Think women have no place in Islam? Take a look at these 10 influential historical figures…

Muslim women… There’s so many stereotypes out there – oppressed, silent, uneducated, meek, mild etc. The list goes on! In several previous posts I’ve written about women in Islam, including one particular post on common misconceptions of Muslim women, to try and dispel some of these myths (or in some cases un-Islamic behaviour). Having established that Muslim women do indeed have a real intellectual, spiritual and emotional role within Islam and the Muslim world – despite the toxic narratives and misogynistic behaviour out there –  I’d like to draw your attention to a few of the many amazing Muslim women out there!

Here’s ten  influential women in Islamic history whose legacy and influence are so great that they continue today. Prepare to be inspired!

1. Hagar (Hajer)

In Biblical times, Hajer was the daughter of an Egyptian king, given to Abraham (Ibrahim) as a slave. As a result, she bore a son – Prophet Ishmael (Ismail). Ismail is in fact an important figure in the lineage between Prophet Muhammed. However, as Abraham’s other wife Sarah was jealous of Hagar following birth of Ismail, she asked for her to be sent away. Allah then revealed to Abraham to take them to Mecca. Abraham took them to the desert where they were left with no water. As Hajar and baby Ismail struggled without water in the stifling heat, Hajer ran between the hills of al-Safa and al-Marwa in search of something to drink. After the seventh time running between the two hills, an angel appeared and a spring burst forth. This well is known as “Zamzam” and is a holy source of water used to heal oneself. During Hajj – the Islamic pilgrimage in Mecca – every single Muslim (male and female) now runs exactly between these two points, remembering Hajer’s courage, trust and faith in God.

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The mountains outside Mecca

2. Asiya bint Muzahim

Asiya was the wife of Pharaoh during the reign of Moses (Musa). As Pharoah was killing the first born sons in the land, Moses’ mother received a revelation to leave her baby son in a basket in the river. Asiya and her maid later found Moses in the river and Pharaoh’s wife raised him as her son. Asiya – unlike her tyrannical husband – was a believer in (The One) God and witnessed Moses’ miracles. She worshipped God in secret though as her husband disliked and killed many of the believers. However, after witnessing the death of a believing woman who had been tortured under Pharaoh’s orders, she openly declared her faith to her husband. Pharaoh tried to turn his wife away from God but Asiya refused to deny Him. Due to her faith and rebellion, she was then tortured to death – dying as a martyr as a result. To Muslims, Asiya represents faithfulness, virtue and piety. Despite her husband’s beliefs and behaviour, she was loyal to God, showing how women can practice their faith regardless of their circumstances as we are all independent spiritual beings.

3. Mary (Maryam)

Mary – mother of Prophet Jesus (Issa) – is one of the most important women in the Qur’an and in fact the only woman identified by name in the Qur’an itself. Her name actually features more in the Qur’an than the New Testament. The 19th chapter of the Qur’an (composed of 98 verses) is named after Mary and discusses her pregnancy, Jesus’ birth and the miracle of how he spoke in the cradle:

She said, “How can I have a boy while no man has touched me and I have not been unchaste?”

He said, “Thus [it will be]; your Lord says, ‘It is easy for Me, and We will make him a sign to the people and a mercy from Us. And it is a matter [already] decreed.’ “

So she conceived him, and she withdrew with him to a remote place. […] Then she brought him to her people, carrying him. They said, “O Mary, you have certainly done a thing unprecedented. O sister of Aaron, your father was not a man of evil, nor was your mother unchaste.” So she pointed to him. They said, “How can we speak to one who is in the cradle a child?” .

[Jesus] said, “Indeed, I am the servant of Allah. He has given me the Scripture and made me a prophet….

That is Jesus, the son of Mary – the word of truth about which they are in dispute.

(Qur’an, 19: 20-34)

4. Khadija bint Khuwaylid (d. 620)

A successful entrepreneur and elite figure in Mecca in her own right, Khadija was Prophet Muhammad’s first wife. The couple were married for 25 years and it was Khadija that in fact became the first “Muslim” in accepting her husband’s revelation, providing him crucial emotional support during the period of the emergence of Islam:

God Almighty never granted me anyone better in this life than her. She accepted me when people deprived me; and God granted me children only through her. (Muslim)

Something you may not also know is that it was Khadija that first proposed the idea of marriage – not Prophet Muhammad (pbuh)!

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The Qur’an and marriage (Image credit: Nur Alia Mazalan, CC)

5. Aisha bint Abu Bakr (d. 678)

Another influential wife of Prophet Muhammad (who died in 632) was Aisha, who played central role in political opposition to 3rd/4th caliphs Uthman ibn Affan/Ali ibn Abi Talib and was an early jurist and hadith transmitter of Islamic teachings. As one of the major narrators of the ahadith (sayings and practices of Prophet Muhammed), she played a highly active role in scholarship, politics and the public sphere as a whole.

