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Women in Muslim History

I - The Early Generations

Many things are said and written about the "Position of Woman in Islam." At the background of this there are often legal questions that are especially interesting for women who have recently converted to Islam or married a Muslim man. Sometimes we find descriptions of "The Ideal Muslim Woman" (unfortunately, the counterpart of "The Ideal Muslim Man" is missing) in the context of an attempt to reconstruct Islamic thought or as a reaction to the challenges of secualarized society, while, on the other hand, sociolical studies accusingly describe the everyday life of our sisters beween Indonesia and Morocco and sometimes even in our immediate neighbourhood. The picture is completed with stereotypes from Arabian Nights. The following series is not meant to discuss further theories but to inform about some of the possibilities women in Muslim history have made use of.

We do know quite a lot about the biographies of famous Muslim men. There is, first of all, the life of the Prophet Muhammad (s) who is an important example for all of us. Next, there are his immediate male companions, great imams and scholars, famous rulers and reformers. We often regard them as our personal role models and name our sons after them. It becomes more difficult if we want to know more about women in Muslim history. At first sight, the prejudice seems to be confirmed that they had, at best, side parts as wives, mothers, sisters, or daughters of the respective men. Even in English there seems to be, apart from Margaret Smith's Rabi'a the Mystic and, more recently, Ibn Sa'd's Women of Medina, far from enough literature on this subject. The more surprising is the number of publications in Arabic and other languages from the Muslim world, not just from modern time like the dictionary of important women (Omar Reza Kahhala: A'lâm an-Nisâ', Damascus 1977), but also the collections of biographies from the early centuries of Islam where well-known women are naturally mentioned side by side with well-known men. We are not able to evaluate all these sources here and now. We can, however, give a few examples of how women endeavoured to realize Islamic ideals, to overcome obstacles, and to contribute to the development of their society side by side with men. This is meant both to illustrate the relevant Qur'anic texts and give an idea of our sisters from the past that can motivate us to follow their example and help giving an orientation to our daughters.

Mothers of the Faithful

The Prophet is nearer to the faithful than they themselves, and his wives are their mothers ... (Surah 33:7)

The Qur'anic description of the wives of the Prophet (s) as Mothers of the Faithful is a mark of honour that has a very special meaning. Educating her children, a mother wields a decisive influence. In this sense, the Mothers of the faithful had an important role in the Muslim community. They taught both men and women, helping them along their spiritual path, transmitting and explaining the teaching of the Prophet (s) in all spheres of life, helping the sick and the depressed and serving the cause of Islam in many other ways. Each of these women had her own special life experience, and studying their biographies can give valuable insights not only into the contemporary family life and the social situation in general but also illustrating examples for the role of women in spreading Islam as well as keys to a better understanding of the Islamic sources. Here we have only space to mention a few names and facts.

Khadîja bint Khuwailid was a business woman in Mecca who, after the death of her two former husbands, had succeeded in continuing their business and to be respected in this role. She employed young Muhammad and was impressed by his sincerity and reliability. Having found out that she also shared his basic thoughts and attitudes - both of them were committed to the course of the poor and underprivileged, having already in the past contributed to various projects to help the poor and disabled and to stand up for their rights - she married him. Seventeen years later, she was the first person to recognize his message and its importance and to support him in every possible way. Through her, many women among her relatives and friends as well as their family members found their way to Islam. She stood by her husband though the time of moral and economic pressure and the persecution of the Muslims in Mecca and finally died from exhaustion after the boycot. Her special position is pointed out by the fact that Allah greeted her in His revelation. None of the other wives was ever able to take her place in the Prophet's heart.

Sawda was another woman who was among the very first Muslims. She emigrated to Abyssinia together with her husband who died there. Having returned to Mecca as a widow, her marriage with the Prophet (s) was arranged, her intention being, in the first place, to look after his children and to have a new family.

Aisha, the daughter of Abu Bakr, got married with the Prophet (s) after the Hijra, having been interested in his work since her earliest childhood and having learned all the revealed text by heart. Throughout her life she worked for Islam and was both one of the most important teachers and transmitters of traditions from the Prophet (s) and a recognized authority for contemporary issues of law and theology.

Hafsa was 'Umar's daughter. Her first husband died from his wounds after the battle of Uhud. later on, her father arranged her marriage with the Prophet (s). She was an intelligent woman who often discussed theological issues with the Prophet (s). After his death, the original volume of the Qur'an to which all later copies until the present day go back was entrusted to her care. She was another important scholar and teacher.

Umm Salama emigrated to Abyssinia with her first husband. Having decided to emigrate to Medina after their return, she had to overcome a lot of trouble from the side of her clan. Her husband later died from his wounds after a campaign, and the Prophet (s) received her and her four children into his family. With her presence of mind and her wise counsel she played a decisive role when the peace treaty of Hudaibiya was made. She accompanied the Prophet (s) on several expeditions and was one of the teachers of the community. Later on, her daughter Zaynab became one of the best scholars of her time.

