A group of women from the tribe of Ghifar approached the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ (peace be upon him) to seek his permission to tend to the wounded during the battle of Khaybar. The Prophet ﷺ welcomed their request, giving them permission, stating, “By the blessings of God.”
With this group of women was a young girl named Umayyah bint Qays radi allahu `anhu (may God be pleased with her). She shares with us her own part of the story.
“Then we set out with him. I was a young girl. He made me sit on his she-camel behind the luggage. I saw the bag had got traces of blood from me. It was the first time I had a period. Then I sat forward on the camel [to hide it] and I was embarrassed. When the Messenger of God ﷺ saw what happened to me and the traces of blood, he said, “Perhaps you have had menstrual bleeding?” I said, “Yes.” He said, “Attend to yourself. Then, take a container of water, then put salt in it, then wash the affected part of the bag, then come back.” I did so. When God conquered Khaybar for us, the Prophet ﷺ took this necklace that you see on my neck and gave it to me and put it on my neck with his own hand. By God it will never be parted from me.” She wore the necklace her entire life and stipulated that she should be buried with it.1
Let us take a few lessons from this incredible narration. From it, we can take lessons on the perspectives and proactive attitudes of these female companions of the Prophet ﷺ. From it, we can also take incredible lessons in chivalry and beautiful interactions between the Prophet ﷺ and the women in his community.
Let us begin by considering the perspective of the women who came to offer their skills to the Prophet ﷺ. They didn’t say, “What’s up with Islam? Why aren’t women obligated to fight in this battle just like men?!”
These women understood the wisdom of Allah subhanahu wa ta`ala (exalted is He) in every ruling and situation. They knew they could participate and be rewarded if they did so (like Nusayba bint Kab who personally defended the Prophet ﷺ in the Battle of Uhud), but were not mandated to do so. They realized that there was mercy in the lifted obligation and they were of those who realized the wisdom in the fact that there were differences in obligations.
Nevertheless, simply because they were not mandated to participate in the battle did not stop them from doing their part, in whatever way they felt they could be most effective. They did not sit around complaining or waiting to be asked; they simply did. Perhaps we can take from their examples as Muslim women in our own communities.
How many of us complain about the men’s side of the prayer hall being vastly greater in size or in cleanliness? How many of us feel incredible frustration when we cannot hear the prayer because small children are screaming around us or because the microphone stops working? We have tangible issues to complain about, no doubt. However, what are we doing, as women, with the means that we already have? What are we doing in our current situation?
Are we talking throughout the khutbah (Friday sermon) when we know we are supposed to remain silent and listen attentively? When two of us cannot pray, are we speaking while everyone else is praying and potentially disturbing those struggling to concentrate in their prayers? Are we watching after our own children or helping other sisters watch after theirs? Are we bringing in food for ourselves or our children and leaving crumbs and spilled drinks on the once-clean prayer carpet, despite the specific signs which request that all food remain outside? Are we dumping our shoes in front of the shoe racks instead of on the shoe racks and creating potential blockages for the elderly and hazards in the case of emergencies? (I know of a masjid who had to call 911 because a child’s life was at risk and the firefighter could not access the child immediately because he tripped over a pile of women’s shoes!)
What are we doing with what we have, considering the situations that we are in? Look at these women. They proactively took a leadership position in offering to help in a battle and service the community. How can we also learn to follow their example in our own lives?
Additionally, let’s look at their approach and perspective. They didn’t say, “If we go out and offer to help in this battle, some men may be intimidated because we’re so aggressive.” They did not tie their responsibility to Allah (swt) and their community to the possibility of attracting or not attracting men. I am constantly approached by young women who are told by their parents or those in their communities that they should stop being involved with Islamic work because “men are scared by women who are assertive and passionate about activism.” In my personal role as the Muslim Student Association President, I was told more than once that men were intimidated by me because of my position in leadership. In some of our families and some of our communities, we sometimes focus on tying our sisters’ abilities to attracting or not attracting a potential spouse, instead of developing our sisters’ incredible skills and potentials for the sake of Allah (swt) and the benefit of the community.
On the other end, the women in this example also did not say, “We’re just going to sit around and once Prince Muslim comes along, then we’ll get involved and work on becoming better Muslimahs.” This might seem far-fetched, but how many of us have heard or said statements such as, “I want to get married because then my husband will wake me up for qiyam (late night prayer) and Fajr!” However, oftentimes, those of us who say things like this are not doing those actions on our own.
Getting married isn’t going to solve our inabilities to wake up for Fajr or get up for qiyam. We need to develop our own selves without expecting marriage to somehow magically change our lives. Marriage can be a great tool of self-improvement and can help us change for the best, with Allah’s will. Marriage is amongst the greatest blessings that Allah (swt) can bestow on a person; and the creation of a family, and taking care of that family, is amongst the greatest acts of worship. But if we are not personally working on ourselves now, how can we expect that it will be easier with the additional baggage of another individual who is also imperfect?
