On this #ThrowbackThursday, I want us to explore the female icons that have been integral to Islamic history, the spread of the faith, and innovation.
We have plenty of current icons today — like Nobel Peace Prize winner, Malala Yousafzai, advocating for girls education and building schools while attending Oxford University (no big deal).
Meanwhile, Ibtihaj Muhammad won an Olympic bronze medal for the U.S. fighting for recognition and representing strong Muslim women everywhere, runs a fashion label and is vocally open about wearing her faith on her sleeve while being open about the experience of being Black, Muslim, female and American. (Not to mention she has a Barbie doll modeled after her.)
But what we need to remember is Muslim female icons are not a recent phenomenon. Muslim women everywhere are inspired by figures in Islamic history and become unsung feminist heroes in their own right. Let’s take a look at 11 of some of the greatest female icons in Islamic history who embodied feminism through their actions (note, of course there’s more, but if I kept going it would probably become a book!)
The Holy Prophet Muhammad (saw)
First off, we must preface this by knowing that The Holy Prophet Muhammad (may peace and blessings be upon him) is the ultimate feminist icon. At a time in Arabia when women were treated as property, baby girls faced infanticide being buried alive, and females were viewed as a burden, Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) changed all of that through his example and his words. He married Hadhrat Khadija not caring about her age, wealth, or previous marriages but her character and good nature. The Prophet Muhammad instructed that a woman had the right to reject a marriage proposal, allowed her to seek divorce regardless of the reasons, and ensured her right to inheritance. A woman could keep her own money and could own property in an era where she herself was considered as property. The Prophet said that he whose first child is a daughter, is blessed. He admonished men to be kind to their wives as an Islamic injunction, and instructed that a man who educated his daughter and cared for her wellbeing would find a place in paradise; not to mention he explicitly commanded both women and men to seek education. Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) brought women out from the shadows of Bedouin Arabian society knowing they were the source for peace and stability commanding that she be given honor, respect and equal rights.
Khadija bint Khuwaylid was a successful businesswoman — twice widowed — and an independent, single mother. A hard and honest worker and strong CEO in a male-dominated work culture, she took over her father’s business after his passing, and ran trade caravans throughout the region. She married a man much younger than her based solely on his honesty and good moral character – the Holy Prophet (pbuh), and was firm in her beliefs and values not caving to societal pressure. She was the first person to ever accept Islam, and believed her husband and stood by him when the world shunned him.
Married to Muhammad (pbuh), Aisha was known for her intelligence, wittiness, and charm. She was a scholar, and extremely intelligent with a wealth of knowledge. The Prophet even said that half of the faith could be learned just from her. She was a great leader, and trained and taught the women of the community. She even used to lecture large groups which included men. Even after the Prophet’s death, his companions would come to her when they faced a question or confusion. She always had an answer for any intellectual conflict.
The youngest of Prophet Muhammad’s (pbuh) daughters, Fatima was a loyal follower of her father and stood up for him and supported him throughout his mission. Despite the hardships and persecution she faced, she remained strong. Once while her father was praying, an enemy of the Prophet named Abu Jahal and his friends came and harassed him by placing a camel’s entrails on him while he was prostrated in prayer. The Prophet was unable to get up due to the weight. When Fatima saw what had happened, she ran over and pushed the debris off herself to set him free. Patient and courageous, she was also known as Fatima al-Zahra, which meant “Fatima the shining one.”
Khawla bint al Azwar
Warrior and fighter, Khawla was a known as a fierce and fearless soldier so strong that many did not realize she wasn’t a man under all of her gear. Fighting under the leadership of famed Muslim general Khālid ibn al-Walīd, Khawla was famously known for fighting the Byzantines at the Battle of Yarmouk in 636. She was captured in battle and taken to the leader’s tent where he planned to rape her. However, Khawla had other plans. While in captivity with other female prisoners, she riled up enough of them to fight back and break out of captivity while killing around 30 Byzantine soldiers in the process.