Zeinab bint Jahsh was a cousin of the Prophet (s) who was first married with his adopted son Zayd. However, the marriage was unhappy and ended, in spite of the Prophet's attempts at reconciliation, with a divorce. Her subsequent marriage with the Prophet (s) was a key event for several rules in family law including the woman's right to choose her partner. Like her namesake among the Mothers of the Faithful, she was one of the most generous and compassionate women in Medina.

Umm Habîba was the daughter of Abu Sufyân was an influential enemy of Islam until immediately before the opening of Mecca. Her first husband with whom she had emigrated to Abyssinia became a Christan there and tried to convert her, leaving her when she did not give in to his attempts. Later on, the Prophet (s) married her and made her come to Medina. She certainly had some influence on her father's change of mind.

This short introduction is anything but complete. However, it becomes evident that all these women hade a formative role in the history of the young Muslim community. They and the other Mothers of the Faithful not only made an active contribution for the cause of Islam but also gave an example for the women and girls of later generations, shaping a new image of women in Islam.


The faithful men and the faithful women are protecting friends for each other. They enjoin what is good and prophibit what is evil and establish prayer and give the Zakat and obey God and His messenger. They are those on whom God has mercy. God is mighty, wise. (Surah 9:71).

Fatima, the daughter of the Prophet (s) and his wife Khadîja, grew up at a time when the Muslims in Mecca were a persecuted minority. From early childhood she was brought up with the revealed teachings and the example of her parents whose self-sacrificing life she shared. She was especially close to her father so that, in the course of time, even an outward similarity became visible. After her mother's death after the boycot, she looked after him, tending the wounds he incurred from the attacks of his enemies and comforting him. For this she was finally nicknamed "Mother of Her Father".

The persecutions ended with the emigration to Medina but not the economic want. Besides, there were the wars with the idolworshipping Quraish. During this time, Fatima got married with Ali after having rejecting a number of other suitors. Only he seemed to be a suitable partner to her. In face of the circumstances, a big wedding feast was not possible. She received a modest bridal gift from Ali and the most essential household equipment from her father. We know about her everyday life that she contributed to the family income by spinning, and even later on, when the economic situation in Medina improved, she never tried to gain personal advantages but earned money to spend it for the poor. She committed herself to the cause of social justice, being, like her father, especially sensitive for this, and she accompanied her husband and the Prophet (s) on expeditions to treat the wounded and look after the fighters' wellbeing together with other women. The Prophet (s) said about her, "Fatima belongs to me. Whoever hurts her, hurts me."

After her father's death, her sorrow was mixed with her worries for the unity of the Muslim community. She could see very well the forces that promoted disunity and a relapse into tribalism and greed for power. She admonished the leaders of the community to remember their responsibility and to fulfil their duty. Soon afterwards, he died and was buried in al-Baqî cemetery in Medina. Her sons Hasan and Husayn as well as her daughter Zaynab have an important role in Muslim history.


The greatest jihad is a just word in front of an unjust ruler. (Tradition from the Prophet (s))

Zeinab was the daughter of Ali and Fatima and the sister of Hasan and Husayn. The foundation of her education was laid by the Prophet (s) himself and by her mother. Later on, her father took great care to continue her education, and by the time he was caliph in Medina and Kufa and far beyond his lifetime she was active as a well-known teacher who was not only well-versed in the exegesis of the Qur'an and ind traditions from the Prophet (s) but also a recognized authority in legal issues. In this context, she was called the "Proxy of the Imam".

Zainab was especially close to her brother Husayn. With her husband's consent, she left her family in Medina to accompany Husayn in the journey that was to end in the tragedy of Karbala. She witnessed how Husayn and his followers were trapped by the troops of the Umayyad ruler Yazîd, cut off from the access to drinking water and brutally attacked, the aggressors even killing Husayns baby son in his arms. His elder son, Zainul-Abidîn, survived the massacre because he was ill at the time of the attack. Husayn was killed. His body was mutilated, and his head was taken to Damascus. Zaynab and the other survivors were taken to the governor of Kufa as prisoners. In a speech that is well-known in tradition, she reproached him with his behaviour against the Prophet's family members, saving Zainul-Abidîn's life with her intervention. Finally, he prisoners were taken to Damascus where Husayn's daughter Sakîna died in prison. Once more Zaynab succeeded in saving Zainul-Abidîn's life from Yazîd who demanded his head: in another famous speech, she exposed the true facts and the ruler's injustice and cruely so that the fear of the public opinion compelled the tyrant to set his prisoners free and let them return to Medina.



Let there arise out of you a band of people inviting to all that is good, enjoining what is right, and forbidding what is wrong: They are the ones to attain felicity.

Quran: 3:104
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