle of achievement to Muslims and Christians today.
Asiyah was the wife of Pharaoh, a baby-killing sociopath with a god-complex. When Moses was placed in the river, he washed ashore near Asiyah, who fell in love with the child. She convinced Pharaoh to let them keep the baby and raise it in their house. Eventually, that boy grew up to be a prophet, and Asiyah believed in his message. Pharaoh demanded that people worship him, considering himself a god. Yet Asiyah believed in the God of Moses. She kept her faith secret at first, but eventually it was exposed to the Pharaoh. Even though she knew of his cruelty, she defied her husband and held firmly to her belief. Pharaoh commanded her to be tortured, but she held fast to her belief. Eventually she succumbed to her torture, and died. Despite her death, she was considered one of the leading women of Paradise by Prophet Muhammad.
When Abraham was instructed by God to leave his wife Hajar and their son Ishmael in the baren valley of a desert, he did so. When Hajar asked why he was doing this, she asked if it was what God commanded. Abraham said yes, and said “I am leaving you in God’s care.” Despite the circumstances, Hajar said, “I am satisfied to be with God.”
With that she remained patient, even though she and her son were dying in the heat of the desert. When the dates and water ran out, she frantically began to search for water. She left baby Ishmael by a tree and climbed up and down the hills of Safa and Marwah, searching for water, among burning sand and rock. She did this seven times, a journey that would have taken hours. Finally, when she returned, she saw an angel standing by Ishmael, who dug into the ground and a well lept up. From there, she established a settlement around the water source, which became known as Zamzam—which still flows to this day. From there the city of Mecca had its beginnings. Hajar raised Ishmael in the settlement. Hajar’s struggle is commemorated by Muslims throughout the year, whether they are in Hajj or visiting for Umrah.
Bilqist was the Queen of Sheba, and was considered a powerful and just ruler. She ruled over modern day Yemen (though some accounts put her in Ethiopia). In the Qur’an she consulted with her advisors when Solomon asked her to abandon idolatry and embrace monotheism—Islam. Intimidated by a powerful ruler, she feared the oppression that usually comes when a ruler takes over a land. This demonstrates her wisdom and insight. Yet even still, she agreed to meet with Solomon. After Solomon convinced her of his prophethood and of God’s oneness, she abandoned idolatry and married Solomon. Yet even after this, she remained as the ruler of her country.
Khadijah was Prophet Muhammad’s first wife, before he was a prophet. Due to rare circumstances, she inherited a prosperous business from her father when he died. She was one of the wealthiest women in Mecca. She turned down many proposals of men who were only after her fortune. Eventually, she hired a young man to oversee a trade expedition to Syria—Muhammad (peace be upon him). Impressed with his character and honesty, she proposed to him. He accepted and they were married. They had 6 children, including Fatima. When revelation began, and the Prophet embraced his prophethood, Khadijah became the first person to embrace Islam. She supported her husband, emotionally and financially, through some of the most difficult years of his life. She never criticized is religious devotion or his mission, and instead devoted her fortune to supporting him and his ambitious mission. Her death marked the Year of Sorrow, one of the most difficult times in the Prophet’s life. After her death, the Prophet would still honour her friends and family and would remember her fondly.
Later, he would say of her: “”I have not yet found a better wife than her. She had faith in me when everyone, even members of my own family and tribe did not believe me, and accepted that I was truly a Prophet and a Messenger of Allah. She converted to Islam, spent all her wealth and worldly goods to help me spread this faith, and this too at a time when the entire world seemed to have turned against me and persecuted me. And it is through her that Allah blessed me with children.”
Fatima is the only daughter of Prophet Muhammad and Khadijah to live after her father’s death, albeit for a short time. That said, she was still crowned as one of the women of Paradise. Because of persecution, she was forced to grow up fast. She was only around 10 years old when she was scraping camel entrails off her father, which had been dumped on him by Quraishi men. After cleaning the entrails off, she stood her ground and scolded the grown men who did this to her father, and prayed against them. It wouldn’t be the first time that she was forced into situations beyond what a normal child would have to deal with. After the Prophet was driven out of Ta’if, a mob threw stones at him which caused him to bleed so much that his shoes became soaked with blood. Fatima, still a child at the time, cleaned her father’s wounds herself. Fatima gave away food to the poor, even if it meant going hungry herself. Her kind character resulted in the title “Al-Batul”, meaning The Pure One. During the Battle of Uhud and the Battle of the Trench, she tended to the wounds of the soldiers and prepared food for them.
Fatima was the only child to establish a lineage to Prophet Muhammad, through her two sons, Hasan and Hussein. As he was dying, he said that she would be the first to meet him in Paradise, and that she would be the leader of the believing women therein.
Aishah was known as a woman whose qualities surpassed those of men. She had a keen intellect, a strong memory, a fierce personality and a beautiful countenance.
She was haughty and stubborn at times, but was considered the most beloved to the Prophet. Whether they were racing along the sand dunes of Arabia, watching sword dancers perform in the mosque or sharing quiet intimate meals with each other, it is through Aisha that we gain most of the insights into the home life of the Prophet.
Among many incidents in her life, one in particular was a test of her moral character. She was accused of adultery based on slander and gossip. She knew herself that she was innocent, but even the people closest to her began to question her integrity. For a month rumours spread about her. The Prophet, though anxious about this situation, encouraged her by saying that if she was innocent, God would declare her innocent; if she was guilty, then he encouraged her to repent. Finally, in front of the Prophet and her own parents, Aisha stood her ground and said:
“You have all heard something about me and believed it. Now if I say that I am innocent – and Allah is my witness that I am innocent – you will not believe me; and if I confess something which I never did – and Allah knows that I never did it – you will believe me. I cannot but repeat the words which the father of Prophet Yousuf (Joseph) had spoken: ‘fa-sabrun jamil’: I will bear this patiently with good grace.”
And at that, the Prophet received revelation that she was, in fact innocent. Verses 11 to 21 of Surah Noor (the 24th chapter) attest to her innocence to this day.
The Prophet loved her the most, and spent his last moments in her arms. As is tradition of all prophets, he was buried where he died, in the house of Aishah. After the death of the Prophet, she became a primary source of wisdom and knowledge. Her house also became a school and a place of knowledge. She championed the education of women, teaching many of them personally. If any of the Companions of the Prophet had a religious disagreement or difficulty, they would go to Aisha to resolve it. Even today, her legal judgments, her statements, and her accounts of the Prophet are studied by scholars today. Her speeches were powerful and eloquent. She was at the forefront of social reform and justice.
It’s unfortunate that people stereotype Muslim women as quiet, shy, unremarkable home-bound servants. It’s even more unfortunate when Muslims also believe that stereotype. The belief that a woman’s only worth is to produce children is both backwards and harmful. Islam has a rich history of strong women who stood against oppression, made their voices known and changed the attitudes of the society they lived in. Their courage and personalities were not hampered by their religion; in fact they was encouraged by it. For over 1400 years, the women mentioned above—and many more—have retained their honour in history. Their example is just as relevant today as it was during their time. In an age where strong, dignified female role models are hard to come by, sometimes we forget that some of the greatest women who ever lived can be found right on our own bookshelves.