Other than the obvious Khadijah bint Khuwaylid and Aisha bint Abu Bakr, here is the list of five muslim women role models who you probably have not heard before:
- Nusaybah bint Ka’ab
Nusaybah is one of the few Sahabiyat who physically fought in battle in defense of the Messenger of Allah SWT and an advocate for Muslim women’s rights.She took part in numerous major events, including The Treaty of Hudaybiyyah, Battle of Uhud, Battle of Hunayn, Battle of Khaybar, and Battle of Yamamah.
Nusaybah bint Ka’ab is most famous for her brave efforts in defending Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) in the Battle of Uhud. Like many other Sahabiyat, Nusaybah was initially there to aid the soldiers during battle. In excitement of perceived victory, the Muslim archers on the hill deserted their positions and neglected Prophet Muhammad’s (PBUH) orders to never leave their position. This left him (PBUH), and a handful of companions vulnerable to their enemies, including Nusaybah. The tide of the battle had changed.
Nusaybah, then, picked up a sword and arrows, and rushed to the defense of the Messenger of Allah. She struck fatal blows to her opponents with her swords and shot arrows at them to protect the Prophet (PBUH). He (PBUH) himself said, “Wherever I turned, left or right, on the Day of Uhud, I saw her fighting for me.” Near the end, she was inflicted with 13 wounds. At Nusaybah’s request, the Prophet (PBUH) asked Allah (SWT) to make them his companions in the Paradise. She was content, as this was her only aspiration.
She was not only brave on the battlefield, but also in her efforts as an advocate for Muslim women. She asked the Prophet (PBUH) why the Qur’an only mentioned men, and not women. Soon thereafter, Ayah 35 of Surah Al’Ahzab was revealed:
“Indeed, the Muslim men and Muslim women, the believing men and believing women, the obedient men and obedient women, the truthful men and truthful women, the patient men and patient women, the humble men and humble women, the charitable men and charitable women, the fasting men and fasting women, the men who guard their private parts and the women who do so, and the men who remember Allah often and the women who do so – for them Allah has prepared forgiveness and a great reward.”
She let nothing stop her from defending Islam and the Messenger of Allah. Nusaybah was outspoken and remained true to her deen. Ambitious, loyal, devoted, brave and empowered, she possessed qualities we all strive to have.
2. Zubaidah bint Ja’far
Zubaidah bint Ja’far is known as a woman of strong intellect and deep compassion. She used the enormous wealth and power derived from her position as the wife of the fifth Abbasid Caliph, Harun al-Rashid, to serve others as well as to promote Islam. The Abbasid Caliphate was the third Islamic caliphate and lasted from 750 to 1258. This period is commonly referred to as the “Islamic Golden Age” due to the sheer number of scientific, literary, philosophical, and technological contributions from the Muslim community during this period.
Zubaidah bint Ja’far had the privilege of growing up in this environment where the society had respect for knowledge. Thanks to her access to learning opportunities as well as a powerful intelligence, Zubaidah was well versed in the Holy Quran and Hadith. She is even thought to have put her money to use creating jobs for female reciters of the Quran within her living quarters so that she could hear the words that were so close to her heart. Some sources even describe her apartments as having sounded “like a beehive,” due to the murmur of constant recitation of the holy book.
In addition to this considerable religious knowledge and devotion, Zubaidah was an avid patron of the arts and sciences. She wrote several well-known poems herself and was always keen for opportunities of discussion and further learning. She and her husband, Caliph Harun, were even featured in several stories that Scheherazade told the King in “One Thousand and One Nights!”