Rufaida Al Aslamiya
We may think of Florence Nightingale as the founder of modern nursing. However, Rufaida Al-Aslamia brought the advent of nursing some 1,200 years before. A companion and follower of the Prophet (pbuh), Rufaida had received her nursing and medical training from her father, who was a healer. She gave first aid and water to wounded soldiers during the early battles of Islam. She also trained other women and girls, and had a team go out on the battlefield with her. It is even said that after the conflicts were over that she requested the Prophet of Islam to have a tent inside Masjid an-Nabawi in Medina where nursing care would be offered, as well as training future nurses. The Aga Khan University School of Nursing in Karachi, Pakistan is named after her. The University of Bahrain gives the Rufaida Al-Aslamia Prize in Nursing every year.
Sumayyah bint Khayyat
Sumayyah was the first martyr in Islam’s history. She fought for her identity as a Muslim and did not care if she had to die for her beliefs nor did she fear the consequences. Her husband Yasir and son Ammar professed their beliefs. When an enemy of the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him), Abu Jahal found out about their acceptance of Islam he asked them to confirm their declaration to which they replied yes. Because her family was from a foreign tribe, they were not able to get protection from any tribe or ally. They were taken and bound and held at the stake under the hot Arabian son to burn and blister as they were whipped for days on end. Sumayyah and her family refused to give up, and when Abu Jahal lost his patience and drove a spear through her body she still did not recant. He asked her as she was dying if she would give up her faith now. She spit on him and declared “La illa ha illala Muhammadur rasoolulah”(There is no God but Allah and Muhammad is His servant and His messenger) and passed away.
Nusayba bint Ka’b al-Ansariyah
Also known as Umm ‘Ammara, she was the first female soldier in Islam. She was one of the first converts from Medina, and a companion of the Prophet. She participated in the Battle of Uhud and fought with zeal against the Meccans, even using her own body as a physical barrier to protect the Holy Prophet from attacks which she took the hit for to the point where she fell unconscious. However, all she cared about when she regained consciousness was the wellbeing of Muhammad (pbuh), and immediately asked if he was alright.
A wife of the Holy Prophet (saw), she was a great confidant and advisor to her husband during the negotiations of the famous Treaty of Hudaibiyyah. At the time his companions were not listening to him, but she gave a strategy that helped him feel better and resolve the issue. The companions found some of the terms of the treaty to be insulting, which included the slaughtering of their animals. Prophet Muhammad’s (pbuh) plea to his companions three times to follow through on this instruction came to no avail. Extremely disappointed and saddened by this, the Prophet (pbuh) returned to his tent. But Umm Salamah wisely explained that the reality of the situation wasn’t that his companions weren’t being loyal, but rather were in shock and worried about what they had to do. She suggested that he take the lead and sacrifice his animal and shave his head to inspire his companions. The effect was instantaneous, and they immediately followed his example.
Fatima al Fihri
Fatima was the daughter of a very wealthy merchant and used her inheritance money on her quest and love for knowledge and strengthened spirituality. A well-educated lady herself, she founded the first university in Fez, Morrocco which is now known as Al Quaraouiyine, which still operates and gives degrees. The original institution was actually a mosque, which Fatima wanted to build for her community, that ultimately developed into an educational institution. According to UNESCO and the Guinness Book of World Records, it is the oldest institution to award degrees, and effectively the first and oldest university.
Lubna of Cordoba
A mathematician and intellectual, Lubna was the palace secretary in the Umayyad Caliphate in Cordoba under the caliphs ‘Abd al-Rahmān III and his son al-Hakam. A former slave, she was in charge of the royal library, and her duties included writing and translating manuscripts. She was a writer, poet, and scientist and played a key role in the creation of Al-Andalus’ Medina Azahara library.
Zaynab bint Ali
Zaynab was the daughter of the fourth caliph, Ali, and daughter of Hadhrat Fatima; she was also the granddaughter of the Prophet (p.b.u.h.), and was known for her strong character and actions. Zaynab accompanied her brother, Imam Hussein, during the battle of Karbala. It was during this time that she became known as the heroine of Karbala.