Being a posthumous child, Muhammad the Prophet, peace and blessing be upon him, never met his father. He seemed to have some recollections about his mother Aminah and his grandfather Abdul Muttalib, but not about his grandmother Fatimah bint Amr. She must have died when he was too young to remember her.
His mother Aminah did not die until he was six years old, but he only spent slightly more three years with her. That’s because a few weeks after he was born, he lived with his suckling mother, Haleemah as-Sa’diyah, in the desert. This Haleemah was his guardian when he was an infant.
After his grandfather died, the Prophet went to live with his auntie, Fatimah bint Asad, the wife of Abu Talib. He lived under her household until he got married, at the age of twenty five. When he started his mission, she became his follower and migrated with him to Madinah. She died there a few years later, and the Prophet buried her with his own hand.
These two female guardians of the Prophet died before him. But there was another guardian who took care of him since he was born, lived with him even after he got married, became his strong supporter when he started preaching Islam, and died about five months after him. She was Barakah al-Habashiyah, better known as Umm Ayman.
Let’s briefly narrate their stories.
When the Prophet was born, the first woman to breastfeed him was Thuwaibah, the slave girl of one of his uncles, Abu Lahab. But Thuwaibah was not included among his guardians, thus we need not narrate further about her.
It was customary among the elites of Quraysh to let their child be nursed in the desert among the Bedouin. The air of the desert was healthier; the language of the Bedouin was purer because it was untainted by the cosmopolitan life in the city; and the rigor of the desert life would develop better physical body for the baby. All in all, it was considered a good thing for the child to be brought up in the desert.
Likewise with the baby boy Muhammad. A few weeks after he was born, he was given to Haleemah bint al-Harith of Banu Sa’d to be nursed by her in the desert. She is better known as Haleemah as-Sa’diyah, that is, Haleemah from the Tribe of Sa’d.
In the well-known tradition, we are told that Haleemah did not actually want to take Muhammad to be her nursling. Her Bedouin tribe had been afflicted with drought. Hunger was with them. They came looking for babies to be nursed in the hope that the fathers of the infants would reward them handsomely. But Muhammad was an orphan whose father had died even before he was born, so no woman of her tribe wanted to take him. Haleemah also politely refused when Abdul Muttalib offered Muhammad to her.
It turned out that she could not get any nursling. It was said that among the women who came looking for babies to be nursed, Haleemah appeared to be rather pale and emaciated, an indication that hunger had afflicted her and her family rather severely. Naturally, the parents of the infants preferred other women compared to her.
Not wanting to leave Makkah without any nursling, she told her husband, al-Harith bin Abdul Uzzah, that she decided to take the orphan. Al-Harith agreed, saying that perhaps they would be blessed through him, so they went back to take Muhammad the baby.
And what a blessing it was. The tradition tells us that when Haleemah came to Makkah with her tribe, her mount, a donkey, suffered from a bloody wound. The donkey could only walk very slowly behind the traveling caravan. After taking the baby boy Muhammad, however, her donkey raced past the rest of the mounts in the caravan on their return journey to the desert.
In addition, Haleemah had a baby boy about the same age as Muhammad. Like his starving mother, he was suffering from malnutrition, because Haleemah’s breast would not turn out enough milk. After taking Muhammad, however, her breast produced abundant milk to feed both infants.
Furthermore, her old camel that had stopped producing milk, had suddenly produced milk again, and with that, they could quench their thirst and hunger. When she reached their dwelling, her flocks somehow found enough to eat. They returned home from grazing satiated and full of milk, while the flocks of others returned hungry.
On top of these and many other blessings, it was a joy to nurse the baby boy Muhammad, who grew up to be healthy, strong, intelligent and adorable toddler. For that reason, Haleemah and her husband were most unhappy to return Muhammad to his mother. So was Shayma, her daughter about five years older than Muhammad, who liked to play with, and took care of him. Thus, when the two year period ended, they were determined to keep him for another two years.
“By Allah,” Haleemah said when she brought Muhammad to his mother, “we have never seen a boy who is more blessed than he is, and we fear upon him the plague and diseases that are rampant in Makkah, so let us take him back with us.”
Aminah, the mother of Muhammad, refused. She wanted to be with her son. But she was sick at that time, so Haleemah and her husband used that as their argument, urging the mother of the Prophet to let they care for him for another two years, or at least until she was cured of her illness. Seeing that they were very persistent, and she herself was not well at that time, Aminah relented.
