From the days of Prophet Muhammad (sal.) to the 21st century, these women made Islamic history.
The role of women in Islam has been debated since the days of Prophet Muhammad in the seventh century. Umma Salama, one of Muhammad’s wives, is said to have asked Muhammad why the Quran “did not speak of [women] as it did of men.” The issue was never completely laid to rest, and gender roles in Islam continued to be discussed and altered throughout history. The question persists today. Many women in Islamic countries routinely face oppression and violence, but other Muslim-majority countries have female heads of state. These powerful modern leaders, however, are not a new phenomenon. Some of the most important women in Islam were not technically Muslims as they were born before Islam appeared on earth.
Hajar and Maryam are two of the most important women in the Islamic faith but were born many years before Muhammad. As such, they were not technically Muslims. Westerners likely know these two women by the names Hagar, slave of Abraham and Sarah, and Mary, mother of Jesus. Women continued to hold important spiritual and political roles after Muhammad’s birth and death. As with every religion, Islam is riddled with influential women. Here are some of the greatest Muslim women in Islamic history.
Khadija, also called Khadijah bint al-Khuwaylid, was the first wife of the Prophet Muhammad. She was a wealthy woman and trader who managed her own commercial dealings. She originally hired Muhammad to work for her but eventually proposed to him. Muhammad accepted and loved her enough that he did not take another wife until after Khadija’s death.
If she were only Muhammad’s spouse, Khadija would be but an interesting footnote in Islamic history. She was, however, a great deal more than just Muhammad’s wife. When Muhammad first heard the angel Gabriel speaking to him, he was terrified and described his encounter with the divine to Khadija. She comforted him and was instrumental in convincing Muhammad to accept that Allah had spoken to him.
Khadija was also the first person to accept Islam, and she is referred to by Muslims as “the Mother of Belivers.” She supported Muhammad during his time as a prophet both morally and financially. When Khadija died in 620 A.D. in what is now Saudia Arabia, Muhammad dug her grave himself.
Aisha, or Aisha bint Abu Bakr, was one of Muhammad’s wives after Khadija’s death and is said to have been his favorite wife after Khadija. In contrast to Khadija who was older than Muhammad, Aisha was much young than Muhammad when she married him. Her age is debated, but most traditional sources state that she was married to him at the age of six or seven. Following her marriage, Aisha worked to spread Islam and continued to do so after Muhammad’s death. She is credited for narrating well over 2,000 hadiths, the various sayings whose authority is second only to the Quran. Some of Aisha’s hadiths discuss matters related to Muhammad’s private life which Muslims are meant to imitate whenever possible, but a large number also dealt with inheritance, pilgrimage, eschatology and more. Aisha was known for her intellect and was knowledgeable about subjects that ranged from medicine to poetry. Aisha’s intelligence and breadth of knowledge led her to have a major influence on Islam’s emphasis on learning. She is said to have established and taught at multiple schools before her death in 678 A.D.
In addition to passing along spiritual wisdom, Aisha played a political and military role after Muhammad’s death. Her father, Abu Bakr, became the first caliph, and Aisha was one of the leaders of the opposition against the third caliph. She also led troops in the Battle of the Camel in an effort to avenge the death of the caliph, ‘Uthman, after he was assassinated. Aisha’s participation in this battle has left her viewed negatively by Shia Muslims to this day.
Fatimah, also called Hazrat Fatima and al-Zahra, was one of Muhammad and Khadija’s children. Fatimah was the only child of Muhammad to have children that survived to adulthood. As such, she is the mother of the Sayyids, the descendants of Muhammad who are spread throughout the Muslim world.
Fatimah accepted Islam at the age of five and was one of the first Muslims. She was extremely protective of her father and defended him from non-Muslims who persecuted him. After Khadija died, Fatimah also tended to her father’s wounds when he was injured by those persecuting the early Muslims. Fatimah’s faith is admired, and she is said to have been a personification of high virtue and purity. Her worship resembled how Mary, the mother of Jesus, was believed to have worshipped. Mary, called Maryam in the Quran, is an important figure in Islam and is often regarded as a prophet in her own right.
While all Muslims respect and love Fatimah, she is especially important to Shiites. Shia Muslims believe that Fatimah was the only child of Muhammad and Khadijah to live to adulthood, not just the only one to have children who lived to adulthood. Fatimah was also the wife of ‘Ali, the man Shiites regard as Muhammad’s true successor and the first Imam. Fatimah and ‘Ali’s children, Hasan and Husayn, became the second and third Imams respectively. Imams are the spiritual leaders of Shiites and regarded as the rightful successors of Muhammad.
