Monday, April 15, 2013

Women around the Prophet: His Supporters from Makkah

Men such as Abu Bakar, Umar, Ali, Uthman, Abdul Rahman Awf, Zubayr al-Awwam, Abu Ubaydah al-Jarrah, Khalid al-Walid, Amr al-Aas (to name but a few), would have been lost into oblivion without Islam.  They fought for Islam, and Islam made them prominent.

But the fight for Islam was not an exclusive activity for men only.  Although the majority of them did not achieve fame like their male counterparts, their sacrifices to Islam were not less exemplary.  Less is known about them because they played their role in the background, mending their household affairs, looking after the children, educating them to be good Muslims.  Without their great sacrifices, their husbands, fathers, or sons, would not be able to do what they had done.  Books specifically written about them are rather few, but Seerah literature and hadith collections are littered with narrations about their struggle.

In this piece, we shall sample only a few of them.

One of the names that would always appear in any Seerah literature is Asma’ bint Abu Bakar.   This is because no Seerah book would be complete without the story of Prophet’s migration, and in this story, Asma’ played a major role.

As the Seerah tells us, before the Prophet migrated, he knew that he would be assassinated.  The plan for his assassination had been hatched in secrecy, but the Prophet was told about it by the Archangel, Gabriel.  Meanwhile, the Prophet (blessing and peace be upon him), had been planning for his migration many days earlier.  He had told Abu Bakar, his closest companion, that they would migrate together, and asked the latter to purchase two camels for that purpose. 

When he was informed about his impending assassination, the Prophet went to Abu Bakar’s house in the middle of the day, during the hottest hour, when people did not go out of their houses, so as to avoid being seen.  He told the latter to get ready.  Together with Abu Bakar, the Prophet would sneak out of Makkah in the darkness of the night.  He knew that a searching party would be after them, so they needed a good escape plan.  Asma’, the daughter of Abu Bakar, the older sister of Aisha, was to have a role in that plan.  She was about twenty seven years old at that time, and was heavily pregnant with her first baby.

The plan was for the Prophet to sneak out of his house and go south, instead of heading north towards Madinah, which should be the case, since Madinah is to the north of Makkah.  They were to hide in a cave about eight km away for a few days, until the searching party gave up looking for them.  Asma’ was to bring them provision for the journey without being detected.  Her brother Abdullah was to gather intelligence about the searching party.

To create the diversion, the Prophet asked his cousin, Ali, to sleep in his bed, so that the would be assassins would think that he was still sleeping.  When the would be assassins, led by Abu Jahal, found out that it was Ali in the bed, and not Muhammad, they were furious, but they did not harm him.

The next place to look for would be Abu Bakar’s house, for if anyone knew about Muhammad’s whereabouts, it would be Abu Bakar.  But Abu Bakar was nowhere to be found.  It was Asma’ who answered the knocking door, and confronted Abu Jahal.  When questioned, Asma’ answered defiantly, “I don’t know.  Even if I do, I won’t tell you.”

For her defiant answer, Abu Jahal slapped Asma’, leaving her bleeding.   In any case, Abu Jahal failed to achieve his objective, for Asma’ pricked his honor, saying that Abu Jahal hit her only because she was weak, being not only a woman, but also heavily pregnant.

After hiding for three days, news reached the Prophet that the searching party had ceased looking actively for them.  The price of 100 camels on his head, however, was still on.  In any case, his pursuers thought that the Prophet and his companion Abu Bakar must have gone quite far already.  Thus, while strict precaution was still necessary, it was time to start the journey. 

At the appointed time, Asma’ came bringing provision for the journey, but she forgot to bring something to tie the food container.  She tore the girdle wrapping her pregnant belly, used one half of it to tie her belly, and the other half to tie the container.  Because of that the Prophet called her “the lady of two girdles,” the appellation she carried with pride.

When the Prophet and his father arrived safely in Madinah, she prepared to migrate, and undertook the long journey more than 400 km away, heavily pregnant.  Not long after, she gave birth to her first son, Abdullah bin Zubayr.

Asma’ lived a long life.  It was said that she lived for 100 years.  Because she had lived a long life, she had seen a lot.  She went through the period of difficulty in Makkah, the period of speedy growth in Madinah, the period of prosperity during Umar and Uthman’s reigns, the period of tribulation during the later years of Uthman’ reign and the whole of Ali’s Caliphate, and the period of another peace and prosperity during Muawiyah.  She also witnessed the turbulent times of the power struggle to oust the Umayyah  Dynasty.  Her son, Abdullah bin al-Zubayr, was the main actor in this power struggle.