But barely three or four months later, they brought Muhammad back to his mother. Aminah sensed that something was not right, because they had been very persistent in taking him back with them to the desert. When questioned, Haleemah simply said that the breast-feeding period was over, and that they were happy with his condition.
But Aminah persisted, prodding them to tell the truth. At last they told her that two men in white dress had come and split opened Muhammad’s belly, and took something out before they closed it again like before. Fearing that something evil had happened to him, they thought that it was best to return him to his mother.
Aminah assured them that nothing evil would fall on his son, and recounted her miraculous experiences during her pregnancy, and during giving birth to him. Nevertheless, she was happy to have her son back.
The story of Haleemah as-Sa’diyah practically ended there. Popular story indicated that she had visited Muhammad when he was already married with Khadijah. Muhammad gave her 40 sheep because her family had been afflicted with drought, which was a regular phenomenon for the desert people. It was also said that she and her family migrated to Madinah, joining the Prophet after Muhammad the Prophet had established himself as the undisputed leader there.
But the authentic tradition suggests that she remained with her tribe, and her story appeared after the Battle of Hunayn, which took place a few months after the Conquestof Makkah. Her tribe was among the alliance that fought against the Muslims, and when they were defeated, Shayma, a young girl who used to play and take care of him when he was with them, came to see the Prophet. The Prophet did not recognize her, for by then both were old. Asking for the proof that she was really Shayma, the daughter of Haleemah, she told him of the incidence whereby Muhammad the toddler bit him on her back when she was playing with him.
If the popular story of Haleemah joining the Prophet in Madinah is also authentic, then perhaps Shayma did not migrate with her parent to Madinah. She must have stayed with her own family in the desert. In any case, Haleemah is the guardian of the Prophet who appeared at the beginning and at the end of his life. It is agreed that she and her family embraced Islam.
As the guardian of the Prophet, the name Haleemah as-Sa’diyah is well-known. A more obscure figure is Fatimah bint Asad, although she took care of the Prophet longer than Haleemah did, and even longer than Aminah, the mother of Muhammad, did.
When Abdul Muttalib died, it was to her niece that the upbringing of Muhammad was entrusted. Fatimah’s father, Asad, was the half-brother of Abdul Muttalib. She was the wife of Abu Talib, her cousin. Abu Talib as the male guardian of the Prophet is well-known, but the role of his wife, Fatimah, is less highlighted. In any case, the Prophet lived with her from the time Abdul Muttalib died, when he was eight, until he got married, when he was twenty five.
Her full name with lineage was Fatimah bint Asad bin Hashim bin Abdul Manaf bin Quasyy b. Kilab b. Murrah b. Ka'b. She had six children: four boys, two girls. They are: Talib, Aqeel, Ja'far, Ali, Umm Hani and Jumanah. She took care of the Prophet like her own children, and loved him no less than she did her own. It was said that one of her daughters, Umm Hani, whose real name was Fakhitah, also known as Hind, was the Prophet’s first love. This appears to be unfounded. Neither Abu Talib, nor Fatimah Asad, would have objected if the two wished to be married.
Like her husband, she supported the Prophet when he started his mission. Unlike her husband, she also became the Prophet’s companion, that is, she embraced the religion he brought. Like her son Ali, who kept his conversion hidden from his father, Fatimah too kept it hidden from her husband, until Abu Talib found it out soon after. When the Prophet migrated to Madinah, she also migrated and joined her nephew there. She died not long after, in the year 4 AH, and the Prophet buried her with his own hand.
Seerah literatures do not tell much about her. Her husband, Abu Talib, was more prominent. And her sons, especially Ali and Ja’far, were very prominent companions. Even her daughter, Umm Hani, was better known than her mother. This suggests that Fatimah Asad played her role more in the background.
Unlike Haleemah, who appeared in the beginning and towards the end of the Prophet’s life, Fatimah stayed close with her nephew throughout her life. For seventeen years, the Prophet used to live in her house, under her watchful, caring and loving eyes. To some extent, she was a “guardian” even before the Prophet stayed in her house, and even after his marriage to Khadijah, but the honor to be the longest serving female guardian of the Prophet should go to Barakah al-Habashiyah.
Her full name with lineage was Umm Ayman Barakah bint Tha'labah bin 'Amr bin Hassan b. Maalik b. Salamah b. 'Amr b. Nu'man. She was a slave girl of the Prophet’s father, Abdullah. She was about ten years old when the Prophet was born. It was said that she was the one bringing the news of the Prophet’s birth to Abdul Muttalib, or she was one of those who brought the news that Aminah had delivered the much awaited boy.
