Contrary to popular, somewhat prevailing and almost entirely inaccurate myths in the Western world, Islamic history is full of the contributions of outstanding women.
From the earliest times to the more recent, women have played a key role in the shaping of Islam as a lived civilisation. There is little doubt that this may have diminished in recent times as the world more generally veered towards a masculine domination that was (ironically) at odds with earlier societies and the way they embraced feminine contribution. But it says nothing for the incredibly rich contribution Muslim women made to their people’s growth.
From Egypt to Indonesia, from female scholars to even administrators, Muslim women have made their mark.
This article looks specifically at the great early women of Islamic history. Many of them were Islamic scholars, and many had a seminal role shaping Islamic societies. From Morocco to Medina, Yemen to Spain, these women have had a massive impact on the Muslim world and its shaping over the last 1.5 millennia.
The women we discuss in these articles are greatly revered and appreciated in Islamic history.
The Prophet ﷺ foretold the great role of some of these women, saying:
“Sufficient for you among the women of mankind are Mariam bint ‘Imran, Khadijah bint Khuwailid, Fatimah bint Muhammad and Asiyah the wife of Fir’awn.” [Sahih Tirmidhi]
The Prophet has also mentioned a fifth woman and that is Aisha, whereby he ﷺ said:
“The superiority of ‘Aishah to other women is like the superiority of Tharid (the most popular signature dish at the time) to other kinds of food.” Al-Nisai (Hasan)
Here are some of the greatest Muslim women in Islamic history in more detail.
- Khadijah Bint Khuwaylid
The Messenger of Allah (ﷺ) said:
“The best of its women is Khadijah bint Khuwailid, and the best of its women is Mariam bint ‘Imran (Virgin Mary)” Al-Tirmidhi (Sahih)
Khadijah was the first wife of Prophet Muhammad ﷺ. She was a wealthy merchant and was able to successfully run the business her late father left her. Despite her wealth, she always helped the poor and made sure to support all her family.
Khadijah was the biggest advocate of the Prophet ﷺ. She was there for the Prophetﷺ when the revelation came to Him for the first time. She always stood by Himﷺ, despite people going against his message of Islam in the beginning. Following the Prophethood of Muhammad ﷺ, she went through a great amount of suffering and undertook many sacrifices to support his mission.
The Prophet never forgot her great service to himself and the Islamic faith. He would in fact always remind others of her great favor years after her passing.
Aisha says in a narration:
“….The Prophet (ﷺ) used to mention her (Khadija) very often, and whenever he slaughtered a sheep, he would cut its parts and send them to the women friends of Khadija. When I sometimes said to him, “(You treat Khadija in such a way) as if there is no woman on earth except Khadija,” he would say, “Khadija was such-and-such, and from her I had children. [Sahih Bukhari]
- Aisha Bint Abu Bakr
Aisha was the wife of Prophet Muhammad ﷺ and the daughter of Abu Bakr As-Siddiq. She is one of the most renowned Mothers of the believers and is considered one of the greatest scholars of Islam. Many narrations of the Prophet ﷺ are narrated by Aisha due to her proximity to the Messenger and her great understanding of the Quran and Islam.
The Prophet ﷺ was once asked, “O Allah’s Messenger! Who amongst all the people is the dearest to you?”He replied, “Aisha”. The Companion then asked, “Out of the men?” He replied: “Her father.” Sahih Muslim
Many companions would always go to Aisha for consultation in religious matters, her intellect and scholastic abilities are a role model for women.
Aisha’s status in Islam breaks the stereotype that only men can be scholars of Islam.
- Maryam Bint Imran (the Virgin Mary)
Maryam, the mother of Jesus, Eesa, is one of the most revered women in Islam. Her story features in detail in the Quran, and she, in fact, has an entire chapter named after her.
The Quran actually sheds light on the story of Maryam prior to her birth, whereby we learn of her mother’s supplication for a righteous child.
“But when she delivered her, she said, “My Lord, I have delivered a female.” And Allah was most knowing of what she delivered, “And the male is not like the female. And I have named her Mary, and I seek refuge for her in You and [for] her descendants from Satan, the expelled [from the mercy of Allah ].” (Quran 3:36) And surely Maryam lived on to dedicate her life to worshipping Allah. Her immense piety is in fact reiterated in the Quran on multiple occasions. “So her Lord accepted her with good acceptance and caused her to grow in a good manner and put her in the care of Zechariah. Every time Zechariah entered upon her in the prayer chamber, he found with her provision. He said, “O Mary, from where is this [coming] to you?” She said, “It is from Allah. Indeed, Allah provides for whom He wills without account.” (Quran 3:37) “And [the example of] Mary, the daughter of ‘Imran, who guarded her chastity, so We blew into [her garment] through Our angel, and she believed in the words of her Lord and His scriptures and was of the devoutly obedient. (Quran 66:12)
Despite all the hardships she faced from people accusing her chastity she remained steadfast and obeyed Allah with unceasing faith.
- Aasiyah the Pharaoh’s wife
Another woman who is given great stature in Islam is the wife of Pharaoh, Aasiyah. Despite being the wife of one of the greatest tyrants, she still believed in Allah. She chose leave all the wealth and accepted to be tortured by the Pharaoh for believing in Allah. In the Quran, Allah refers to her as an “example for the believers”. Allah also makes mention of her supplication for a Palace in Paradise near Allah.