6. Fatimah bint Muhammad (d.632)

Prophet Muhammad’s youngest daughter (considered the only daughter of Khadija in Shia tradition) is known by many titles such as “al-Zahra” (“the shining one”), Fatima Zahra and “al-Batul” (the chaste, the pure one), acknowledged as spending a lot of time in prayer, reciting Qur’an and in other acts of worship.

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“Zahra” translates to the flower “rose” in Arabic (Image credit: Ahmed Alper, CC)

7. Nusayba bint Ka‘b al-Ansariyya (d. 634)

Also known as Umm Ammara, Nusayba was a member of Banu Hajjar tribe – a Jewish tribe mentioned in the Charter of Medina, outlining a multifaith State with other religious communities. Nusayba was one of earliest converts to Islam in Medina and was a companion of Prophet Muhammad. She was well versed in the Qur’an and ahadith and was one of the first advocates for women’s rights. She questioned Prophet Muhammad about God addressing men in the Qur’an, asking: “Why does God only address men (in the Qur’an)?” The following verse was then revealed which outlines how men and woman are spiritual equals:

Indeed, the Muslim men and Muslim women, the believing men and believing women, the obedient men and obedient women, the truthful men and truthful women, the patient men and patient women, the humble men and humble women, the charitable men and charitable women, the fasting men and fasting women, the men who guard their private parts and the women who do so, and the men who remember Allah often and the women who do so – for them Allah has prepared forgiveness and a great reward. (Qur’an, 33: 35)

8. Rabi‘a al-‘Adawiyya (Iraq) (d. 801) 

Rabia of Basra was an important Sufi mystic and poet. Born into a poor family, she lived as a slave in southern Iraq, later gaining her freedom after her owner saw her prostrating in prayer with an aura of light surrounding her. As the founder of Sufi school of “Divine Love”, she emphasised the importance of loving God, rather than fearing punishment or seeking reward from God for our actions. One day, she was out walking, holding a bucket of water in one hand and lit candle in the other, and was asked why she was doing so. She replied: “I want to set fire to heaven with this flame and put out the fire of hell with this water so that people will cease to worship God for fear of hell or temptation of heaven. One must love God as God is love”.  Her emphasis on loving Allah can also be seen in this beautiful poem:

O God! If I worship You for fear of Hell, burn me in Hell, and if I worship You in hope of Paradise, exclude me from Paradise. But if I worship You for Your Own sake, grudge me not Your everlasting Beauty.

9. Fatima al-Fihri (Morocco) (d. 880)

Fatima is the founder of oldest university in the world. After inheriting a large fortune, Fatima wanted to invest in work which would be of benefit to the community, so she built Al-Qarawiyyin mosque. During the 10-12th centuries this then became Al-Qarawiyyin University. This centre of study has since been recognised by the Guinness Book of World Records and UNESCO as the oldest ongoing higher education institution in the world.

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Fez, Morocco (Image credit: Scott Koch, CC)

10. Nana Asma’u bint Shehu Usman dan Fodio (Nigeria) (d.1864) 

Nana Asma’u is one very inspiring woman! As the daughter of the founder of the Sokoto Caliphate, Usman dan Fodio, this multilingual princess, poet and teacher was well educated in Qur’anic studies and passionate about women’s education. In 1830, Nana formed a group of fellow female teachers and travelled around poor and rural areas to educate women. She is an important pre-modern feminist figure in Africa and advocate of women’s independence and education in Islam and the Muslim world. As a result of her work, many Islamic organisations, meeting halls and schools in Nigeria have since been named after her in her honour. Her works have also been re-published and re-translated as her influence is still strong today.

So there we are! Just some of the many inspirational Muslim from the earlier eras! If you’d like to find out more information about important historical and contemporary Muslim women, check out the WISE Muslim Women index. It’s a great tool and covers a wide range of both historical and contemporary figures across a range of professions and spheres. Check it out!

Salam!

Credits:

Featured image: Hernán Piñera (CC BY-SA 2.0)

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A 10-year prison sentence for blogging? Meet Raif Badawi

Picture this: being passionate about justice and equality, you start a blog. Disillusioned with the socio-political reality of your own country you take to the internet and express your concerns about the religious authorities/senior religious figures. You write your thoughts and then bam!

You’re taken in for questioning…

You’re forbidden to leave the country and your wife’s bank accounts are frozen.