She took care the Prophet from the day he was born, and was separated from him only after Haleemah took him to be nursed in the desert. Since she was the slave girl of the Prophet’s father, one may say that her role was more like a nanny rather than a guardian.
When Haleemah returned the young Muhammad to his mother, Barakah stayed with Aminah, looking after him. When his mother brought him to Madinah to visit his relatives there, as we have seen earlier, Barakah joined the trip. When his mother died and his grandfather took care of him, she stayed with Abdul Muttalib, looking after the boy. When Abdul Muttalib died, she stayed with Fatimah Asad, also looking after him. When the Prophet got married, she moved with him and stayed in the household of the Prophet and Khadijah.
She lived separately from the Prophet only after the Prophet found a husband for her. This marriage did not last long (some said her husband divorced her, others said he died) and she came back to live with the Prophet. Through this marriage, however, she got a son named Ayman. Because of that, she was known as Umm Ayman. When the Prophet assumed his prophethood, she was among the earliest women to embrace Islam. Due to her closeness with him, the Prophet called her “my mother after my mother.”
Barakah al-Habashiyah or Umm Ayman was not known for her beauty, but the beauty of her heart was hard to beat. When she lost her first husband, Muhammad was already a Prophet. Looking for someone to care for her as a husband, the Prophet asked his adopted son, Zayd, whether he would want to marry “a woman of paradise.” When Zayd asked who might that be, the Prophet answered, “Umm Ayman, my mother after my mother.” Zayd readily agreed.
It is interesting to observe that, in this marriage, it was as if Zayd had married his “grandmother.” Muhammad considered Zayd to be his son, calling him Zayd bin Muhammad after he adopted him. At the same time, the Prophet called Umm Ayman “my mother.” But this is only apparent, for the Prophet did not have any blood relationship with either.
What is more interesting is that both readily accepted the proposal from the Prophet, although their age difference was rather big. Zayd was about 15 years younger than the Prophet, and Umm Ayman was about 10 years older. Between the two, the age difference was 25. It was common for a man to marry a woman 25 years his junior, but not the other way around. In any case, the marriage was a happy one.
Zayd went on to marry another wife later in Madinah, Zaynab bint Jahsh, upon the instruction of the Prophet. Zaynab was relatively young and very pretty. She was of noble birth, for she was the cousin of the Prophet, being the daughter of one of his aunties, Umayma bint Abdul Muttalib. But this marriage did not last. Zayd divorced her, and the Prophet took Zaynab to be one of his wives.
Through her marriage with Zayd, Umm Ayman got another son, Usama, and a daughter, Zaynab. Considering that she married Zayd when she was already in her early fifties, or late forties at least, Usama and Zaynab were the only children she gave to Zayd.
Umm Ayman lost her husband, Zayd, during the Battle of Mu’tah, in 8 AH, before the conquest of Makkah. It was the first major battle participated by Khalid al-Walid as a Muslim. Zayd was the appointed first general in that battle. Two other appointed generals, Ja’far Abu Talib and Abdullah Rawahah, also fell martyr. In this battle, Khalid was appointed by the Muslims to be their general, as we have related in Khalid al-Walid, the Drawn Sword of Allah.
The day of Mu’tah was the sad day for Umm Ayman, having lost her husband. She was to face another sad day not long thereafter. Her son, Ayman, fell martyr during the Battle of Hunayn, which took place about a month after the conquest of Makkah. In a span of less than one year, or more precisely about six months, she lost both her husband and her eldest son.
But her saddest day was when the Prophet died about two years later. She herself died about five months thereafter, as if she lived only to serve her “son” and her master the Prophet. When her master died, she seemed to lose the will to live, and hastened to meet him in the Paradise.
It was related in the well-known tradition that Abdullah bin Umar, the prominent companion famously known as Ibnu Umar, used to complain to his father, Umar al-Khattab, about the distribution of war booty. This took place when Umar was the Caliph. The point of contention was that Usama, the son of Barakah al-Habashiyah and Zayd bin Haritha, both originally slaves, got more than Ibnu Umar did, while he was the son of the Caliph. Umar retorted: “The Prophet loved his father more than he loved your father, and the Prophet loved him more than he loved you.”
Umar stopped at that, but he would be most correct had he continued: “And the Prophet also loved his mother more than he loved your mother.”
The Prophet’s deep loved to Barakah al-Habashiyah, better known as Umm Ayman, his mother after his mother, is well known.