Sumayyah bint Khayyat
Sumayyah bint Khayyat, also simply called Sumayyah, was the first martyr of Islam. Little is known about Sumayyah’s early years beyond that she was born a slave but later became a free woman. She married Yasir ibn Amir and had a son named Ammar, though some claim she had at least two other sons. Sumayyah’s small family was among the earliest converts to Islam but among the least powerful in the greater Arab society. Some early Muslims were protected by virtue of the fact that they had powerful friends or relatives in the local tribes. Muhammad himself had an uncle who was a tribal leader and worked to protect Muhammad, Khadija and their children. Sumayyah and her family, however, had no such tribal protection and were seen as easy targets by those persecuting the then-small Muslim community. Sumayyah, Yasir and Ammar were kidnapped and tortured, but Sumayyah refused to recant her faith. Enraged by her defiance, Abu Jahal, a Meccan and Quraysh leader, killed Sumayyah.
Hafsa bint Uma
Hafsa bint Uma was another of Muhammad’s wives. She was born around 605 A.D. and was originally married to Khunais ibn Hubhaifa. After Khunais died, Hafsa was offered in marriage to both Uthman ibn ‘Affan, who would later become the third caliph, and Abu Bakr, who would later become Muhammad’s successor in Sunni thought and the first caliph. Both Uthman and Abu Bakr refused Hafsa’s hand, but Muhammad married Hafsa roughly a year after her husband, Khunais, died.
While married to Muhammad, Hafsa memorized the entirety of the Quran and later narrated 60 hadiths, sayings that describe the words, actions or habits of Muhammad. When Hafsa memorized the Quran, it was still an entirely oral text and so transmission of the Quran was reliant on human memory. It was Abu Bakr who ordered the Quran to be recorded in written form. This first book was called the Copy of Zayd ibn Thabit after the scribe who compiled the text. This text was given into Hafsa’s keeping until Uthman became caliph and used the Copy of Zayd ibn Thabit to standardize the text of the Quran. This standardized copy is still used by Muslims today.
Arwa al-Sulayhi, also called the Little Queen of Sheba, was the longest-reigning ruler of Yemen. She co-ruled with her first two husbands and became the queen in her own right in 1067 A.D. Arwa married for a third time in 1091 A.D. and continued to rule Yemen at the side of her third husband, Saba ibn Ahmad. After Saba died, Arwa al-Sulayhi was once again the sole ruler of Yemen. She continued to reign alone until her death in 1138 A.D.
Arwa was a Shia Muslim and was known for her incredible intelligence. She was well versed in religious sciences, the study of the Quran, poetry, history and the hadiths. During her life, Arwa supported Imam at-Tayyib, and she became the head of a new group of Muslims that became known as the Taiyabi Ismaili. This group survived in Yemen even after the Ayyubid invasion of southern Arabia.
Arwa al-Sulayhi was also a dai’i, a Muslim who invites people to join Islam and works to create converts through dialogue. Arwa achieved the highest rank a dai’i can achieve, that of hujjat, in 1084 A.D. She was the first woman to earn the rank in Islamic history
Razia Sultan was the first and only female ruler of the Delhi Sultanate in India. Her father, Shams-ud-din Iltutmish, was part of a dynasty that based succession on merit rather than birth order. Iltutmish felt Raiza was worthy of the Delhi throne and appointed her as his heir instead of any of his sons. After his death in 1236 A.D., however, Iltutmish’s wishes were ignored, and Razia’s claim to the throne was disregarded. Her half-brother, Rukn ud din Firuz, became the sultan instead. Rukn ud din proved to be an incompetent ruler and was assassinated less than a year after he took the throne. After her half-brother’s death, Raiza ascended to the throne in 1236 A.D., despite the fact that the nobility still loathed the idea of a female ruler.
After she took power, Raiza continued to shock the conservative Muslim society. She refused to wear a veil and adopted men’s attire. She also led her armies in battle and conquered new territories. Her contemporary, Persian historian Miraj-i-Siraj, described her as “a great monarch, wise, just, generous, benefactor to her realm, dispenser of justice, protector of her people and leader of her armies; and endowed with all the admirable attributes and qualifications necessary for a king.”