You’re accused of insulting your religion, accused of apostasy (and so your wife’s family later want a divorce).

As a Muslim, you’re accused of “insulting Islam through electronic channels” and thrown in prison. Your original sentence is then increased and you’re eventually condemned to 10 years in prison and 1000 lashes…

Sound surreal? Sound like an eerie film plot? No, this is the story of Saudi Arabian writer and activist Raif Badawi. Raif is currently in prison for writing a blog, criticising senior religious figures. He’s accused of insulting Islam and leaving his faith – a “crime” which comes with a death sentence in Saudi Arabia.

Raif has received 50 lashes and 17th June 2017 marked the fifth anniversary of his imprisonment. Raif’s wife Ensaf and three children are now living in Canada, having been granted political asylum, yet they want Raif back – free and safe. However, for being a Saudi citizen and speaking his mind in a theocratic country based on an extreme, toxic and Medieval form of Islam with no consent of private faith and free will in religious matters, Raif is now paying a heavy price. His sons and daughters long to see their dad again and his wife is carrying on his fight for freedom.

Take a look at the poem their 12 year-old son Doudi recently wrote:

 The Dream

A dream wakes me up every night
I wake up crying, feeling longing and desperate
I dream of you,
Father
I dream that you’re hugging me, kissing me and your tears filling me with love. Telling me that you love me, and I cry for joy. I can’t believe I’m with you, touching you, holding your face, kissing you, daddy daddy, you are with me and we are close again
How many years has it been?
I was only seven years old when we left you and left our country, Saudi Arabia
I didn’t know why we left you back then
I remember you hugging me, telling me goodbye, and asking me to be strong for my mom
I didn’t understand
I didn’t understand that you went for prison and didn’t understand the reason for that
But I know what is it like to miss you
To miss your love
Your company
Your smile
At school when the teacher asked us to talk about our families, I didn’t know what to say to them
My father is Raif Badawi, a writer and he’s Saudi Arabian. He went to jail because he loves his country and its people. He voiced an opinion that many people in Saudi Arabia agree with. But today my father is paying the price
My father is in jail because he loves his country.

A dream wakes me up every night
I see you in my dreams. I wake up. And the dream turns into imagination. The feel of your embrace was just my imagination
And I cry, feeling sad, feeling a longing
I pray for God, please bring back my father
I pray with love
With grief
May He answer my prayers.

Doudi ‘Trad’ Raid Badawi, aged 12
(written with the help of his mother, Ensaf Haider)

Incredibly, incredibly sad. Raif is not the first prisoner of conscience in Saudi Arabia and he won’t be the last but we must keep on his and his family’s fight.

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Ensaf Haider holding a photo of her husband Raif (Image credit: European Parliament – CC)

What can we do to help?

It’s really important to not let Raif’s case go silent. Raif needs to know that he’s not alone and the Saudi authorities also need to know that we’re not going to let his case go. Pressure needs to be continuously built, calling on the authorities to release Raif, in addition to public awareness to keep the issue in the spotlight and increase support.

Here’s a suggested list of actions courtesy of Amnesty International: 

1. Social media campaigning

Related Twitter accounts:

  • @Raif_Badawi (Raif’s account managed by his wife Ensaf)
  • @Miss9afi (Ensaf’s account)
  • @BorisJohnson (UK foreign minister’s)
  • @UKinSaudiArabia (UK embassy in Saudi Arabia)
  • @SaudiEmbassyUK (Saudi Arabian embassy in UK)

Suggested Tweets:

  • @KingSalman blogging is not a crime! We urge you to #FreeRaif today!
  • @Raif_Badawi has already spent 5 years in prison. Just for blogging. Tell @KingSalman that’s 5 years too many – he must #FreeRaif now!
  • Blogging can be costly in Saudi Arabia & @Raif_Badawi has paid the highest price: 10 yrs behind bars, 1000 lashes. @KingSalman: #FreeRaif!
  • @BorisJohnson: Help @raif_badawi see his family again – Call for his freedom today! #FreeRaif!
  • @Raif_badawi deserves freedom and dignity. 5 years is already too many – @UKinSaudiArabia should call for his release #FreeRaif

2. Contact Saudi authorities directly

You can send cards and/or letters to the Saudi Arabian embassy in your country or even give them a call.