Asma’ was the daughter of leading companion (Abu Bakar), the wife of leading companion (az-Zubayr), the older sister of Prophet’s favorite wife (Aisha), the mother of leading challenger to Umayyah Dynasty (Abdullah bin Zubayr), and the mother of a leading scholar during his time (Urwa bin Zubayr).

She died in 73 AH, a few months after her son Abdullah was killed by al-Hajjaj, the notorious general of Abdul Malik bin Marwan, the Caliph who managed to firmly reestablish the supremacy of the House of Umayyah.  She was about 100 years when the Lord called her upon Himself, having served Islam since she was the teenager to the end of her life.

There is another well-known Asma’ among the leading female companions of the Prophet.  Her name is Asma’ bint Umays.  The Prophet called her “the woman with two migrations.”  The two migrations refer to the migration to Ethiopia during the early days of Islam to escape persecution, and the migration to Madinah where the Prophet moved the center of his mission from Makkah to Madinah.

Asma’ bint Umays was not the only woman who had migrated to two places: that is, Ethiopia and Madinah.  One of Prophet’s wives, Umm Habibah, the daughter of Abu Sufyan, had likewise migrated to these places.  But the Prophet gave Asma' bint Umays this title after she complained to the Prophet that Umar had hurt her feelings, saying that she had missed the blessed migration with the Prophet to Madinah. 

Having listened to her complaint, the Prophet appeased her, saying: “Umar is not better than you.  He migrated once, you migrated twice.” 

This may seem like a trivial quarrel among leading companions, which should not have happened in the first place.   But if we understand the psychology of the Companions, this is not a small matter.  The Companions competed among themselves to be the best in obedience and in deeds.  It was indeed hurtful that after they had sacrificed everything, someone came to belittle them.  That was the reason Asma’ went to the Prophet complaining about what Umar had said. 

On his part, it goes without saying that Umar did not intentionally try to belittle Asma’, or any other people like her.  Umar was known to be stern and harsh, especially before he became the Caliph.   In one famous story, the women were laughing and talking loudly in one of the Prophet’s study circles.  As  soon as Umar entered their congregation, all women turned quiet upon seeing him. 

“You keep your mouth shut when you see me, but you were boisterous in front of the Prophet,” Umar retorted.

“Don’t flatter yourself Umar,” one of them answered, “we are quiet not because we respect you more, but because you are not like the Prophet.”  The message was clear.  The women felt at ease with the Prophet, but they were not quite so with Umar.

Asma’ lost her husband, Ja’far bin Abu Talib, during the Battle of Mu’tah.  Her husband was the general in that war.  She and her husband Ja’far migrated to Ethiopia in the fifth year of Prophethood, when both were rather young.  Her husband was the spokesman and the leader of Muslim refugees in this foreign land.  When she lost her husband in the Battle of Mu’tah, Abu Bakar married her.  When Abu Bakar died, Ali married her.  She was the wife of successive leading companions, Ja’far, Abu Bakar and Ali.  One may find it curious that some of his sons are Ali’s nephews, while one of them, whose name was Yahya, was Ali's own son.

Asma’ bint Umays died in 40 AH, not long after her third husband, Ali, was assassinated. 

In Islamic history, the name of Umar al-Khattab is very distinguished.  The story of his conversion is also well-known.  Umar was not among the earliest convert.  In fact, he was one of those who fought against the new religion, and participated in the torture of the early Muslims.  More interestingly, he became Muslim only after he was fed up with the new movement. 

Being an intelligent man, Umar knew that the source of all problems was Muhammad.  If he killed Muhammad, the problem would be solved.  Being a man of strong character, he was willing to put his money where his mouth is, so he set out to do just that, willing to die in the process.  

But the ones who caused his change of heart were relatively more obscure.  Upon being told that his younger sister and his brother in law had become Muslim, Umar changed his direction, heading to their house.  He beat his brother in law, Sa’eed bin Zayd, although, out of fear, Sa'eed  denied his conversion to the new religion.  His sister, Fatimah bint al-Khattab, came to her husband’s rescue, so Umar beat her also. This story is well known.

