Women in the Early Days of Islam
Islam gave women the right to inheritance, to be a witness in court, to vote, to engage in politics, to run her own business, the right to education; which were unheard of in that time in other parts of the world.
By Samar Yahya
Women in Islamic history gained strength from a legacy of strong and influential women in the founding years of the Islamic faith. They were granted ultimate equality by the teachings and rules of Islam. In the days of ignorance before Islam shone its light in the Arabian Peninsula, women were oppressed; they had no rights for inheritance, they were treated as possessions, and baby girls were buried alive.
Islam has given woman rights and privileges, which she never enjoyed under other religious or constitutional systems. Islam gave women the right to inheritance, to be a witness in court, to vote, to engage in politics, to run her own business, the right to education; which were unheard of in that time in other parts of the world.
Women continued to play vital roles in political life in various Islamic empires as the centuries went on.
As evident in the verses of the holy Qur’an and in the attitude of the early Muslims, woman is as vital to life and society and the political sphere as man, and she is not inferior to him.
In a famous story, the Caliph Umar ibn Al-Khattab, the ruler of his time, wanted to make a law that would place a ceiling on the amount of dowry that a woman can ask for in marriage. In the council, a woman voiced her opinion that no limit should be placed on what is to be given to a woman, because Allah did not place such a limit. Umar, the Caliph, admitted that she was right and he was wrong, and he refrained from writing this new legislation.
Thus, Muslim women played remarkable roles in the early days of Islam. Between the 9th and 15th century, women participated in the fields of theology, religious knowledge and scholarship, as well as in the teaching of these sciences.
Khadijah Bint Khuwaylid was a successful merchant and one of the elite figures of Makkah, even before her marriage to Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). She ran her own business and it is said that her caravan during the summer journey to Syria and winter journey to Yemen equaled the caravans of all other traders of the tribe of Quraysh put together.
She played a central role in supporting the new faith of Islam. As Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) said, “God Almighty never granted me anyone better in this life than her. She accepted me when people rejected me; she believed in me when people doubted me; she shared her wealth with me when people deprived me; and God granted me children only through her.” (Sahih Muslim)
Aisha Bint Abi Bakr and wife of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), had a very strong influence on the Muslim community after the death of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). She played a central role in the politics, teaching circles, jurisprudence, and even military tactics.
She is one of the most famous narrators of Hadith or sayings of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), reporting more than 2,000 sayings.
One notable example of women’s role in early Islam was Zainab Bint Abi Taleb, most known for her generosity and humanitarian work, and who was buried in Egypt. Zainab’s passion for charity and making a difference in society led her to become the first Muslim woman to establish orphanages in Iraq and Egypt. Zainab also made it one of the conditions in her wedding agreement that her husband would allow her to continue her charity work after marriage.
Shifa Bint Abdullah Al-Adawiyyah was one of the few people who were literate in the pre-Islamic times. She was known for her sharp intellect and beneficial knowledge. She was skilled in the art of Ruqyah, or promoting healing through supplications, spirituality, prayer, and reading verses from the holy Qur’an. During the early days of Islam, she taught Muslim women the art of Ruqyah as well as how to read and write.
In Nursing and Social Work:
Born into a family with strong ties to the medical community, Rufaida Al Aslamia’s father, Saad Al Aslamy, was a physician and mentor under whom Rufaida initially obtained clinical experience. Devoting herself to nursing and taking care of sick people, Rufaida Al-Aslamia became an expert healer. She practiced her skills in field hospitals in her tent during many battles.
She was among the first people in Madinah to accept Islam; Rufaida Al-Aslamia is depicted as a kind, empathetic nurse and a good organizer. With her clinical skills, she trained other women to be nurses and to work in the area of health care. She also worked as a social worker, helping to solve social problems associated with illness.
Nusayba Bint Kaab Al-Anariyya, also known as Umm Ammara, is another shining example on the role of women in Islam. Nusayba is most remembered for taking part in the Battle of Uhud (when the tide of the battle changed) in which she carried swords and shields and fought against the enemy troops. She shielded Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) from enemies and bore several wounds while fighting in front of him to protect him. It is said that after she sustained her twelfth wound, she fell unconscious and the first question she asked when she awoke a day later was, “How is the Prophet? Did the Prophet survive?”
Women such as Khadijah Bint Khuwaylid, Nusayba Bint Kaab Al- An?ariyya, Aisha Bint Abi Taleb, and many other women became key public figures in the earliest years of Islamic history, and they serve as great role models for the Muslim woman.