Perhaps her greatest and most well-known feat from both an engineering and social service perspective was the design and implementation of a water well system along the path from Zufah in present day Iraq to Mecca. Disturbed by the difficulties facing her fellow Muslims when they made Hajj, Zubaidah set out to ease the journey for pilgrims on their way to Mecca. Hiring a team of skilled engineers and putting her wealth at their disposal, the devout Zubaidah stopped at nothing, ensuring that Muslims would travel in greater comfort along Darb Zubaidah (“Zubaidah’s” Way) for centuries to come. Indeed, the route along which she had commissioned the creation of this well system soon become essential to regional trade and the remains of an aqueduct dating from that period and known as “Zubaidah’s River” can still be seen today near Mount Arafat, east of Mecca.
3. Sumayyah bint Khayyat
Sumayyah bint Khayyat was the first woman to be martyred and the first person to give her life for the sake of Islam. Before Sumayyah accepted Islam, she was a slave in Mecca. When Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) began preaching the religion of Islam, there were around 7 people who said the shahada, or declaration of faith. Summayyah bint Khayyat was one of these 7 who boldly and confidently declared her dedication to Allah (SAW) and his Messenger (PBUH). It is quite interesting to note that at the time Islam was introduced, the circumstances in Mecca were hostile, and women were treated horribly. However, when a former slave wished to accept Islam, she was allowed and treated with as much respect as any other man who had accepted the religion.
Over time, many people began accepting Islam, men and women both. Of course, this was angering news for the non-believers in Mecca. Converts of Islam were threatened and told to give up the religion they had accepted. Some of these Muslims were wealthy and powerful, and came from families with a higher status and rank than others. Sumayyah, who had been a slave prior to Islam, was one of the many Muslims who had no class to protect her. Thus, she along with her husband and son were amongst the many newly converted Muslims who were tortured and beaten simply for the religion they believed in. Those who tortured Sumayyah gave her the “opportunity” to renounce her faith to save herself and her family from the beatings and torture. Of course, Sumayyah denied over and over again, despite the fact that the religion does allow “giving up Islam” in front of one’s’ oppressors if it came to saving his or her life. Still, however, Islam’s first heroine continued to speak against the face of denying God’s word.
Eventually the torturing got out of hand. Abu Jahl proceeded to torture Summayyah. Abu Jahl asked her repeatedly if she would give up Islam, but she continued to deny giving up her faith despite the pain she endured so strongly. He ended up stabbing her so painfully that she ended up martyred. Thus, Sumayyah bint Khayyat became the first martyr of Islam, and became a symbol to not only all the Muslim women who would follow her, but also to Muslim men as well. She is a symbol of strength, courage, bravery, and faith. She is a battle against the image that Muslim women are oppressed, for her death resists the idea that Muslim women do not have a choice to choose Islam. May Allah grant Sumayyah bint Khayyat the highest level of heaven.
4. Fatima al-Fihri
Fatima al-Fihri is the founder of world’s first ever university. She was born in Tunisia into a wealthy family, her father was a successful businessman and had one sister named Mariam. They were a pious, well-educated family with great social standing and eventually moved west to Morocco. Both Fatima and Mariam were greatly invested in community betterment and set to work in Fes, Morocco. When their father passed away, they inherited a fortune and dedicated their lives to disseminating Islamic arts, religious learning, and architecture. Mariam went on to found the al-Andalus Mosque, while Fatima set her sights on constructing the Qarawiyyin Mosque.
According to the Guinness Book of World Records, the Qarawiyyin Mosque is the oldest University in the world because of its degree-granting status in the context of its era. The university thrived on the intelligent and dedicated individuals to study Islamic theology (and develop political and social interactions) there in order to assume administrative positions. Some of the notable student there were Muhammad al-Idris and Ibn Khaldun.
Fatima al-Fihri puts to notion the rest that education is secondary for Muslim women. Her life also speaks volumes about the contribution of Muslim women to Islam and Islamic history as we know it today. Fatima al-Fihri is pivotal to Islam, not just because she was the founder of an institution that is running to date, but because she represents exactly the kind of Muslim woman we strive to be: Pious, well-intentioned, generous, educated, empowered, and productive.
Written by Retno Larasati for Learn Quran, 2017