While Fatimah did not have Umar's strength and sternness, she did not lack courage.  Seeing that it was futile to beat around the bush, for Umar must have been told about it already, she confronted his brother: “Yes Umar, we have become Muslims.  Do whatever you like to us.”

Those words brought Umar back to his senses.  Seeing his sister bleeding, he must have felt rather silly.  Beating a man was no issue to Umar, for he was an accomplished wrestler, but beating a woman to bleed, his sister no less, was a little different.  In any case, it was his sister’s stand that softened Umar’s attitude.  Umar knew that both his sister and his brother in law were sensible people.  If they were willing to die for their faith, then there must be something compelling about it.  It was at the moment that Umar’s intelligence was put to a proper perspective.  To make the long story short, he converted.

While Umar rose to prominent after his conversion, his sister Fatimah bint al-Khattab, and his brother in law, Sa’eed bin Zayd, preferred to shun the limelight.  Sa’eed continued to participate in every major battle during his lifetime, although he always shunned the leadership position.  Little, however, was reported about Fatimah since the episode of Umar’s conversion.  Like her husband, but unlike her brother, she played her role mostly in the background. 

Even if most people remember her only because of her brother’s conversion, that alone would be sufficient to put her name in the annals of Islamic history.  It was commonly acknowledged that the conversion of Umar, along with the conversion of Hamzah, became the turning point in the cause of Islam in Makkah.

Umar’s conversion took place three days after the conversion of Hamzah bin Abdul Muttalib, an uncle of the Prophet, a distinguished warrior.  Hamzah is well-known, but her sister, Safiyya bint Abdul Muttalib, is less so, except to those familiar with Seerah.

Safiyya was one of Prophet’s unties, but she was younger than the Prophet by about three years.  Her mother, Halah, was the cousin of Aminah, the Prophet’s mother.  Thus, not only that she was the auntie of the Prophet, but she was also the Prophet’s second cousin.  While Abdul Muttalib, the Prophet’s grandfather, chose Halah  to be his wife, he chose Aminah, Halah’s cousin, to be the wife for his son Abdullah, the father of the Prophet. 

Like her brother Hamzah, Safiyya was noted for her bravery.  She was the mother of az-Zubayr (the husband of Asma’ bint Abu Bakar) as we have narrated earlier.  Sharing perhaps similar warrior blood in her, just like her brother Hamzah, she brought up his son, az-Zubayr, to be a man of valor. 

It was reported that when Zubayr was a young boy, he came home bleeding with bruises all over his body.  Upon finding out that her son was beaten by his peers, Safiyya did not scold him for fighting with the boys.  Neither did she scold his son’s friends for beating him.  Boys were, after all, boys.  Instead, she scolded him for being sissy, for losing the fight.

On another occasion, her son came home with bruises again.

“What happened to you?”  Safiyya asked the young boy az-Zubayr.

“I took a fight with so and so.”  His son answered. 

“Who won?”  She asked.


“That’s my son.”

The way she brought up her son made az-Zubayr an accomplished warrior, not unlike his uncle Hamzah, or his cousin Ali (Safiyya was the half-sister of Abu Talib).  On her part, Safiyya did not lack courage and valor.  During the Battle of Confederacy, the Prophet housed their womenfolk in a safe fortress.  One day, a Jewish man was seen spying their fortress.  Not wanting this to be a security threat, Safiyya took a large stick and beat the man to death.  She was already a woman of about 55 years old at that time.

When her brother Hamzah was killed and mutilated in the Battle of Uhud, Safiyya came to pay him the last respect.  The Prophet gestured to az-Zubayr, her son, to stop her from approaching the mutilated body, for he was concerned that his auntie would be overtaken by grief. 

“Woe to you,” she scolded her son for stopping her, “I know what they did to my brother.”

Safiyya died in 18 AH, during the reign of Umar.  She was among the early supporters of the Prophet, and continued to support the cause of Islam till the end of her life.

There are numerous other female companions of the Prophet whose stories are recorded in the Seerah literature and hadith collections, but for this brief instalment  we shall confine ourselves to these four as regards to Prophet’s supporters from Makkah.  Although they were generally less known as compared to their male counterparts, their services and sacrifices were not any less outstanding.  Doing their womanly duties, their men were free to do their manly duties with peace of mind.  

In the next installment, we shall relate a few of the Prophet’s female supporters from Madinah, inshaAllah. 

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