What we see in the example of these women is that they took action and sought to benefit the community through their work for the sake of Allah (swt). These women looked at their personal situations, considered their personal skill sets and realized that they could use the skills they had, in the time that they were needed, to benefit their society in a proactive manner. They did not dwell on how they could be perceived or make continuous excuses for why someone else should do it. How, too, can we follow their example?
Let us now look at the interaction of these women with the Prophet ﷺ and his conduct toward them. First, let’s address the incredible manhood of the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ. As “the walking Qur’an,” the Prophet ﷺ had such an incredible demeanor that the women knew they could easily approach him and offer their services to the community. The relationship he had built with women in his community was one of trust, empowerment, dignity and appreciation. This is evident, most specifically, in the way that he (peace and blessings of God be upon him) turned one of the most embarrassing moments Umayyah, the young girl, could have ever imagined into one of the fondest moments of her life.
When the Prophet ﷺ saw her blood, he did not embarrass her and shout, “Astaghfirillah! (I seek refuge in God!) Sister!Haraam! Now you are a fitna (trial)!” His first advice to her did not consist of ordering her to leave his presence now that she was an accountable young woman. Instead, he taught her purification in that moment. He showed her ease and naturalness in that moment. He gave her a necklace, which he personally placed on her with his blessed hands, and helped her feel honored and special in that moment.
How many young women do we know who are struggling with their self-esteem? What are we doing, as a community, to help build it up instead of tear it down? How many young women have we told, “Cover up,” because they are a temptation to men? Instead of linking hijab (modesty) to loving Allah, (swt), we have often linked it to protecting men from women within the Muslim community. How many men have made comments such as, “Fitna just walked in,” without realizing the painful consequences on a female’s psyche when the only frame of reference her Muslim brother has for her is that she’s temptation?
All of these experiences have happened to me personally within the Muslim community and also to many women that I know. The methodology in which women are made to feel that they are the ultimate fitna psychologically damages women’s understanding of Islam and their self-esteem. It cripples a natural, normative relationship in which men and women work together for the benefit of society and forces men and women to fear being around one another in unnatural ways. This is not from the Prophet ﷺ.
We take from the example of the Prophet ﷺ that he let people live comfortably around him so that even when something which could have turned into the most humiliating experience a woman could have ever imagined, that girl, in that moment, gained knowledge, nearness to Allah (swt), and love of being with the Prophet ﷺ in the Hereafter. In our communities too, we need to re-evaluate the ways through which men and women interact and the rhetoric we use to describe women.
Let us look at the rhetoric of the Prophet ﷺ when he was asked by the women if they could participate. In his interaction with them, he verbally encouraged them. He didn’t say, “No. The men might be distracted by you and be tempted to leave the battlefield.” Instead, he specifically gave them the blessings of God.
We need to begin truly exemplifying the incredible character of the Prophet ﷺ who didn’t imply that Umayyah (ra) and the women she was with would cause chaos in the battlefield if they were present. He knew his community; he had developed the men and women in his community. And the women in his community followed his example; they felt comfortable and confident approaching him (peace and blessings of God be upon him).
This is the type of respectful brotherhood and sisterhood we need to embody in our Islamic work, in our marriages, and in our lives. Their example teaches that men and women both have something to contribute and we need to be supportive of one another’s contributions when used for societal benefit. Allah (swt) tells us in Surat al-Tawbah, “The believing men and believing women are allies of one another. They enjoin what is right and forbid what is wrong and establish prayer and give zakah[charity] and obey Allah and His Messenger. Those—Allah will have mercy upon them. Indeed, Allah is Exalted in Might and Wise.” (Qur’an 9:71)
The Prophet ﷺ taught us how to achieve natural, healthy, balanced and beneficial community relationships. He taught us how to teach people about Allah (swt) with mercy, humility and respect. How many more members of our communities are we going to lose before we follow his example?
The above narration is full of lessons for us as a community in the West especially. Transforming challenges into opportunities is the methodology of the Prophet ﷺ. The women in this example were empowered to take action because of the teacher who built them and taught them to do so. This is Islam; the liberating, societally-benefiting and revolutionary way of life which can transform even the most embarrassing experience into the fondest memory, cherished for life.
If this is Islam, if this is our religion, when will we put it into practice? When will we follow the example of these female companions of the Prophet ﷺ in our attitudes and our own lives? And even more urgently, is it not time that the beauty of the Prophet ﷺ began to touch those in our own communities through the virtue of our own actions?