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Women and the Birth of Islam

How were women instrumental to Islam’s development into a major world religion?

June 12, 2007

How were women instrumental to Islam's development into a major world religion?

Muhammad, who belonged to the leading tribe of Mecca, was in the habit of withdrawing to the bare and bleak mountaintop a few miles from the town.

Crisis of Civilization
by Akbar Ahmed
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On Mount Hira he would meditate about the nature of human beings and the society surrounding him — a pagan society subjected to frequent tribal wars and raids and therefore highly approving of honor and revenge.

Being a patriarchal society, it showed little empathy for women, only cruelty and indifference. Female infanticide was a common practice. Islamic literature referred to the age as one of jihalya, or ignorance. A sensitive young man, Muhammad had been deeply troubled by society's behavior.

Then in 610 C.E, at the age of forty, he had a vision of the angel Gabriel commanding him "to read." In a state of uncertainty, Muhammad returned from his retreat to the one person he trusted most in the world, his wife Khadija.

Upon hearing what her husband had experienced, Khadija recognized that she was witnessing something extraordinary. She had always been intrigued by his contemplative and gentle nature and impressed by his integrity — so much so that she had taken the initiative and proposed to Muhammad though fifteen years his senior.

A bold woman, she had managed successful trading caravans that crisscrossed the tribal lands of what is now the Middle East. She had been a widow for some time and decided to take a chance on a much younger man but also hoped to offer him strength and companionship.

Upon hearing his news, she insisted that she take him to a relative, a Christian priest learned in the biblical tradition. The priest assured husband and wife that what Muhammad had experienced was indeed a revelation in the manner of the biblical prophets.

Islam — which means "submission" to God and "peace" — was about to be born. Khadija declared her faith in the religion that was being revealed to her husband, thus becoming the first Muslim in history.

Muhammad became the Prophet — or Messenger — of God. Because the Prophet is the embodiment and ideal of Islam according to the Quran, his wives, notably Khadija and Aisha, and his daughters, especially Patinsa, became central to Islamic history and society.

They were involved in the development of the religion not merely as wives and daughters but also as warriors, consultants and scholars. They carried the word of Islam and served as accessible role models for women. Modern women find much legitimate support from the behavior and sayings of the Prophet and the women close to him.

For example, when a young man asked the Prophet who is most entitled to his best treatment, the Prophet replied, "Your mother." He repeated this three times, to indicate that only by serving a mother can a good Muslim hope to win the favor of God. The Prophet also reportedly said, "Heaven lies underneath the feet of the mother."

Khadija is significant in Islamic history for another reason. She is the mother of Fatima, who gave birth to two important figures: Hassan and Hussein. Both Hassan and Hussein would be martyred, their deaths reverberating up to modern times.

Hussein's death at Karbala in 680 — in what is now Iraq — was one of Islam's seminal moments, comparable for some Muslims to the crucifixion of Jesus in Christianity. Hussein and a tiny army were all killed in a battle to challenge the tyranny of the ruling caliph.

Fatima's descendants provide Islamic society with a "holy” lineage going back to the Prophet. Both Shia and Sunni Muslims value this lineage, but the former make a point of treating it with special veneration. Indeed, the leading figures in Shia Islam are the descendants of the Prophet.

Aisha, another of the Prophet's wives, was the daughter of his dear and venerable friend Abu Bakr. Aisha was much younger than the Prophet, and he had a protective, loving and gentle relationship with her. She was able to joke with him and even tease him, unlike anyone else.

She also transmitted the sayings of the Prophet, called the Hadith, to generations of scholars after her. One of the Prophet’s sayings quoted by Aisha underlined the compassionate treatment of women: "Believers with the most excellent faith are those with the best manners and those who are kindest to their wives."

She was considered a legal authority, and if the "Companions," those respected early Muslims who were contemporaries of the Prophet, ever disputed an issue, they often came to her for clarification. She thus became a key inheritor of the Prophet's spiritual and political legacy after his death, even leading a military campaign against Ali, the husband of Fatima.

When the Prophet died, he was succeeded by his friend Abu Bakr, who was elected the first caliph of Islam. Some Shia believe that Ali should have succeeded the Prophet. They do not care for Aisha and even spread rumors about her character.

By contrast, Sunnis admire her, and she remains one of their major role models. Early Muslim women were clearly caught in the crossfire of ideal Islamic behavior and traditional tribal attitudes to women.

The tension between the Islamic ideal and the tribal reality has remained high ever since — and today is particularly dramatic in rural societies.

Editor’s Note: This feature is adapted from JOURNEY INTO ISLAM: THE CRISIS OF CIVILIZATION by Akbar Ahmed, copyright 2007. Published with permission of Brookings Institution Press.