“And Allah presents an example of those who believed: the wife of Pharaoh, when she said, “My Lord, build for me near You a house in Paradise and save me from Pharaoh and his deeds and save me from the wrongdoing people.” (Quran 66:11)
- Fatimah Bint Muhammad
Fatimah is the daughter of Prophet Muhammadﷺ from his first wife Khadijah. She was known to be the biggest supporter of her father and she accompanied him from the beginning of his journey as a Prophet. She is a role model of faith, humility, purity, sacrifice and patience. Prophet Muhammad ﷺ used to stand up when she’d come into the room and kiss her forehead.
He ﷺ said: “Fatimah is a part of me, and he who makes her angry, makes me angry.” (Bukhari)
She was nicknamed “Al-Zahra” by the Prophet, which means “The Splendid One”. She also married the cousin of the Prophet, Ali Ibn Abi Taleb, and gave birth to four children, Hassan, Hussain, Zainab and Um Kulthum. She lived a life of simplicity and often experienced great hardship and poverty. The Prophet also informed her on his deathbed that she would be a leader of the women in Paradise. These were women distinguished by sabr who found the true friendship of Allah through their unfailing steadfastness in the face of grinding sacrifices. May Allah elevate the ranks of these great women and guide us to follow in their noble footsteps.
- Zainab bint Ali
Zainab, the daughter of the Prophet’s daughter Fatima and her husband Ali ibn Abu Talib, also remains one of the most powerful figures in Islamic history.
Living through a period of tumultuous inter-fighting and the horrifying Battle of Karbala, Zainab continues to inspire millions in her courageous devotion to both her family and her faith.
After the death of her mother, Zainab along with her brothers Hassan and Hussain were forced to defend themselves and their family amidst the fighting that broke out after the Prophet’s death over leadership.
After the murder of her father, Zainab also witnessed the horrifying battles between her brothers and the Umayyad rulers.
During the Battle of Karbala, which saw her brother Hussain along with many other members of her family brutally murdered, Zainab was forced to march to Damascus in Syria under Yazid’s rule.
Giving her famous sermon in the court of Yazid, Zainab stood courageously tall against oppression and injustice, calling upon the tyrannical leader to fear God and await his punishment:
O Yazid! On the day when Allah will be the Judge and Muhammad will be the petitioner, and your limbs will give evidence against you, your father, who made you the ruler of the Muslims, will receive His punishment. On that day you will see that the best provision which your father made for you was that he enabled you to kill the children of the Prophet of Allah. I swear by Allah that I do not fear anyone except Him and do not complain to anyone else. You may employ your deceit and cunning efforts, but I swear by Allah that the shame and disgrace which you have earned by the treatment meted out to us cannot be eradicated.”
Forced into exile after witnessing the death of her beloved family members, Zainab remained steadfast in her religion and continued to help spread the pure faith and devotion that her grandfather, the Prophet Muhammad, taught as well. S
he continues to inspire millions of Muslims today to stand up against oppression and stand for injustice no matter what the costs may be.
- Hafsa bint Umar
Hafsa bint Umar was one of the wives of the Prophet Muhammad, and has been accredited to around 60 hadith, or sayings and doings of the Prophet.
Becoming a widow after her first husband Khunais ibn Hubhaifa died, Hafsa was offered in marriage to both Uthman and Abu Bakr, companions of the Prophet Muhammad. Both refused Hafsa’s hand in marriage, however, the Prophet stepped in and married her a little after a year of her becoming a widow.
After marrying the Prophet Muhammad, Hafsa memorized the entire Quran, which was at the time still only an oral text and was not written down. This incredible feat inspired many others, including women, to learn and memorize the Holy Quran as well. After the first written form of the Quran was produced, the text was given to Hafsa for safekeeping until Uthman standardized the copy of the Quran. It is arguably in part thanks to Hafsa that the Quran was so beautifully preserved.
- Sumayyah bint Khayyat
Known as the first martyr of Islam, Sumayyah bint Khayyat was one of the first who openly defied the Quraysh leaders of the time and was killed because of her devotion to God. Born a slave but freed later in life, Sumayyah married Yasir Ibn Amir and was one of the first families to convert to Islam.
Coming from a small family without any ties to powerful elites or tribal connections, Sumayyah and her family were seen as easy targets by the leading Quraysh tribes who were then persecuting the growing Muslim community.
After being kidnapped and tortured, Sumayyah was given the chance to renounce her new faith in Islam and reject the Prophet Muhammad. Refusing to do so, Abu Jahal, a Meccan and Quraysh leader, murdered Sumayyah for her belief in Islam.
Sumayyah remains one of the most tragic and yet inspiring examples of the powerful women in Islamic history – despite the threat of torture and death, Sumayyah refused to back down in the face of tyranny and injustice. Although it cost Sumayyah her life, her legacy and devotion continue to touch the hearts and lives of Muslims today.
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Ethical Finance and Innovation
Dr. Sayd Farook is the Executive Director of Crescent Foundation. He is Group Chief Operating Officer of Crescent Wealth and Managing Director of Crescent Finance. He previously served as Advisor to the Executive Office of the Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai. In this capacity, he envisioned and executed strategic / transformation initiatives for Dubai and the UAE. Prior to that, he was the Global Head Islamic Capital Markets at Thomson Reuters, where he advised and served large corporates, multilaterals and governments in the Middle East, North Africa and South East Asia.