Here are the details for London:

Mail:
His Royal Highness Prince Mohammed bin Nawaf bin Abdul Aziz
Ambassador to the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques
Royal Embassy of Saudi Arabia
30 Charles Street
LONDON
W1J 5DZ

Telephone: 0207 917 3000 or 0207 917 3288

Tweet, write – do whatever you can to let Raif and his family know that they are not alone. Even more importantly, let the Saudi authorities that we’re here and we stand with Raif. Freedom of religion, freedom of belief and freedom of expression are universal human rights. It’s about time that Saudi Arabia joined the 21st century and started recognising these rights…

Peace, salam ♡

Credits, acknowledgements and further information:

To find out more about Raif visit:

Campaign materials: Amnesty International (UK, 2017)
Poem courtesy of Amnesty International (UK, 2017)
Image credits: Amnesty Finland (CC) (featured image)

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Human Rights: It’s all for one or none for all

Life is but a lesson of learning… The more issues you explore, the more people you meet, the more you learn about them and about yourself. In light of a recurring lesson of mine, I’d like to share with you a beautiful, simple yet oh so powerful poem. You may know it. Take a look…

First They Came

First they came for the Communists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Communist
Then they came for the Socialists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Socialist
Then they came for the trade unionists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a trade unionist
Then they came for the Jews
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Jew
Then they came for me
And there was no one left
To speak out for me.

Pastor Martin Niemoller

This short but very poignant poem refers back to the era of Nazi Germany and the failure of German intellectuals to stand up to the Nazis. Dating back to the middle of the last century, it is as relevant as ever in an era of rising hate crime, neo-Nazi/far-right groups and religious extremism to name a few, despite the public awareness of human rights, the availability of resources to learn about each others’ rights and the wide range of means/mediums to speak out (social media, lobbying organisations etc.).

This poem in fact highlights a few very serious key points, which can be summed up in the following famous quotes:

  • “Love for others what you love for yourself” (Prophet Muhammad, pbuh)
  • “You’re either part of the solution or part of the problem” (Eldridge Cleaver)
  • “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing” (Edmund Burke)
  • “I am not free while any women is unfree, even when her shackles are very different from my own” (Audre Lorde)

What is the overall message you may ask? Well, put quite simply it’s this: you cannot be free whilst someone else is oppressed. You cannot advocate for peace whilst hating others and you cannot call for the rights of one group, whilst advocating hatred or intolerance for another. No one is saying we all have to have the same beliefs or opinions, but common decency and universal rights are not exclusive. Where human rights are concerned it’s in the famous words of the three musketeers (!) that things go: “It’s all for one, and one for all!”.

Imagine this: you want others to accept and accommodate your religious beliefs but you won’t do the same. Not very logical is it? Or you want women to have the freedom to wear what you want them to wear but not what they may or may not want to wear. Not a simple pick and choose is it? Bearing that in mind, I’d like to lay out the following scenarios. For simplicity sake, we’ll use the names “Mr A” and “Mrs A”:

  1. “Mr A” advocates for the rights of Muslim minorities in Europe but perpetuates anti-Shia, anti-Sunni, anti-Ahmadi rhetoric.
  2. “Mrs A” is outraged at the discrimination hijabis face but forces her daughter to cover and won’t accept difference of opinion related to covering within Muslim circles.
  3. “Mr and Mrs A” are campaigning for the rights of Palestinians yet victimise the Jewish community, refusing to separate faith from politics and fail to stand up to rising anti-Semitism
  4. “Mr A” is outraged about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq but doesn’t put pen to paper and seek genuine dialogue
  5. “Mrs A” expresses concern for UK foreign policy in the Middle East yet stays silent about the famine in Yemen caused by the Saudi led war, the abuse of women in Saudi law and Iran, the suffering of the Uyghurs in China, the cause of the Tibetans etc.
  6. “Mr and Mrs A” stands up for the religious/cultural/ethnic rights of their personal communities but stay silent about the abuse and difficulties that others face.

What is the message in all of these cases? Well, the message is quite clearly this: they’ve got it wrong! They’re missing the point. If it’s human rights you want, if it’s justice, freedom and equality, then it’s all for one and one for all! So when you’re advocating for a specific cause, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Am I advocating a message of peace, non-violence, tolerance and unity? (Unbiased educated criticism is allowed but violence is counter-productive!)
  • Am I utilising the correct tools, networks and organisations which advocate peace and tolerance? (Giving/sharing a platform with an intolerant, bigoted group is also a counter-productive no-no!)
  • Is my message inclusive or exclusive? (Am I alienating or spreading hatred of others?)
  • What is my ultimate message and purpose? (Am I aiming for a positive outcome which will resolve conflict and abuse?)

Remember: calling out abuse is always going to ruffle a few feathers. That’s not the problem! The problem is when your method goes against the principles and purpose of what you’re fighting for – or if you’re cause is exclusive in the rights and aims you’re fighting for.

Think about this and remember, when we’re talking about rights: it’s all for one and one for all!

Salam

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